As mentioned, today is the 115th anniversary of cinema, depending on how exactly you want to define “cinema”; it has, at any rate, the notable benefit of being the only specific date that we can point to, instead of blithely pointing to “summer” as the anniversary of the first projected motion pictures. But I should really not start rambling.
The point being, 115 is a good number. Fives always are good numbers, and while 110 and 120 are even better numbers (and of course, 125 is best of all), I wasn’t such a secure blogger in 2005, and I shouldn’t want to wait until 2015. Who knows whether I’ll be blogging still in 2015? I might even be dead in 2015! Which is why I rather need to take advantage of this most auspicious date to present a most ambitious project:
The Antagony & Ecstasy List of the 115 Best Movies of All Time.
“Best” is a contemptibly tricky word, of course, so please forgive me for using it. I mean some foggy combination of “important”, “well-crafted”, “aesthetically meaningful” – whatever the hell that means – and good old-fashioned “I like it”. It’s not meant to be an objective list, nor a comprehensive one; just a personal noodling by somebody who likes to make lists of movies, perfectly-timed to fill the first week or so of the notorious January Doldrums. Mostly, it’s a companion to my list of the 100 Best Films of the Aughts, from a year ago.
First things first: the rules. I strictly follow the convention that no film made within the last ten years should be on a list of this sort; it takes time to let these things settle. I’m going to fudge just a hair, and say that my eligibility period ends on 31 December, 2000: any film premiering that day or earlier made the eligibility cut-off, nothing from after that date, no matter how sure I am that I love it.
To try and step around the problem, common to awards-giving bodies and listmakers of all sorts, of being enthusiastic about things that I’ve just seen, I’m also following a more amorphous, personal rule: anything that I saw for the first time in the last 12 months – fudging again, I’m using 1 January, 2010 as my cutoff – is ineligible. Sorry news for My Neighbor Totoro, Ivan the Terrible (both parts), The Beyond, and at least a few other likely titles that, in all honesty, I should have seen before now; but one cannot help it.
Also, to keep the list more interesting, I used a limit of three films per director. Artificial maybe; perhaps it reveals too much of an auteurist bias; whatever the case, I needed to do something to keep this from being “A Ranked List of the films of Kurosawa Akira, with some other films in there for fun”.
Biases, unfortunately, still exist, and despite all of my tweaking and trying to make something that didn’t read so desperately like the viewing list of an undergraduate film study group, the list that made me happiest was fairly parochial; there are 79 directors on the list, a respectable number (though overwhelmingly white, and few enough of them women that I am quite humiliated to call attention to it), but only 16 countries; nearly half of the films on the list come from only two different countries, in fact, and I suspect most of you could guess ahead of time what countries those are. It is tremendously lopsided, with the 1950s and 1960s accounting for a huge portion of the whole. Unfortunately, attempts to correct this simply looked too artificial, like I was trying to account for a quota; best to admit that whatever the list says about me, it says, and move on.
The most nettling question was of definition: there have been many kinds of films made in 115 years, and not all of them deserve to be thrust into competition like racehorses. Tell me, on what sane matrix one can qualitatively compare L’arrivée d’un train à La Ciotat with His Girl Friday? I have thus made some concessions to categorisation:
-No trick films, actualities, or any of the other early films from the era before continuity.
-No experimental films, though whatever “experimental” means is up to the individual. For a time, I was going to use “has no theme, only formal elements” as my definition, but of course that doesn’t work at all; in the end, I gave up on a definition of “experimental” or even “non-narrative”, and went instead with a subjective litmus test, finding my wisdom, as always, in Disney: any standard that eliminates Fantasia would be too strict, and any film that strikes me as more “experimental” than Fantasia is off the list.
-No “episodic” projects – that is, no serials (goodbye, Les Vampires), and no television miniseries often thought of as movies (Dekalog was the most painful victim of this rule). This seems to me to be fair both on the narrative and formalist end of things; though truth be told, I did it mostly to skirt the “three films per director” rule on Ingmar Bergman, and even so the Dekalog issue very nearly made me take it back.
On the other hand, short films and documentaries both seemed entirely fair game to me, and both are comfortably well-represented.
This is going to be presented in much the same fashion as the Best of the ’00s list; every day, I’m going to publish a set of 10 (which of course leaves five left over, and the top 5 is going to be all special-like), and as often as I can possibly manage it, I’ll write a full-length review from that set of 10 on the same day. The top post on the blog throughout all of this is going to be the running tally of all 115 films, tastefully hidden behind a jump.
A final word: this is, of course, ultimately meant to spur discussion, not to etch anything in stone, and I don’t suppose even I agree with every last nuance of ranking; I’ve changed my mind too often in the last couple of weeks (and as of this writing, I still don’t have the order of the top 4 in anything like a finished state) to think that I’ll like any of this a year from now. I just hope that it’s at least a bit fun for everybody, and maybe, maybe, maybe (but probably not), a halfway decent list of good things to check out. I know that it’s pointed out to me, over and over again, how very little I’ve seen in the face of everything I’d liked to have seen; and it’s my great hope that all of you pop up with some suggestions for things I need to check out to plug in some of the more awkward gaps in the list to come.