Annotations to the Obligatory Top 100

More for posterity’s sake than anything, I thought it worthwhile to include a link to the list of my one hundred favorite films, which is available on MUBI as as list entitled, ironically enough, “The Obligatory Top 100.” As I noted there, my criteria were incredibly broad. So broad, in fact, so as to be arguably little else than the fact that these films bring me a great deal of joy.  I imposed some arbitrary other criteria on my winnowing process, mostly because without arbitrary restrictions, I would never be equal to the task of narrowing my favorites down to a mere one hundred.  As I explained to a friend the other day, there are probably at least four hundred films that could just as easily hold a place on my list, but since 100 is the conventional number for such a thing, it is the number by which I abide (with much grumbling, groaning, and other pouty noises).

My first criterion is one I’ve held for many years.  No more than one film by any given director can appear on the list.  So directors like Hitchcock, Kubrick, Kurosawa, Chaplin, Wong Kar-Wai, etc. are done severe injury right off the bat.  It’s a necessary step, though.  Otherwise these lists tend to be dominated by a handful of canonical names or people with whose work I have a particular affinity to the detriment of other, equally worthy films that may only be left off the list on a whim or for the sake of “representativeness.”  If I’m going to be whimsical and capricious, by God, I’m going to be downright ascetic!  In almost every case, I picked the film by any given director that I happen to get the biggest kick out of, or have seen the most times.  But in a few cases, I picked on that I felt exemplified what I like most about that director, as opposed to the film that is my personal favorite.

Yes. Revel in my capriciousness.  Let it soak your skin like the dense swelter of a Florida summer.

Criterion #2 is one I stole from a Playtime colleague of mine, Tracy, who for her top ten films of all time (coming soon to Playtime!) decided to try to give each decade due representation.  I liked that idea, so when I was assembling this revision, I started by doing a list of ten films for each decade from the pre-1930s through the most recent Aughts.  After I’d done ten from each, I added one to each until I hit a hundred.  I think the mix is more eclectic and contentious as a result, which is an effect I tend to enjoy in other lists of this nature.

A few films were left out entirely because MUBI’s database does not include them.  For instance, Jackie Chan’s Robin B. Hood (directed by frequent collaborator Benny Chan) and John Fiorella’s masterful short film, Grayson, were left out.  In their places I chose Inglourious Basterds and The Spirit.  There are others, of course, but you get the idea.

(The idea being, most likely, that I have terrible taste in film.  Ah well.)

From time to time in the future, I intend to revise my list, and I may even do it once a year — a sort of annual clearinghouse to help me clarify my own taste and keep track of how far I’ve come and how far I’ve yet to go.  I think listmaking is something of a necessity for anyone who wants to organize his thoughts, and it functions as a useful shorthand in communication.  You can tell a lot about a person from his lists.

On a final note (and I’ll return to this in the future), I’d like to touch on the idea of canonicity.  Make no mistake: not for a moment will I argue that my own list is indicative of the best that cinema has to offer.  But as Adam K. commented at the bottom of my list, my choices get more, er, eccentric as the list gets closer to the present.  I’m not yet sure how to quantify it, but there’s a sense about older films that tends to be more established.  Films that are still being viewed eighty or one hundred years after their release must have a bit of that ineffable “something” about them that makes them worthy of being included in these lists.  You are, after all, far more likely to find a film by Pudovkin or Welles on a preponderance of Best-Of lists than you are to find a film by Satoshi Kon or Shane Carruth’s Primer.

That’s because older films that have remained part of the conversation for so long were deemed worthy at the time, or were repeatedly brought up within a generation after their release by people who had a different (or, let’s just say it better) perspective on them.  When scholars write textbooks or diehard cinephiles make lists, the tendency is to investigate and consider films that caused some sort of stir; titles or names that were commended and recommended by other people that were thought to generally know what the hell they were talking about.  History has its own way of marking out significance and erasing insignificance.  One of the wonderful things about making lists is that, by announcing that you have arrived at a considered opinion, you are submitting for posterity the notion that whatever you have to say is, in turn, worthy of consideration.

Whatever the reasons are for Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans being remembered and the reasons for the particular names of, say, the “Our Gang” films being largely forgotten, I think it’s fair to say that a myriad of forces at constantly at work to condense the individual artifacts, people, and ideas that make up history into what we call heritage.  I’m not a fatalist; I don’t believe that these forces are entirely beyond our control, though divine providence must have some hand in all of it.  Though I have no illusions about the fact that my great-great grandchildren are highly unlikely to be discussing Grayson’s contribution to pop art, I think applying active intelligence and taste to an organizational, hierarchical process — like a list — is intrinsically worthwhile.  Without active participation in the conversations that shape history, I honestly don’t see any point in having opinions or cultivating a sense of taste at all.  My own list is certainly a meager, marginal contribution to this grand pageant, and I know that in time, all the particulars of everything I’ve said or done will be forgotten.  That doesn’t mean that my efforts — or anyone else’s — should be given up.  It means I shouldn’t apologize for making another list, or trying to make my voice heard in a concise way in the ongoing conversation that molds our cultural heritage.  These are the words of a ghost, but they are being written nonetheless.

So for now, I offer up this list.  I hope it’s enough to get some more discussion going.

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About tardishobbit

Reads. Writes. Watches movies. Occasionally stirs from chair. Holds an advanced degree in heuristic indolence. View all posts by tardishobbit

4 responses to “Annotations to the Obligatory Top 100

  • JeanRZEJ

    ‘History has its own way of marking out significance and erasing insignificance.’

    I disagree with this entirely, and the issue becomes question-begging if it is the case that you have barely explored the more obscure films of a certain era that you now proclaim to be well-represented (which, looking at your list, I can’t imagine is not the case). If you were to look at the favorite films of a person who is most interested in films from the pre-sound era you will often find few films in common with these canonical lists which you purport to ‘mark out significance’. In fact, often enough these sorts of lists ‘erase significant departure from the norm’ and ‘mark out insignificant refinements of the norm’. This is not to say that you will find these lists filled with objectionable films, but it is often the point that you won’t find much that is objectionable (which is to say – a significant departure from the rest, something which will challenge your preconceptions as much today as they did to viewers of the time – and, yes, they certainly exist, and if you don’t believe it due to the films you have found on the canonical lists then my point is already made). Forming consensuses will inevitably highlight the most popular, which is to say often the films that alienate the fewest (both through their poor quality as typical cinema or their divergence from typical cinema – but both, inevitably, with the exception of those films which have been rendered accessible through repetitive education as existing on the list – perpetuation exists, surely, but it is rare that this doesn’t result in these lists becoming petrified as well) is a theoretical necessity with this sort of thing, so there’s no use in condemning what is inevitable, but to confuse the inevitable winnowing of variety over time with a refined sense for quality seems to me a very deleterious mixup.

    • mjschneider

      I actually agree with most of what you say. And the mixup is more in my shorthand phrasing for the process you describe.

      There’s a lot of advocacy that goes into what is influential and what’s not. The list of a pre-sound enthusiast will have a lot of departures from the consensus norm, but that list itself will contribute to the consensus-making process. And I don’t mistake the idea of popularity with the idea of quality.

      My purpose in reflecting on the list-making process is to illustrate precisely how precarious the notion of “quality” is when viewed in light of the lists that emphasis the “least alienating” films.

      The fact that the consensus is always subject to some kind of change is very important, and that’s why I think listmaking is worthwhile. As I said, it’s likely that nobody will remember Grayson in a hundred years. It may not even be the best of the amateur fan films out there. Someone with a more developed sense of fan films and superhero films may have a list dominated by even more obscure and better entries. The fact that my list — and my *relative* ignorance — doesn’t include that representation isn’t really a knock against the process itself. Just as my list is subject to change as I acquire more knowledge, the heritage preserved for posterity will change (though there may be no particular causal relationship between my list, specifically, and the work of thousands and millions of other film students).

      What is popular tomorrow is directly related to the debate about what should be popular today, and our awareness of what was popular (and what wasn’t) yesterday. On a fundamental level, though, some things will emerge as significant, and whether they were THE most significant at the time becomes less relevant once they become enshrined as significant. Just because something is “significant” doesn’t mean it’s “good.” I recognize that, and it’s why I explicitly mitigate my own list’s ultimate significance. I’m just saying it’s a teeny-weeny part of the overall process.

      And that process is somewhat fluid. What I call “history” is precisely this huge amount of debate, refinement, consensus-making, and sheer random chance. Maybe it would be better to call it a mythmaking process. I don’t know. I certainly didn’t intend to suggest that what the consensus says is “good” is certified as such; just that it does have more impact than my own list.

      I appreciate the comment.

    • JeanRZEJ

      ‘but that list itself will contribute to the consensus-making process.’

      And when you add together a number of lists, even solely of individuals who have broad experience in the pre-sound era, it will still by the very nature of the process a.) those films which the most people have seen (which will certainly favor those already on the most recognizable lists over obscure films which people have to seek out on their own) and b.) those which will appeal to the most people, not necessarily appeal to each person the most. As a result, it does not matter how experienced your pool is, the process of aggregation by its very nature is one of popularity and thus you will simply be slowly departing bit by bit from the norm but always dragged back to it simply by the petrification effect that being on a consensus list has for keeping a film on a list due to widespread viewing.

      ‘What is popular tomorrow is directly related to the debate about what should be popular today, and our awareness of what was popular (and what wasn’t) yesterday.’

      And I would counter – what is popular has nothing to do with what a film will mean to any given individual, so it has more to do with listmaking than with the films themselves.

      ‘What I call “history” is precisely this huge amount of debate, refinement, consensus-making, and sheer random chance. Maybe it would be better to call it a mythmaking process. I don’t know. I certainly didn’t intend to suggest that what the consensus says is “good” is certified as such; just that it does have more impact than my own list.’

      On the contrary, I think individuals’ lists have the potential to be far more useful than consensus lists. You could say that a consensus considers far more films than any individual could have seen, but individuals with particular experience or highly similar tastes will be marginalized by the process of aggregation, so their particular knowledge will disappear, something which would not happen by directly consulting their submitted list.

      I like that you reframe ‘history’ as ‘mythmaking’, because if a consensus is history it is simply a history of mythmaking, and I would argue that the myth it is making is one of ‘significance’, and ‘significance’ seems to be little more than ‘popularity’, so if we take the statement I originally quoted: ‘History has its own way of marking out significance and erasing insignificance.’ you end up with the following:

      History makes a myth of popularity which has its own way of marking out popularity and erasing unpopularity.

      What is missing is an individual connecting with a film on a human level, and that is all that you will ever have! And your list represents that, so it can be useful to others, although once you get deeper and broader experience with the kinds of films you love the most it will become far more useful, far less of a personal take on the canon and far more of a personal take on cinema. I’ve been having trouble with this myself, trying to focus on Eastern European cinema and avant garde narrative cinema and black comedy and the obscurities of current cinema makes for not much of any of them! Such is youth. I’ll have a great list when I’m dead!

  • mjschneider

    I appreciate the value of one individual connecting with another individual via a list that is very personal and perhaps even antithetical to a “consensus canon.” But I need to return to (and clarify) a few things.

    Significance is what it is. There are a lot of things that go into making something significant. Perhaps too many to accurately identify. Certainly popularity and consensus building after-the-fact have a lot to do with that. But I don’t think it’s important that an individual connect with something significant in order for that thing to be considered significant. One of the most significant films ever made, Citizen Kane, is not on my personal top 100. I’ve seen the film. But I’m not a massive fan of it. I didn’t connect personally with it. Yet I recognize its significance. Just because I may not connect with it personally doesn’t meant that it doesn’t carry a degree of importance and influence. Whatever the factors are that feed into that film’s significance, my enjoyment of the film is still mine to experience, just as my enjoyment of the film is a drop in the oceans of people who have seen the film, enjoyed it a great deal more, and continued to excavate the reasons why it has remained so significant.

    In a similar fashion, I don’t think it’s particularly important that a consensus list by experts — such as the hypothetical cadre of pre-sound enthusiasts we’ve been discussing — be “appealing” to individuals. The usefulness of a list like that is precisely the notion that there is some overlap between individuals with wildly different tastes. And depending on what kind of criteria were established for each list, a consensus list that tabulates popularity, historical influence, and personal preference (among other things) to varying degrees can be understood for what it is, regardless of how intimately a person connects with it.

    I don’t think there’s any perfect or ideal method of identifying something significant, but I do think that trying to identify excellence and trying to articulate one’s own viewpoint are worthy goals. Inevitably, they contribute in some measure to “significance,” but it’s inevitable that the contributions of most individuals — like myself — will be utterly miniscule, if not almost completely irrelevant. But I see that as separate from the issue of personal connection.

    From my perspective, my list has served to foster a personal connection, in that you were moved to take issue with what I expressed about my list. Whether we agree or disagree on anything, the thing I take away from it is that there was an exchange of ideas, and that this exchange will have some impact in some way on both of us. Again, perhaps miniscule or nigh-irrelevant. I don’t know. Maybe massive. Either way, this human, personal connection is a part of the vast web of Things That Contribute to Significance.

    I’m at a point in my life where I’ve accepted that I probably won’t ever have an expert opinion on anything cinema-related, so I just watch whatever interests me, and read up on the same. I think it’s a good and kinda cool thing that you’re split between black comedy, Eastern European cinema, avant-garde, etc. It just means that you have an inexhaustible supply of stuff that fascinates you, and about which you want to communicate. As far as I’m concerned, my list, however inexpert it is, has allowed me to consider how much I don’t know, and how much I can still learn, in part because of this exchange. To me that’s significant, even if it’s not capital-S Significant in the long run. Maybe after we’re dead, what we talked about here will have contributed to something of Significance. Probably not, but who knows? In any case, I’m engaged by the endeavor of being engaged, which is the primary point of listmaking.

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