There is a great debate among film buffs as to the definition of “goodness” in film. Some claim to know what to look for in a film that is good or “great” and they are full of crap, I am sorry to say. Because for every rule, there is a clearly great film that breaks that rule or definition. But this isn’t to say that goodness in film is only subjective. Why is it that a film like, say, The Godfather, gets almost universal acclaim, but our personal favorites—like mine, Spirited Away—obtains a high level of interest, but isn’t considered “great” on that same level? I don’t think any of us can really determine that. But there are a handful of films among the many, many thousands that have been made that are universally praised by critics, film buffs and casual watchers alike. These are films that are discussed again and again, and they operate as a basic language for other film buffs and critics to discuss film by.
What is a great film? Like pornography, we can’t define it, but we know it when we see it. A great film is acclaimed by many, and (almost) no one who has seen it can claim that it is a lesser film.
Every ten years Sight & Sound magazine attempts to distill the great films of all time into a top ten list. They ask a large group of critics to give their ten best films of all time, then they compile a top ten from the hundreds of films mentioned (this year, for the first time, a top 50). You can read their entire list revealed this month here.
That list might be help some film buffs get a handle on great films, but it is a critics list. A list by people who have their definitions, who “know” what a great film is. I wonder if a better way of establish a list is determining which films are most spoken of as a positive influence or comparison with other films. What films are most discussed, most referred to in an offhand way by those who talk about film or who take film seriously. On that list would The Rules of the Game make it? Or The Man with the Movie Camera? I doubt it.
Suppose you were planning on becoming a film buff. Where would you begin? What are the essential films you need to have watched to even fairly talk about film in general? This list could probably not be called the “best” films because “best” is such an insane term to use for art, anyway. They certainly wouldn’t be anyone’s favorites, although we might find a few on most people’s top 100 list. They could be called “essential” films for conversation. They are the basic films that almost all film buffs should watch just as reference to other film buffs. They make up a common language, a foundation for understanding all other film through. They could be the films that we would expect any film buff to have seen, and even if we were mistaking in making that assumption, another film buff would shamefacedly admit that not watching this film is tantamount to a sin against film buffdom.
In the next couple posts, I attempt to make such a list. Think of it as an introduction to film buffness. The films that any self-respecting film buff would make sure to have seen. There are certainly many more and as I post more in the film buff school, we will bring those out. And not all of these films do I personally care for. But they are important for the discussion. For the common experience they give us all.
(to be cont...)