A few months ago “Rolling Stone” did an issue on the 500 greatest songs of all time as voted on by people connected to the music industry (though it seemed to rely on one too many members of The Donnas). That peaked my interest, and I started to work on a series of “Excess Hollywood” columns that would delve into the 500 greatest films of all time as decided by me (and no members of The Donnas).
Yes, I am a masochist who enjoys masturbating with sandpaper. Why do you ask?
I started compiling my list, knowing it would get more comments on what it didn’t include than what it did. You see, I wasn’t going to list films like “Citizen Kane,” “Casablanca” or any movie with the word
“godfather” in its title. Those make all the lists every damn year, and besides being lazy, I don’t think the films are all that great. They are good. Great? I don’t know. Just because all the “major” critics agree with each other doesn’t make it right.
As I made my list I started asking my friends to bounce titles off me. Almost every one of them said I should do it by genre, but I resisted. A great film is a great film no matter what genre it is in. Then they told me I should take a vote like “Rolling Stone” did. The problem there was that if I polled critics, I’d get a list with “Citizen Kane,” “Casablanca” and films with the word “godfather” in the title. If I polled Every Guy Joe, I’d get what’s been popular the last ten years. I had to make the list me and all me — because my ego’s huge.
When I got about halfway through, which was a chore, I started to think about what made a film great. Should I consider a film great if I gave it five stars (the Film Threat equivalent of a full erection)? I haven’t handed out too many of those over the years. Should I consider it great if it’s flawed, yet still moved me somehow? Is it great if I really loved it at the time, but have changed and don’t like it quite as much anymore? There weren’t any easy answers.
If I were only giving five-star movies the title of “great,” then the list would be far under my goal of 500 films. And then there would be things like “Star Wars.” I love the film, but I can’t give it five stars, unlike “The Empire Strikes Back.” Both were on my original list, though.
What about a film like “The Evil Dead”? I consider that a tremendously good movie, but it is flawed. Should I exclude it from the list?
I really enjoyed “Spider-Man” when it first came onto the scene, but have liked it less after having more time to reflect on it. Does that deserve a place?
I wasn’t taking these issues lightly. I was serious about this list. I wanted it to be 500 films, and I wanted to justify each and every one of my choices. (“F**k yeah, ‘The Texas Chainsaw Massacre’ is great. There hadn’t been a film of its kind before it. It set a standard of nihilism that’s been hard to follow, too, and its documentary look helped to turn the fairy tale aspect of the horror film on its head.”) I wanted this thing to succeed even though everyone who knew I was doing it thought I was nuts. “It’s easier to do the best cop films of all time,” they said.
They were right … and wrong.
It would be easier to break up films by genre. After all, how do you reasonably compare “Caddyshack” to “I Stand Alone”? It seems impossible. That, my friends, is what separates the pros from the amateurs, though. I can do it. I may not be able to list the 500 greatest films of all time, but I can define them.
A great film transcends genres. It moves you and makes you talk about it — sometimes for days after seeing it. It inspires you. It may break new ground, or it may put a new spin on an old story. It may also follow what came before it, but in such a way that it still seems fresh and original. It does what it sets out to do, and it does it so well that you may not even be aware it is doing it. (That’s the very reason I am so enthralled by “The Stendhal Syndrome.”) A great film doesn’t have to be a drama, comedy, or romance, though it can be. It can also be a horror film, a porno, or an anime. The classification doesn’t matter. The story and how it is told does.
I can understand why people would think that breaking things down by genre would be easier. As a culture, we are told that everything must have neat little boxes to fit into. As a critic, however, I have to judge every film individually while still understanding its place in the context of cinematic history. I have to judge every film against itself and all others. Face it, if Dick Baby were the only movie in the world, it would be the best film ever, but only by default. Forcing films into a genre ghetto is too easy, and it is best left to the American Film Institute and “Entertainment Weekly” writers. That said, it was crazy to try this, and now I know my place.
The 500 greatest films of all time won’t be anything I’ll do anytime soon. I’ll stick to doing it one film at a time. That seems to be fairer, and that way I won’t really have to justify including “The
Provider” while omitting “Annie Hall.”
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