There’s a definite overlap in people who enjoy movies and people who enjoy cataloging things. That subset probably exists in every obsession whose history can be preserved or rediscovered. There’s rankings of the best players of every position in every major sport and lists of greatest steampunk fantasy novels. It’s an enthusiasm for the medium and a general enthusiasm for data. Movies might be meticulously cataloged because they’re beloved, and maybe they garner some love from people who find their titles easy to collect into lists.
We talked a while ago about one such list in the imdb Top 250. Its wild bias toward recent releases (among other things) makes it of limited use. By way of a quick update on since that post: The list appears to have changed very little in the last two years, with 2019 international super phenomenon Parasite getting that year’s highest representation at #30. 2020’s best offering is the filmed staged show of Hamilton (#70). The unruly method of crowdsourcing for that list was its most unique feature, but ultimately an aspect that made it a useful snapshot of the era of the website’s popularity than the ongoing film zeitgeist.
Curated lists can avoid the whiplash of general audience polls and the stagnation of critics’ canons. 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die has had staying power since its debut in 2003. The collection of critical essays was the first in a series of books from London publisher Quintessence Editions each declaring the top one thousand and one items of value in particular cultural field, from holes of golf to glasses of wine, and urges the reader to experience them before their impending demise. Maybe the urgency of the title keeps it around – you might choke on a hambone without seeing Pandora and the Flying Dutchman and then won’t you feel like a nimrod! – or maybe its the balanced approach to casual and critical viewerships. Either way, the book continues to update its list publishing a 7th updated edition last October.
The list has a couple advantages in its editorial oversight, provided by film critic and author Steven Jay Schneider. It can sprinkle some love throughout film history. The first title on the list is 1902’s A Trip to the Moon (which you must click on before the icy hand of the reaper catches you) and almost fifty titles are chronicled before the list is totally out of the silent era. It’s still weighted toward the back half of film history, naturally, or maybe a Gen X writer’s wheelhouse, with years in 1960s-1990s generally hovering between 15-25 entries per year (for comparison watershed Hollywood year 1939 has the most titles of its surrounding decades at 12). Still, rare is the year after 1920 that doesn’t have multiple offerings.
The list also corrects the complete absence of non-English language films that plagues many lists. Films from the United States still make up at least half, but nearly every year has non-Anglo titles. This isn’t to say the list avoids the traditional canon. There’s plenty of room for all the Sight & Sound favorites, plus less praised films like Gun Crazy (1950) and Local Hero (1983), or well-remembered but often excluded films like Ghostbusters (1984) and Shaft (1971). A list this long will inevitably have titles unseen (and, likely, unfamiliar) and this helps cover some canon blind spots, though not nearly as much as one would hope.
1001 Movies shares a problem with the imdb Top 250 – where to place recent releases against the old classics when the shininess hasn’t had time to tarnish. Each updated edition cycles in new titles for the most recent years since the previous update. Because the number 1,001 is sacred, this means other titles get dropped to make room. As near as I can tell the older titles generally remain and the axe given to more recent films that made enough of a flash to catch attention but are already seeing their luster fade. This way a miserable mistake of a selection like The Theory of Everything can get dropped before it joins High Sierra in the hallowed halls of immortality. Clunkers inevitably invade, but the unpredictability of the newer titles selected is generally refreshing. One could guess that Parasite and Portrait of a Lady on Fire would make the most recent cut, but what a pleasant surprise to see Syrian documentary For Sama and the bleak comedy The Lighthouse get some love.
In the end, it’s a list with its own pitfalls and pluses. May we all live long enough to judge its entries.