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.

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