This will be my seventh time writing a Top 100 list of movies. It's an exercise which, every year, reacquaints me with the medium of film and, frankly, with myself. I considered writing a bit about every single movie this year. That'd be nice, but it didn't happen. Because of the way this list has taken shape, the way this year has sort of been for me--frankly looking at the difficulty of making this ranking last year--this essay will be more of a meta-analysis of ranking and what makes this ranking different; why the list is the way it is and why it has the specific movies in the places that it does. The following is a close interrogation of what makes this list this list if you will.
First, though, a note about methodology. Every year the Top 100 is created from scratch. That is the key to this ranking and, in the end what makes it distinct from other lists out there. The Top 100 is a profoundly critical review from a life of watching film that starts as a blank page every year. And that has remained the same. There's no voting. No ratings. To the highest degree possible, there is, I say with proud irony, no ego involved. It has always begun, literally, with a blank sheet of paper.
All that being the case, naturally the Top 100 always has to come with a lengthly justification--this essay. Every one of these justifications in the form of the opening essay should probably begin "The Top 100 is an objective ranking of 100 movies produced from scratch every year, but...." And it is. But it doesn't.
Nevertheless, yeah, after seven years I have a sense of what goes where, especially at the top and in the middle. And I have my fair share of "movies I couldn't live without" on the list. Some which I part with in sorrow in a given year. Previous mainstays like Network (1976), Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle (2004), or, this year, Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (1988) come to mind. Of course I always feel stupid when I forget one of these movies like I did some years ago with The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948). The worst is when I can't immediately reproduce my original "objective" Top Ten from the year before. What kind of objective observer am I? The fallible subjective kind? Probably.
The Top 100 changes every year and it does indeed change with me. It changes with my thoughts about movies. Probably with my life and with current events. The Arab Spring has had a lasting and meaningful impact on the Top 100. And I don't think there's anything wrong with that by the way. But a discussion of the difference between the platonic ideal of cinema and a consensus view of cinema is not what I'm doing here.
2016 has been the strongest instance of changing with the world yet. But it has more to do with looking at more of cinema in general than being pushed toward marginalized lenses in the medium. More on that later. Most years I feel as though I haven't watched enough film to really make a change to the objective ranking of movies. Every year I surprise myself with how that doesn't turn out to be true. Often, 2016 being no exception, the list changes by my reflection on films I may have seen years before making the ranking.
So the methodology is an objective ranking, by one person, every year, that changes carefully and deliberately. So there.
Last year I made a conscious effort to update--make contemporary--a list which had been feeling old. Stagnant. Not hip with the kids. I intentionally over-corrected the objective ranking like the fallible critic that I am. For what it's worth, I like this list better and I think that it's closer to the truth.
To that end, this seventh ranking is really about broadening the scope of film explored. It takes in the broadest slice of movies possible.
A Broad Swath
This year tries to take in more different film than ever before. What the rest of this essay will look at is just how big a slice of what we call movies makes it into this list.
So I've kept some of the recent films I've frequently felt like I've had to shoehorn in past rankings. Children of Men (2006) stands out to me in this regard, as does Munich (2005). These were films I added last year trying to look at more recent movies but which also seemed critical given the world of 2015. I think that paying attention to radicle factions, motherhood, and history is really important. That's why The Battle of Algiers (1966) has been so prominent on the list and remains here. Between these movies we have views of these important social elements past, present, and future. Good and bad.
But moreover these movies can be seen as having a lasting impact on cinema. They're modern classics. Children of Men has been definitive of trends in cinema since its release and remains the best instance of those trends. Munich captures the times and places it is set in with remarkable accuracy and deep cinematic skill.
Interestingly, these are hardly the most recent films on the list. There Will Be Blood (2007), Shame (2011), and Margin Call (2011) are all more recent. Some of these movies have been Top 100 films far longer than Children of Men or Munich. And this is one of only a few times the Top 100 hasn't featured a movie which came out earlier in the year. Ultimately I reject the idea that the list is out of touch.
This list also takes more seriously types of films which aren't merely narrative. Animation is, more prominently represented than it has been in the past. Bambi (1942) remains the highest ranked animated film on this list. But Spirited Away (2001) is much more prominently placed in the top 50 this year, something re-watching that picture cemented despite my tastes. This list also sees the return of more digital animation with Ratatouille (2007) in the top 60. Ratatouille is a film I also re-watched this year with new eyes.
Documentary has always been a blind spot for me. I don't always enjoy watching documentaries, and they feel like they need to be judged on different merits than purely narrative films. But I saw Hoop Dreams (1994) for the first time this year and it's amazing. Hoop Dreams delivers in the same fashion as traditional narrative drama. Olympia Part Two: Festival of Beauty (1938) and Triumph of the Will (1935) are two important documentaries which round out a list with more documentaries than any previous list. All of these movies deserve their place beyond just being a different genera than the typical narrative dramatic fare of the list.
As has always been the case, the Top 100 has a deep love of silent film. Most of these silent films soar above the competition. When a silent movie is good, it seems to be really good. Really good. That was the "holy shit" experience of watching Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927) three years ago. I'm not sure why this is the case, but the great silent films tap into something pure in cinema. That's an important feature of this list.
Seeing Metropolis (1927) restored to as much of it's original glory as possible over the years of writing this list confirmed how highly it should be esteemed. It amazes me that Keaton films, now nearly 100 years old, raise a laugh from modern audiences. That's why Our Hospitality (1923) remains on this list. Our Hospitality is a movie I've had the fortune of seeing in a theater setting and which lacks the unfortunate self-importance of Keaton's magnum opus The General (1926) or the cerebral set up of Sherlock Jr. (1924). Although all these movies are brilliant in their own ways.
However, the viewing experience of all of these films was never as totally disarming as watching The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) two years ago. This is a movie which still makes me question if there is anything further to prove in cinema. It's brilliant and pure cinema. The Passion of Joan of Arc also retains the best performance by an actor ever captured on film on top of all its other quality.
Nevertheless, Schindler's List (1993) returned to the top spot after two years in the second chair. This reversal of order raises an immediate question why? Well:
The shakeup that happens on the top ten, but rarely in the top five can results from a different sensibility about what goes into great film from any place else on the ranking. It's always been the tension between Schindler's List and The Passion of Joan of Arc in evaluating the difference between those films: Which represents purer cinema?
Watching The Passion of Joan of Arc makes me wonder if there's really anything else to be done in movies. If something so great can be produced so early in the history of cinema, what have we been trying to do these past 90 years? The Passion of Joan of Arc is pure moving image. Stripped away of anything else that could taint the parts of moving pictures, The Passion of Joan of Arc seems like the most that can be done with the most conservative interpretation of what movies are--moving images projected from celluloid.
But film should also be seen as a very liberal sense of what's possible in the medium. In that respect, the past 90 years have given filmmakers a plethora of new tools which they choose to use or not. Sound, color, subtitles, special effects, CGI, digital, have all expanded what can be done in the medium. In this respect Schindler's List is a film which has some answer for everything that film can provide. Spielberg uses color but chose black and white. There was a choice to shoot in English. Schindler's List is a film which sets itself within limits but is simultaneously completely unbounded.
The trifecta of Schindler's List, The Passion of Joan of Arc, and 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) round out a profound exploration of all of film territory. Color, silence, visual effects, language, everything down to the grain of the film is explored and considered in these three films which arc over the relative history of cinema.
Throughout the list there are movies which touch in one way or another into what I can only describe as movie magic. Jurassic Park (1993) is such a movie where the sudden presentation of a living dinosaur is a really real realization. Titanic (1997), despite it's terrible writing, really marshals all the forces of movie making to great effect. These are the pieces of classics.
Casablanca (1942) is a movie which totally transcends the time of its making. It looks as new today as it did when it came out. The Apartment (1960) is similarly forever fresh. These movies look new today. They had such care go into making the performances, making the image. It'd be so wrong to deny these films their place. They just keep on holding up to the test of time.
Traces of what is pure cinema is really all over the list. For instance watching Ratatouille recently reacquainted me with how a movie is told through the physicality of its characters, the atmosphere of the world, a certain magic of what is to be believed. I think it's powerful.
Admittedly, pretty movies always seem to get the job done for me. I'm a sucker for the beautiful image and will be very discriminating about what is beautiful and what is not. Movies like The Fall (2006) are movies which can't be denied in this regard. The stylishness of Drive (2011) is something I'm drawn to; but the practicality and post-modern originality of it's style is confirmation of a great film.
Filmmakers like Akira Kurosawa and Ingmar Bergman consistently deliver on the image and push the emotional impact of those images to their in the most subtle, unsuspected ways. That surprising visual impact and richness is what has kept Kagemusha (1980) on this list for so long. The Virgin Spring (1960) is a similar revelation in the simple pleasures of beautiful images to tell a harrowing story.
New View Points
What makes this year's list a little different though, consciously different from previous years, is an extension of that notion of what's possible in film beyond what might be called the purely cinematic. I've always done my best to square what I think of as good filmmaking with what is relevant or important filmmaking. This year's list does more heavy lifting in terms of genre, the content of stories, filmmaker's backgrounds, and perhaps what we should be aiming for in cinema in regard to where the camera gets pointed and by who.
Do the Right Thing (1989) has always stood out in this arena. There's no denying this is a really good movie. It's a really cinematic movie on par with the best fare of Spielberg or Coppola, and it's about a black community by a black filmmaker and that's unfortunately and surprisingly rare. Do the Right Thing would be on this list regardless of who made it, and I think that's important to remember when looking at the other movies which do something to contribute to telling something of the broad swath of perspectives and lenses that cinema involves.
This year's list tries to take in movies that are about women or by women or maybe to some degree for women in one way or another. Let's not cast aside so called chick-flicks. Especially when they look as provocatively and with such good reasoning and performances about being a woman as The Devil Wears Prada (2006).
Previously mentioned films such as Olympia Part Two: Festival of Beauty represent the most singular work by women directors in cinema. Likewise Children of Men has it's male protagonist, but considers the lives of women, minorities, and other marginalized groups in profound ways, it's based on a book by a woman. American Psycho (2000) which might be considered problematic if it weren't so thoughtful, horrifying, and well directed in a rare instance of a woman in the director's chair. Not to be trivialized.
Gods and Monsters (1998) has had a somewhat fraught position in the ranking moving off the top ten and off the list only to come back on. But here's a movie with a really profound look at masculinity, sexuality, and the intersection of those complicated topics with war and filmmaking. That's a lot to ask from a movie. Gods and Monsters delivers. Hugely.
I don't like to have to place the burden of certain world perspectives on a few actors and a few films. But to some degree that is what happens with films like Blood Diamond (2006) on this ranking. I have to be really aware of where my blindspots are and work to cast light in those areas. The unfortunate fact of the matter is, though, that movies which look at the plights of, for instance, Native Americans or African nations are few and far between and have been too likely to fall down on their purely filmic merits.
Even so, I've tied to look at some of the most interesting and bold takes of the last twenty years on these topics. Hotel Rwanda (2004) places the real drama of real international events in the hands of mostly American filmmakers. At least Hotel Rwanda does not shy away from the realities of the Rwandan genocide.
Deadman (1995) is a puzzling movie which goes a long way to adding a western to this list which also has an ethical if sometimes more cerebral look at the place of the native people of America. The unfortunate truth here is that there are a limited number of slots on the the Top 100. It's hard to make these kinds of calls and it's an ongoing process.
Movies like The Cow (1969) or, alternatively Pan's Labyrinth (2006) are the kinds of movies I'd like to see become more common on this list. World cinema which is as powerful or as introspective as any of the dominant lenses in cinema. Hoop Dreams goes a long way to look at poverty in the most compelling cinematic terms, but there are entire countries too impoverished to even have their privileged filmmakers turn their cameras on the experiences of their underserved people.
Even so, there's room to take in even more of what's possible on film and take in these unique lenses.
Let's Get Weird
This ranking considers two movies outside the mainstream of film; Scorpio Rising (1964) and Side/Walk/Shuttle (1992). It could easily be asked of these two films if they qualify to be on this list. Traditionally the Top 100 has excluded films which would be considered short or non-narrative. Both of these movies could be considered in traditions of the avant-garde and that is in part why they are here.
Scorpio Rising is the masterpiece of Kenneth Anger. A beautiful if somewhat jarring conflagration of gay bikers, neo-nazis, documentary, narrative, and popular music. This is a vital film. It lifts its viewers and revels in the bacchanalian. This is about as rare a look at the world as we could hope to get.
Side/Walk/Shuttle is altogether different. A fascinating study of film itself. Just over eight minutes, Ernie Gehr takes the typical movement of the camera and destroys any sense of reality captured by it. We fall into the sky and careen in ways that are increasingly uncomfortable and yet revelatory. To ignore this kind of work in cinema would be a mistake.
So let's look.
The Top 100 Best Movies
- Schindler’s List
- The Passion of Joan of Arc
- 2001: A Space Odyssey
- The Elephant Man
- The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover
- Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans
- Seven Samurai
- A Clockwork Orange
- Apocalypse Now (Redux)
- The Maltese Falcon
- Singin’ in the Rain
- His Girl Friday
- The Virgin Spring
- The Treasure of the Sierra Madre
- Star Wars
- Do the Right Thing
- Paths of Glory
- There Will Be Blood
- American History X
- Back to the Future
- E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial
- Jurassic Park
- Toy Story
- The Graduate
- Dr. Strangelove Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb
- Raging Bull
- Apollo 13
- The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring
- Gosford Park
- Hoop Dreams
- Lawrence of Arabia
- The Cow
- The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly
- Malcolm X
- The Matrix
- Spirited Away
- Children of Men
- Scorpio Rising
- Pulp Fiction
- Gods and Monsters
- American Psycho
- The Apartment
- The Big Lebowski
- Barry Lyndon
- The Fall
- American Graffiti
- The Godfather
- The Battle of Algiers
- The Lion King
- Russian Arc
- The Exorcist
- Blade Runner
- Citizen Kane
- Léon: The Professional
- The Night of the Hunter
- Hamlet (1996)
- The 400 Blows
- A Hard Day’s Night
- Pan’s Labyrinth
- Hot Fuzz
- Last Year at Marienbad
- Olympia Part Two: Festival of Beauty
- Taxi Driver
- The Diving-Bell and the Butterfly
- Letters from Iwo Jima
- The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
- A Beautiful Mind
- Eyes Wide Shut
- La Haine
- Blood Diamond
- Ed Wood
- Triumph of the Will
- Margin Call
- Roman Holiday
- Dead Man
- Hotel Rwanda
- Our Hospitality
- The Silence of the Lambs
- The Devil Wears Prada