There Is No Greatest Movie of All Time

The shimmering, glowing stars in the cinema firmament have aligned of late, with plenty of high-profile Blu-ray releases in the last month. Among the most significant are those pictured above: The Criterion Collection’s complete set of the films of Jean Vigo (August 30), Citizen Kane (September 13), all six Star Wars films (September 16), and the upcoming release of Pulp Fiction (October 4). There are and will be others, of course, but I highlight these four because of the unique esteem they hold among film lovers. They are various enough to cover both enthusiasts and snobs of every stripe, it would seem. In fact, if you claim to love movies, you have to like at least one of these, let’s just say. As for me, Citizen Kane, Pulp Fiction, and the original Star Wars trilogy dwell in that happy land of films beloved both by me and the critics of the world. Vigo’s films have not been easy to get a hold of, so I’m looking forward to getting a chance to see them.

This confluence of great films in shiny new packages has inspired me to wonder, again, about those lists of the greatest movies ever made, and my own obsession with cataloging things in this way. The turn of the century, which also happened to be the turn of the millennium, saw an explosion in Top 100 lists of every kind, from which we have yet to recover fully. When it comes to movies, though, the question of what single movie is the greatest has been around much longer than the last eleven years. Like the search for the Great American Novel, the search for the Greatest Movie Ever Made is a quest to narrow everything down to one shining example, one film that accomplishes everything of which the cinema is capable. This quest, as should be apparent to anyone who has seen a variety of movies, is sheer folly.

Movies can be great for so many different reasons, you see. There is no set of aesthetic criteria that everyone must follow. Some directors (Murnau, OphΓΌls, Renoir, P.T. Anderson) are praised for how much and how well their cameras move; Yasujiro Ozu is praised for a camera that almost never moves. Carl Theodor Dreyer shot The Passion of Joan of Arc almost exclusively in close-ups. Kenji Mizoguchi rarely used them. Welles, Scorsese, Altman and Tarantino are renowned for long takes, whereas the early Soviet filmmakers pioneered the use of quick edits to amplify emotion. Some filmmakers were slow to embrace color (and sound, in the case of Chaplin), such as Fellini and Bergman. The Archers (Powell and Pressburger) and Hitchcock, on the other hand, explored its possibilities relatively early. Jump-cuts (Godard), shaky cameras (von Trier) and characters looking directly at the camera (Godard, again, and Kubrick) are generally considered mistakes, but in the right hands they become essential aspects of style. Finally, there are benefits and drawbacks to weigh when considering those filmmakers who only complete a film every few years or more (Chaplin, Kubrick, Malick, Tarantino), and those known for working constantly (John Ford, Hitchcock, Woody Allen, the Coen brothers). Each one of these individuals is widely considered a master.

No single film, whether crafted by a brilliant auteur or a team of talented individuals (I know, it’s usually both), can cover all of those techniques. That’s so much of the joy of watching movies, the joy of art in general — the fact that different people can express themselves in so many different ways, with none expressing themselves so perfectly as to silence everyone else. One of my college professors, Grant Horner, illustrated this point in his book on film (Meaning at the Movies: Becoming a Discerning Viewer, Crossway, 2010): “…all cultural production…is desperately incomplete and thus unsatisfying. When was the last time you went to a museum to look at one painting, and then left satisfied? Art functions by increasing desire for more art.” (emphasis his) It’s generally agreed upon that no movie could possibly be perfect, and yet the search for the greatest movie continues. My complaint is that by trying to narrow everything down to one, you will leave out so much that is great, even if that’s not what you’re trying to do.

Citizen Kane, as we all know, is the default choice. It has maintained its perch atop the decennial Sight & Sound poll since 1962. The American Film Institute has crowned the film twice in its own Top 100 lists. So Kane can hardly help being overrated. But is it truly unassailable? Of course not. It has vocal opponents among both critics and laypeople. Among the people who love it, many demur on the question of “greatest of all time.” Some consider it great but believe that Orson Welles himself made better films later in his career. So why has no other film overtaken it, at least according to the two sources named above and the popular consciousness? Simply put, no single film has been brought forth to challenge it — or, rather, dozens of movies have been. If we could all just agree that Wild Strawberries is truly the greatest film of all time, the debate would finally be over. That, or 2001: A Space Odyssey. Or The General. Or Seven Samurai. Or Vertigo. Or The Godfather Part II. Or… This is my point. It’s my opinion that Citizen Kane belongs among these movies, not above them. And maybe none of them belongs above any of the others. They’re all so different from each other, each essential viewing in its own way. Even the definition of “essential” in this context is a matter of opinion, of course.

It all comes down to this: the obvious temptation of debating which movie is the greatest is that it ends discussion rather than letting it continue. On its face, it seems frustrating that weighing the greatness of films has spawned an endless discussion. But I think that both the “endless” part and the “discussion” part are good things. That’s why I still love making and studying lists of this nature. Well, studying, anyway. I will limit myself to listing my own favorites. I’ve found the Top 1000 list at They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They?, constructed as it is from over two thousand authoritative sources, to be more than adequate (and it’s updated every year, so it makes no attempt to be perfect). It’s a wonderful starting point for studying the great movies of the world. That’s all a list is — a starting point. Roger Ebert hates lists, and I can understand how being forced to make them constantly, with every reader assuming each choice is meant to be definitive, would be grating. But I enjoy the effort to organize and judge, even when it fails completely.

I remain optimistic about the artistic possibilities of film. If such a thing as the greatest movie of all time could exist, then I honestly believe it has yet to be made. To be sure, with all that we’ve learned over the last hundred-plus years, and the advanced technology now at our disposal, the movies made today really ought to be better than ever before. Sadly, they’re not, but this can be changed. Taken as a whole, they are an incredibly significant human creation, combining so many other art forms into one. And so much of ourselves can be glimpsed within them. We just need to know where to look.

6 responses to “There Is No Greatest Movie of All Time

  1. One could argue that the best film ever made has ALREADY been made. As the technology changes so radically from silent, to talkies, to color (long pause) to fully CGI, to 3D we have more or less kept the format and concept of movies.

    Going forward however, “movies” will become more like Lucas’ idea of the ever changing (not necessarily improving) story with no single telling, no final cut. Viewers will morph into users who interact not only with special features or specific scenes but entirely throughout the movie–moving in and out and around. In place of CGI we’ll have full immersion within the 3D sphere but also the capability to change/alter/influence the play of the movie (as can already be done in MMORPGs.)

    So I suggest, the term movie will become antiquated and outdated and the idea of movie will even quicker. So, those movies that have been made may in fact include the greatest movie ever made–as the great story tellers will move on to other formats more popular with the masses.

    (Thanks for the blog posting Paul. I apparently need to go back and read your others. -dave)

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