Recently, a new listing of supposedly “great” films came out. It was done by Hollywood professionals, which suggests there is some validity to the rankings. I am not going to be more specific about it, as it would be healthier not to find it. The rankings are ridiculous, and point to the subjectivity and self-serving nature of the list. It also points to the short-sighted, ahistorical, chauvinistic tendencies of the group (which is much less a criticism than a clear-eyed description). Too many are recent, too many are more popular than great, and too many are American. The key here is that the list is actually given as Hollywood professionals’ “favorite” films. Heaven forbid anyone should think of this as a ranking based on quality.
Of course, there is no definitive film ranking. Even the most respected, the Sight and Sound magazine rankings that come out every decade, and include directors and critics, has some fascinating developments as you watch the changes over the years. I love Hitchcock’s Vertigo, but to vote it the number one film of all times, as the critics’ group did—not sure I can go with that. I delighted in seeing it move up the ranks over the years, and was glad it was getting the respect it deserves. But putting it on top? Not so sure about that.
Of course all lists are subjective, and they serve best as a general guide to what “some people” consider great work, and as a starting point for discussion. Andrew Sarris, the famed critic who introduced the auteur theory to the US, knew what he was doing when he had the nerve to rank great directors. It began a discussion that hasn’t abated since.
When my students ask how they can establish a better base of film understanding by seeing a lot of different films, I tell them to go to the AFI (American Film Institute) list of Top 100 and start there. No, that’s not necessarily a list of the best, but it’s more of a wisely considered opinion of various films by people who know more than most of us. That, and the fact that my students learn more at this stage of their learning process from American films than those that pose cultural barriers, make the list a great starting point for those just getting their cinematic feet wet.
If ever anyone says they’ve done the list and want more, I would sent them to the most recent Sight and Sound listing and begin to go deeper and wider with those films.
Lists will always be subjective, fun and wildly inconclusive. That’s OK. But please note that the latest list says “favorite,” not “best,” and not even “good.” If that starts a conversation about favorites, great. If it’s given weight on what’s best, we’re in trouble.