Alternatives to TCM’s 15 Most Influential Films

04.14.09 9 years ago 10 Comments

When somebody puts together it good list, it seems like the least I can do is attempt to engage in a little debate. I’m Pavlovian like that. 

Yesterday, Turner Classic Movies announced its list of the 15 Most Influential Films. It’s a pretty decent list, really. It contains three silent movies and five foreign films, for example, bucking the sort of myopia that normally limits lists like this to the same familiar titles from 1935 to 1975.

That doesn’t mean I agree with everything TCM selected.

I offer a few alternative influential movies after the break… You can feel free to agree or disagree.

The TCM list is: “The Birth of a Nation,” “Battleship Potemkin,” “Metropolis,” “42nd Street,” “It Happened One Night,” “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” “Gone with the Wind,” “Stage Coach,” “Citizen Kane,” “Bicycle Thieves,” “Rashomon,” “The Searchers,” “Breathless,” “Psycho” and “Star Wars.”

That’s a fine grouping.

The list is loaded with no-brainers. Who’s going to protest on “Metropolis,” “Potemkin,” “Snow White,” “Rashomon,” “Citizen Kane,” “Breathless” or “Star Wars”?

Certainly not me. 

I’m also not going to begin to quibble with “Birth of a Nation,” which has been shoved aside on lists of this type because, well, it’s repellently bigoted. Kudos to TCM’s panel of experts for recognizing that “Influence” isn’t the same as “Worthy of Celebration for its Themes.” Just because filmmakers today don’t say that that “Birth of a Nation” was an influential film for them doesn’t mean that without D.W. Griffith’s racist masterpiece, no film today would look the way they look or move the way they move. With silent movies, you’re in a bit of trouble if you try looking for the technical roots. Why “Birth of a Nation” and not Edwin S. Porter’s “The Great Train Robbery”? Why “Metropolis” and not George Melies “A Trip to the Moon”? Where is the point that we can go back where we can say “This is the start and everything else was inspired by it.”

There are a lot of arbitrary choices that aren’t necessarily poor ones.

Two John Ford Westerns? Really? Is that absolutely necessary? As great a film as “Stagecoach” is, it’s most persuasive argument on the TCM list is that it inspired Orson Welles’ work on “Citizen Kane,” which could almost mean that “Citizen Kane” doesn’t deserve to be here. And “The Searchers” is a great movie as well, but the deconstruction of the Western had already begun years earlier with flicks like Howard Hawks “Red River” and Nicholas Ray’s “Johnny Guitar.” It takes nothing away from “The Searchers” to say that it exists on a continuum of increasingly internalized and self-examining Westerns, but that it’s hardly the first or most influential.

Why “Bicycle Thieves” and not “Rome, Open City” or “Ossessione” or “La terra trema” or one of several other works of Italian neo-realism that either came before or came at roughly the same time. Heck, why “Bicycle Thieves” over “The Children Are Watching Us” and “”Shoe-Shine,” two Vittorio De Sica masterpieces that preceded it? Does “Bicycle Thieves” make the list because it was the first film of its genre to break out for American audiences? See? Arbitrary.

I know we need a Hitchcock film, but why “Psycho”? The answer “Because it inspired slasher films” isn’t really valid for me, because I don’t see anybody arguing in favor of Mario Bava’s “Twitch of the Death Nerve” on a list like this. I’m just wondering if “Vertigo” or “North by Northwest” or something older like “Sabotage” might make just as good a case if you wanted to. 

And is “Gone with the Wind” absolutely necessary? Great? Sure. Influential?  Probably. Essential for this particular list? Nah.

The only one of the 15 I haven’t seen is “42nd Street.” I’d love to say it doesn’t belong here, but I don’t know. My apologies. 

Some alternatives I might provide:

Pick a Silent Comedy, Any Silent Comedy – I’m not going to get into a fight with you if you want to advocate for Charlie Chaplin’s “Modern Times” (or “City Lights”) or for Buster Keaton’s “The General” (or “Sherlock Jr.”) or if you want to advocate for a little Harold Lloyd. My vote would probably go in the direction of one of the Keaton classics. I’m just not sure that “It Happened One Night” even makes my list of Top Five screwball comedies, so I’d rather have a different influential comedy on the list. That, in fact, is where TCM’s list is most lacking, in the comedy department, with only “It Happened One Night” and, on the musical-comedy side, “42nd Street.”

“A Hard Day’s Night” – Richard Lester’s classic Beatles film never makes any lists like this, but I’ve been on a multi-year crusade to argue that “A Hard Day’s Night” is perhaps the most influential film of the past 40-plus years. My explanation is simple: How much did the MTV aesthetic shape popular movies of the ’80s, ’90s and ’00s? From their cinematography to their cutting to the actual practitioners of the craft, MTV’s fingerprints are on everything. How much of the language of music videos was crafted by Lester on “A Hard Day’s Night”? I would argue a tremendous amount. 

“Slacker” or “Blood Simple” or “sex, lies and videotape” or even “Reservoir Dogs” – Pick a film that shaped the indie film movement of the 1990s, any film that shaped the indie film movement of the ’90s. Probably “Blood Simple” and “Reservoir Dogs” are a bit more limited in their influence, but you can point to “Slack” and “sex, lives and videotape” for helping set the template for the idea of the Film Festival Darling, for creating what we think of as a Sundance Film. Both films spawned plenty of imitators, which is one good thing in their favor, but more importantly they established a business model wherein filmmakers could make films for nothing and eventually get them national and international distribution and exposure and potentially make tons of money. This would also imply that influential films were made post-1977. 

“Jaws” – Yeah, “Star Wars” is all fine and well, but it’s on the list for a tangential reason, i.e. George Lucas’ merchandising master stroke. Shouldn’t “Jaws” (or maybe “The Godfather”) be here for ushering in the Blockbuster Era? It happens that I prefer “Jaws” to “Star Wars” and it happens that I’d like for a Spielberg film to make this list. You could also argue that the grammar of “Jaws” is as essential to later horror films as the grammar of “Psycho.” I mean, as great as the Bates Motel shower scene is, its mosaic montage hasn’t exactly inspired the increasingly graphic slasher films that have followed.

“Double Indemnity” – Look, I want a Billy Wilder film on this list and it’s easy to centralize “Double Indemnity” for its film noir influence, rather than trying to say that without “The Apartment,” the comedies of Cameron Crowe and Jonathan Demme and countless others wouldn’t exist. So let’s say “Double Indemnity.”

Michael Apted’s “Up” series – I want a documentary on this list and I think one could say that Apted’s every-seven-years chronicle of the lives of a group of ordinary and extraordinary Brits has codified a notion that normal people and their normal struggles and triumphs can be made into compelling cinema and that, in the process, he laid the groundwork for the entire reality television explosion around the world? I’m trying here…

Others I came close to proposing include “Toy Story,” “The Wild Bunch,” “The Thin Blue Line” (in terms of *influence* it got a guy out of jail… that’s influential), “The Godfather,” “Sunrise,” “The Crowd,” “2001,” “A Face in the Crowd” and “Bonnie and Clyde.” 

Anybody want to propose some good alternatives?

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