Friday, April 09, 2010

Movie lists and anniversaries

[From my film column for Business Standard. This was a few months ago - still haven't put up a lot of old stuff]

It was, of all things, on a tennis website that I had one of my intenser movie-related discussions. This was during “off-hours”, when all the matches for the day were long over and the inevitable squabbles between Federer fans and Nadal fans had died down, or at least begun to approximate (grudging) civility. Our conversation turned to must-watch films and a commenter supplied his list of “definitive classics”, categorised by director and genre. But what I found odd was that he made a firm distinction between the movies he personally loved and the movies that he classified as Essential Viewing.

For instance, his own favourite Kurosawa was The Seven Samurai, which he said “invigorates me like no other film”, but at the same time he proclaimed that the "best" Kurosawa was unquestionably Ran (because it was a more “formally perfect” work that belonged to the director’s mature period). Welles’ Citizen Kane headed his top 10 list though he admitted that he personally found it somewhat boring. He explained the distinction by saying that some films met the “generally accepted criteria” for greatness – being internally self-consistent, perfectly merging form with content, scoring full marks in every major department – and that therefore these belonged to the Canon of Indispensability, even if they aren't necessarily to all tastes.

The immediate problem with this view is: which supreme authority gets to decide what films meet all the criteria and to what precise degree? The fact is, if you take a large sample of the world’s most knowledgeable directors, film students and critics, and ask each of them to list their top 10 movies, you’ll almost certainly end up with hundreds of completely different titles. (If you ask each of them to list their top 50, you’ll probably end up with thousands of different films.) There will never be complete consensus even about seemingly quantifiable individual elements like camerawork or dialogue – much less the complicated mix of tangible and intangible things that determine how a particular film will affect a particular viewer.

And why should there be consensus anyway? The best, most interesting lists are the personal ones where you get a sense of the individual making the selection, and what his specific tastes, beliefs and feelings about cinema are. Not the ones that feign “objectivity” and pretend there is a scientific rating system.

My benchmark for movie lists as reflectors of different sensibilities are the fabulous top 10 lists on the Senses of Cinema website. What you get here is a range of selections from writers, scholars and film buffs from around the world. All these people are deeply passionate about films; many of them explain their choices in a few sentences, or just a few words (“a heart-stirring ending”, “combines horror with great beauty”). In some cases a single scene, or even a vignette lasting a few seconds, is enough to justify the inclusion of a movie on their list. (No pretensions here about a film having to be satisfying "as a whole".) In the more eclectic lists, animation from the 1930s sits on the same page as violent modern horror and gentle human dramas. The variety of movies – including many you’d never think of as textbook classics, and many you’d never find on the much-too-homogenised IMDB Top 250 – is astonishing; it would take the most dedicated viewer more than a lifetime to get through them.

Incidentally, a recent visit to the Senses website reminded me that last year marked the 50th birthday of some fine films (one of the list contributors had included only films released in 1959!). I have a childhood memory of an international videocassette of Ben-Hur labeled “25th anniversary edition”. Well, the Golden Jubilee year of that epic has just passed, and in the DVD era anniversary celebrations are truly grand, with bonus discs that contain hours of extra material.

That said, if you asked me for my list of best 1959 movies, Ben Hur wouldn’t be on it; some of my favourites from that year include Anatomy of a Murder, Fires on the Plain, The 400 Blows, Some Like it Hot,
Apur Sansar and North by Northwest. Special-edition DVDs of some of these are out; look out for them, and start making your own – personal – lists.

P.S. the list of my favourite films that turn 50 this year - 2010 - is even more sumptuous. Psycho. Peeping Tom. Eyes Without a Face. The Virgin Spring. Breathless. Inherit the Wind. But more on that another time.


  1. I think IMDB is an underrated source of movie ratings. Yes, there is a bias towards newer films. But it still beats those predictable AFI lists anyday. Any crowd that prefers Dodsworth over Benhur and The Shop around the Corner over You've Got Mail has to be a pretty discerning audience. I think IMDB ratings are a better guide to movies than the roster of Oscar winners over the years.

    Having said that, I do prefer the personal lists over the consensual lists issued by institutions. Here are a couple of links where one gets to see some very offbeat selections - Scorsese Selection and Rosenbaum's Top 1000

  2. shrikanth: thanks for that Scorsese film. The man really has to be one of the most inclusive, open-minded movie buffs of all time - I think he loves the medium so completely that his default mode for watching any film is to see the good things in it. And he's one of the most important film historians/teachers of the past 40 years.

    Another of those little coincidences that never fail to thrill me - I happened to read his Devil and Daniel Webster piece (here) and found that he had likened the film to the 1962 cult movie Carnival of Souls - which I watched for the first time last night, immediately after getting the DVD from Palika Bazaar!

  3. btw, I have to say Tignor's pieces are generally much more interesting and/or entertaining than Bodo's, agreed?

  4. Agree with that. I haven't read Scorsese rubbish a movie or a director. Maybe, he just doesn't talk or write about the films that don't impress him. That's a sharp contrast to most critics or even viewers whose default mode is to cavil at the faults in a movie.

    Reminds me of a line by James Cagney in one of Scorsese's favourite films - The Strawberry Blonde : "There's an awful lot of good in people, if we just look for it. The trouble is we don't look for it. We go about life thinking that I'm right and the other guy's wrong".

  5. Anon: I'd agree. But then Tignor also writes a lot less frequently than Bodo, who's a full-time tennis journalist with daily deadlines. I know from personal experience how forced the writing can get in such a situation.

  6. On a related note, have you come across yet? I will admit to spending far too much time ticking off various lists, and feeling ashamed that I've only seen 75 of the imdb top 250, for instance.

  7. I agree that movie lists are very personal. That's why my all time favorite is Gunda, and Godfather is a distant second.

  8. Recently came across a list of movies Kurosawa saw as a kid in his autobiography and its remarkable how many films have lived up as classics.
    He writes he owes his choice of movies to his elder brother who committed suicide.