Screw Top 100 Lists and Citizen Kane

 

This will likely create a stir among the film critics in my audience, but it must be said.

I’m looking through a list of the top 100 movies of all time. These lists vary depending on where you look (I’m checking out AFI’s 100 years, 100 movies list), but the basics are the same, and the following concerns apply across the board when it comes to such lists.

You’ll notice that among 100 great movies, there are only 7 that were released in 1990 or later.

Many would look at this and fervently declare ‘This is evidence that there are no good movies anymore! It’s all explosions and boobs and there’s no art in the cinema anymore!’ They will then angrily adjust their beret and mumble about consumerism.

There’s some truth to this, but really? There haven’t been any good movies since the mid-90’s?

I’m not a movie critic or expert in the field, so I’m not going to turn this into a ‘why didn’t So-And-So make the list?!’ kind of post. I do, however, take issue with the fact that the main determining factor of whether or not a movie is good seems to be ‘was it groundbreaking in its own time?’

Citizen Kane, which will be in the number 1 slot for almost every list you look at, is a good movie. I enjoyed it when I watched it. But was it the best movie ever? Hardly. For it’s time? Could be. It changed the industry.

But so what?

Does that mean that today, in 2010, with so many really remarkable movies being released every year (yes, there are good ones among the bad if you look, even if the majority are yawn-fests), nothing has ever topped Kane, Rosebud and friends?

Of course not.

Unfortunately, criticism within cinema – and many other fields – is awash with tradition. Anyone who talks down about the holy of holies is breaking an unspoken rule or trying to rabble-rouse and should not be taken seriously. Citizen Kane is the shit and therefore will always be the shit, hallelujah amen.

This can be said about almost any field wherein there is no objective measure of ‘good’ and ‘bad.’

When it comes to books, people flock-to so-called bestsellers and call them genius, while a truly genius piece of work languishes unread, spine-forward on some dusty shelf in the back. Are there good books on the list? Of course! Should you assume the best thing available just because they are there? Of course not!

Tradition is not the only thing that trumps individual opinion: other people’s opinions are just as important when forming a judgment.

We’re more likely to trust hundreds of strangers over ourselves when forming an opinion because we assume they probably know more than us. Unfortunately, when it comes to OPINION, no one CAN know more than you. It’s your frickin’ opinion.

We’re afraid of being considered low-class or out-of-touch for liking what we like, and so we do our best to blend in. We may go for some abstract, indie flicks over the mainstream, but the foreign films we end up seeing at the ones that the critics who specialize in that kind of cinema recommend. Same practice, smaller niche.

The point is this: it’s easy to fall for statistics and sentimentality and mass opinion over what our own brains tell us, but that doesn’t mean we should give up on what we like because we may be criticized for not falling into line.

There are MANY movies on that top 100 list that I don’t think belong there, and I believe the only reason they’re on there is because we’re all too afraid to move forward and evolve our standards.

If we romanticize the past, we handicap the future. If everything good has already been made, why even try to do better? No one will ever topple Citizen Kane, so why should I strive to be number 1? May as well just make another crappy popcorn flick.

Screw public opinion. Be yourself. Don’t limit your exposure and thoughts based on the prejudices of others. ‘Best of’ lists are outdated as soon as they’re published.

Act accordingly.

19 comments

  1. It’s all about the criteria. If you apply the “movies nowadays would be a lot different if so and so movie hadn’t had existed” criteria, then it makes sense. If you apply the “art is subjective” criteria, then every ranking is pointless…

    Also, we always romanticize the past and minimize the present. It happens with people, movies, books, etc. I don’t know if it’s a standard thing, rather than a human defect.

    I do agree with the message though, fuck the past and aim for the top in the future.

    • It’s true, but in that case, it would be hard to judge anything before many decades had passed, to see what resulted from the movie’s influence, so I imagine this isn’t the standard they have in mind.

      I wouldn’t say ranking is pointless, but I would say that basing your opinion on rankings IS. If I could find more lists that worked a little harder at finding something novel to promote as ‘good,’ I’d be interested in checking out the listings, but all that seems to be readily available are these carbon copies of all the other lists out there, the original apparently put together by someone who died after Tootsie came to theaters.

      I think we like to romanticize the past because it helps us cope with the future. New technologies, philosophies, tendencies and challenges are scary, but the past, well, we know what happened there. We can look at it and say ‘well things weren’t SO bad, but we have no idea how the present will proceed, so maybe I’d rather live back there.’ Kind of a ‘Noble Savage’ thing, but with a more recent history.

      Yeah, take that Past! Your days are numbered (ha?)!

      • I don’t think basing your opinion on rankings is pointless, it’s all about risks: if a lot of people liked it, the risk of me not liking it is lower. That’s not my movie philosophy, but it’s understandable why so many people follow it. For example, IMDB’s ranking has proven to be very effective for me. Some people are early adopters and like the edgy stuff, some people prefer mainstream, and for the latter rankings work great. In fact, they may be a case of fulfilling prophecy: they like it more because they should.

        Your point about the past is dead on, and that’s why we like to read the same books and watch the same movies over and over. We know what’s there, no surprises, no chance of disappointment. It takes mental effort to choose a new movie or book that has no reviews yet over good ol’ Matrix or Atlas Shrugged.

        PS: Isn’t it scary how well I know you?

  2. Thank you!!
    Citizen Kane is no bueno in my book. That opening montage puts me to sleep everytime.

    I like the idea of using that as a reminder that past laurels are just that. Past.

    Maybe Starbucks can be taken down…

    • ‘The only constant is change,’ so I imagine even the mighty Starbucks will topple someday.

      It would be nice to get some new recommendations, though. If these list-makers can’t be more creative, I can’t be supportive of them.

  3. …Add to the fact that, in all probability, none of the people who made the original top 100 list actually *has* that same top 100 list as their top 100 (hope that’s understandable), and they lose all their “credibility”. If the people who make the list don’t subscribe to the “definitive” top 100, then it’s not legitimate at all.

    To quote one of my favorite characters from literature (and one of your favorites as well): “But the mind is an attribute of the individual. There is no such thing as a collective brain. There is no such thing as a collective thought. An agreement reached by a group of men is only a compromise or an average drawn upon many individual thoughts.”

    As in, the list is only a compromise, and the people who determined what was and wasn’t on the list had to use their own reason – their tastes and biases – to make their own list of 100. Then came the compromise.

    P.S. I couldn’t make it through Citizen Kane. Maybe in 10 years I will be. Who knows?

  4. Generally have to agree with you Colin. But, a lot of the top 100 are excellent. A quick shout out to Casablanca and Bogart Flicks generally. I’m not saying movies are all explosion and boobs now, but I personally enjoy a movie more when I really connect with the person, not the special effects. And I think a lot of those top-100 movies foster those connections because they didn’t have the special effects and whatnot.

    • I totally agree with you, Skash(?). A lot of the movies in the Top 100 list are from the golden age of cinema, IMO. I mean, have you seen some of the crap that’s coming out today? If I have to watch previews for another horrible remake of a classic horror film, I will just have to give up on Hollywood. But I say that a lot (and for good reason). Bogart is the man. Maltese Falcon! Come on! I’m a coffee-snob and a vodka-snob. Maybe I’m a cinema-snob too. But I generally agree with the Top 100.

  5. This is really interesting because I love movies and I’ve almost watched my way through this list. I also agree there are some ridiculous ones on there just because they’re old. They need to revise it and add more modern movies. There are a ton I would add on there. Anyways, interesting read.

  6. I’ve looked over that top 100 list before, and many of those movies don’t suit my tastes at all. It’s heavily weighted towards old movies, but like others have said, it depends on the criteria. For me, I’ll stick with the Netflix ratings, those guys can really nail some good movie recommendations.

  7. The problem now Colin is that our society has become fragmented, and so have our movies. Even the very epics of our time come under criticism from various factions. Avatar- Too enviromental. X-Men- Too much characture. LOTR- who wants to go see a bunch of nerd hobits when we could go see Steve-o get kicked in the balls. This could be extended to the median itself- which further framents the audience by the delivery mechaism. I agree with you that films now are equel and in many cases better then the classcis, but the reason the classics get so high score is because of their unifying characteristics. The other big point is technique, i.e. storyline, cineamatraphy, etc. Although technique might be more refined now, the opprotujity for a big jump within the median (and still be within the same median) is deminishing expentially. In other words, low flush toliets are more efficient then high volume toliets, but really, who is going to get more credit the guy who invented the low flush toliet or the guy who invented the toliet (and got us off outhouses) to begin with.

  8. I clicked through to this post just so I could state for the record: I hate Citizen Kane. And yes, that is my professional opinion.

    Sure, it was a technically genius movie for its time. I can recognize what it did for the film industry. Great, history lesson complete. Moving on.

    Everything else about it? Pass!

  9. One of the best posts you’ve ever written Colin. Wholeheartedly agree that our tastes must evolve and we must continually question why we believe what we believe. We must make our truths personal and stand for something because we believe in it – not because we are told to. (Though, for the record, I also like Citizen Kane. It’s not my favorite movie ever. But it certainly impacted me a lot when I saw it as a young kid and even more so when I saw it again as a film student in college.)

  10. One of the best posts you’ve ever written Colin. Wholeheartedly agree that our tastes must evolve and we must continually question why we believe what we believe. We must make our truths personal and stand for something because we believe in it – not because we are told to. (Though, for the record, I also like Citizen Kane. It’s not my favorite movie ever. But it certainly impacted me a lot when I saw it as a young kid and even more so when I saw it again as a film student in college.)

  11. Great post, Colin! I’m an avid cinephile, but I totally agree with you about changing standards. The real problem is that making something as comprehensive as a “100 greatest American films” list is completely impossible because different films are great for different reasons. Beyond a certain point, there’s just no more comparing them. Whenever my friends ask my opinion about movies, I say that the highest praise I can give one is calling it a masterpiece (this, of course, is still my personal opinion). Between two masterpieces, I have no opinion about which one is better. Taxi Driver or Casablanca? The Searchers or Mulholland Drive? I don’t care either way.

    The issue with lists like this is that they aren’t really compiling what they say they’re compiling. As you get at in your assessment, it’s more of a “most important/influential films to their time” list than anything else. Not that the compilers are necessarily trying to make that (sometimes they are, sometimes they aren’t; I don’t know which it is in the case of the AFI), they just can’t help themselves because they’re long-time film critics and, frankly, most of them are probably old! Anyway, who cares about top whatever lists, just find movies (and other art) that you love and enjoy them. That’s what matters. I’m gonna go watch GoodFellas.

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