Everyone loves a top 10, but you don’t have to write them. Some people take them so seriously. I wrote a top 10 of bicycle movies recently, timed to run for the start of the big races in Europe, and I must have had six messages asking why I didn’t include The Triplets of Belleville on my list. I like that movie too, but clearly, not enough. I resisted the temptation to say that my list wasn’t their list; that would be mean. Everyone wants to see their own tastes reflected in these lists, and everyone knows they can’t be. And yet a lot of people still think of them as definitive or somehow objective. I’ll tell you a secret. I’ve written lots of top tens in recent years, most of which are on the Fairfax website, but not even I agree with them. I sometimes look back and wonder, what I was thinking?
That’s because the way we appreciate movies changes from day to day, and as we get older. The movies I loved as a kid included The Swiss Family Robinson, a John Mills adventure film from 1960. I saw it on TV about 10 years ago and couldn’t believe how disappointing it was. When people ask me ‘will I like this or that movie’, or ‘would my kids like it?’, I have no answer. How would I know? Beware of any reviewer who tells you ‘you’ll love this movie!’ They’re lying. The film industry is based on the fact that nobody knows what anyone else will like. That’s what makes people keep trying.
I was thinking about this as I surveyed the recent ‘top 100 movies of all time’ list compiled by The Hollywood Reporter, a list so incomplete and insensible as to passeth understanding. Were they drunk, I wondered?
The American Film Institute put out one of these top 100’s in 1998, drawn from 1500 responses to a short list of 400 movies. It generated so much publicity for them – which was the point – that they did it again in 2007. The Hollywood Reporter must have decided they wanted some of that action, so they sent out a questionnaire to thousands of Hollywood professionals – writers, directors, producers, cinematographers, actors, agents, across both film and TV. They even asked entertainment lawyers, who came in very hot on The Shawshank Redemption. I would have expected My Cousin Vinny or A Few Good Men. Perhaps it’s the fear of jail that makes them love Shawshank.
Anyway, 2120 professionals responded to the HR survey, including several studio heads and major directors. The result was that the majority agreed that The Godfather was the greatest movie ever made, followed by The Wizard of Oz. So far so good: every time I watch the beloved Oz I see something new, and The Godfather ages like great wine. Then came Citizen Kane, Shawshank, Pulp Fiction, Casablanca, The Godfather Part II, E.T. the Extraterrestrial, 2001: A Space Odyssey and Schindler’s List. That was the top 10. A reasonable bunch, if a bit dull.
Next came Star Wars, Back to the Future, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Forrest Gump and Gone with the Wind. That sharpens my point: it’s not the quality of the movie that matters, but how old you are when you see it.
BttF, Raiders and Star Wars all opened between 1977 and 1985. They were huge for boys aged between five and 15. Some of those boys are now 45 to 55 and running Hollywood. They cling to their childhood favourites with irrational, passionate love. We all do. As with The Swiss Family Robinson, quality has nothing to do with it. I’m not saying they weren’t all fun movies, but just outside the top 10 of all time? Are they serious? Have they seen any movies before 1970?
The answer is, not really. The list contains nothing before 1939. The works of Chaplin, John Ford, Preston Sturges, Jean Renoir or even Buster Keaton are a mystery to them. The oeuvres of Ray, Bergman, Tarkovsky, Fellini and Ozu are a closed book. The list has seven films by Steven Spielberg and only three films not in English. There are no documentaries, almost none by women or directors of colour, not even Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing.
I do not think this means all Hollywood professionals are idiots. I do think it means they don’t know even the American history of their own medium very well, and the range of films from other countries hardly at all. Why should I be surprised? At least Seven Samurai made it, at number 100.
It’s interesting to look at how modern Hollywood rates their own era. There are 14 recent films here (opened since 2000), but they don’t rank them in the top 50. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind came in at 54, followed by Dark Knight. Further down we get to Amelie, Avatar, Gladiator, Almost Famous, Brokeback Mountain, Wall-E, Lord of The Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, Inception, LOTR: Return of the King, Slumdog Millionaire, Memento, Up and Pan’s Labyrinth. Clearly, if it involved a cape and a sword, it had some admirers, but who would have thought that Hollywood’s favourite movie of the last 15 years was Eternal Sunshine…, a quirky paranoid comedy by French director Michel Gondry? That alone tells you the list is wacky. Why it doesn’t even include The Triplets of Belleville!