100 Best Films of the Century

By Barry Norman

As the millennium approaches, it is becoming apparent that now is the time to be making lists. What have been the most important scientific discoveries of the century? Who were the greatest hockey players? What were the best movies?

The special difficulty in making lists of the best in the arts is how to weigh the old against the new. When we say “best” we usually mean some combination of popular durability, influence, and historical relevance – all of which require the passage of time.

In introducing his list of the best movies, Barry Norman confesses as much, saying that a movie must first be allowed to “mature.” This may explain why 50 of his choices come from the ’40s and ’50s, while only eight come from the century’s final two decades.

As far as the list itself is concerned, there is surprisingly little to get upset about. There are obvious personal biases (Ealing comedies and the work of Martin Scorsese), and a few quirky choices (Gregory’s Girl?), but otherwise the classics are all in. Citizen Kane, The Third Man, The Maltese Falcon, Apocalypse Now – these would all be on my list too.

In fact, the main problem I have with Norman’s list is its predictability. In his introductory history of film he reveals an attitude entirely in line with the critical establishment. With regard to the contemporary scene he champions independent filmmakers who dare to make art while Hollywood pumps out hi-tech industrial products based on comic strips. He presents himself as the connoisseur who searches for “the odd gleam of gold” among “all the crap.”

It sounds very noble, but I can’t help but feel it misses the point. The problem with movies today is not with the big-budget, special-effects spectaculars and formula-driven dramas. Popular films are better today than they have ever been. The real problem is with the supposedly good movies, the “independent” art-house critical darlings.

Movies like Godzilla, Independence Day, and yes, even The Waterboy will always be with us, and for the most part they deliver on their promises. That is to say, they aren’t very good, but they do provide some entertainment without making any great claims for art.

It is our serious cinema that more often insults our intelligence with pretentious and self-indulgent bores. And it is this situation that critics like Norman perpetuate.

A good example of the kind of thing I am talking about can be seen in Norman’s reaction to two recent movies. Is Titanic on the list? “Certainly not, though it would demand a place in any list of the most over-praised films of the century.” In contrast, Norman hails L. A. Confidential as “a brilliant thriller” that “came very close to forcing its way on the list.”

Now this is sheer nonsense. In the first place, Titanic was not over-praised. It did very well at the box office, but was generally dumped on by critics. Indeed, Norman alludes to the most famous dig about it by calling it “the McDonald’s of movies.”

On the other hand, one of the most egregious examples of critical herd behaviour in recent years was the response to L. A. Confidential. Winner of both the New York and Los Angeles Film Critics Best Picture awards in 1997, it received the accolades of an instant classic. In particular, the screenplay was singled out as one of the best examples of the art since Chinatown.

And yet what was so good about L. A. Confidential? It featured a conventional story involving two of the most worn-out stereotypes in film today: the square young rookie cop buddied with the tough, rule-breaking veteran. The plot was hamstrung by a bunch of completely irrelevant supporting roles for stars and an incoherent and uninteresting crime. Finally, the whole thing concludes in an absurd bloodbath that has one of the heroes being blown away at close range only to be resurrected so he can ride into the sunset with Kim Basinger (the hooker with the heart of gold).

A Chinatown for the ’90s, to be sure.

And this is the problem. It has traditionally been from the low-budget “indie” that the film industry has drawn its creative strength. But lately the direction of influence has been reversed. And if the most critically acclaimed films of this generation are only rip-offs of mass market formulas, then the movies may really be at the end of their creative rope.

Calling this book the Best Films of the Century is, of course, a bit silly since this is the only century that has had films of any substance. In time, “the art form of the modern age” will also pass, and the next century will require its own lists of arts still unimagined.

Review first published January 16, 1999.


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