The list is alive

Everywhere you look these days, there's a list. Yearly top 10 movie lists, weekly box office lists, greatest ever, worst ever, AFI and Sight & Sound — if you can name it, you can find a list for it. But they all evince a certain static exclusivity.

Then there's the IMDB Top 250. Maintained by the Internet Movie Database, the Amazon-owned film almanac that millions of visitors every day count on for film credits, the Top 250 list is compiled by voters registered with the site who rank films on a scale of 1-10. IMDB then plugs it into a formula they describe as "Bayesian" (a method of calculating probability) to come up with an ever-evolving, user-generated list of the best movies ever made. Yesterday, Infernal Affairs was No. 250. Today, it's King Vidor's The Big Parade. By the time this article is published, it will be something else. The flexible nature of the list is at once its greatest asset and its greatest flaw: It's not the same boring selections for 10 years in a row, but it is subject to wild bouts of rampant fanboyism, letting the likes of Star Trek (No. 99) and The Dark Knight (No. 7) enter the list the moment they are released, or sometimes before, as was the case with Public Enemies last month (though that film has promptly shuffled off the list). How can any movie be considered in the company of The Godfather (No. 2) or The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (No. 4) on its opening weekend? (The top spot, by the way, currently belongs to The Shawshank Redemption.) Despite what some claim makes the list critically suspect — a writer for CNET described the list as a victim of "mob mentality" — it's hard to ignore the voice of the people. It became even harder to ignore when I realized how many of the Top 250, this list of unsuspected value that is often snickered at, I hadn't seen.

Some were for good reasons, some not. Lawrence of Arabia (No. 41), for instance, I was hoping to catch in 70 mm my first time. Rope (No. 214) and Witness for the Prosecution (No. 127) I'd never gotten around to, while I had very little interest in ever seeing Ben-Hur (No. 141) or The Prestige (No. 83). But a certain sense of duty, or you could call it acute anxiety, hit me and it became an all-consuming, obsessive mission to finish off the few dozen unseen films on the list.

What follows are selections from the notes of my journey.

Thursday, March 19

When you hear the title The African Queen (No. 199), you don't think of two people sitting on a boat, arguing about liquor and God and falling in love while trying to blow up a German ship. It's been a long time since I've known the dull, fuzzy embrace of VHS, but it's well worth the step down in quality.

Monday, March 23

I'm not sure what it is about Double Indemnity (No. 47) that doesn't click for me; I love noir and I love Billy Wilder. Perhaps I've romanticized it too much, but you're supposed to fall in love during Billy Wilder films. That didn't happen here because this never felt like a Billy Wilder film. Neither does Witness for the Prosecution or Stalag 17 (No. 193), but both of those click just fine.

Wednesday, April 15

There's nothing like celebrating tax day with a little Russian roulette and "Can't Take My Eyes Off You." The Deer Hunter makes me mourn the fact that all we have left of Robert De Niro is his empty shell in Meet the Fockers (unranked).

Wednesday, April 22

Finally, a classic movie I have a legitimate excuse for not having seen; The Lion King (No. 169) came out at a time when I thought I was too old for Disney cartoons. I don't thoroughly enjoy it the way I do Pixar films or Peter Pan and Dumbo (both unranked). There's a timelessness I expect from a Disney cartoon that this one is missing.

Monday, May 18

I throw my back out. There are no advantages to life with a thrown-out back except for this: It helps keep the mind from wandering when you watch Lawrence of Arabia and The Bridge on the River Kwai (No. 69) in the same day. When it comes to David Lean, I still prefer his small, intimate films — Brief Encounter (No. 166), Great Expectations (No. 230) — over the sprawling epics.

Saturday, May 30

I caught The Prestige earlier, and while I liked it, there is something so needlessly tedious about Nolan's films. It's hard to get into them the first time, and they have little re-watch value for me, even The Dark Knight.

Sunday, May 31

Giulietta Masina has one of cinema's perfect faces, and she uses every pore in Nights of Cabiria (No. 147). It's so maddeningly brilliant how expressive she is. She looks like she's 2 feet tall in some of the shots in La Strada (No. 213) standing next to giant Anthony Quinn.

Monday, June 1

I'm less hostile about Up entering the list on its first weekend of release than I was about Star Trek. I did give Up five stars in my review for this paper, but it does no favors for the credibility of the list. That said, I think that Up will remain on the list over time. I just can't figure out if it's a blessing or a curse that I am seeing these Pixar films for the first time through adult eyes. Thinking back on something like Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (unranked), I realize that I enjoyed it so much as a kid for such different reasons than I enjoy it now.

Thursday, June 11

Shadow of a Doubt (No. 184) and The Lady Vanishes (No. 198) are terribly disappointing. It's rare that I don't like a Hitchcock film, and even more rare to bump into two stinkers in a row. Luckily, Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman stepped in to save the day with Notorious (No. 116), which I don't hesitate to put on the same level as Rear Window (No. 16), Dial M for Murder (No. 200) and North by Northwest (No. 30).

Friday, June 12

I don't hesitate to put Rope up on the same level as Notorious.

Sunday, June 27

Goddamn it, these sons of bitches behind Patton (No. 228) made a fine film — a damn fine film.

Wednesday, July 1

I'm not sure I needed to hear Jimmy Stewart saying the words "sexual climax" or "panties" ever in my life, but the back-and-forth dance between Stewart and George C. Scott in Anatomy of a Murder (No. 202) is perhaps the best tandem in a courtroom drama that I've ever seen. Though there is something terribly incongruous about Stewart as a cigar-smoking, convertible-driving jazz fan that I can't quite accept.

Friday, July 3

It becomes a tedious affair watching so many great films in a row without a break. I sometimes wonder if I'm doing the films a disservice by cramming them in without taking the time to digest. Sometimes a stupid movie is called for to clear the palate; sometimes you just need to turn your critical brain off and watch something like Ladies and Gentlemen, the Fabulous Stains (unranked). That's a surefire way to gain even more appreciation for the likes of Gandhi (No. 164) or A Streetcar Named Desire (No. 205).

Saturday, July 4

Why did I save Ben-Hur for last? Because it's a long biblical epic and I find Charlton Heston to be extremely hit or miss. This was a miss. It's a curious thing how biblical films used to be the bread and butter of Hollywood. Hard to imagine that being the case today.

And so, on a steaming hot Independence Day, the crossing-off that inadvertently started when I was 3 years old and saw Return of the Jedi (No. 114) comes to an end with a blond-haired, blue-eyed, Midwestern Jewish prince. Except that it hasn't come to an end, and never will. The Big Parade just moved up three spots and I have to try to dig up a VHS copy. After all, the list is alive and it beckons.

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