Wednesday, July 16, 2008

The Greatest Films of All Time: Intro and 1-20

Magic Lantern show from the 19th century

"Cinema, movies, and magic have always been closely associated. The very earliest people who made film were magicians."
Francis Ford Coppola

Welcome to the first in a series of posts about one man's quest to figure out the greatest films of all time. In this initial installment, I offer a general introduction to my improbable journey. Then, after various mystical, intellectual and emotional adventures in the realm of cinema - or, more accurately, the gut-wrenching, heart-breaking and mind-numbing struggle with lists, lists, lists! from around the world - I will reveal the amazing and (turn your head, children!) sometimes shocking tableau of what might be the 20 Greatest Films of All Time!

[UPDATE: The other posts in this series include Films 21-50, Films 51-100, Films 101-200, and The Directors.]

Part The First

A few months ago, I decided to start watching masterpieces of cinema that I had never seen before. Being the geek that I am, I wanted a neat, orderly list, so I could cross off titles as I saw each film. But where would I find such a creature? Who among the myriad critics, directors, academics, movie fans, and purveyors of popular magazines had ever compiled the one, true, absolutely indispensable list?

It seemed like a simple question: What are the greatest films of all time?

But it depends, of course, on who's making the list. In the internet age, there seem to be new ones every month, but too often they're skewed towards a specific audience/genre, or pander to commercial tastes, or only include films from one country, mostly the United States. (Recently, the American Film Institute managed all three tendencies at once in "America's 10 Greatest Films in 10 Classic Genres.")

I wanted something more: A genuine attempt at a film canon.

(If you want to argue about the very concept of "canons," take it up with Paul Schrader. "Canon Fodder." Film Comment 42.5 (2006) 33-49.)

Buster Keaton contemplates the Greatest Films of All Time

Obviously, a canonical list had to include cinema from all over the world. But I realized that my very conception of the world's greatest cinema came from reading American critics, taking classes in American universities, watching films distributed in the U.S., and talking with other American film fans. Sure, Roger Ebert may think Kurosawa's Seven Samurai is one of the greatest films of all time, and they may show it in classes at NYU or on Turner Classic Movies, but do people in Asia regard it as highly as we do in the United States? (Not really, as it turns out.)

Hollywood has been such a force in the movie industry for so long, we can forget sometimes about the equally longstanding cinematic traditions and thriving industries in other countries. Film history begins in France, with the Lumière brothers and George Méliès, and until the advent of World War II, the French gave Hollywood a run for its money. Later, via the Nouvelle Vague, they played a profound role in the transformation of cinema in the late 1950s and early 1960s. India also has a rich cinematic history and produces more films than Hollywood. So what do the French think is the greatest film of all time? What about the Indians? I was no longer content with a list that simply included international films but was still developed by Americans. I wanted to know what movies the rest of the world loves and considers important.

Do the Portugese think a Hollywood musical like Singin' in the Rain belongs on a list of the best films ever made? (Yes, they do.) What about The Godfather? It's the #1 film on IMDB. Is it the #1 film all over the world? (Not necessarily. Americans and Asians had it ranked #3 overall; Europeans, on the other hand, ranked it #20.)

As it turns out, it wasn't easy finding lists of The Greatest Films of All Time as chosen by people outside of the U.S. and the U.K. (The very idea of listing great works of art may be an Anglo-American trait.) I searched high and low on the internet and found a few efforts from other countries, but not many. I even contacted the film divisions of the Library of Congress and the New York Public Library, seeking guidance from my professional brothers, but neither proved helpful. Finally, I tracked down a book published in 1995 by the Fédération Internationale des Archives du Film/International Federation of Film Archives (FIAF), the most important association of film archives in the world. The book, which was located in only three libraries in the U.S., was called Le jeu des catégories [The Categories Game: a game for the cinema's centenary], and it included lists of great and important works of cinema chosen by film archives and institutes from various places around the globe. It proved very useful for my purposes.

Yeah . . . but will it play in Osaka?

In the end, I compiled 30 lists from eighteen different countries. Two lists came from individual critics: Roger Ebert and Jonathan Rosenbaum. Many were done by groups of critics/judges in formats like the British magazine Time Out or the Russian film journal Kinovedcheskie Zapiski. From the FIAF book, I wound up with lists from 17 archives and institutes from around the world, including ones in China, India (maybe the most fascinating list), Ecuador, Finland and Israel. In another post, I'll give all of the sources and talk about some of the problems (and treasures) encountered in using them.

One important note now, however: When I say something like, "the Asians don't seem as enthralled by Stanley Kubrick," (which they don't), I'm obviously talking about a small number of Asians connected to cinema: maybe two dozen directors, critics and archivists in this case. The sample sizes from each of the regions is ultimately too small to formulate any serious conclusions. This isn't an academic paper - it's simply a personal quest. And the results served my purpose: To develop a list of great films from a more international perspective, and to see how many and what kind of cultural variations might show up when discussing cinema in different parts of the world. While my findings from these 30 lists obviously can't be conclusive, I do think they're interesting and worthy of discussion.

Alas, I couldn't find any lists from Africa or the Middle East. That's interesting in and of itself.

In choosing my sources, I had three main criteria: 1) that the lists had to be made by people or groups consciously trying to rank the Greatest Films of All Time, 2) that the lists had to include films from everywhere, and 3) that the lists had to be from 1995 or sooner.

I didn't use IMDB's TOP 250, for example, because I don't think the results are determined by people who necessarily know world cinema and have been mulling over 113 years of film history. As much as I loved WALL-E, I'm simply not ready to say it's the 19th greatest film ever made. Maybe it will be in the future, but I think wrestling with a canon requires a certain amount of distance from an initial release. At least more than 17 days. I did, however, include the Top 200 list from the IMDB Classic Film Board, as that list did fit my criteria.

The website They Shoot Pictures, Don't They compiles lists from over 2,000 sources to make their own grand list of the 1,000 Greatest Films. It's like the mega-version of what I put together. So why didn't I just use the TSPDT list? Well, it's an excellent and fun website, and I included their Top 200 in my own analysis, but I wasn't satified with their rankings because I had problems with their criteria - or lack thereof. They seem to include whatever list they could get their hands on: Sight & Sound's 10 Greatest Films from 1950 (i.e., nothing from the last 58 years of cinema), Jean-Luc Godard's 1965 "Best French Films Since the Liberation," or "The Top 10 Greatest Animated Lesbian Action Films of the 1990s," chosen by Ned, a first-year film student at North-Central State University in the Middle of Nowhere. There are some fascinating lists available on their website, but many of them didn't fit my criteria.

With all due respect for people in the rest of the world . . . What the hell's wrong with you?!?! What's so hard to understand about The Lady Eve? (It showed up on 4 out of 6 Anglo-American lists, and none anywhere else. Is comedy the hardest genre to transfer from one culture to another?)

One of the best sources, I thought, was the British Film Institute's journal Sight & Sound. Each decade, they produce highly regarded Top Ten Lists, one chosen by Critics and one by Directors. They do an excellent job of including judges from around the world, both men and women. If you love film and love lists, I recommend spending some time on their website. You can see individual choices from all the judges in the 2002 edition. Which film, for example, did Jim Jarmusch choose as the greatest of all time? (Jean Vigo's L'Atalante). Or compare #1 picks by Richard Linklater (Minnelli's Some Came Running), Roger Ebert (Herzog's Aguirre, the Wrath of God) and Thai critic Anchalee Chaiworaporn (À bout de souffle [Breathless] by Godard). You can also track the perception of cinematic greatness over time. Citizen Kane didn't even make the first Top Ten in 1952, when De Sica's Ladri di biciclette [Bicycle Thieves] was considerewd the Greatest Film of All Time, even though it had only been released four years earlier. After that, however, Citizen Kane has been ranked #1 on every Sight & Sound list from the last five decades. Bicylce Thieves didn't make the Critics Top Ten in 2002.

So, let's get it on with it. What are the greatest films of all time? Is it even possible to decide?

Out of 30 lists, ranging from 10 to 200 films each, I wound up with a staggering total of 580 films that someone somewhere considered to be the greatest of all time. Many films were only chosen once. But some films definitely began to separate themselves from the rest of the pack.

One, and only one, film wound up on ALL 30 LISTS. An amazing feat, it seems to me. (The #2 film, for example, only showed up on 24 lists.)

Not only that, it was also NUMBER ONE on every single list that ranked its films.

There was, then, surprisingly (and disappointingly) little debate about the Greatest Film of All Time. After all these years, it's still Citizen Kane (1941).

Orson Welles may have been shunned by Hollywood and had terrible luck raising money to make movies at all, but his rookie effort is still considered to be the greatest work in the history of cinema. Though I suppose it shouldn't have, the outcome surprised me. I thought by now that Kane's reputation might have subsided somewhat. It's obviously an incredibly important film, but was it, aesthetically speaking, the Greatest Film of All Time? Or, maybe it wasn't so highly regarded in other parts of the world. Maybe the Russians wouldn't think it was that great. But no, the 28 critics at the Russian film journal Kinovedcheskie Zapiski chose Citizen Kane as #1 overall. It was on a Time magazine list that included popular fare like Finding Nemo, and lists by film archives from Venezuela to Slovenia. It was even among the Vatican's list of Top Ten Greatest Films.

Yeah, whatever. Orson Welles and Citizen Kane. Yawn. His wife, however, definitely ranks #1 in the eyes of many serious and intellectual people who appreciate the finer aspects of cinema.

The #2 and #3 films also showed up on a lot of lists (24 and 23 respectively), often battling for second place. In the final analysis, Jean Renoir's La Régle du jeu [Rules of the Game] (1939) nudged out Sergei Eisenstein's silent classic Bronenosets Potyomkin [The Battleship Potemkin] (1925).

And, almost immediately, cultural differences started showing up. Potemkin was actually #2 in the rest of the world outside of the U.S. and U.K. Where did it rank in the Anglo-American universe? Down at #42! Do Americans think it's too old? Too communist? Why such a big discrepancy?

I developed a point system, awarding 100 points to the #1 film in a ranked Top 100, for example, and giving X number of points to films on unranked lists. If a film showed up in an unranked Top 10, for instance, I gave it 50 points, because it seems significant to be one of only ten works chosen. On an unranked list of 100 films, I gave each one 20 points. I tried to be fair in my calculations, but I'm certainly not claiming the system to be perfect. I also tracked the number of times a film was mentioned (Only the Top 100 titles.)

Citizen Kane wound up with 1,735 points in my system and was mentioned 30 times. Rules of the Game had 1,390 points (24 mentions) and Battleship Potemkin scored 1,253 points (23 mentions).

Only three other films scored over a thousand points:

4. Otto e Mezzo [8½] (1963) - Federico Fellini - 1137 (19 mentions)

5. La Passion de Jeanne d'Arc (1928) - Carl Dreyer - 1061 (20 mentions)

6. Vertigo (1958) - Alfred Hitchcock - 1042 (16 mentions)

Hitchcock's classic also showed a bit of cultural variation, ranking #2 overall in the U.S./U.K. lists and only #18 in the Asian lists.

Jean-Luc Godard trys to determine the masterpieces of world cinema

Rounding out the Top Ten Greatest Films of All Time:

7. À bout de souffle [Breathless] (1960) – Jean-Luc Godard - 898.5 (17 mentions)

8. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) – Stanley Kubrick - 880.5 (15 mentions)

9. The Godfather (1972) – Francis Ford Coppola - 872 (14 mentions)

10. Tokyo monogatari (Tokyo Story) (1953) – Yasujiro Ozu - 844.5 (14 mentions)

Godard's first work may have transformed cinema more than any other movie since Citizen Kane, but don't tell the folks in the U.S. and U.K. Despite a high finish in the rest of the world, it came in at #63 in the Anglo-American lists. Do we hate him because he's French? Because he was a political radical? Because he won't tell us a nice, simple story?

Conversely, Kubrick's science fiction classic didn't impress the Asians as much as everyone else, only reaching #33 on their lists. It's such a visual and musical work, almost non-verbal at times - it seems like it would translate more easily into other cultures. Could images or concepts be more culturally specific than we think? Even more interesting: the Asians don't seem to like Stanley Kubrick in general. Though he had 8 films on the full list, 2001 was the only one they mentioned. What is it about his work that doesn't reach them?

And here's the rest of the Top 20:

11. Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927) – F.W. Murnau - 833.5

12. L’Atalante (1934) – Jean Vigo - 829

13. Intolerance (1916) – D.W. Griffith - 828

14. Shichinin no samurai [The Seven Samurai] (1954) – Akira Kurosawa - 792.5

15. Rashômon (1950) – Akira Kurosawa - 775.5

16. The Searchers (1956) – John Ford - 749

17. Singin' in the Rain (1952) – Gene Kelly & Stanley Donen - 740

18. Pather Panchali (1955) – Satyajit Ray - 722.5

19. Ladri di biciclette [The Bicycle Thieves] (1948) – Vittori De Sica - 716.5

20. Ugetsu monogatari [Ugetsu] (1953) – Kenji Mizoguchi - 710.5

Though he didn't make it into the Top Ten, Kurosawa was the only director to have more than one film in the Top Twenty. As I mentioned before, Seven Samurai is actually regarded more highly in the U.S./U.K. - where it came in fifth - than it is in Asia, where it was only #19. Asians preferred Rashomon more, ranking it #13. Europeans, on the other hand, were the opposite. They had Seven Samurai at #13, but Rashomon doesn't show up until #95.

Another Japanese film that showed wide variations between Asia and Europe was Kenji Mizoguchi's 1953 classic, Ugetsu, which the Europeans ranked #9 and the Asians #96. But that's nothing compared to the variation shown with Mikio Naruse's 1955 film, Ukigumo [Floating Clouds], which ranked #9 overall on Asian lists and wasn't mentioned at all in the rest of the world. This Japanese film didn't even get released in the U.S. until 1980. I had never heard of it before. Could this be a case of poor distribution that has kept us from seeing and appreciating a great piece of art from another part of the world? How did Kurosawa do so well in the U.S. during the same time period?

What about Singin' in the Rain, perhaps the quintessential American musical? How did it do? Well, the Europeans think it's grand (The French critics at Cahiers du cinema ranked it #7 all time), but the Anglo-Americans only had it at #28 and the Asians at #48.

The Asians also didn't care as much for Jean Vigo's L'Atalante, ranking it #50, whereas it wound up #9 overall in the U.S./U.K.

Films ranked 1-20 that show up in my own list of Favorite 100 Films: Citizen Kane (#1); Otto e Mezzo [8½] (#4); À bout de souffle [Breathless] (#7); The Godfather (#9); L’Atalante (#12); The Seven Samurai (#14); Rashômon (#15); and Singin' in the Rain (#17).

I'll discuss other regional differences in future posts and reveal more of the Top 200 as I go.

Which directors had the most films mentioned? (Cash prize for naming the top three.) Which decade produced the highest number of masterpieces? What was the worst year for great cinema? What do Asians have against Chinatown? And why do Americans hate Luchino Visconti? (Because he was in the Italian Communist Party?) So stay tuned (oops, that's a television metaphor) for future installments.

In the meantime, I'd love to hear what you think about some of these "greatest" films that have been listed. And which movies do you think are the best of all time?


Garpu said...

Interesting. Any ideas why "Citizen Kane" makes the top of just about every list, yet people don't like it?

The Hoopy Frood knows just about every shot of "Seven Samurai," and just about every Kurosawa film ever made. He's big into Japanese film noir.

I"d have to think about it. I'm not as moved by films as I am other media.

cowboyangel said...

Actually, I think a lot of people do like Citizen Kane, but it depends, perhaps, on what kind of relationship one has with film. I like it very much and think it's a great flick. I don't know if I would put it at #1, but it would be very high up there. I was disappointed that it was so clearly #1. I was hoping for more variation. But seeing it so highly regarded was interesting in and of itself.

Directors love it because there's just so much in it that one can study. It's like a textbook on filmmaking. If you care about the masters before you, it's essential. Critics love it partly, I'm guessing, because they think they're supposed to and partly out of sheer love. It's great cinema.

For a casual film-goer who's primarily used to current Hollywood fare, I imagine the impression would be different. I mean there are large numbers of people who will never watch a black and white film or a foreign film. Trying to explain to them why Kane is a great movie isn't going to do much good.

I'm sure some serious film fans can enumerate many reasons why they don't think it's the greatest film of all-time. Just as people can explain why Shakespeare isn't the greatest writer in the English language.

cowboyangel said...

Kurosawa may be my favorite director, too. So I can understand the Frood's love.

Liam said...

Good Lord man, I should have you organize my charters.,I'd have my dissertation done in two weeks.

It's so hard to figure out criteria -- is innovation more important than total aesthetic experience? Its impact on popular culture (i.e., Casablanca) more important than impact on filmmakers (i.e., Goddard)?

Damnit, what about Caddyshack?

cowboyangel said...

I don't have the spreadsheet in front of me right now, but Caddyshack may have been on the Top Ten list from Uzbekistan that I didn't use. That might've been the one that only included Chevy Chase films.

Criteria for "greatness" is always a tricky matter, though it's an issue I love to discuss. So many aspects must be considered. Luckily, since all I was doing was compiling various lists from other people, I didn't have to worry about it. But if I had made my own list - which I'm incapable of doing, since my knowledge of cinema is too incomplete for such a task - I would probably lean more towards "total aesthetic experience" rather than Innovation, though both would be important factors. As you know, I think Ben Webster was a genuinely great jazz musician, and he's rarely mentioned as such because he didn't innovate enough to satisfy many jazz judges. Seems to me that critics and academics put more stress on innovation. Which is probably why Citizen Kane remains so highly regarded. I think it's both innovative and a great aesthetic experience, but less of the latter than the former. For that reason, it probably wouldn't be my #1.

I would argue that Godard has actually had as much influence on popular culture as Casablanca in some ways. In the 1960s especially. Moreso in Europe, where everyone wanted to make a film with him - Bardot, the Rolling Stones, Montand, etc. But also in the US. He was right in the center of the revolutionary movement and its collision with popular culture. And his technical innovations have had a huge impact on popular culture. Think Tarantino, certain advertising, etc. But in terms of pop culture references, sure, Casablanca was the big banana in our country.

Do I like Casablanca more than Pierrot le fou? Probably. But that's a tough call.

crystal said...

I've still never seen Citizen Kane. I think I did do posts on Aguirre, the Wrath of God, and Vertigo, and Roshamon - three of my favorites too. Also never saw Caddyshack :)

Great post - where do you get the energy to do all that???

david kersh said...


Wow, I am so impressed with your list-compilation skills and your ability to focus on this task. So I have to chime in here and join in the film fun. And I was about to use my limited kid-free time to re-watch Bardem's Muerte de un Ciclista(which I am certain is on almost every Spanish top 3 film list), but that will have to wait for now...

By the way, Pilar and I have a joke regarding Citizen Kane, as I have made her watch it 199 or 201 times. If she does something to get me upset, I threaten her with having to watch it one more time.

Like many aspects of my life, I have this thing for Spain, and the films touch me deeply:
1) El Espiritu de la Colmena (Erice)
2) La Ardilla Roja(Medem)
3) Calle Mayor (Bardem)
4) El Angel Exterminador (Bunuel)
5) Cria Cuervos (Saura)
6) Bienvenido Mr. Marshall (Berlanga)
7) Habla con Ella (Almodovar)

Some of those above should be in world-film top 50 list.

I am not sure if you have read Guillermo Cabrera Infante's Un Oficio del Siglo XX. I love not just his lists (which overlap with the names on you post, and I am sure you dont any more lists), but his fun way of writing about film. And he has the same name as you which is always a good reason to read somebody.

And, guess what, the cover of my book has a picture of a scene from Citizen Kane. Figures!

cowboyangel said...


It's called obsession. The idea stuck in my head and wouldn't go away. But it's not like I did it all at once. I started back in March and did little bits at a time.

I can handle you not seeing Citizen Kane - that's understandable. But I'm still having difficulty reconciling our friendship with the fact that you haven't seen Singin' in the Rain. You might as well tell me you hate cats. :-)

I'll go back and look for your posts on Aguirre and Rashomon. I remember the one on Vertigo and your San Fran connection.

I think it's interesting that Vertigo wasn't regarded as "one of the greatest films of all time" for many years. It was only when it was re-released in the 1980s that people began to take it more seriously. Then, over the last 25 years or so, it's grown in stature more and more. An excellent example of perception of a work of art changing over time.

cowboyangel said...

David, thanks for the thoughtful response.

Sadly, I've never seen any Bardem films. (Javier, yes, but not Juan antonio). Another gap in my film knowledge.

With the exception of Bunuel and Erice, I noticed that Spanish cinema didn't fare too well in these lists. Perhaps the biggest shock of all was seeing how few films by Almodovar showed up. I expected there to be several, given how much his reputation has grown (or been revitalized) over the last decade. I have a list from the Filmoteca in Valencia - I'll go back and see if they included some of the Bardem ones. But in the U.S. at least, I find that Spanish cinema (with the exception of Bunuel and Pedro) doesn't get much discussion. People who know it like it, but many people have never seen an Erice film, for example. Through my participation in the IMDB Classic Film Board, I did get Espiritu de la comena into the Top 200. It's been hovering in the 170s. But go to IMDB and you'll see how few people have voted for the movie. It's a real shame.

Angel Exterminador and Colmena are definitely in my own personal 100 Favorites. As is Medem's Tierra.

cowboyangel said...

Oh, David, I ordered he English translation of the Cabrera Infante. And we have the Spanish version here, which I'll try with the other in hand. But first I have to finish Richard Brody's excellent bio on Godard.

Anonymous said...

Conan the Barbarian and Repo Man are respectively the alpha and omega of underbelly of film. Nobody appreciates this region of the cinema as much as they should.

John Schertzer said...

Oops that was me. I didn't mean to post as anon.

cowboyangel said...


All I wanted was a Pepsi, and you wouldn't give it to me.

I'm actually surprised Repo Man didn't get any mentions anywhere.

There were 2 or 3 lists that seemed like they could've included it. I know it's better than several films of the 530 that got mentioned. Where I would personally put it on a list is hard to say. I think it captured an era incredibly well - and still holds up.

And it's definitely one of the best soundtracks ever.

Pablo Picasso was never called an asshole. Not here. Not like you.

Nice to hear from you, btw.

Can't speak on Conan, as I've never seen it, or saw it so long ago that I don't remember it anymore.

cowboyangel said...

But nobody's going for my cash prize. How disappointing. Perhaps I should up the amount to $5.

John Schertzer said...

Conan and Repo Man are good bookends if you don't mind a little cheese on your popcorn. Surely not Jules Et Jim (which is strangely missing here as is another by the same auteur).

And how can you have a top 20 list without Bergman? Is that even allowed?

I think the lists you pulled from were made up by stick in the mud, obviously. I wouldn't want to attend a film school they ran.

Speaking of Ran, I liked that a lot better than Rashomon. But that's me, my wife and inlaws hated it. I've seen it a half dozen times, and see it another half dozen times, even though it is about 3 hrs long, and these days, who's got that much time.

And Picasso definitely was an asshole. But because he was a close friend of Gertrude's we will make allowances.

Steve Caratzas said...

I didn't see Cabin Boy anywhere in your post.

But seriously, folks, after seeing Citizen Kane I was completely awestruck. However, I've never been able to watch it all the way through again!

Question: Should I film be re-watchable to be considered great? Or is the power of a once-only viewing enough (and perhaps essential) to cement a film's place in the pantheon?


Liam said...

Cash prize... okay, I'm not even thinking too much here, just pulling something out of my butt (because dude, you already owe me a pitcher and a pint of beer at the grassroots) -- JOhn Ford, Kurusawa, Bergman.

cowboyangel said...


About two minutes after reading your post, I went to IMDB and, lo and behold, check out their Poll Question of the Day:

" compiled a list of the 10 Movies Criticizing Modern Society; of these, which do you feel put forth the best criticism?

A Clockwork Orange
Apocalypse Now
Blade Runner
Cannibal Holocaust
Conan the Barbarian
High Plains Drifter
Repo Man
Taxi Driver
The Seventh Seal
The Wicker Man

Jules Et Jim (which is strangely missing here as is another by the same auteur).

Would you really put Jules et Jim in the Top 20? What would you replace? I like it more than The Searchers and 2001. I could remove those. But, then, I wouldn't add Jules et Jim. It'll show up.

And how can you have a top 20 list without Bergman? Is that even allowed?

Wow, good call. I hadn't even noticed that. It's rather stunning, now that you mention it. I went back to the spreadsheet to investigate. Seems to have been the result of a bizarre split vote that totally fell along cultural/regional lines. Seventh Seal was the choice in the US/UK (4/6) and the International Polls (4/5), but only ONE out of the remaining 19 chose it - the Venezuelan list. Zero in Europe, Asia, Russia, Israel, etc. Meanwhile, Wild Strawberries didn't get a single mention on the US/UK polls! It did, however, get 4/5 in the Internationals and 7 out of the remaining 19, including at least one in every region.

I think the lists you pulled from were made up by stick in the mud, obviously. I wouldn't want to attend a film school they ran.

I don't know, I thought it was a pretty good mix, some popular ones (Ebert, Time magazine, Time Out), some edgier ones (Village Voice, Rosenbaum, CFB, some of the archives - I'm especially thinking of India) - and even Sight & Sound included folks like Jarmusch, Linklater, Tarantino. The Cahiers du Cinema list didn't seem stodgy. It's true that some of the archive lists were traditional in their choices.

But I think the real issue isn't which polls were used but the very concept of "Greatest Films." For some reason, it seems like people are afraid to include comedies, musicals, and some other genres when discussing "greatest films." People seem to feel the need to include heavy movies - that are three hours long. I haven't been able to watch many of these films consecutively, because I need some humor and lightness in my life. (I wantto watch Tarkovsky's Andrei Rublev, but, man, it's summer.) So I intersperse them. But personally, I don't think The Seventh Seal or The Seven Samurai - as much as I love them - are significantly "greater" films than The Band Wagon. Different, yes, but not so much better.

Also, perhaps, comedies and other kinds of films don't seem to move as well from one culture to another. Evidently, people everywhere know what it's like to suffer and be bored.

Speaking of Ran, I liked that a lot better than Rashomon.

On a personal list of "Greatest Films," Ran would probably be my #1 choice. But Rashomon is also great, and was, admittedly, more innovative and important. As Liam brought up, what's ultimately the criteria for greatness: innovation or total aesthetic experience? To me, Ran may be the essence of a total aesthetic cinematic experience. It's what film was created for.

cowboyangel said...

Cabin Boy, Caddyshack, Conan . . . Yeah, sorry everyone. I want to apologize profusely on behalf of the hundreds of asshole film directors, critics, archivists, etc. who were involved in creating those 30 lists. They really dropped the ball, I know. And we haven't even mentioned Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle.

Question: Should a film be re-watchable to be considered great? Or is the power of a once-only viewing enough (and perhaps essential) to cement a film's place in the pantheon?

Excellent question. I'm thinking of Requiem for a Dream. I don't really feel the need or desire to watch it again, but I would consider putting it on a list of greatest films. It's certainly a film that had some of the greatest impact ever upon me when I saw it. But I'm not sure I can think of many more. Maybe one or two. What titles did you have in mind? Top Gun?

It's tough, because one of the joys of the video/DVD revolution is being able to see good films multiple times. And it fascinates me to see which ones hold up after seeing them so many times. Plus, you can really study the craft.

But I think I understand what you're asking. And isn't life like that? We never get to re-experience our greatest moments. Though, I suppose we could re-watch them. But I know which moments are the greatest. I don't have to relive them. Though I wouldn't mind sometimes.

Makes me think also of films that have been lost. The story of Dreyer's Jeanne d'Arc is pretty amazing. The master was destroyed in a fire and the original version lost for decades. Dreyer tried to put it back together using outtakes and so forth, but he died. Then, suddenly, in the 1980s, they found an original version in the janitor's closet of an insane asylum in Oslo. But people still considered it a great film - partly on memory ? - for many years.

crystal said...

I feel really tired lately, brain foggy, so that's probably how I missed the part where you gave a cash prize .... please elaborate!

I liked Conan the Barbarian, but I'm a fan and read all the books and collected the comics.

I saw something today at America's blog on Roman Polanski .... maybe I'll post something about his movies tonight.

cowboyangel said...


Thanks for participating in my annoying guessing game. Tune in later for the results.

As far as the beer - we do need to do this soon. The next NCAA tournament creeps upon us every day. I'm in the city on the 30th. And am willing to make weekend arrangements for a trip to Grassroots. Tell me a good time.

cowboyangel said...


I probably already told you that I visited Robert E. Howard's home in Texas, right? He grew up right near where my mother lives. And killed himself there, too.

Cash prize, yes. I might go as high as the price of a ticket to see a movie.

Liam said...

Good point on repeatability. Passolini's "Salo" was probably one of the most interesting and intense films I've ever seen, but I have no desire to see it again. I was in a bad mood for a week after seeing it.

On the other hand, I could watch "Galaxy Quest" or "Friday After Next" over and over again for all eternity.

IPAO and I watched "No Country for Old Men" tonight. She hated it, I thought it was amazing. What does our Texan think of it?

cowboyangel said...

Two pistols up on No Country for Old Men. I thought Tommy Lee Jones was great. In fact, he had a rocking year, doing a wonderful job in Valley of Elah as well. Did she think it was too violent? Boring? Did she like Fargo?

I've always been afraid to see Salo.

But I agree with you about Galaxy Quest. Thanks, btw, for telling me about it.

One of our infinitely re-watchables is Quick Change, which we just re-watched last night. That may be my favorite Bill Murray performance. And I still think it's one of the best films ever about New York. Don't know why we seem to love it so much and others not so much. After last night, I decided it was going to be another Bringing Up Baby. Not respected for a long time and now a classic.

Liam said...

She didn't like the ending -- how unresolved everything was. I thought it was magnificent. I also think Bardem's character will go down as one of the great villains, friendo.

crystal said...

I feel so out of it because I haven't seen many movies lately but my sister saw and told me about Valley of Elah and No Country for Old Men, and they both sounded very good, though I'd probably like the first one better than the second. I'm really disturbed by movies with bad guys who are so amoral .... I mena, I understand bad guys who are passionately "evil" but bad guys who are just sort of dead inside are too creepy for me.

Ditto about Galazy Quest :)

cowboyangel said...

Liam, yes, I think Anton Chigurh will go down as one of the all-time great villains. If you see him as Death, and the whole film as a meditation on death, I think the ending makes more sense - may have more of a resolved ending.

And, no, Crystal, if you don't like amoral bad guys, I suppose I wouldn't recommend No Country. But the bad guys in the Valley of Elah are just as amoral, and, frighteningly, based on real people. Anton Chigurh (Bardem), while exceedingly amoral, is amoral in the sense that death is amoral. It kills everyone: children, good people, bad people. He was so over the top that I found him easier to deal with emotionally. Actually, "over the top" isn't a good description. What makes him so chilling is that Bardem's not playing it over the top. BHe does a great piece of acting in a demanding role. Compared with cartoon villains like Hannibal Lecter or the Joker, who are "hot," he's a "cold" figure.

They're both very good movies and very disturbing movies. But No Country at least has black humor.

crystal said...

I thought about writing about the movie with Tommy Lee Jones and the Iraq war, and I looked up the real guy on whom the story was based - that was chilling.

I posted something about A Clockwork Orange, but ended up deleting it - that guy was very disturbing too.

cowboyangel said...

Yeah. Clockwork Orange would actually be another film that I don't think needs to be seen more than once. Though I'm not sure how "great" it is.

No Country for Old Men, though very violent at times (especially the opening sequence), is very different from Clockwork Orange.

The story behind Valley of Elah is very disturbing, but I thought they handled it well. It's a well-done film and only at the end do you really feel the gravity of what's transpired. And afterwards. But I think it captures well the insanity of the Iraq war - what it may be doing to us day by day in a subtle way. We don't like to think much about the consequences of our actions in regards to what we've done and are doing in Iraq. And I fear those consequences - spiritually, emotionally, psychologically, however you want to describe it - go deeper and are more profound than most people realize.

Garpu said...

Hey no worries. Vent away. And i think you definitely need to see Caddyshack.

Alexandra said...

A very interesting foray into a fascinating world. Cultural Study/film criticism and not a small amount of poetic curiosity helped you create a provocative probe into cinema and all the cultural associations and histories it represents. I really enjoyed this, honey. I felt like you took a ladle and scooped it into some magical, pewter waters and I like what you fished out. Yeah, what's up with Lady Eve? And American/Anglo cinema can be insular--it is so nice to be reminded of that and shown some other world perspectives. I would agree that comedy has a harder time translating to other cultures. I'll never forget the time William and I watched "Swimming with Sharks" in a cinema in Madrid (a true black comedy with Keven Spacey)and you could have heard a pin drop, while we were laughing away. I'll need to come back to this post again to absorb it even more fully.

cowboyangel said...


It's true I haven't seen Caddyshack in many years. Now that I'm older and wiser (as I so graciously displayed on your blog - cough), perhaps, I'll finally grasp it's more profound significance. The Baby Ruth, the gopher, Bill Murray. I can sense now it's all leading me to a powerful place.

But it's true, I should watch it again. See how it holds up after . . . oh my God . . . almost 30 years. Man, I 'm getting old.

cowboyangel said...

Thanks, poet lady, for that poetic interpretation of my meaningless and time-wasting obsession/pre-occupation with lists. You put up with an awful lot.

Thanks for appreciating me for the freak I am.

Yeah, the Swimming with Sharks experience was priceless. The audience must have thought we were on drugs or something. I was almost on the floor.

Liam said...

We just saw The Dark Knight. It was very good, and Heath Ledger was incredible. I think between No Country and TDK I have this week seen two great movie villains, two great movie treatments of evil.

cowboyangel said...

Thanks for the report. I was wondering about it. The New Yorker dissed it, the Times raved on and on, and a college girl serving coffee, who had seen one of the 3 am showings said it was too long and overly hyped -up, so I didn't know where to turn. I wasn't as impressed with Batman Begins as others, so I haven't been rushing out to see this. Plus, I still think all these comic books movies are a conspiracy to keep Americans at the emotional and intellectual level of adolescents, so we don't think much about what's going on and just buy, buy, buy. But that's another post.

Liam said...

I liked Batman Begins more than you did, but still, The Dark Night was better. I think it actually crosses into some interesting themes. Once again, Heath Ledger's Joker is very interesting. Christopher Nolan is trying to get past the adolescent level -- whether or not he succeeds I'll leave up to you.

I think it's worth it at least for Heath Ledger.

The New Yorker panned No Country for Old Men, too.

There is the problem with the dorky Batman voice, though.

cowboyangel said...

Yes, the New Yorker mentioned the dorky Batman voice. Thrills. Do they still have that damn BatHummer?

I guess we have to decide whether or not to see it on a big screen. We're thinking of going to see WALL-E again.

Liam said...

The batmobile gets destroyed actually.

You want to see a movie you've already seen instead of seeing an action movie on the big screen in the middle of summer? Do whatever you want. You're weird.

cowboyangel said...

So is Batman reduced to the Bat Bicycle or something? The Bat Segway? The Bat Subway? Is this some kind of liberal global warming agenda being snuck into the movie to corrupt our youth?

What about The Bat Horse? Now, I would go see a movie in which Batman fought the bad guys on horseback. With a six-gun. In the desert. Though, obviously, that black Batsuit would get pretty damn hot. He could move to Carlsbad Caverns, where bats actually live. He could fight immigrants and Mormon polygamists. Slowly go crazy out in the desert from the heat and wearing his stupid bat suit in 100+ degreee weather. Kind of a Howard Hughes figure - Bruce Wayne drinking his own urine and building a bomb shelter out near Los Alamos. Oh, then you've got all the nuclear thing going. Chinese spies. Native American shamen. He could live on the res for a while and go to the sweats.

I see a whole new series here. I'm tired of all that urban Batman stuff anyway. Oh, the Joker and urban decay. Yawn.

WALL-E IS on the big screen, and there IS action,and it's definitely summer out here, so what's your point?

Liam said...

Fine, just watch WALL-E 400,000 times and never see another movie. Good luck explaining that to my stepson.

Matthew Hunt said...

A fascinating list, and I was especially interested in your methodology. I've put some of the more recent lists online, and compiled my own top-30.


cowboyangel said...


Thanks for dropping by. Both your blog and website are interesting. I couldn't find your own Top 30, however. Do you have a link?

I like several of your list sources. If I decide to revise this series, I may try to include some of them.

Matthew Hunt said...

I've been tracking lists since 2005 here:

and my personal lists (30 and 500) are here: