Friday, 13 March 2015

Vic's 'Objective' Top 100 Films of All Time

Since I am experiencing a month without film, here is something else I've been working on:

People frequently ask me for a list of my all-time favourite films. Since I keep a regularly-updated list of my 200 favourite films, I could easily provide such a list, but I am reluctant to do so because my list is so subjective, based primarily on the impact a film has had on my life. While it is reassuring to note that most of my all-time favourite films are considered by critics to be excellent films, I cannot pretend that my list of all-time favourite films is anything like an objective Top 100 Films list, so I have now endeavoured to create such a list. While many of my all-time favourite films find a home in this more objective list, most do not, and the order of those that do is very different (e.g. the best film ever made, in my opinion, only ranks number 35 on my list of all-time favourite films).

Of course, I do not believe that anyone can create a truly objective list of top films. A comparison of top-100 film lists, as voted on by professional film critics and film directors on different continents, always shows markedly diverse opinions. For example, the list made every decade by Sight & Sound contains a very high number of foreign language films, while other lists contain comparatively few. Continental European directors and critics regularly agree that Les enfants du paradis (Children of Paradise), a French classic from 1945, is the greatest film ever made, but you probably won’t find it anywhere on most Top 100 film lists made by American or British critics and directors. You will find it on my list because I have a soft spot for European films.

This brings me to my personal list of ‘objective’ criteria and what you will, and will not, find on that list. Some of these criteria are obvious, but others are ‘subjective’, thus to some extent undermining my desire for pure objectivity, which, as I noted above, is not possible. So while you won’t find things like ‘the Wow factor’ or ‘a film’s impact on my life’ on such a list of criteria, you also won’t find ‘innovation’ on that list. A film’s level of innovation and its impact on the countless films which benefitted from that innovation are simply not something I care about in evaluating a film’s greatness. I am attempting, instead, to compare one film to another based on common guidelines, not on whether it did something that had never been done before (unless that something also contributed to making it a uniquely great film). 

For example, in the U.S., Citizen Kane (1941) is commonly considered to be the greatest film ever made. A major factor in that acclaim is its innovative cinematography. Because that innovative cinematography contributes to making Citizen Kane the extraordinary film it is, you will find Citizen Kane among my top three films. However, a film like The Birth of a Nation (1915) was also long considered to be among the greatest films ever made, due to its innovative filmmaking and its influence on all that followed. Because of this, I made the mistake of watching it, but the only list of mine on which you will find it is a list of the all-time worst films ever made. Likewise, The Blair Witch Project (1999), which was praised for its innovative marketing and filming, has a home on my list right down there with The Birth of a Nation

Dropping innovation from my list of criteria may not be that controversial, as it does not have a major impact in distinguishing my list from those of most critics. However, the inclusion of two other criteria (which results in the automatic exclusion of the films just mentioned) might be more controversial. One of those criteria is a film’s moral compass. I have argued on this blog that part of the responsibility of being a film critic is to evaluate a film’s moral compass, so it must be one of the criteria on my list. This doesn’t mean the exclusion of films which may be morally ambiguous, but it does mean the exclusion of films which I find morally repugnant. The Birth of a Nation would fit in that category, along with recent critically-acclaimed films like Django Unchained (2012) and The Wolf of Wall Street (2013). 

The other criterion is somewhat related. It is, by definition, subjective but I am simply not up to the task of eliminating it, if indeed anyone can do so: I cannot, in good conscience, put a film on my Top 100 list that I don’t actually ‘like’. I happen to ‘like’ more than 90% of the films on a typical Top 100 list, so this doesn’t have a huge impact either, but it does eliminate some films which almost every major critic in the world would argue are among the best films ever made. I greatly admire the work of Francis Ford Coppola (who has two films in my Top 100), I ‘like’ Robert De Niro, and a number of Martin Scorsese films have made my annual top ten lists, but, at the risk of losing all credibility as a film critic, films you will not find on my Top 100 list include: The Godfather (I & II) (1972 & 1974), Raging Bull (1980), Taxi Driver (1976) and Goodfellas (1990). I won’t try to argue against the greatness of any of these films, but I just don’t ‘like’ them (partly because I am not a fan, in general, of gangster or boxing films), so I can’t put them on my list. Sorry. 

I have noticed that this criterion particularly impacts Asian films, like those made by Akira Kurosawa. Whether it’s because of my aversion to violent action, my blindness to innovation or just a style preference, you won’t find any Kurosawa films on my list. Seven Samurai finds a home on most Top 100 Film lists, but it doesn’t do much for me. I like Rashomon more, but still find it wanting. I can tell Kurosawa’s films are intelligent and well-made, but I can’t see the greatness which would qualify them for my Top 100 list. On the other hand, I have no trouble seeing the greatness in Yasujiro Ozu’s films, so you will find two of his films on my list. 

So then, what are my criteria for greatness in film, other than not having a skewed moral compass? In my opinion, the films below (with a few exceptions*) approach (in some cases, they have attained) perfection in the standard critical categories of acting, writing, directing, editing, cinematography and score. They are all compelling films worthy of repeated viewings and I ‘like’ every one of them. The prevalence of pre-1970 films on my list is not because I love B&W films but because I believe the quality of screenwriting/story-telling and mise-en-scene has markedly declined (especially in the U.S.) since blockbusters, special effects, action and pleasing a teenage demographic became the order of the day. Speaking of blockbusters, ...

*e.g. Star Wars (1977) is one of my all-time favourite films, for many reasons, but the quality of the acting (Alec Guinness and Peter Cushing excepted), writing and directing is not among them. Nevertheless, since many critics place Star Wars on their Top 100 lists, I will happily put it on my own, noting that the acting and writing are light-years away from achieving perfection.

Enough with the preamble. Keeping in mind that there are many great films I have not had a chance to see, here is my ‘objective’ list of the Top 100 films of all-time, in order (and yes, these are films everyone should see at least once):

1. Casablanca (1942), Michael Curtiz

2. The Third Man (1949), Carol Reed

3. Citizen Kane (1941), Orson Welles

4. Great Expectations (1946), David Lean

5. The Wizard of Oz (1939), Victor Fleming

6. La grande illusion (1937), Jean Renoir

7. Rebecca (1940), Alfred Hitchcock

8. The Big Sleep (1946), Howard Hawks

9. Vertigo (1958), Alfred Hitchcock

10. It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), Frank Capra

11. Singin’ in the Rain (1952), Stanley Donan & Gene Kelly

12. Metropolis (1927), Fritz Lang

13. The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), Orson Welles

14. The Maltese Falcon (1941), John Huston

15. To Kill a Mockingbird (1962), Robert Mulligan

16. Dr. Strangelove (1964), Stanley Kubrick

17. Schindler’s List (1993), Steven Spielberg

18. Apocalypse Now (Redux) (1979), Francis Ford Coppola

19. La Regle du jeu (1939), Jean Renoir

20. Double Indemnity (1944), Billy Wilder

21. Lawrence of Arabia (1962), David Lean

22. Tokyo Story (1953), Yasujiro Ozu

23. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Stanley Kubrick

24. The Seventh Seal (1957), Ingmar Bergman

25. City Lights (1931), Charles Chaplin

26. The 400 Blows (1959), Francois Truffaut

27. (1963), Frederico Fellini

28. Blade Runner (1982), Ridley Scott

29. Psycho (1960), Alfred Hitchcock

30. Paths of Glory (1957), Stanley Kubrick

31. Manhattan (1979), Woody Allen

32. Ordet (1955), Carl Dreyer

33. Sunset Blvd. (1950), Billy Wilder

34. Touch of Evil (1959), Orson Welles

35. Pather Panchali (1955), Satyajit Ray

36. Late Spring (1949), Yasujiro Ozu

37. Chinatown (1974), Roman Polanski

38. Laura (1944), Otto Preminger

39. The Lord of the Rings (complete extended version) (2003), Peter Jackson

40. Once Upon a Time in the West (1968), Sergio Leone

41. Brief Encounter (1945), David Lean

42. Breathless (1960), Jean-Luc Godard

43. Annie Hall (1977), Woody Allen

44. Wild Strawberries (1957), Ingmar Bergman

45. Rear Window (1954), Alfred Hitchcock

46. Andrei Rublev (1966), Andrei Tarkovsky

47. The Lady Eve (1941), Preston Sturges

48. Wings of Desire (1987), Wim Wenders

49. Children of Paradise (1945), Marcel Carne

50. His Girl Friday (1940), Howard Hawks

51. Bicycle Thieves (1948), Vittorio de Sica

52. Jules et Jim (1962), Francois Truffaut

53. Bringing Up Baby (1938), Howard Hawks

54. Umberto D. (1952), Vittorio de Sica

55. Star Wars (1977), George Lucas

56. Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949), Robert Hamer

57. Playtime (1967), Jacques Tati

58. North by Northwest (1959), Alfred Hitchcock

59. The Great Dictator (1940), Charles Chaplin

60. Berlin Alexanderplatz (1980), Rainer Werner Fassbinder

61. On the Waterfront (1954), Elia Kazan

62. Persona (1966), Ingmar Bergman

63. Out of the Past (1947), Jacques Tourneur

64. Three Colors: Red (1994), Krzysztof Kieslowski

65. The Sound of Music (1965), Robert Wise

66. The Manchurian Candidate (1962), John Frankenheimer

67. The Night of the Hunter (1955), Charles Laughton

68. The Tree of Life (2011), Terrence Malick

69. Pulp Fiction (1994), Quentin Tarantino

70. A Clockwork Orange (1971), Stanley Kubrick

71. All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), Lewis Milestone

72. Fanny and Alexander (1982), Ingmar Bergman

73. The Ox-Bow Incident (1943), William A. Wellman

74. Modern Times (1936), Charles Chaplin

75. Gone with the Wind (1939), Victor Fleming

76. East of Eden (1955), Elia Kazan

77. To Be or Not to Be (1942), Ernst Lubitsch

78. The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), David Lean

79. The Lives of Others (2006), Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck

80. Jaws (1975), Steven Spielberg

81. Short Cuts (1993), Robert Altman

82. The Conversation (1974), Francis Ford Coppola

83. How Green Was My Valley (1941), John Ford

84. Some Like it Hot (1959), Billy Wilder

85. Brazil (1985), Terry Gilliam

86. Turtles Can Fly (2004), Bahman Ghobadi

87. Secrets & Lies (1996), Mike Leigh

88. Z (1969), Costa-Gavras

89. Spartacus (1960), Stanley Kubrick

90. Before Midnight (2013), Richard Linklater

91. Gandhi (1982), Richard Attenborough

92. Nashville (1975), Robert Altman

93. A Separation (2011), Asghar Farhadi

94. Ben-Hur (1959), William Wyler

95. Pickpocket (1959), Robert Bresson

96. The Apartment (1960), Billy Wilder

97. Network (1976), Sidney Lumet

98. 12 Angry Men (1957), Sidney Lumet

99. Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), Steven Spielberg

100. M (1931), Fritz Lang


  1. Without my thinking about it in advance, my two all-time favourite directors, Stanley Kubrick and Alfred Hitchcock, each have five films on the list, more than any other directors. Ingmar Bergman and David Lean have four each. 
  2. Films per decade: 20’s (1); 30’s (9); 40’s (23); 50’s (22); 60’s (17); 70’s (10); 80’s (7); 90’s (5); 00’s (3); 10’s (3). So it looks like filmmaking peaked in the 40’s and 50’s and has been on a gradual decline ever since, though if I already have three films from this decade on the list, maybe things are picking up again.
  3. 40 of these films are on my list of 100 favourite films, so there is a correlation. Extending the comparison to my list of 200 favourite films adds only ten more of the above films to the list (i.e. half of the best 100 films (as chosen by me) don’t even make it on my list of 200 favourite films). 18 of the 40 mentioned above are found in the top twenty of the above list, so most of the greatest films are also on my list of favourites. But it doesn’t work the other way around, as only 6 of my favourite twenty films are found anywhere in the list above.


  1. Well, I've suspected our difference of opinion on this, but didn't realise it could ever get to this extent. I appreciate your attempt at objectivity and sheer effort at this monumental task. I also confess ignorance for not having seen so many of these films. But some immediate impressions:
    a) I can't help but feel that you have fallen into the common trap of romanticizing the past like so many reviewers. To do so while trying deliberately to screen out the category of innovation is more surprising to me as it seems like one of the only values to me for many on your list. But by romanticizing what I mean is imagining that writing is "good" simply because one imagines that people spoke and acted in weird ways back then (of course, I am imagining differently myself). I hate so many old movies (including Citizen Kane) for the very reason that the writing and acting seems terrible and unrealistic to me. How does that look like good writing and acting to anyone? I don't get it. But I don't know - maybe people were that weird back then.
    b) I guess this is just the flipside of a). How can you justify the prejudice against films of the last few decades? By what criteria do you consider the acting, directing, writing etc to be inferior? Certain not realism. In so many old films the actors look so clearly to be "acting." In overall artistic effect? Certainly not from where I sit.
    So - sorry. I haven't seen most of the list and I'm not lining them up for the near future either. Though I should point out that there are exceptions. Thanks to Daniel (my son), I've been watching some Bergman and appreciate those films and there are some other great exceptions like 12 Angry Men (which fortunately just made your list).

  2. I understand your comments. I certainly agree that, overall, acting has vastly improved over time. I would argue with the rest though. My list of all-time favourite 200 films contains a higher percentage of recent films than the 'objective' list (partly because of what you say) and Citizen Kane comes in at number 76 (so I do think it's a little over-rated), but the overwhelming majority of my all-time favourite films were made prior to 1990, so it isn't just 'objectivity' that makes these older films special. When I watch any of the films on the list above (and I've seen many of them five times or more), I go away thinking, "Why can't they make films like this anymore?" or "Why are films from the forties so much more magical than films today?" I have given some of the reasons above. Is there some romanticism involved as well? Perhaps. Certainly my list was influenced by the history of film criticism. But, as an example, I have called 2014 one of the best years in the history of cinema because I awarded four stars to more films than in any previous year. And I'm sure I liked most of those films more than half of the films on this list. And yet there isn't one of those fifteen four-star films that I would necessarily put on this Top 100 list. A film has to be pretty spectacular to make this list. Or maybe the idea of objectivity really is missing the point somehow. Oh well, it's something I always wanted to do. Maybe I'll make another 'objective' list limited only to films made since 1990. It might look a lot better to you.