August 2nd, 2012

The 50 greatest movies of all time?

Boy, I really really really don’t agree with this list of the 50 greatest, as decreed by 846 critics, programmers, academics and distributors asked by the British Film Institute.

Beginning with their #1, “Vertigo,” a ho-hum Hitchcock movie with really bad acting by Kim Novak and some nice visual effects.

But then again, I’ve never even been a “Citizen Kane” fan, either. So I guess that makes me a bona fide film rube.

I noticed that the list lacks anything one would call a chick flick, and I’m a bit partial to those (the older ones anyway, such as “Wuthering Heights“). And where’s “The African Queen”? For that matter, where’s “Gone With the Wind” (a movie I can take or leave, but even I can recognize it might be worthy of the list for its scope, if nothing else)?

The only films on the list that I’m especially partial to are numbers 6 (“2001: A Space Odyssey”), number 10 (“8 1/2,” but only because I’m a big Mastroianni fan), 26 (“Rashomon”), and the wonderful number 42, “Some Like it Hot.” And although I haven’t seen every single one of them (“Gertrud”?), I’ve seen a great many.

My list would have to include two of more recent vintage, “Groundhog Day” and “The Lives of Others,” as well as the earlier “The Great Escape,” “The Day of the Jackal,” “High Noon,” and an outlier, “Midnight Run.” Let’s also throw in “The Adventures of Baron Munchausen” and “Life of Brian.”

Note the number of comedies on my list. “Some Like it Hot” is the only one I can find on the British Film Institute’s (although some of the ones I’ve never heard of could be comedies, I wouldn’t bet a lot of money on it). They are a serious bunch, aren’t they?

32 Responses to “The 50 greatest movies of all time?”

  1. Mac Says:

    At a quick glance I don’t think I’d put more than a dozen or so of these in my own top 50. But then I’ve only seen about half of them. Still, I know I’d have more Bergman and Antonioni, especially the former. I agree with them about Ozu’s Late Spring but haven’t seen Tokyo Story, which I need to do. Not much of a Fellini fan and most certainly wouldn’t put 8 1/2 in the top 10.

    I agree about Vertigo and The Great Escape. And am also among the Citizen-Kane-is-overrated crowd. I do like 2001 but I don’t know if it would make my top 50. Mulholland Drive probably would.

    I just watched Slingblade a few nights ago and would pick it over a lot of these.

  2. soupcon Says:

    It’s very telling that a British site omits Lawrence of Arabia, a movie that could easily be in the top 10.

  3. physicsguy Says:

    What?! No Casablanca? no Wizard of Oz? fuhgettaboutit!

  4. vanderleun Says:

    “They are a serious bunch, aren’t they?”

    Nah, they are what passes for “intellectuals” in today’s Britain. That means the only question is, “Schmucks or putzes?”

  5. Kurt Says:

    Yeah, I’m not crazy about the list, either, but would have to think a bit about what I’d put on mine. Certainly, it would be very different. As far as the Vertigo and Citizen Kane controversy, I definitely prefer Citizen Kane; Vertigo is far from my favorite Hitchcock film. I’d probably select Rear Window for that.

    Mac: I’ve seen a number of Ozu movies, but was surprised that Tokyo Story was third on this list and that it ranked first on the directors’ list. Of the four or five Ozu films I’ve seen, I would have ranked Late Spring above Tokyo Story, but I guess the critics and directors ranked Tokyo Story higher because there is a larger, more multi-generational cast, and it takes place in many different locations, thereby giving a greater sense of life in post-war Japan.

  6. kolnai Says:

    Kurt -

    You’re certainly right about why they prefer Tokyo Story. For me, comparing it to Late Spring is like one of those swimming races where one wins by a hundredth of a second. I guess I’d say I can agree that Tokyo Story is the greater movie for it’s scope and depth, but I just like Late Spring better.

    (Ozu is my second favorite director of all time; Kurosawa is my numero uno – and FWIW, I consider Seven Samurai the greatest film ever made).

  7. John Says:

    Any list of the best movies of all time that does not include The Shawshank Redemption (No. 1 on IMDB) can not be taken seriously, especially if it lists 50 other movies. A big part of the problem is that the list is dominated by movies that are, frankly, ancient. And even there, there are some major misses. No Casablanca, The Wizard of Oz or On the Waterfront? If I counted right, just 13 movies on this list were released in the 1970s or later, with none higher than Apocalypse Now at No. 14. I thought Time Magazine’s list of the 100 top movies since the magazine began in 1923 (I think) was bad. This is much worse.

  8. texexec Says:

    Well…I think Neo and our commenters here are much better movie critics than whoever created that list.

    I especially agree with Neo about “The Day of the Jackal”…just plain fabulous movie. The costuming, hair styles, etc. have gotten a bit dated but I really enjoy international spy, thriller and mystery movies and this one is one of the best of that genre.

    I do agree with “Singing In the Rain” and the two Godfather movies on that list though. I can watch the “Godfather” and “Godfather II” any ole’ time and enjoy them.

    Now then…ya’ wanna’ know how unsophisticated I am? I think “The Sound of Music” should be on that list.

  9. blert Says:

    The obvious gaps make their list a joke.

    Basically, they’ve run away from Hollywood — hyping the un-commercial, here and there.

    No Das Boot, Casablanca, Goodfellas, Oz, etc. etc.

    Even monsters like Ben Hur, Birth of a Nation, Wings, Greed ( silents ) that changed cinema unlisted…

    Sheesh.

  10. Jed Skillman Says:

    What an odd list.

    First I notice that the #1 and #2 movies feature a music score by Bernard Herrmann, a genius.

    I like Vertigo as much as the next Hitchcock fan, and it has some terrific things going for it, but it’s not #1 material, let’s face it.

    What I love about Citizen Kane is the production technique and the feel of absolute authenticity. It looks like 1898 or 1919 and yet it’s style of story telling is pure Welles. The idea behind it is beautifully realized, but it is a cold movie.

    Glad to see Some Like it Hot on the list. And, Neo, I’d think you’d comment on Singin’ In the Rain. That is a dance film.

    Psycho is a surprise on the list , but an incredible masterwork on so many levels.

    Two silent films, Sunrise and The General…yes. Even modern audiences can get into the story after about five minutes of getting used to reading title cards.

  11. Paul in Boston Says:

    I’d take The Third Man over Citizen Kane any day for the best Orson Welles movie.

  12. George Pal Says:

    Once you let the academics vote you take the fun out of the poll and end up with schmutz like this list. A pox on anyone who voted for Vertigo as greatest and Pierrot le fou as worth watching, never mind Top 50 material. I’ve seen more than a few of these ‘films’, and quite frankly a good number belong on the Top 50 Tedious movies list.

    As the people who voted obviously don’t laugh nearly enough, I’d add Cary Grant’s His Girl Friday, one of my favorites The Third Man, and just to show I got class – Marcel Carné’s Les enfants du paradis.

  13. parker Says:

    My top ten films, not in any order: Casablanca, Shane, China Town, LA Confidential, Sound of Music, Bridge Over the River Kwai, Man For All Seasons, Alien, American Gangster, and Charade. Plus, honorable mentions for Godfather, The Shootist, and Amelie.

    Its all a matter of taste and there is no accounting for taste. IMO such lists are silly. We all like what we like because something (any form of art) touches us in a personal way.

  14. rickl Says:

    I didn’t see Dr. Strangelove on the list, which I think is one of the funniest movies ever made.

    Or–no kidding–Monty Python and the Holy Grail? I can think of few other comedies that are just as funny on the 50th viewing as the first. That movie is nearly 40 years old and it has stood the test of time.

    I’ve seen a lot of movies, but then again I haven’t seen a lot of other movies.

  15. Kurt Says:

    Kolnai: I suppose I should watch the Seven Samurai again. I saw it when I was in college, but wasn’t crazy about it at the time. I greatly preferred Ran, which I saw shortly after it came out a year or two before I saw Seven Samurai. Since then I’ve seen more Kurosawa films. Although I like Ozu as a director, Kurosawa impresses me more with the range of what he’s able to accomplish. Not only does he excel at large-scale historical epics like Ran and Kagemusha, but then there are some of his remarkable earlier films like Rashomon and Ikiru. I recently saw High and Low and was impressed with it–not just for how well done it was, but with how different it was from the other Kurosawa films I’d seen.

  16. LAG Says:

    I’d add It Happened One Night. Still, The Searchers is right.

  17. Southpaw Says:

    My list would have to include “The Last of the Mohicans”
    While not really true to the book, it was a winner. Great soundtrack, beautiful cinematography, and great performances from Madeline Stowe and Daniel Day Lewis.
    The scene where Alice steps off the cliff without a word, is for me, unforgettable. If you’ve never seen it, I would recommend it

  18. Artfldgr Says:

    I think people are confusing popular and well liked with best…

    wait a second… think for a second…

    I just looked over these films, and i can tell you why some of them are there, but most wont know that reason…

    first let me point out that among these refined taste judges, who ignore the masses more common judgements what fine art and this list have in common is that each is something that adds to the whole of the art form, even if the film wasn’t good in the other more common senses… (and yes, that was written to sound a bit snobby to make fun of it and the pretension of the idea that they don’t point this out)

    each of the fine paintings in the arts (at least before post modern abstractions and forgers into the bizarre and incomprehensible as there is nothing left to push), shows or starts off illustrating a technique that then became part of the whole palette of what artists would use, or could use (and may not even know they got it from there).

    whats so special about Leonardo davincis last supper? 3 point perspective

    what is so wonderful about Seurats Sunday in the park? that the point to pointillism isn’t pointless… ahem (oh, i do recommend the play Sunday in the park with George).

    each of the major periods that they look to were periods that introduced a new form or expression to the palette (Where the Frankfurt school and those saw meaningless in this process over a long time, and as always, pulled lots of wings off fly’s but didn’t understand them any better or make one from scratch)

    ok… so why VERTIGO?

    the invention of Dolly Zoom! which was for its time a very interesting and unsettling effect when seen by everyone for the first time. giving the audience vertigo… :)

    The effect is achieved by using the setting of a zoom lens to adjust the angle of view (often referred to as field of view or FOV) while the camera dollies (or moves) towards or away from the subject in such a way as to keep the subject the same size in the frame throughout. In its classic form, the camera is pulled away from a subject while the lens zooms in, or vice-versa. Thus, during the zoom, there is a continuous perspective distortion, the most directly noticeable feature being that the background appears to change size relative to the subject.

    and after a paragraph on how it plays with your brain and visual system they say

    The effect was first developed by Irmin Roberts, a Paramount second-unit cameraman, and was famously used by Alfred Hitchcock in his film Vertigo.

    i will give you one more…
    but i wonder if it will spark others to search?

    The movie Rashomon is a very interesting film compared to so many of the others. the film brings out the reality that perception of an event is not just the event, but the perspective one sees the event from. and like Einsteins relativity, the assumptions or judgments of what people think they see is relative to that perspective, not to the whole framework.

    I love the movie Roshomon… :)

    The Rashomon effect is the effect of the subjectivity of perception on recollection, by which observers of an event are able to produce substantially different but equally plausible accounts of it. A useful demonstration of this principle in scientific understanding can be found in an article by that name authored by Karl G. Heider

    It is named for Akira Kurosawa’s film Rashomon, in which a crime witnessed by four individuals is described in four mutually contradictory ways. The film is based on two short stories by Ryūnosuke Akutagawa, “Rashōmon” (for the setting) and “Yabu no naka”, otherwise known as “In a Grove” (for the story line).

    So like Robert A Heinlein brought to mankind the invention or the knowledge of GROK. And Seurat brought us pointillism. etc…

    i fear that its tiny things like this that make up the reason they are the best, and unless you have read or followed it, it would be hard to find each for each, even if you search and read a bit of each title.

    for instance, the wiki for Vertigo the movie says nothing about dolly zoom. you would have to find it in some enthusiasts site, or know about it some way.

    the people that judge, they would know more about it.

    in a way its another making of my other point about reading what others are interested in deeply. if you dont take time to read progressives stuff that those interested in it deeply write and read, then your not going to understand why such people are making the choices they do. You cant prevent from their goals if your too confused to know what they are or how they reason to them.

    same here… neo DOES mention nice visual effects, but you see.. we are technically jaded. we look to the past with the eyes of the present. we cant really experience vertigo as a new trick, because to us its an old trick we have seen others use.

    you know, like seeing the full moon in a movie. its almost always a full moon in a movie. so everything happens during the full moon in most peoples reality based on popular media

  19. rickl Says:

    you know, like seeing the full moon in a movie. its almost always a full moon in a movie. so everything happens during the full moon in most peoples reality based on popular media

    Apropos of nothing, the movie M*A*S*H featured a scene where the camera zoomed in on the moon in the sky. I think it was a gibbous phase. Much later, I learned that that scene was shot on the evening of July 20, 1969.

  20. kolnai Says:

    Kurt -

    Can’t resist. It’s a huge divide among Kurosawa fans concerning Seven Samurai vs. Ran. My brother is in the Ran camp. The problem is simply that both films are so masterful and expansive, and yet so different in tone and outlook, it’s like picking between two epic masterpieces by two different directors.

    I choose Seven Samurai simply because it is a movie that is, as are almost all things Kurosawa, technically and narratively perfect, while also including “the whole of life” within it. From first love to justice to humor to tragedy to relations between classes and the problematic role of martial heroes in society – it’s all there, and it’s utterly enrapturing to watch. It also inspired so many action/adventure tropes and imitations that we are still living off of its artistic capital today.

    “Ran” is also a nearly flawless film. The only reason I give the edge to Seven Samurai is for Ran’s unremitting pessimism and bleakness (consistent with all of post-Red Beard Kurosawa). That last shot of the blind monk, stumbling at the edge of the precipice and dropping his devotional portrait of the Buddha over the cliff, as we close in from afar with three axial cuts, staring at this chilling symbol of the human condition – an awe-inspiring vision.

    Still, what I so admire about the early Kurosawa is his effort to render a moral and didactic service to his ravaged country (and all of humanity) on behalf of (small “l”) liberal individualism, wrapped in a kind of cinematic epic poetry. He conspicuously gave up on that – perhaps understandably – later in his career, thinking himself a complete failure.

    It is odd for optimism to resonate more with me than pessimism, but that is Kurosawa’s genius – he never lets us feel like the optimism of his early work is cheap and unearned. This probably accounts for the horrifying darkness of his last films – he couldn’t even maintain the tempered and realistic optimism he had once had as a young man. He never even had any illusions, and he STILL became disillusioned.

    Or rather, the only illusion he had was that film could be as salutary as great literature and poetry. He really believed it. But, rightly or not, he came to think that belief was mistaken. And thus it is that in the totality of Kurosawa’s work we have a portrait of the complete human experience as intelligently and artistically rendered as any in history. Picking the greatest of one side of that coin over the greatest of the other side is bound to boil down to taste.

    In any case, the films you mention are masterpieces, one and all. High and Low has inspired every “ransom”-type film since. I have never cried in a movie more than in Ikiru – along with “Drunken Angel,” it is my favorite film of Kurosawa’s to watch again and again. Yojimbo and Sanjuro continue to inspire variations (the most famous of which is, of course, A Fistful of Dollars). And we know about the influence The Hidden Fortress had on Star Wars.

    I could go on forever…

  21. neo-neocon Says:

    Artfldgr: well, since I’m old enough to have seen “Vertigo” around the time it first came out (although I didn’t see the whole thing at the time, just portions of it), I saw some of the tricks when they were new tricks.

    If the competition was for “movies that advanced movie techniques the most,” or “movies that used important innovative techniques,” I think the list might be valid, although I admit I don’t know enough about film technique to say. But “best movies” usually means “all around best movies.”

    As I wrote in my post, however, I liked the movie “Rashomon.” It’s another one that I saw when very, very young. I didn’t understand every bit of it, but I most definitely got the general point.

  22. Kurt Says:

    kolnai: Well, I will probably have to come down on the Ran side of that debate, at least for now until I see the Seven Samurai again. I should add, though, that if I had to choose a favorite Kurosawa film, it would probably be Ikiru.

  23. Rob Says:

    I’m one of those people who thinks Citizen Kane deserved the number 1 spot and I can’t imagine anyone thinking it should go to Vertigo. Oh well.

    I think that Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line should have been somewhere on the list, despite a horrendously bad (but mercifully short) cameo by John Travolta.

    I also think that the little gem of a movie Affliction, directed by Paul Schrader should be on the list.

  24. Ritchie Emmons Says:

    neo, I’m late to the game here of course, but wanted to chime in on your sleeper pick of Midnight Run. If a list was made of most underrated movies of all time. MR would have to be on it right near the top. Great story, great character development, great characters, great comedy and great adventure. I read somewhere that the actors were given a ton of leeway to mold their characters as they saw fit. They nailed it.

    Another movie that I think is excellent and underrated is Devil In A Blue Dress with Denzel Washington (and Don Cheadle, who steals the show).

    A movie theater near me in Boston is playing this month The Wild Bunch, The Big Lebowski, Reservoir Dogs and Jaws. Because of previous commitments, I won’t be able to make all of these. Regrettable.

  25. DNW Says:

    It’s odd how after reading so many reasonable comments you begin wondering just what it is that makes a movie “great”?

    I’d tend to have to agree with Art, as I was already thinking along those lines, that innovation and excellence of technique have to play a role along with criticism based on the traditional canons of story-telling.

    Imagine the movies you think of as the best “objectively”. Then stop and reflect on what films (if any) you actually do watch repeatedly, say during the holiday seasons.

    Hitchcock may best straddle that line.

    And too, we all probably have seen films that made a huge impression when we first saw them, only to shrink a fair amount with time and with our own changes in perspective. Alien, Blade Runner, Das Boot, and some of the Coen movies (Miller’s Crossing) have had that initial effect on me.

    Speaking of Miller’s Crossing and a spate of Depression era and 40′s film references (True Confessions with DeNiro comes to mind), I wonder where Chinatown ranks?

    Certainly cinematography, score, and the conveyance of atmosphere have to place Chinatown in the top couple hundred.

    Maybe they could start a new category. Best dramatic evocations of an earlier 20th century America. Best wooden screen door slam and train whistle category.

  26. matthew49 Says:

    I would pick another Hitchcock movie,”North by Northwest”, as the best picture of all time. Four of the most memorable movie scenes of all time occur in this one movie: the crop-dusting plane scene, the dining car conversation between Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint, the auction scene where Grant saves himself by getting arrested, and the scramble across the faces on Mt. Rushmore.

    I think other serious contenders for #1 are Gone With the Wind, Lawrence of Arabia, and The Godfather.

    I agree with many of the selections offered in other comments, but let me indulge myself by naming some movies I really love, even though they are never considered for top 50 lists: She Wore A Yellow Ribbon, Stagecoach, Zulu, Cinema Paradiso, Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House, and Ninotchka.

  27. Richard Saunders Says:

    First of all, “Casablanca” is the greatest move ever made, and everybody knows it. The other commentators have listed wonderful films, and although I might disagree with a few, in general I endorse them all. But the worst part of this list is the omission of all comedies except “Some Like it Hot.” No “His Girl Friday” or “Bringing Up Baby?” No “To Be or Not To Be” or “Stalag 17?” No “Producers”, “Young Frankenstein”, or “Blazing Saddles?” No “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” or “Life of Brian?” Speaking of British comedies, no “I’m All Right, Jack” or “The Mouse That Roared?” Not a single Peter Sellers movie? What’s the matter with these people? They must think they’re French or something! No wonder the British lost their Empire!

  28. Richard Aubrey Says:

    Casablanca might mean more to those who’ve had some acquaintance with the era, at least through parents and history. Yeah, people on the move, desperation, following a rumor that you can get there from this other place…. Fear.
    Hope that maybe whatever it is won’t come here.
    That said, the first time I saw the whole thing, I was struck by how tight it was. Not a single thing went an instant too long, nothing was there that didn’t need to be, the flow was perfect with no telling. It was showing and beautifully directed.

  29. Mac Says:

    If Casablanca gets in, It’s A Wonderful Life should, too. Both those have a certain amount of Hollywood sentimentality on the surface but are steel underneath.

    DNW above said ‘Imagine the movies you think of as the best “objectively”. Then stop and reflect on what films (if any) you actually do watch repeatedly, say during the holiday seasons’

    They actually are largely the same for me. I don’t own many movies but I have all the Bergman from Seventh Seal to Cries and Whispers, and they’re like favorite books to me. There aren’t that many movies that I want to see more than once, very very few more than twice. Occasionally a pretty lightweight one strikes me that way–Napoleon Dynamite!–but it’s not very often.

  30. maj Says:

    Wow – I am shocked – shocked I tell ya – at the lack of love for Vertigo and Citizen Kane. I’ve thought for a long time Vertigo is the greatest film ever made, but I think Kane is easily top 5 or 10. Ho-hum????

    I’m surprised Abel Gance’s Napoleon isn’t on the list.

    I’m not at all surprised Capra isn’t represented, although I think that’s a travesty.

    I’m also shocked Chaplin doesn’t even show up until #50 – if I recall, for decades The Gold Rush was top ten. Guess he’s out of vogue.

    But what absolutely stuns me is that Man with a Movie Camera is ranked #8. I agree completely, but I can’t believe any major poll would go there. I can’t even believe it ranked 27 in the previous poll.

    It’s a documentary made in the Soviet Union in 1929 by a guy named Dziga Vertov. It’s the basis for the cinema verite movement, although I doubt most practitioners even know that. I don’t think a complete version even existed in the West until the 1970′s. And Vertov was already in the process of falling out of favor with the Soviet leadership, so they certainly weren’t singing his praises.

    It’s just incredible filmmaking, unlike anything most people have ever seen. Vertov wrote a lot about his theories on film, and it gets really complex. Suffice it to say – this film gets described sometimes as an “art” film or a “city symphony”, like Berlin. Those are insults. There’s lots more going on here.

    Believe it or not, here it is on YouTube, with the best score I’ve heard, (they used Vertov’s notes for the score).

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7ZkvjWIEcoU

    And, heck, even if you don’t appreciate the filmmaking, the slice of life footage from Moscow, Kiev and Odessa in the ’20′s is fascinating.

  31. David Davies Says:

    2001 Space Odyssey Neocon? I finally rented and watched it a couple of years ago.

    I think Kubrick must have been on acid at least part of the time while making it.

    I think one needs to be on acid to enjoy the movie.

  32. Alex Bensky Says:

    Fifty movies and not enough room for either “Rules of the Game” or “Grand Illusion?” Or for that matter “All Quiet on the western Front”(the Lew Ayres version, although the Richard Thomas one made for tv isn’t bad).

    As Richard Saunders points out, no Ealing comedies? (“I’m All Right, Jack” is great; my personal choice would be “Kind Hearts and Coronets”).

    Of course, I’m personally offended by no “Police Academy” movie.

    It’s too bad that Kurosawa never completed the contemplated sequel to Ran. It was going to be called “Also Ran.”

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Previously a lifelong Democrat, born in New York and living in New England, surrounded by liberals on all sides, I've found myself slowly but surely leaving the fold and becoming that dread thing: a neocon.
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