How we chose the 100 All-Time Greatest Movies

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Image Credit: Everett Collection

I became a film critic to celebrate the movies I love — to spread the word about them, to talk about why they enthrall, why they matter, what they mean. And really, what could fulfill that desire more completely than spreading the word about the greatest movies you’ve ever seen? It’s like organizing the ultimate banquet: one perfect, sublime, exquisitely tasty dish after another. That said, how does one choose? In putting together EW’s list of the 100 All-Time Greatest Movies, I figured, at first, that it would be easy. Working with my fellow critics Lisa Schwarzbaum and Chris Nashawaty, it seemed simple enough to pick out the movies that each of us thought of as great, classic, timeless. And sure enough, it is easy — until you start to look over the list of films that have made your first cut, and you realize that there are about 175 titles there. Nearly half of them have to go. And that’s a little painful. (I’m sill upset that I had to lose McCabe & Mrs. Miller, The General, and Natural Born Killers.)

From the start, we were looking for movies that entertained us to the core, but did so with a big vision — that is, movies you could watch over and over again, and probably have, because there’s something about them (an addictive quality of delight, or beauty, or suspense, or laughter, or profundity, or all of the above) that simply never gets old. What was most important to us, though, is that nothing on the list — nothing! not one single film! — would be there because it was “supposed” to be there. We looked at each and every movie with open hearts and open eyes and open minds, asking the essential question about what the experience of that movie was, and is, and whether it belonged on the list, and where, and why. There would be no biases, no agendas. Not one of our choices would be deliberately idiosyncratic or “provocative.” We would not drop, say, an obvious choice like Top Hat (#60) to make room for, say, Takashi Miike’s Audition (even though we think it’s a great horror film). History wouldn’t work for a movie or against it. This would simply be as honest as possible a ranking of our ultimate movie passion.

Here are two telling examples of that. If you look at our top 10, you’ll see that #6 is It’s a Wonderful Life, a movie that everyone in the world thinks of as a legendary Hollywood classic. By contrast, the film that comes just after it, at #7, is probably, for a lot of people, the first real eyebrow-raiser on the list: Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets (that’s Robert De Niro as Johnny Boy, from Mean Streets, in the photo up top). Some may think that, yes, Scorsese belongs in the top 10, but wouldn’t Taxi Driver or Raging Bull have been a more rightful choice?

On the surface, our #6 and #7 choices couldn’t look more different. In each case, though, our only guide was the power of art. It’s a Wonderful Life, for instance, is thought of as a warm and toasty Yuletide fable, and of course it is, but if you watch it closely (especially James Stewart’s aw-shucks-on-the-edge-of-the-abyss performance), it is also one of the most soul-churning Hollywood movies ever made, with a message of almost radical power: that none of us, really, quite grasps the wonderfulness of life as we’re living it. That’s why the movie makes you cry, why it’s as darkly harrowing at it is happy — and that’s why, seen with open eyes, It’s a Wonderful Life is one of the 10 greatest movies ever made.

And what about Mean Streets? Scorsese has made films more famous, but he has never made one as live-wire spontaneous or as volcanic in its emotional and psychological power. In our view, it is truly his essential rock & roll vision of crime and sin. Which is why, four decades after it was made, Mean Streets emerges as one of the 10 greatest movies ever made. But why no Raging Bull? That’s the first of many examples I could offer of a film we left off the list that we do think is a great film. But when it came out, in 1980, Raging Bull became a bit of a poster child for the fading of the New Hollywood (its defeat by Jaws and Star Wars), and we think it was a bit overrated for that reason. We truly believe that Taxi Driver (#42) and GoodFellas (#68) are greater Scorsese films. Hence, Raging Bull didn’t make the cut.

That example raises a more general question: How do you deal with the greatest filmmakers, the ones who over the course of their careers made many masterpieces? The most legendary example is Alfred Hitchcock, who I would call nothing less than the quintessential film director. We tried to reflect the vastness of his reach, and once again, we went not with “reputation” but with the freshest possible sense of the thoughts and feelings his films inspire. We chose Psycho (#5) as Hitchcock’s greatest film, because half a century after it was made (back in 1960, it seemed almost to be a garish pulp gothic prank), it has emerged as his most hauntingly resonant vision: a movie that changed not just movies but the world. (Its primal shock value seemed to sever the century in half.) Beyond that, we saluted the other Hitchcock films that feel intimate yet almost mythological in their thrills: North by Northwest (#29), which invented the modern action suspense film by turning a man mistaken for a spy into a paranoid projection of the anxiety of all of us, and Notorious (#23), the director’s most rapturous entwinement of romance and dread-ridden danger.

Then, of course, there’s Vertigo, Hitchcock’s personal poem of longing, a film that the prestigious Sight & Sound movie poll chose, just one year ago, as the greatest movie ever made, dethroning — for the first time in the poll’s history — Citizen Kane. Well, look, we adore Vertigo, and always have, which is why it’s #38 on our list. Yet something about it — maybe it’s the slight artiness of its mood, or the slightly bizarre anticlimax of its final shot — makes us feel that in the final analysis (and much of what Vertigo cultists cherish is how the academic-toned analysis of this film goes on and on — it never quite is final), Vertigo is not Hitchcock’s greatest film. Let alone the greatest movie ever made.

That would be Citizen Kane (#1), yet another choice we did not make lightly, or automatically, or with anything but the most up-to-the-minute pleasure sensors as our guide. What is it about Orson Welles’s film that continues so speak to us as no other movie does? It’s that Kane, a film rooted in the Hollywood studio system, seems to invent, in almost every scene, in almost every shot, the DNA of everything that came afterward — the spirit of exploration, of artistic adventure, that would make movies into such an ultimate expressive form. Welles didn’t just craft a great movie; he bottled what moviemaking would forever be — and therefore was, from the exhilarating moment that Kane existed. That’s not just an achievement, it’s a miracle, and it’s one we honor by recognizing that no great movie feels quite as alive when you’re watching it as Citizen Kane does.

If there’s any magnetic principle of taste that rules a list like this one, it’s that the older the film, the more historical backing you have in choosing it, and the more recent the choice, the more work it takes to justify it. As much as we strove to make every single choice fresh — extending to our belief, for example, that Gone with the Wind (#10) isn’t just an immortal soap-operatic “women’s picture” but a genuine tragic romance — there was clearly no major subversion in choosing Singin’ in the Rain (#16) as the greatest of all musicals, or The Gold Rush (#8) as the greatest of all silent comedies, or in stating that Hollywood landmarks as varied as King Kong (#11), The Maltese Falcon (#27), Adam’s Rib (#34), Double Indemnity (#40), The Adventures of Robin Hood (#46), All About Eve (#86), or Sullivan’s Travels (#96) captivate us as infectiously now as they ever did. That John Ford’s dark Western The Searchers (#12) ended up as high as it did testifies to our feeling that the film’s darkness was ahead of its time — that the movie now seems front and center in the culture more than many older Westerns. That The Sound of Music (#24), a famously square musical that many cinema buffs revile, ended up as high as it did testifies to our feeling that a movie that purely in touch with the spirit of goodness may touch the soul as profoundly, in its way, as a cosmic head trip like 2001: A Space Odyssey, which comes in just after it at #25.

Speaking of 2001, we had no problem with the fact that Stanley Kubrick made our list four times, the other three movies being A Clockwork Orange (#47), The Shining (#66), and Dr. Strangelove (#69). Or that Steven Spielberg did as well, coming in with Jaws (#18), Schindler’s List (#56), E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (#62), and Raiders of the Lost Ark (#78). These two directors, like Hitchcock, are giants among giants, and we weren’t about to minimize their achievements. We also felt confident and decisive in placing The Godfather (rather than its sequel, a great film that is still not as good) at #2, since Francis Ford Coppola’s gangster saga has an almost Kane-like quality of maximum dramatic electricity at every moment. It has also earned a place in our culture as the sweeping post-WWII epic of crime, family, destiny. Apart from Mean Streets, the one other ’70s film that makes our top 10 is Robert Altman’s Nashville (#9), with its still unsurpassed sense of life unfolding in front of you almost as though in a documentary.

Other ’70s touchstones like Chinatown (#31), Network (#63), American Graffiti (#71), Dog Day Afternoon (#77), Dirty Harry (#85), and The French Connection (#90) struck us as being movies that, for all the acclaim they received at the time, now look even better. More prophetic. More nostalgically transporting. More shocking in their gutbucket humanity. But it’s when you get past the fabled ’70s that we really worked to ensure that the films we loved we loved with the proper perspective to justify their making this list. Like David Lynch’s Blue Velvet (#15), the mesmerizing surrealist film noir that’s our choice for the greatest movie of the 1980s. Or Barry Levinson’s Diner (#97), a sublime talkfest that seems to cast its shadow over the entire American independent film movement. Or Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused (#80), a youth panorama that’s as pure an act of storytelling magic as anything that movement has given us. The highest-ranking film of relatively recent vintage is Pulp Fiction, which cracked the top 20 at #19, and we felt that that was the perfect place for a movie whose influence is still being absorbed.

It used to be that nothing influenced the vanguard of cinema quite like foreign films, and here, too, we didn’t want to sprinkle token choices around. We wanted each choice to mean something organic, to be a movie that you could see today and go, “Wow!” Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai (#17) remains the epic poem of action cinema. Renoir’s The Rules of the Game (#39) is as casually teeming as a Bruegel canvas: a portrait of humanity from top to bottom. Bergman’s Scenes From a Marriage (#82) is timeless and brilliant in a way that some of his more esoteric efforts (like Persona, which we love, but not enough to include on this list) aren’t. As for All About My Mother (#98), we felt that it was Pedro Almodóvar’s most exhilarating statement, and the foreign-language film of the past two decades that echoed most eloquently around the world. One personal note of disappointment: I would have loved to have included Robert Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest, but couldn’t find a way to squeeze it in.

I love the choices on this list that might appear to be counterintuitive. Like our highlighting of Woodstock (#89) as not just a great documentary but “the single greatest film ever made about the 1960s.” Or our choice of the lusciously depraved Touch of Evil (#75) as the one non-Kane Orson Welles film, marking it as far superior to his tragically bowdlerized but still — sorry! — overrated Magnificent Ambersons. Or our inclusion of Goldfinger (#49) as an essential piece of 20th century pop art. Or our inclusion of Titanic (#52), a movie that was perhaps the most beloved of our time until everyone decided, officially, to hate it. (Not us: We’re still proud to embrace its sentimental majesty.)

Will you argue with this list? Of course you will. If a list like this one didn’t inspire argument, it wouldn’t be worth much. But just remember the one pesky ground rule: If you think of a movie that “should” have been on the list, then you’ll have to take something off to make room for it. Remember, too, that all of film history is a kind of argument, a canon that shape-shifts over time. It will always change, because the human race keeps changing, and so the past keeps coming into focus — or fading out — in new ways. In this list, we strove to balance the past, the present, and even the future, all in the hope that the list, like the great movies it celebrates, will stand that test of time.


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