The Problem with Best Films of All-Time Lists -- Even Great Directors Screw Them Up
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I can’t do Best Film lists. Somebody recently asked me to—a former student—it was sweet of him and all—but I can’t. They’re so embarrassing. You no sooner put down a title than you feel like an idiot—really, this is the BEST film ever made, of all films from all nations, in all genres, for all time, the very BESTEST??
Best Film lists are in the news lately because the BFI—that’s British Film Institute for those non-film-snobs among you, and thank you for your non-snobbery—has announced to the world, via its toffish publication Sight and Sound, that Citizen Kane is no longer the Best Film Ever Made. It WAS the Best Film for decades, since 1962 to be exact. But no longer!
Now it’s Vertigo, Alfred Hitchcock’s insightful mind-fuck. Citizen Kane is merely the SECOND-BEST FILM EVER MADE in what we sadly call “human history.”
So you see what I mean by how stupid all this is. I mean, Citizen Kane is an excellent first film by a newbie, no question; it’s lively, and a great catalog of the state-of-the-art 1941, because young Orson Welles wanted to do everything you COULD do in film plus a few things people said you couldn’t. But Best Film of all time? That’s just silly. It’s not even clearly the best feature film DEBUT, not when you factor in George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, and Nicholas Ray’s They Live by Night, and other brilliant firsts.
But then, no matter what damn film you put down, you’re wrong, you’re being arbitrary, you can’t possibly defend it seriously. And even so, even if you can bracket all that off for the sake of giggles and enjoyable arguments on social media (“You horse’s ass, you think _______ is the Best Film ever made????”), you have to face the fact that naming Best Films brings out the worst in everyone. It’s actively BAD for us, as human beings, and we’re a species defined by our propensity for rottenness even without provocation.
This is because when asked to name Best Films, people inevitably get nervous and sweaty and don’t want to look unejjicated, and therefore they conform themselves to despicable, desiccated high culture standards that should’ve died out decades ago, and name the usual suspects: Citizen Kane, and 8½, and Tokyo Story, and all that other lofty art cinema stuff we force-feed you in Film History 101. (We have to do it—those films were important in their times, and highly influential and all—we ain’t lyin’—but that doesn’t mean we all have to worship them forever like holy relics.)
If you DON’T choose the usual suspects, you’re subject to an all-out attack by the conformist culture-guarding Furies. There was a Great Moment in History a while back, when the New York Times Magazineasked philosopher Stanley Cavell what work would stand the test of time and still be admired and loved a hundred years from now, and Cavell, inspired as usual, picked Groundhog Day.
The outcry in response was terrific! How DARE he choose a mere Bill Murray comedy when he could’ve said 8½!
You’ve got to give it to Stanley Cavell, even if he does write so clausey and convoluted it gives you a migraine, he’s really onto something when it comes to film, and he’s not afraid. Stan the Man!
But most people aren’t equal to such fearless free-thinking. Just to give you an idea of a typical Best Film list, look no further than Woody Allen’s: