The cinematic powers-that-be tend to decree that Citizen Kane is the best movie ever made, or sometimes Raging Bull. I don’t have a problem with that appraisal. It’s fun. Lists are fun—they expose people to cool movies they may not have heard of, and cause debates over who’s the most badass horror villain from the 80s, or what the best movies for libertarians are.
However, what is annoying is that whenever these movie freemasons decide that Vertigo is the third-best movie of all time or something, it causes all the opinion-scavenging cinephiles-in-training to rant their little hearts out about how The Rules of the Game or whatever really deserves to be ranked third-best. These lists also do a good job of tricking people into thinking The Godfather is artistically superior to Back to the Future, which is ridiculous.
I like Citizen Kane and Raging Bull. But I’m okay with admitting that they aren’t great movies. They’re beautiful exercises in the tools of filmmaking, but that’s about it. I love movies, so I can appreciate the use of animal sounds and quick reverse cuts in a boxing match, and matted effects shots in fake newsreels, but the movies I think are the best movies ever made also utilize all sorts of clever tricks—and when they do, it’s to move the story forward and affect you emotionally, not merely impress you with flash. That’s what makes them the best, to me.
When the AFI says Citizen Kane is the best movie ever made, they’re using the same criteria that the girl down the street uses when she says The Notebook is her favorite movie: they like it. The reason the AFI likes Citizen Kane more than any other movie is because they understand all the cinematic tricks and the historical context. The reason the girl likes The Notebook is because it uses cinematography, dialogue, story structure, performance, and a bunch of other things to effectively tug at her heart strings. So who is ‘more right’? Neither. How could they be, and who the fuck cares?
People separate their personal favorite from what they think is the best for absolutely no reason. If something is your favorite, then you should think it’s the best, and vice versa. You like something because it does things better than other things. If it didn’t, you’d like those other things more. Which is why there’s no such thing as a ‘guilty pleasure’—you either like something or you don’t. If you like something stupid, then you’re stupid, and hiding behind the term ‘guilty pleasure’ just means you’re smart enough to be embarrassed by your own stupidity.
Do me a favor for a second and imagine a world where the notion of ‘best’ does not exist, the AFI never makes a 100 Best Movies Ever Made list, and no critic gives any thumbs up or awards any stars. What then? Is the world of art lost, awash in a sea of unranked oblivion where nobody knows what to like? No, because movies would still exist, and you’d still like them or not like them (and you might even be more sure about which ones you really like verses the ones you’re merely supposed to like).
If we study all of the variables you could use to determine some sort of objective ‘best’, then Citizen Kane is actually a miserable failure. It’s only really triumphant in one category, and the weakest one at that: being thought of as the best by the most film geeks. It didn’t do the most money at the box office, it’s not the most played on television or the most screened, it doesn’t sit atop the IMDb Top 250 list, and it’s not even in “Rick’s Picks” at my local Family Video.
So why do movie geeks love it so much? Well, frankly, because it’s good. Like I said, it’s not a bad movie. It’s a technical achievement way ahead of it’s time. It was made in an era when movies were basically just bad plays put on film. Citizen Kane said fuck all that and actually used the camera to express things. It utilized clever staging and lens choices to express the drama that was happening on the page. This method of filmmaking wouldn’t really be put back into practice until the mid 70’s, when directors influenced by Citizen Kane were coming of age, and that certainly adds to its mystique. It’s been said that although the first Velvet Underground record didn’t sell that many copies, everyone who bought one started a band. That’s kinda similar to what happened with Citizen Kane. And so, in a very pure way, with genuine love and affection, critics, filmmakers, and movie geeks like to champion it.
But let’s take a movie like Tremors. I think Tremors is better than Citizen Kane on every level (and not just because it’s in color, which certainly doesn’t hurt). According to many people out there, I’m wrong for thinking that. And they mean ‘wrong’ literally. Which is insane. They’ve defined themselves so zealously with a certain intellectual identity that they’ve lost their grip on all logic. Deep down, they probably don’t actually think Citizen Kane is the best movie ever made (aka, their favorite—in fact they probably get more enjoyment out of Tremors) but getting them to admit this is damn near impossible.
Whatever your favorite thing is, it’s the best thing ever made, to you. And that little ‘to you’ at the end makes you right and wrong all at once, and the entire conversation moot. The AFI’s list has an implied ‘to us’ after it, as do Roger Ebert and Leonard Maltin’s reviews.
Ultimately, peoples criteria and understanding of the word ‘good’ has become completely perverted. People think that ‘good’ in art denotes some kind of larger cultural context, as if the opinion of millions of faceless people out in the world have anything to do with their own taste or understanding of art. This causes people to break movies into two categories: ‘good’ movies and ‘entertaining’ movies.
How much a movie entertains you and how good it is are exactly the same idea, though. If the show Seinfeld is not entertaining to you, then it’s not a good show, end of story. You can admit that it is a solid technical achievement, or that it is popular, because those things have an objectivity to them. Popularity can be measured by viewership and DVD sales, ratings, etc., and technical level (albeit somewhat subjective) can be judged by film format, composition, resolution, etc. But goodness has no way of being measured. The fact that all of your friends like Seinfeld can’t make the jokes funny to you, and so if you call the show good, you’re perverting the word; in fact, you’re lying.
The classic thing people love to say is ‘it’s a good movie, but I couldn’t watch it every day’. Well, if it’s so good, why not? The reason isn’t that it’s so moving that it interrupts your entire life by plunging you into a week-long introspective journey, it’s that the movie is fucking boring but you feel obligated to say it’s good anyway. The Shawshank Redemption, Forrest Gump, The Postman, these are long, deep movies, but I could watch them every day because they’re good. Good and entertaining is exactly the same thing. I hate to break it to you, but if you were so moved by a movie that you were plunged into an ‘introspective journey’, all that actually happened was you were entertained, very effectively, by a piece of art. (A piece of art belonging to the same form as Alvin and the Chipmunks 2: The Squeakquel.) Being moved deeply by Fellini’s Satyricon doesn’t make you deep, it makes you shallow for being moved by such crappy shit. Back to the Future is one of the best movies ever made because its goodness, its entertainment value, is achieved by way of pure artistic hard work and craftsmanship. It is a more well thought out, better conceived, better constructed, and therefore much more entertaining piece of art than The Godfather. Entertainment and high art are exactly the same thing.
When people go to mediocre movies like Transformers and The Hangover in order to ‘turn off their brains’ and ‘be entertained’, they’re presupposing that a film needs to be stupid in order to be entertaining. But a movie being stupid is not a sign of entertainment, and more importantly, a movie being entertaining is not a sign of dumbness—in fact, it’s a mark of transcendence necessary to a movie’s goodness. The best movies ever made (Ghostbusters, Back to the Future, and Indiana Jones, et al.) are entertaining and smart and smartly made, so much so that they negate the need for most other movies. Bad art is so flashy and and homogenized that it has successfully tricked intellectuals into thinking you have to be boring and mindless in order to be smart. Just look at Upstream Color or Blue Valentine. How ironic is it that to be smart you have to be stupid, and vice versa?
Most movies aren’t good. This is because making a good movie is very difficult, and it should be. Good art shouldn’t be easy. If everything was good, being good would lose all meaning and it wouldn’t be special. And at that point, you’ve killed art. (And not by criticizing it, which the intellectual elite like to say ‘kills art’, when really they mean they’re not smart enough to figure out why something is good so they don’t even want to know.)
So, now that I’ve explained how ‘best’ works, I will list the ten best movies ever made, in order. I’m not going to talk about them at all because I really should write an entire essay devoted to each one, which I will do at some point:
1. Signs (2002)
2. American Movie: The Making of Northwestern (1999)
3. Back to the Future (1985) / Back to the Future: Part II (1989)
4. Raising Arizona (1987)
5. The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters (2007)
6. Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills (1996) / Paradise Lost 2: Revelations (2000)
7. Field of Dreams (1989)
8. The ‘Burbs (1989)
9. Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) / The Temple of Doom (1984) / The Last Crusade (1989)
10. Small Town Ecstasy (2002)
11. Stone Reader (2002)
12. Ghostbusters (1984) 9/12/13 Edit: This wasn’t originally on the list, but after much consideration, I’ve decided it deserves to be.
13. The Shawshank Redemption (1994)
14. Comedian (2002)
15. Tremors (1990)
16. When Harry Met Sally… (1989)
Damn, 1989 was a good fuckin’ year for movies.
23 thoughts on “The 10 Best Movies Ever Made”
The Pianist, Cinderella Man, Aliens, Fifth Element – these are few movies off the top of my head that are way better than any you’ve listed (with exception to Shawshank – that’s a terrific movie)
Yeah, probably should’ve gone in the honorable mention list.
You couldn’t be further from the mark. Please retitle this “My 10 favorite movies”, in which case my comment would be “you have terrible taste in movies”.
I guess my response is; you’re stupid. I mean, first of all, the entire premise of the piece is, whatever your favorite is is the best, basically by default. And, that said. Further from what mark? The mark of the movies you listed. Yeah, some of those are fine, if you like them better, cool, who gives a fuck. That’s the point.
Amazing that someone has already started criticizing the list in the comments. Greg, I completely agree. It’s completely subjective what someone is drawn to as their “best”. I’m not into the movie scene much other than consuming them as another form of art. But, to me it’s very similar to car design… something I AM very familiar with. There are some perfected accepted forms and shapes that are more timeless than others. However, in the end it’s about personal taste. Memories and personal experiences connect people to art and influence their “best” decisions. They don’t have to be “right” or even remotely rational in some cases. Derpp absolutely proves your point that some people will sit on their velvet throne of stereotypical responses and will say you have terrible taste in movies because it isn’t their list or an accepted list by anyone they probably care about. Keep up the good work Greg.
Hmmm….maybe I’m weird. I enjoyed the articulation of the article more than anything else….awesome writing. I’m not a movie buff.
Let’s suppose, for sake of argument, that you’re right in your basic analysis that “good” is always relative to individuals – when I say “Clue is good” I mean “Clue is good, to me”.
There are still a number of problems with your analysis:
1. There are various ways that a movie could be “good to me” without being entertaining (to me), and vice versa. For example, a movie makes me think carefully about some issue, which I like to do, but it doesn’t have to be entertaining to do that. There are plenty of movies that I like that aren’t particularly entertaining. And similarly, although I find Fast and the Furious quite entertaining, I don’t think it’s particularly good.
In other words, when evaluating movies, I have more values than simple “entertainment value”. To use your own favorite word, speaking of movies as if their only value is entertainment is reductive.
2. Even if “goodness” is always individualistic, that doesn’t mean that “the conversation is moot”. The conversation is useful, because it can draw our attention to things we may not have noticed the first time, or contextualizations, or other ways of understanding the film. All of these things are useful, and can inform our opinions about a film. For example, watching the special features of Caddyshack changed my thinking of it from “meh” to “pretty good”.
3. Again, even if good is just a matter of opinion, some opinions are better than others. Some are more informed. Some are more discerning. Some are less biased. Etc. For example, the taste of wine experts is better than mine. To me, wine from a box tastes exactly the same as a $300 bottle. That’s because I have crappy taste, and someone who drinks wine more and can spot little differences has better taste than me.
That’s what critics are supposed to be bringing to the table – they’ve watched enough film to be able to have informed, thoughtful opinions about those films, and they should be able to share with us all of the little interesting pieces that inform their opinion.
My take is this, and I tried to explain it in the piece, if a piece was thought provoking or as you said: “a movie makes me think carefully about some issue”, I still say that’s nothing more than entertainment. That process of making you think was fun or moving or introspective but it was just the natural reaction to witnessing art. Therefore if we use “entertainment” as an umbrella term for all of those ideas we find the real duty of art to simply do that (be entertaining) in some ways. Paradise Lost is a deeply depressing and compelling movie, it’s not fun in the way Ghostbusters is, but regardless of Paradise Lost’s social impact it is still achieving its thought provocation via entertainment value. Otherwise it wouldn’t be effective art.
That’s why I get so annoyed by the notion that people divide art into quality and entertainments, when it’s the same thing.
I don’t agree that any opinion on these matters is more important or right or anything but certainly they can be more informed. I don’t think that makes those opinions better though. The goodness or badness of an opinion can really only be measured by how well it serves the individual who has it. I’m still talking about art here. Like if some religious asshole wants to do fucked up shit in the world that’s a whole nuther story!
You can make that move, if you want, but when you do that you’re just using the term “entertainment value” to mean “value” – you only win by cheating, by using the term in a way totally divorced from its usual meaning. It would be like if I said my theory of movies was that it only mattered how funny the movie was, and then it turns out that by “funny” I mean “anything that triggers any sort of reaction”.
Maybe what you really want to say is something like this: sure, a movie can have other values. Like, it can have philosophical value, like “oh man, this makes me think maybe we’re in the matrix!”. But none of those other values actually matter to evaluating it as a movie, because the only thing that counts in its value as a movie is its entertainment value.
I could buy that theory. It would be similar to a theory of jokes that says “ok sure, maybe there is some other value a joke could have, like breaking down social barriers, but the only value that matters to it being evaluated as a joke is whether it is funny.”
What do you think of that modification?
I think what Greg means is that value is inherently entertaining.
I think everyone else is divorcing the meaning and I’m just trying to return it to correctness. I think because people are so effected (affected?) by art they put it on a pedestal and give it way too much real world credence. In other words, they think art cures cancer. Art can certainly be philosophical, thought provoking, etc. But all of that good stuff is part of how it entertains. The thought provocation IS the entertainment. Entertainment is just an umbrella term for the various ways you can be moved by something.
Or, what Cody said.
You’re my favorite commenter though Jon because when you disagree with me you don’t get really mean for no reason!
I read all this shit, and I enjoyed it.. but the best part was “I guess my response is; you’re stupid.”
PS: Everyone knows that money makes a “good movie.” Not your artsy-farsty magic tricks.
I miss you Patrick!
Very well written, Greg. Yer gud at werds.
Ha, thanks Dan!
I agree with fact that the “100 best movies ever made” does not make any sense and that all these called specialists who would try and convince you this movie is a masterpiece because of some ingenious technical aspect or some deep meaning hidden somewhere, are simply deluded because beauty in art is subjective (to a certain point). There are so many good movies out there that some of them may touch you in a certain way and make you fall in love with them. Which brings me to this… you said: “If everything was good, being good would lose all meaning and it wouldn’t be special”. I think that’s a deeply idiotic idea and a very immature one. I’ll explain why: if every movie was truly a masterpiece, it would be a masterpiece in its own way. True beauty is wonderous, unique and always new. Also i’m surprised how oblivious you are to the fact that there is a huge number of fantastic movies waiting for you to see them and that you will effectively never get the chance to see them all. So in a way “good” is everywhere. May I point out, at last, how poor your judgement is and how clumsy and pretentious your ideas are presented. You should not write movie reviews and the 18 comments (and now mine since I stumbled upon this dribble by accident ) should never have found the space to be submitted since you are clearly unqualified to write anything about movies.
Well, I probably said something somewhere about turning off movies before they end (or sometimes even begin!) and all that, but, I guess it’s weird to have somebody tell you that you don’t look for good movies.
I’m referencing a different piece of mine but in the 50/50 Rule the actual point was A) if your movie watching faculties have been exercised to Swartzenagger-esque proportions then you really aren’t missing anything by turning something off that you know doesn’t gel with you. But, more importantly B) That I’m always searching for good movies. Very rarely I find them.
The world you describe, where everything is a masterpiece in its own way, sounds like a tepid, totally unfun universe to live in. But, hey, that’s me.
I guess I’m missing the evidence that I’m oblivious to a bunch of ethereal great movies locked in a secret compartment somewhere by Area 51 is beyond me.
To be honest, I don’t really get the message of your comment and it sounds like you’re just mad I left off some movie you like.
Thanks for reading!
I don’t value your points regarding aesthetic judgement on movies. I think in all honesty it’s goofy and all over the place. That’s my message and I’ll explain why. There are a lot of great movies that are difficult to get into, same goes for litterature and music. It’s an unfamiliar world that you should get used to in order to fall in love with. It’s not easy to get over habit and lazyness, and great art does sometimes require some attention to get into. I noticed that your list contains american movies only, which shows poor judgement. Here are some suggestions of filmmakers/movies you may have never heard of or that you may have overlooked having watched only the first five minutes of : Ingmar Bergman ( I think it’s 50 movies worth watching, if you can find them; some of them, 3, are maybe weaker than the rest); Atom Egoyan (at least five are amazing); Park Chan wook; All the iranian directors like: kirostami, farhadi, majidi, hatami; Takeshi kitano; Hayao Miyazaki; Aleksandr Petrov; Kusturica; Jarmusch; Ken loach; Ozu; Kurosawa; Gus van sant; Wong Kar wei; Kim-ki-Duk; Almodovar; Lynch; Linklater; Welles; Satoshi Kon; Kieslowski; Kubrick; Lars von trier; Zvyagintsev; Wes Anderson; Jonze; Renoir; Takahata…..ETC
That’s 30 directors on the top of my head, each with many movies worth watching. The problem is that there are a lot of good movies and you can’t watch all of them because life is short. Also, great movies are produced every year( not only in usa)….so your point is not valid because if Signs and Back to the future (really? really?!) are some of your favorite movies I don’t understand how you can’t at least give time to a few of these directors.
I have read a few of your articles after stumbling across this website. At first I thought you were joking. One article claims that all movies before 1975 are basically terrible. Frankly, your judgement of films is that of a teenager first interested in film, hooked on the stylistic fluidity of Spielberg and Zemeckis. Most of us move on from this stage, and as we mature, learn to appreciate more sophisticated films from world cinema’s rich history. Picking a bunch of American films largely from the 1980s just makes you parochial and small minded. If a guy in his 30s claimed the Harry Potter novels were the greatest books ever written, he’d rightly be mocked for this, especially if he bolstered his assertion by adding that Rowling was a greater writer than Dickens, Tolstoy, Austen (for example). Your views on cinema are equivalent. Not only do you claim that the likes of Signs and Ghostbusters to be the epitome of the art form, but you do this by comparing them unfavourably to films such as Citizen Kane and Vertigo, which you describe as a “filmed play.” What a shame Welles and Hitchcock didn’t have the assistance of those transcendent artists Shyamalan and Ramis to show them what good filmmaking consists of! What annoyed me about your articles (prompting this response) was your unreflective insistance that matters of taste were merely assertions of opinion, subjective, personal and unchallengeable (I doubt you really believe this, or you wouldn’t waste your time trying to persuade others of the validity of your views, surely the point of publishing film criticism as you do). Further, you seek to construct a ludicrous aesthetic theory about the qualities of post-1975 (largely American) cinema as the high point of the art form, and you do this by denigrating the cinema that came before. I doubt that you see that these two positions (that all views about art are equally valid subjective opinions; and pre-1975 movies are “talking plays” but Shyamalan made the greatest film ever made) are incompatible. I suspect you think the former position protects people from challenging the latter. But what really struck me in your articles was your insistance that the majority view of film lovers and critics about the relative values of films was due to snobbery on their part, as though they all know deep down that Ghostbusters is a better movie than anything by Welles and Hitchcock (for instance) but are too conscious of keeping up appearances to say so. Well, actually, no. I’m afraid you simply don’t grasp why people find these films so valuable and resonant, so you have constructed your own personal theory about the relative merits of your own favourite films, which by comparison, frankly, are juvenile. And by making claims for them by denigrating the work of great filmmakers, I’m afraid you appear unsophisticated and simple-minded, but I doubt this troubles you. I’ll continue to enjoy Spielberg and Back to the Future, but I reject your assertion that they represent the very apex of world cinema. Anyway, I enjoyed reading your articles, if only to argue with them!