How I picked my twenty favorite films of all time and why

Yes, I know Roger Ebert recently wrote a piece about struggling to define his ten favorite films of all time.  He was doing so as part of the “Sight & Sound” critic’s poll, and it was a typically great Ebert piece, even if I disagree strongly with some of the titles on his list.

Disagreement is, of course, part of the point.  And since I wasn’t asked to be part of the “Sight & Sound” poll, and neither were any number of interesting online voices, it was immediately appealing when Cole Abaius from Film School Rejects asked me to contribute my list to a piece he’s doing this week.  I decided it would be a fun exercise and opened up a file to start writing and…

… froze.

I’ve taken a shot at a similar list before, almost in passing, and I’ve certainly got a running short list in my head of my favorite movies.  But actually quantifying what my ten, or in this case twenty, favorite films are, without cheating, without including trilogies, without padding the list out… that’s tough.  And by the time I was done, I realized this needed to be a stand-alone article here on the blog.

One film you won’t see on my list?  “Citizen Kane.”  I might include it on the list of the ten most significant films of all time, and I certainly think much of what we consider modern film language evolved from choices that Welles and Gregg Toland made on that film, but as far as personal enjoyment?  It’s not in my top ten or even my top twenty.  I just don’t feel compelled to revisit it often, nor do I feel there is much more I can ever take from it as an experience.

For me, a top twenty film has to be magic.  It has to be a film that works for me every single time, a film that delivers something true and that punches me in the heart in a certain way and that always works for me, no matter what mood I’m in when it starts.  There are very few films that I think meet those standards, and so when I started with a long list of titles I consider essential and then started trying to compress that list down to ten, it was next to impossible for me to do.  I realized that Richard Linklater had a point when he complained that we’re entering the second century of cinema, and it seems miserly to only have ten spots on a list.  I’ve expanded that to twenty for the sake of this exercise, and even so, there were a lot of films that I had to cut in order to make this work.

Oddly, the number one spot is easy for me.  There is a film I see every few years in the theater, and each time, I feel cleansed.  I feel like my love of film is reborn, fresh and new and pure, and each time, I try to take at least one person with me who has never seen it before so I can share that experience vicariously again.

But after that?  It gets harder.  Much harder.

I’m of the opinion that film criticism has to evolve from what it currently is if it’s going to survive as something of merit.  Right now, there is this weird sense that every critic has to review every new film and have an opinion on all of it, even with the blind spots that every single viewer of art has built in.  We all carry so much baggage into the theater with each new film that it’s amazing there are seats for anyone else to sit down.  I see critics rail against mainstream films because they hate what they represent, and their opinion on those films rings as less than useless because they refuse to meet the films on their own terms.  If you’re looking down your nose at a movie, you’re not seeing it.  Likewise, I see critics who seem to have nothing to say about the rest of the world each year, acting as if only America is creating cinema worth conversation.

I think ultimately, a good critic is a curator, someone who explains his own beliefs and blind spots with enough clarity and conviction that a reader can understand how that critic approaches a film.  I believe that we are obligated as critics to discuss what we love with the same passion that we discuss what we hate.  Without both extremes, we are unable to define our point-of-view.  A good critic is driven by real passions but not blinded by them.

I love the way you guys have reacted to the Film Nerd 2.0 series, for example, because those aren’t reviews of current movies.  Instead, they are discussions of how those movies create opportunities for conversation between myself and my sons, and they are attempts to see these familiar titles through new eyes.  That is the real heart and soul of my work these days, and the fact that people seem to enjoy reading those pieces is just the gravy.  Yes, I write hundreds of new reviews each year, but I increasingly believe that it is the work I do where I discuss older films that is more important.

It’s important because we are, each one of us, adrift right now on an ocean of available media, and considering how many films there are at our fingertips at any given moment, it is sometimes shocking how limited the conversation about film seems to be.  Why should everybody always be in lock-step, talking about the same few release-date-driven things, when there are so many other movies out there that we could also be discussing?  Why are new releases treated as the only important thing out there?  Why is there more discussion of box-office numbers than the vast body of film history?

And while I’m publishing this here instead of as part of the Film School Rejects piece, I do believe that there are voices out there worth paying attention to, newer voices, voices that do not necessarily tow the party line.  One of the reasons the Sight & Sound poll is roughly the same each time is because many of the same people have been voting on it for decades now, and there is a certain mindset towards some of the films on that list that has become set in stone.  My feeling is that there is no such thing as a “given” when dealing with a list like this, nor is there any way my list is going to look just like someone else’s.  These are the twenty films I’m most in love with… me.  And I am not going to pretend that means these are the twenty “best” films of all time, as if there is some absolute that exists.  I can only tell you what the twenty films are that mean the most to me.

In the end, the way I defined this is simple:  these are the twenty films that I would most willingly sit down and re-watch, anytime and anywhere.  These are the twenty films that speak most directly to the way I view the world, either challenging or confirming my beliefs.  And these twenty films are here because of my passion for them, not because I hope they impress anyone, and not because other polls or lists tell me that they “have” to be here.

If I were to make a list of the most significant films for the art form, or the ten films that most expanded the vocabulary of cinema, or the ten films that I consider most important for people to see, those lists would all look different than this.  And if I’d made this list a decade ago, it would have looked different.  In fact, it did.  Does that mean I don’t love those other films anymore?  Nope.  Just means that at the age of 42, there are different films that speak to me in that deep, meaningful way, and when narrowing things down, many favorites are going to be left out.  After staring at a list of about 120 films that really mean something to me for a full weekend, I ended up picking the final 20 very quickly, and there’s something almost subliminal about the way the list shook out.  I miss films like “Duck Soup” and “The Godfather Part II” and “Breaking The Waves” and “The Apartment” and “Vertigo” and many more, but I had to just listen to that inner voice and make the hard choices.

As film fans, that’s all you can really do.  I watch movies for my reasons.  I watch them to feel connected to a larger world.  I watch them to visit friends who only exist on the screen.  I watch them to remind myself of what is important to me.  I watch them to learn how other people deal with the feelings and the doubts and the pains that we all share.  I watch them to escape.  I watch them to ground myself.  I watch them to see things that are blatantly impossible, and I watch them to see things that are true.  They are all-encompassing, which is why I’ve given my life over to film.

You can count down my choices, from number 20 to number one, in the embedded gallery below.  I’m sure some of you are now raging about what a lunatic I am, others are feeling like their own perspective is confirmed, and even more of you are already starting to sort out their own list.  I would love for you to share your favorite films in the comments section and to keep this page bookmarked for an ongoing conversation about what makes us rank certain films so high and why others just don’t mean the same thing to each of us.

My thanks to Cole Abaius for the prod in the first place, and to Sight & Sound for inspiring this conversation at least once a decade.

And now that I’m feeling better and I’ve done this as a sort of reset, let’s get back into it with a busy week before I leave for the Cannes Film Festival where it appears I’ll be seeing a special screening of “Lawrence of Arabia,” my favorite film.

Sounds like heaven to me.