In Search of the Greatest Movie Ever Made

I am a fan of lists.  I love lists of great books, national parks, historical battles, and, as readers of this blog will know, great movies.  But I’ve noticed that the established lists of great movies are biased. They tend to be weighted heavily towards movies made during the middle of the last century, when today’s film critics (who make the lists) were coming of age.

Fifty-three of the American Film Institute’s Top 100 were made between 1950 and 1979.  There are barely half as many movies on the list made during the three decades or so before or after the middle period:  only 27 films made before 1950 and, ridiculously, a mere 20 since 1980.  Apparently, films have been getting worse and worse, according to AFI. It’s all downhill since Raiders of the Lost Ark.

I get it that it takes time to recognize an enduring classic.  But, equally, I see lots of movies on these lists that are there out of mere inertia:  everyone’s been saying they’re great for decades, and no one wants to sound uncultured by saying “Actually, The General is good for a few laughs but doesn’t hold a candle to The Dark Knight.”  Tradition holds powerful sway, as does historical influence. Snow White was the first feature-length animated movie, but The Lion King is incomparably better. 

In fact, I am tempted to argue that there should be a bias in favor of newer films.  The technology of filmmaking has been revolutionized in the last few decades.  Computer-generated imagery and computer animation have freed filmmakers to make almost literally any image imaginable.  If a picture is worth a thousand words, filmmakers can tell new kinds of stories.  Plenty of films abuse CGI and computer animation, but imagine trying to make Finding Nemo with live fish.  Film has been made young again.

The Internet Movie Database’s list of the Top 250 partly compensates for the old-movie bias of AFI; in fact, it goes way, way too far in the opposite direction.  Something like 150 of its Top 250 were made since 1980.  Because the list is based on users’ votes, and internet users (or at least IMDB.com users) tend to be younger, their list is slanted towards the movies that are coming out as they come of age.

The IMDB list at least gives proper recognition to newer classics, like The Matrix (1999), Finding Nemo (2003), The Dark Knight (2008), and Return of the King (2003).  But some films on the list have no business anywhere near a list of great movies, including Se7en (1995), American Beauty (1999), Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989), Batman Begins (2005), V for Vendetta (2005), The Bourne Ultimatum (2007), and Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl (2003). If the AFI list has an old-movie bias, the IMDB list has blockbuster bias: because it is based on votes, it favors films that more people see, which overwhelmingly includes entertaining mediocrities like Batman Begins.

So what are the greatest movies ever made?  How about the greatest movies made since 1980?  We’d love to hear your thoughts. Leave your list of favorites in the comments section below.  If we ever figure out how to hold a poll on this blog, we’ll ask you to vote.  Maybe we’ll have our very own Schaeffer’s Ghost Top 100.

  • Trish Miller

    Gone With the Wind
    The Best Years of our Lives
    American Graffiti
    Some Came Running
    Dumbo

  • EthanInDC

    The hard part is figuring out what makes a movie great. Is it the pioneering movies that go in a direction no one has ever gone before? Is it cultural impact? Or is it a good story, well told, using the medium of film to the best effect, and believably acted? The problem with the AFI list is that it seems to be a conglomeration of each of these things.

    Here are a few post-1980 movies that I think should be here that are missing:

    1) The Mission – undoubtedly one of the best movies of all time. I’m appalled that it didn’t make the list.

    2) The Princess Bride – The list is remarkably short on true comedies and there really should be more. I think it is harder to make a truly good comedy than it is to make a good drama. The Princess Bride is a truly funny movie, but at its heart it is an excellent story, very well told.

    3) Stranger Than Fiction – OK, I realize that I may be the only person in the world who would put this movie on a “Best of All Time” list, but I think this Will Farrell movie has one of the best screenplays ever and is wonderfully acted. Again, I also appreciate the fact that it is a comedy.

    4) Life Is Beautiful – It has been a long time since I’ve seen this movie, but my memory is that it was one of the few Academy Award winners that I felt lived up to the “Best Picture.” Come to think of it, this movie might have made the AFI list if it had been an American film. I guess I didn’t think of that.

    5) Henry V – Can Shakespeare make a list like this? I know some have argued that Kenneth Branaugh’s take on this play turns it into some sort of anti-war manifesto, but I don’t see it. I love this movie and I think that Brannaugh gets Shakespeare’s take on war just right. It is the moral difficulty and responsibility for war that makes this play what it is.

    So there are five additions, in no particular order. I’m sure there should be more, but those are the ones that came to mind. What about you Paul? Anything you think should be on the all-time best list?

    Oh, and I would have to argue with you about Se7en. Yes, it was a very disturbing movie – similar to Silence of the Lambs – but I don’t have a problem with either of them being on a list of best movies of all time, especially if it is the best 250.

  • Emmy Bonja

    It is fascinating to compare the two lists, even to such a classic as Gone with the Wind (#s 6 and 150!). Yes, some less significant standards vs. some trendy titles. But I personally miss The Awakening (with DeNiro and Robin Williams) whose impact and what it says about humanity has stayed with me a very long time. We do all bring our biases, but that’s the revealing part about the lists!

  • branman

    If ya wanna bring it to a fine indisputable point then lets forget bias. categories etc., and go with the proof in the pudding. What movies that people own at home and can watch anytime they want are being watched over and over and over. Here’s a hint: its the one film that not only changed how films were made but is the only film that had profound cultural impact in elevating society to a higher level of achievement. It also has the distinction of having nothing to do with us on this planet. It’s a fable that happened a long time ago in a galaxy far far away…

  • branman

    Oh and if you think I’m a nobody then I’ll quote ALan Ladd Jr., ” Its the greatest film ever made”. This was his reply to studio execs who were worried about Star Wars. He was head of 20th Century Fox.


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