Anyone who spends much time online is sure to notice the host of best and worst lists vying for our attention. You’ll even find lists of “Best Lists,” the publishers ranging in prestige from The New Yorker to listverse.com, a website dedicated solely to top-ten lists. One category I am especially interested in, though, relates to the cinema. Each year there is a steady stream of these—most obviously, from those bodies dedicated to awarding the year’s best direction, cinematography, performance, and so on. There are even mileposts anticipating these judgments, like Indiewire’s “The 15 Best Movies of 2015 So Far.” (Significantly, on that list you will find “Gueros“, this month’s offering from Filmworks.)
But as someone who teaches film history, I’m more interested in lists that take the long perspective, the “greatest movies of all time” kind of lists. Such rankings can easily be skewed by questionable criteria or hidden agendas, as was especially the case for the American Film Institute’s “100 Years . . . 100 Movies” list, belatedly celebrating cinema’s centennial in 1998. Not only were short films excluded, but box office success and video availability were factors in the voting. At the time, many film critics expressed their dissatisfaction, but it was Jonathan Rosenbaum, writing for the Chicago Review, who was most censorious, wondering if the list was “simply a brute commercial ploy dreamed up by a consortium of marketers to repackage familiar goods.” AFI has followed with a good number more lists, not just a ten-year updating of the original list and top-ten lists for Hollywood’s favorite genres but also lists of quotes, songs, and more—22 lists in all, which can be found here: http://www.afi.com/100Years/
The most serious failing of the AFI lists is their insularity. This part of the organization’s broader efforts to educate audiences and valorize the past simply writes off world cinema—not to mention, homegrown experimental filmmaking of early and mid-20th century. Lauding the contributions of other national cinemas is someone else’s job, they imply. In contrast, the British Film Institute has been polling a broad range of film professionals since 1952—not just critics or industry insiders but also archivists, programmers, and academics—in order to compile their lists of greatest films from around the globe. For the most recent list, published in Sight and Sound in 2012, the top two movies happen to be American—”Vertigo” and “Citizen Kane“. There are three other Hollywood films in the BFI’s top ten, but the other five represent the cinemas of Japan, France, Italy, Denmark, and the Soviet Union—two of these from the silent era, one even an avant-garde documentary! You can see the full list here: http://www.bfi.org.uk/news/50-greatest-films-all-time.
What prompts my musings, though, is last month’s publication of a new top-100 movies list—the BBC’s “100 Greatest American Films.” Unlike the more professionally diverse polling undertaken by the BFI, the BBC limited the voting to film critics, but maintained the global perspective with critics “from the United Kingdom and continental Europe to South America, Australia, India and The Middle East—and of course the United States.”
This is not the first such international ranking of American cinema: an interesting, though oft forgotten one was undertaken in the mid-1970s by the Royal Film Archive of Belgium and published in The Most Important and Misappreciated American Films Since the Beginning of Cinema (1978). The book is long out-of-print, but the list of films can be found here: http://www.imdb.com/list/ls008509666/. What is most interesting about the list is not that Citizen Kane holds the top spot or that you’ll find a doc in the top 10, but that 8 of the top 10 movies are from the silent era.
The results of the BBC list are equally fascinating. Not only have underappreciated Hollywood features like Nicholas Ray’s “In a Lonely Place” and Billy Wilder’s “Ace in the Hole“ received due recognition but independent movies like George Romero’s “Night of the Living Dead“, John Cassavetes’ “Love Streams“, and Charles Burnett’s “Killer of Sheep“ made the cut. Perhaps most refreshing, though, is the recognition given to a key avant-garde short from mid-century—Maya Deren’s “Meshes of the Afternoon“.
Yes, there are some puzzling choices that have drawn criticism, though you won’t hear me complain that “Gone with the Wind” came in no higher than #97. I’ll save my disbelief for the inclusion of “Back to the Future” and the total shut out of the Coen Brothers oeuvre—whether “The Big Lebowski“, “Fargo” or my Coen favorite, “No Country for Old Men“. Nonetheless, the top ten are all worthy choices, with “Citizen Kane” back at the #1 spot after slipping to #2 on the latest BFI list. (I can outline elsewhere why I agree that “Kane” deserves the highest honor.)
Of course, arguments over any of the rankings can obscure the importance of such lists, which are after all merely a tally of the number of respondents who regard any film as among the greatest. More important is that new lists can lead audiences to discover overlooked gems and even to expand their tastes beyond the conventions they are most familiar with. To see the BBC list for yourself and then start exploring new titles, go to http://www.bbc.com/culture/story/20150720-the-100-greatest-american-films
John Moses is the President Emeritus of Fresno Filmworks. He teaches Film Studies and English at Fresno City College.