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Recently, “Sight & Sound” revised its list of the Top Ten Movies of All Time, with Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo ousting the venerable Orson Welles classic Citizen Kane from the top spot.  (A spot that Kane still holds in the most recent American Film Institute poll, for now.)  To some, this is blasphemy (for to them, nothing can best Kane, ever), whereas to others, it’s about time.

To me, it just signifies a conversation starter.

See, I simply don’t believe that it’s possible to objectively call any film “The Best of All Time.”  A group of films, perhaps; I think it’s possible to come up with a list of a few dozen essentials (ten is simply not enough) that exemplify the art of filmmaking, but an ordered list where each is better than the last and the top spot can only be occupied by one film?  No.

The first problem with this idea is that filmmaking is an art, not a science.  It’s not like (most) math where there’s only one perfect answer and it can be arrived at through objective reasoning; it is, instead, a very subjective thing about which an infinite number of opinions can be correct, for beauty truly is in the eye of the beholder.  Yes, there are technical elements that go into making a motion picture that can be judged by a generally agreed upon set of standards, but when it comes to the heart of the thing… again, no.

Humphrey Bogart once dismissed the idea of an Oscar for “Best Actor” because every actor nominated played a different role; the only way to really judge, he said, would be to have every actor read the same scene from “Hamlet” and then make an apples-to-apples comparison based on that.  However, much as I deeply admire Humphrey Bogart, his argument is no less flawed than the original proposition is in the first place.  Different acting “muscles” go into a comedic performance than go into a deeply dramatic one than go into a terrifying one; and so just as it’s an apples-to-oranges comparison to ask whether Bogart’s performance in The African Queen beats Jack Lemmon’s in Some Like It Hot, it’s also an apples to oranges comparison to say that Sir Laurence Olivier is a better actor than John Candy or Boris Karloff based on how well he reads “Hamlet.”  Sure, he may be a wonderful Shakespearean dramatist, but I’m pretty certain he’d have stunk playing the lead in Uncle Buck or wearing the makeup in Frankenstein.  Objectivity?  Single sets of standards?  You can try, and maybe you can even build a ballpark or two, but at the end of the day, it’s still going to be apples-to-oranges and/or subjective.

And then there’s the problem I mentioned in my previous post about why I don’t use numeric ratings.  Often times, a movie can do absolutely everything right on a technical level but do absolutely nothing for some people as a piece of entertainment, even if those people are perfectly capable of recognizing that movie’s technical excellence.  For me, one of these films is The Shawshank Redemption.  Wonderfully made; I never want to see it again.  On the other hand, Gymkata is crap by any reasonable person’s definition, but I’d happily watch that movie every other week, because for all of its deficiencies, I still find it entertaining.  I know it’s crap, but I’d pick Gymkata over The Shawshank Redemption as a movie to watch any day of the week.

This, in turn, brings up what to me is a key point: can any movie really be “The Best” if one doesn’t want to watch it over and over again?  Citizen Kane is great, and I love it… but only about once or maybe twice in a year love it.  To be honest, it’s been six, I think, and I feel no urge to rush out and reset the clock.  Doesn’t mean that it’s not great, or even that I don’t find it entertaining, but…

Do I have a list of critical “Bests”?  Sure I do, but nothing’s numbered (or even written down), and honestly, I don’t put a lot of weight on it.  Yes, such a list is useful in an academic sense or as a matter of breaking down the technical aspects of filmmaking, but outside of what I would call an academic or “professional inner circle” environment, I think the primary value of such an exercise is exactly what I suggested above: it’s a conversation starter. 

But you know what?  Every critic has that conversation.

More interesting to me is the “Favorites” list; movies that a person goes back to again and again, whether they’re “quality” or “crap.”  The kind of list that starts from the question: if you were placed in [an isolated location; you decide if it’s in a spaceship, on a desert island, etc.] for a [length of time; at least a year, maybe more] and could only watch from a library of X number of movies, what movies would be in that library?

I don’t know a single honest person whose list would conform to the AFI “Best”; that’s for damn sure.

Again, there is a place for “Best” lists, and no, it isn’t the trash.  They got legitimate value to them.  But even there, once you get to the top… it’s a game of microns, people.  Which is better: Citizen Kane or Vertigo?  Personally, I say Vertigo, but I recognize my subjective point of view.  Technically speaking, each is realistically just as good as the other, and when the “Sight & Sound” people put it to a vote… don’t tell anyone, but slide rules and mathematical algorithms weren’t involved: the voters just picked their favorites.

Just sayin’.

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- Written by Ziggy Berkeley, August, 2012

This article originally appeared on "The Cheez Blog" (a former companion site to this one) and had the distinction of being "Freshly Pressed"

You can email Ziggy at ziggy@cinemaontherocks.com. You can also find us on Facebook.


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