Home > Movies > My Film Snobbery : Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Time-Out Top 100 List

My Film Snobbery : Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Time-Out Top 100 List

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It’s been about 8 years since I made the decision that I wanted to try and be a film buff, and that as part of this I would make an asserted effort to watch through The Time Out Critics Top 100 Greatest Movies.  Today I finally watched the last movie I had left on the list, Tarkovsky’s “Mirror” and it feels like an end of an era for me.  I’m thrilled at the completion of something that turned out to be, for  a multitude of reasons,  much harder and lengthier than I’d originally anticipated.  To mark this momentous occasion I thought I’d briefly share something about what watching through the list has meant to me and how it relates to my appreciation for film in general.

Pretty much everyone that I know loves watching film and most people I speak to consider themselves to be some kind of a “film buff/ film fan”.  Everybody seems to think that they, personally, have the best taste in film.  These days I find this attitude to be more than a little tiring and it makes for very frustrating conversations as I repeatedly get chastised for my eccentric taste.  People rarely take the time to understand why I might like or dislike something; rather, they play the subjectivity card and go away thinking that I’m all talk and stupidity, at best saying what I do mostly for controversy and effect.  It’s annoying because I have generally thought through my opinions on movies and generally don’t say things that aren’t backed up in some way.

Watching film is one of my main hobbies.  There are few areas in life that one would claim to have knowledge or understanding of a subject they’ve not sought to gain any in whether it’s something complex like Medicine, skilled like Car Mechanics, Academic like History, or a hobby such as birdwatching or knitting.  I don’t and never will consider myself to be some kind of expert in movies (my breadth of reading on the subject is appalling) or the last word in what constitutes “good taste” but since it’s a hobby, I have an arrogant view that I’ve seen an understood more about movies than someone who enjoys the occasional action film or rom-com with their girlfriend.   At some point I began to recognise that if one is going to speak in any meaningful way about what constitutes a good or a bad movie and why, one probably needs to have seen and understood a lot of movies that are generally considered to be “good movies”.  The majority of people I talk to about film and film taste have seen very few of the movies on this list, and when, by chance, they happen to have seen the odd one (generally 2001, or Singin’ in the Rain or Citizen Kane) it’s by chance and with no consideration when watching it that it is “considered” to be great or why.  Worse, I’ve had multiple conversations over the years wth people regarding Citizen Kane’s status as “the greatest movie of all time” whereby I have been informed that the movie is “boring” and that these people who call it great don’t know what they’re talking about or just happen to be boring people.  The conversation eventually swings back yet again to the ultimate subjectivity of taste, the greatest refuge of the ignorant who would rather indulge his or her own whims than grapple with the idea that, even if some of these movies aren’t as amazing as the hype has led us to believe, they’ve been called “great” over the years for a reason by people who have made it their life to either make films or to endeavour to understand them, how they are made and why they might be thought compelling. (Some people, at this point, might be compelled to wax lyrical over how these great movies enlighten us on the nature of the human condition.  I’d rather say that they’re simply “intelligent and thought provoking” in one way or another)

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I don’t expect everybody to enjoy film in the same way that I do, or really care all that much if they get their kicks from watching a Michael Bay or Paul WS Anderson suckfest, but I do find conversations regarding the subjectivity of taste to be circular and dull.  Yes, ultimately I do believe that taste in movies is “subjective” but only within a context of film understanding  and an appreciation as to their place cultural significance.  In other words, one cannot simply watch diet of mainstream Hollywood movies and then assert that “Godzilla” is a good movie because they enjoyed it, but that “Citizen Kane” is a bad movie because they found it boring and turned it off after 20 minutes. (this is a real opinion)  This is not taste; this is wilful blindness to the potential of film as an art form.  If you can’t find one interesting thing to say about Citizen Kane, you clearly don’t like film.

I decided that, at the very least, I would develop an understanding and appreciation of what is considered to be great in film, partly because I had some friends who were film enthusiasts and film students (and have been very enthusiastic and inspirational over the years)  I never expected to like film half as much as I do now.  Before undertaking this project I’d watched a lot of Hollywood dreck, from American Ninja and Steven Segal, to Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves and Armageddon and I’d generally enjoyed it all.  I’d watched Godard’s Breathless and Fellini’s 8 ½ and not understood a word of them, and I’d equally been quite indifferent to Citizen Kane.  I loved the Lord of the Rings trilogy and Harry Potter.  In other words, like everyone in the world, I enjoyed watching movies and talking about movies, but I had no conception that movies were really, really amazing until I watched through this list.  As such I’d say that it’s one of the best projects I ever undertook.  I now can’t survive without a steady diet of arthouse, European, HK, Bollywood  and subtitled film alongside silent, Classic Hollywood and modern indie and mainstream movies.  And I can’t really understand how anyone else can either.  I’m always thinking about what film I want to watch next and overwhelmed by the thought that I can’t watch them all.

Other film-buff wannabes, in my opinion, tend to go down the wrong route when they start similar projects.  The AFI Top Hundred list, the IMDB top 250 or some list of Empire’s Greatest Movies are all too enticing routes to go down, and they’re attractive to people because they offer so much that is  familiar.  Spielberg, Scorcese, Coppola and many other big Hollywood movies always feature prominently with only the occasional off the beaten track pick as well as some Hitchcock and Citizen Kane.  The IMDB list is filled out by what is popular with punters rather than what’s good and that’s a huge flaw (The Shawshank Redemption is currently no.1, a shockingly appalling pick by any standards.   I ultimately chose this Time Out list because, firstly, the TimeOut film guide is an excellent and well-considered resource, more informative than any other of its kind and secondly, because I didn’t actually recognise most of the movies that were on it.  It wasn’t a list incorporating E.T, Raiders, Shawshank, Terminator 2, Die Hard Back to the Future and other childhood nostalgia favourites, it was a list of movies that would most likely be alien to me, demanding and confusing.  It was a list of movies that would make me work to understand them (whereas most Hollywood movies seek to alleviate you from doing that work) and most importantly, it was a list that would hopefully open my eyes to a world of cinematic styles that I was completely unfamiliar with.

To be honest, it hasn’t been an easy journey.  I haven’t loved a lot a lot of the movies.  I’ve passionately hated a good few of them (None moreso though Douglas Sirk’s dull, reactionary melodrama “All That heaven Allows”) and others I find just plain dull.  I still don’t like 2001: A Space Odyssey.  But at least I’ve sat down and asked myself why I don’t like 2001.  I’ve taken it apart and looked at how the film works on a technical and narrative level, and that was fun.  At least I know that abstract, esoteric movies like The Colour of Pomegranates aren’t for me.  At least I could theoretically engage with someone in a conversation about the importance of Robert Bresson’s cinema or why Satyajit Rayis considered to be an important figure in Indian film.    At least I’ve learned something interesting about my own taste.  It’s also been a difficult, slow journey because some of these films have been so hard to find.  Greed, Napoleon, The Colour of Pomegranates, Earth, all took me years to track down; but that in itself has led me to question why such “greats” are unavailable now (and to lament the unavailability of the full cut of Greed, which would undoubtedly a magnificent thing to see.)  It’s been quite exciting to finally find them and only disappointing in the sense that they could never be as great as I’d have liked, having hunted them out for years purely because they were on the list.

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Yet, there have been so few movies that I’ve actively disliked and so many that I’ve loved and have gone on to become my very favourite movies.  I won’t forget first watching Kurosawa’s Ran, Kieslowski’s Three Colours Trilogy, Leone’s Once Upon A Time in the West, Melville’s Le Samourai, Resnais’ Last Year in Marienbad, Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch, Blade Runner, Seven Samourai, Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, Taxi Driver, Pierrot le Fou, Blue Velvet, The Third Man and so on and so on.    I’ve learned that I love Humphrey Bogart, Anna Karina, Marilyn Monroe, Toshiro Mifune, Robert De Niro, Orson Welles, Charlie Chaplin and Juliette Binoche.  I’ve appreciated a range of cultural perspectives, discovered that film styles have changed across time and place and I’ve found that a shot held for 5 minutes can be more thrilling than one that changes every 5 seconds.  I’ve found that stories can be immediate and they can also be esoteric.  There’s a thrill in an idea being in your face, but it’s also fun to not understand, but to contemplate.  The greatness of a film can hinge on a great acting performance (Marlon Brando, anyone) or terrible actors can be used as icons for presenting great ideas (John Wayne, anyone?)  Films can be linear, but they can also make no sense.  Some are political treatises, some commentaries on narrative.  Jean-Luc Godard exists in his own fragmented, politicised universe and that makes him wonderful.  Kubrick channels all the pessimism and cynicism of our universe and that makes him wonderful.    Hitchcock seems to completely reflect our universe through mainstream movies and that makes him wonderful.  I’ve learned that a beautiful shot can speak 100 words of dialogue, but also that 100 words of well-written dialogue can say as much as an apparently beautiful shot.  I learned that the final shot of 400 Blows says more to me than five years worth of Hollywood Blockbusters.

Most of all I learned that sharing a great movie with a loved one is the most precious experience you can have.

All of these movies put such a huge smile on my face in ways that modern mainstream movies had failed to do for years and I finally realised that our cinematic past was every bit as rich and exciting as our literary past.

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Yet, it’s amazing how unpopular liking foreign and art house film can make you.  Accusations of snobbery at the hobby abound, and people really don’t like you to say that you feel your favourite film is better than theirs when they’ve never even heard of yours, it’s in black and white, or it has subtitles.  In fact I generally dread being asked what films I like or what my favourite movie is.  I’ve never seen it as snobbery though, I see it as passion and passions should really be shared.  It’s not snobbery to want to tell people that these films are great and that if they watched them or knew something about them and understood them, then maybe they’d find them great too.  It’s not snobbery to say that film can be about more than a cheap thrill or a CGI fix and that there’s as much pleasure in trusting a movie to reward you if you’re patient, think about it and let a director tell a different kind of story in a different way to what you’re used to.  The magic of cinema for me is that you never know what you’re going to dig up next, not digging up yet more of the same.  I love finding movies that are new and exciting.

I have intellectual issues with the idea of canonicity and “greatest films” lists and I do believe in the subjectivity of film taste and that movies should ultimately be understood in the context in which they were made.  But I still had a fantastic time exploring the supposedly “greatest movies ever made” and I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend that anyone else do the same and to go on and seek out more unusual films from more cinemas than just modern Hollywood.

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Categories: Movies
  1. April 1, 2012 at 11:12 pm

    Excellent post! I love so many of the movies you named, especially Kurosawa, Leone, Charlie Chaplin and Hitchcock. It’s fantastic that you not only finished seeing all 100 movies but that you even undertook the journey. Way to go! Of course now you finished one creative quest, you need to start another. What do you think you’re going to do?

  2. April 5, 2012 at 2:56 am

    What a wonderful panegyric. And about damned time you updated your blog. I still haven’t seen seven of those movies (I will!), and I would wager that there are quite a few people that have *only* seen seven.

    Your reflection on this accomplishment feels very similar to how I felt when I finally finished the AFI list. I don’t know that everything on it was top tier, but it gave me a good sense for how Hollywood would like itself to be remembered. One of the things that I think has been most instructive for me, personally, as I tried to educate myself about cinema, is that I went from having awful, thoughtless, mainstream taste to having exacting, adventurous, *cough*pretentious*cough* taste, and finally to the taste that I’m currently cultivating (which may still be pretentious, thoughtless, awful, etc., but I just don’t care). The thing is that I can now enjoy perfectly mainstream fare and find elements to appreciate or about which to develop a nuanced perspective. I wouldn’t be able to do that without having raided the “best of” backlog and reading up on critical perspectives and film history. I can now find a Paul W.S. Anderson suckfest to be critically interesting (or even sort of good!) in a way I could not have done a few years ago.

    I also share your incredulity that legitimate “classics” are so hard to track down. It floors me that some Z-grade piece of junk from the 80s can get a Blu-Ray release, but Celine and Julie Go Boating is somehow tied up in legal limbo or something equally ridiculous.

    It’s also somewhat reassuring that you didn’t dig Color of Pomegranates, either. I just plain didn’t “get” it. I think that there’s something there to get, and perhaps I have to be far more educated in Armenian art and history or something, and it was intriguing in a lot of ways, even in my ignorance, simply because you don’t often see films that are almost entirely comprised of static tableaux. It’s one of those movies that I almost wish could have been filmed in 3D, because there was so much texture and depth there. But I didn’t understand a bit of it, so I found very little to hang on to. One of these years, perhaps I’ll do a little more research, then view it again. After that, if I still don’t dig it, maybe I’ll be at peace with it.

    Again, great post, and post more often.

  3. Alex M
    April 26, 2012 at 8:32 am

    Thanks so much for your comments you guys! Sorry I’ve been a bit slack in responding to them … receiving them made me smile, though!

    Ellen, I just don’t know what I’m going to do to fill that void or even if that void *can* be filled. Choosing to watch through the list was a start of a new love of movies for me and in that sense I don’t think I could just pick another one and for it to have that same kind of impact on my life… it’ll just be another list. Of course, I still have Matt’s top 100 movies to watch through (another project I managed to stall with for no good reason!!) I’m also thinking of “specialising” a little bit, as it were. I’ve always had a particular interest in French New Wave cinema so I might arrange my own little project to make myself a bit of an expert in that … I’ve always longed to spend more time with Truffaut, Rivette, Chabrol, Rohmer et al.

    Matt, I agree completely with your comments re: appreciating mainstream movies. My experiences have been somewhat similar in that I look back on my movie taste of 10-15 years ago and literally cringe at what passed for a good movie in my eyes. Nowadays I still enjoy a lot of those movies but it’s with a much broader context and understanding of what goes into them and why they are what they are. I have no issue with anyone enjoying a Paul W S Anderson movie and I actively encourage people to think about his movies in the way you suggest – with a critical perspective – but I do have an issue with someone not understanding where those films lie on the food chain and why. As we’ve spoken about before (and you’ve videoblogged about), one has to justify one’s opinion when one says “that film was fun”

    heh Colour of Pomegranates! I think that was one of those experiences when you know that you’re watching something kinda significant – possibly largely because you’ve been told that it’s significant – but you can’t really get a handle on what to do with what you’re watching. I hate being dismissive of this kind of art, and yet I don’t have the toolkit to do anything else with it, or to say anything about it. At least I feel in a position that if I happen to read about the movie I can engage with the writing having experienced the film … and I may have the opportunity to come back to it at another point a little wiser. Interestingly I initially had that reaction to Mirror when I began watching it 3-4 years ago. It wasn’t going well – it simply seemed incomprehensible to me – and so I shelved it for another day. When I watched it the other week, I wouldn’t say it was with a massive understanding, but I felt some kind of connection with what I saw that I couldn’t before.

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