Every film buff (or filmgoer, film lover– whichever is your preferred moniker) is constantly searching for more films to seek out. The promise of a good movie list, either by committee or by a single author, is not that you find something or someone who has your exact taste, but that you might discover something brand new to fall in love with.
This is a List of Lists, so to speak. Ten different “best of”-style film lists from various well-respected publications, influential authors, and film institutions. Whether you are looking to see what you have missed, or curious which films are most widely loved, these are each recommended reading.
Just like any of the lists below, this is not definitive, nor does it pretend to be. There are countless esteemed cinephiles out there, not to mention our own friends, where we often get our best and most reliable recommendations. If you are in search of new movies to love, or want to deepen your knowledge of all things cinema, here are 10 great places to start.
In 1997, the American Film Institute polled “1,500 film artists, critics and historians” to try and come up with a consensus of the 100 greatest American films of all time (with a few semi-controversial exceptions for British films financed by American studios, like The Third Man). The list was aired as a TV special, with interviews from famous faces talking about their love of each of the films. It was played up as a bit of an event, which for some adds to the fun of it, but which also exposed itself to criticism on a bigger stage.
Their list leans strongly in favor of the ‘standards.’ The majority hail from the Golden Age of Hollywood (Casablanca, Sunset Boulevard) or the immediate post-code onslaught of the late 1960s and 1970s (Bonnie & Clyde, Easy Rider). They didn’t release the list of voters, and they limited the vote to 400 films the AFI had pre-selected themselves.
All of that said, this is a list that emphasizes films that meet on the overlap on the Venn diagram between “critically well-regarded” and “commercially popular,” which is its central virtue.
Is Star Wars really better than 2001: A Space Odyssey? Is Citizen Kane definitively the best American film ever? This is all subjective, after all — but it’s a list, and there has to be a number one. Why not Citizen Kane? Some film buffs will sigh at the predictability of it all, but these choices are only predictable because public opinion has coalesced around them over time. Any list by consensus will be innately less surprising than a personal list, because it lacks a singular vision.
These are all very famous films, by and large sporting mass audience appeal, so there is inevitably a certain obviousness to the selection. That obviousness is valuable, though. It’s a fair representation of the films that have found fans in both critics and mainstream audiences, and for a lover of the movies, these films are pretty much all pre-requisites. It is an excellent checklist for a novice film buff – the perfect starting point for traveling back into mainstream American film history.
The best thing about a personal list like this is that you are going to see films that are a lot less likely to appear on a list by a voting body. A poll tells you an average, and the films that make the grade are the ones that the most people agreed on.
For example, you aren’t going to see a film like T-Men, a largely forgotten B-movie, on many other rankings. It is a more or less conventional procedural (with a little more style than most), but it made its impression on a young Scorsese, and his admiration for it resurrects it.
This list is of 85 films he mentioned during a 4 plus hour interview with Fast Company (when was the last time you were able to list 85 of your favorite movies from memory?). The films mentioned bear a striking resemblance to the ones discussed in A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese Through American Movies, a documentary he participated in back in the mid 1990s (the title speaks for itself, and is a great watch).
This man was one of the leaders of the New Hollywood, the “Film School Generation” of filmmakers who reinvented, or at least shook-up, the studio system. Of these filmmakers, Scorsese is by far the most eager to share his favorites with his admirers. He is a brilliant director but, at his core, he is truly the king of the film geeks.
Looking at these films listed out, you are given a unique glimpse into Scorsese’s biggest influences and inspirations. You can see the beginnings of his own aesthetic ambitions and thematic obsessions, from classic crime films (Gun Crazy, Kiss Me Deadly) to his love for Orson Welles and his command of camera position and movement.
You could not do much better, as far as finding movie recommendations, than looking at this riff of movies that inspired one of the most influential American directors of the 20th century.
The prestigious magazine’s [mostly] yearly Top 10s represent an eclectic range of films. Going back over their picks for the best of the year, as far back as 6 decades, they managed to spot a lot of movies that remain classics; among their earliest picks for best of the year were The River, Voyage To Italy, A Man Escaped, Touch of Evil and Ugetsu Monogatrari.
Cahiers du Cinéma was founded in 1951 by André Bazin, Jacques Doniol-Valcroze and Joseph Marie Lo Duca. Among the influential magazine’s most notable contributions to film criticism was the origin of the much debated auteur theory, which asserts that, despite the number of different artists and craftspeople that are necessary for a production, the director is the primary “author” of the final film.
It also birthed the French New Wave from its critique of traditional European cinema, and many of its writers would become some of the most noted directors involved in the movement (Truffaut, Rohmer, Godard, Chabrol).
There are always films that we love instantly, but which lose their luster over time. Your favorite film one year might be forgotten in a decade. As you change and evolve, your taste changes, too. That is true of the critical world, and these lists are as interesting for the films which no one talks about any more as they are for the ones that have stood the test of time.
If you wanted to look back at what critics considered at that very moment in film history, Cahiers is a premiere resource. Their film critics took the art very seriously, and literally changed the landscape of world cinema. There are all kind of publications that have backlogs of top 10s and Best Ofs, and Cahiers is among the more reputable.
Speaking of reputable film criticism, you could argue that the next entry is an American equivalent (at least in terms of notability) to Cahiers…
Taken from the book “The New York Times Guide to the Best 1,000 Movies Ever Made,” this is an exhaustive and thorough list of films culled together from the archives of one of America’s foremost publications of film criticism. A whole lot of weight has been gifted to The New York Times for its coverage, to the degree that even some categories at the Oscars require a film to get a review in either The New York Times or L.A. Times to qualify for a nomination.
The great thing about this list is that it (in book form) is accompanied by film reviews from the era of the film’s release, taken from the original pages of the New York Times. There is a real history to this list, going back nearly 90 years to the first “talkie,” The Jazz Singer.
That history is ever present in the reviews, but as A.O. Scott mentions in his introduction to the book, it does not pretend to objectivity: “Though its title may invoke the authority of The New York Times, this collection is more likely to start arguments than to settle them, argument being one of the solemn duties of criticism and, more importantly, one of the great pleasures of movie-going.”
One thousand movies is awfully daunting. It would an incredible, improbable challenge to attempt to see every movie here, compiled from over 70 years of film reviews and Top 10 lists. As comprehensive as it is, it may be most useful as a companion, a place to start you own conversation after you watch a film, as it offers the perspective of the original remarks made at the time. That historical point-of-view is enriching – even when you think they got it all wrong.
Trying to quantify the opinions of a selected group of film critics into a percentage out of 100 is complicated — which is to say, by reducing it to a yes or no answer (Rotten or Fresh), it sacrifices nuance in favor of a summary. That’s the whole point, of course, and an avid filmgoer can take advantage of the formula.
At the end of the year there are hundreds of critics’ groups, societies and guilds that release their “Best Films Of the Year” lists. That is to say nothing of the awards handed out by the Academy, the Hollywood Foreign Press, the DGA, the WGA, SAG, and on and on ad infinitum. As film buffs we like to try and keep ourselves appraised, and there are many, many more films released each year than any of us could ever see (even a paid film critic is not going to see everything, from every country around the world, in a given year).
We may have our favorite critics, the ones we trust, or just enjoy reading, but in a day when anyone and everyone can (and will) be a critic, Rotten Tomatoes takes the discordant din of reviewers and attempts to compress it into something manageable. And at the end of the year, they list the films in the order of their consensus ratings, giving you an approximation of “the most acclaimed films of the year.”
It may not be a perfect system, but it is highly useful in culling through everything that is coming out. Their ‘Top Critics’ section condenses the group of critics further, to the ones they consider to have the most influence (largely print journalists, or writers for very popular websites with larger audiences).
We watch movies and form our own opinions, and it is surely impossible to truly gauge each critic’s full feelings and reactions to a work based solely on a number rating (and even harder when you turn it into a pass or fail proposition), but this is meant to be a practical tool. Used to your advantage, it can help you decide, of the plethora of films distributed each year, which to see and what may interest you the most.
When the year ends, and you want to get a sense of the great films you may have missed out on, this list is a very handy Cliff Notes for cinephiles.