Back in late summer of 2012, the British Film Institute released its once a decade list of the 50 Greatest Films of All Time. Actually, because of a couple of ties, the list is 52 films long. At that time, I had seen 23 of the films and was curious to watch the others. My initial instinct was to just watch the ones I hadn’t seen, but then I decided that I wanted to watch all the films in chronological order. Of the films I had already seen, most I hadn’t seen in many years, so watching them would be pretty close to a new experience. Plus seeing them in the context of the list, especially in the context of their chronology, would expose me to new ways of thinking about these films.
In August of 2012, I began working my way through the list. I created an index of sorts to track my progress. By the fall of 2013 (over a year since beginning!) I had watched the first 22 films. For a variety of reasons, my progress stalled, but, for 2014, I’m planning on picking up where I left off. I am hoping to post a new update once a week.
Initially, I was trying to rank the films in my own order to create a “best of” list but soon found making distinctions between movies to be frustrating and mostly pointless. What makes something the 10th best film and not the 9th best? The BFI list works because it surveys a wide range of film enthusiasts and then can aggregate their votes into a list. Instead, I started grouping them in more general categories: Excellent, Very Good, Good and Questionable. That last category is for films that I would not want to include on my list. The films aren’t necessarily “bad” but just not one of the top fifty films. I think I want to add a category of “Elite” for the best of the best.
Of course, the main difficulty in trying to rank these films is that I’m not basing my decisions on any sold criteria. The films are so diverse that comparing one to another is quite difficult. Metropolis is an incredible film. So is Ordet, but they are incredible in such different ways that the criteria for one would fail the other. Basically, I’m looking for a unique film watching experience taken in context of when the film was originally released. To be high on my list, the films need to speak to the times and culture in which they were created. They have to exhibit excellent craftsmanship, although that can really vary depending on what the film is trying to convey. The amazing effects in Metropolis serve its story well. But for films like Bicycle Thieves or Journey to Italy, a more naturalistic approach is more appropriate. The amateur look and feel of Bicycle Thieves is one of the reasons it is so effective an moving.
That’s just a long winded way of saying my list is highly subjective.
So as I look forward to watching my way through the rest of the list, I revisited my list and re-assessed my rankings so far:
- Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927)
- City Lights (1931)
- Bicycle Thieves (1948)
- Rashomon (1950)
- Singin’ in the Rain (1952)
- The General (1926)
- The Rules of the Game (1939)
- Late Spring (1949)
- Tokyo Story (1953)
- Ugetsu Monogatari (1953)
- Journey to Italy (1954)