Thoughts (and a Call to Action) on the Latest Update to the 1000 Greatest Films

Bill Georgaris has done it again. The list compiler from down under has collected over 200 more ballots in his ongoing quest to maintain the most qualified list of the top 1,000 movies of all time. The result is 96 titles from last December's list being replaced with others - not as dramatic as the 139 titles that changed guard due to last year's update, which left yours truly back 40 spots in his quest to watch all 1000 titles. This time around, I'm happy to report that the update has set me back only one title.  I reflected this adjustment over my last couple project entries: 942 (83) Mädchen in Uniform and 942 (84) The Art of Vision (the parenthetical numbers indicate which entry the film belongs in my blog coverage of my countdown - in other words, I've blogged about 84 of the 942 movies that I've seen from the TSPDT 1000).  I feel that I am now in position to complete my blogging of the TSPDT 1000 by the end of next year (barring another substantial update that would set me back).  My plan is to watch a few more titles over the holidays, and then watch on average one entry a week in 2009. And of course, the video essays will continue, with a lineup of distinguished guests, and hopefully will take some more innovative forms as well.

I don't expect to be the first person to have seen all of the 1000 greatest films. If that was my aim, I would have probably been finished years ago. Rather than rush to the finish, I started this blog to savor the journey and commemorate with each viewing with my own reflections.  I also offer compendium of as many useful and informative links that I could find on the web, for each title; each time I do so reminds me of the stunning wealth of information available for free online for anyone who wishes to educate themselves in the art of cinema, or just about anything else. Through all the links I discover for each film, I've stumbled upon new thinkers, new ways of thinking, new histories, new ways of seeing. It's like being lost during registration week of college and walking into a classroom that isn't yours, but whose lesson you find so strangely captivating you don't want to leave. I've felt that way most recently in compiling notes on Stan Brakhage's The Art of Vision, a film so true to its title that it makes me wonder if just watching Brakhage's oeuvre would be just as if not more beneficial than this current project.  In other words, whereas most list projects work towards completion, this project has been a perpetual process of opening.

I offer these thoughts to remind us what lists like the TSPDT 1000 Greatest Films are good for. The titles and their rankings mean nothing but what significance we bring to them, and watching all the films doesn't prove a thing except for what we can get out of them. To some who realize this, lists may be a pointless endeavor to begin with. When I last discussed the list with film critic Dave Kehr, he expressed far less concern for the so-called list of 1000 than for the hundreds (if not thousands) of movies from the silent and early talkie period that are known to exist but haven't been offered by the keepers (typically studios) who own them for rediscovery.  His point being, how can we possibly know what the 1000 greatest films are if we haven't even seen films that could possibly rank among them? It's a point well worth keeping in mind as one looks over the TSPDT list.

Another consideration, one that's dear to me, is the need for increased appreciation of films from outside the U.S. and Europe, as well as experimental cinema, films directed by women, and documentaries. I addressed this concern following last year's update; one year later, it seems the situation has only gotten worse. Bill himself sent me an email with some disheartening statistics:

900 of the films come from North America (486) & Europe (414). Up 11 films from the 2007 update.

Only 80 from Asia (down 8), 9 from South America (down 4), 6 from Australasia (up 2), and just 5 from Africa (same).

Additionally, there are only 16 films directed by women - I'd might as well list them all:

Jeanne Dielman - Chantal Akerman Toute une nuit - Chantal Akerman The Piano - Jane Campion The Night Porter - Liliana Cavani Daisies - Vera Chytilova Lost in Translation - Sofia Coppola Beau travail - Claire Denis Meshes of the Afternoon - Maya Deren India Song - Marguerite Duras Sugar Cane Alley - Euzhan Palcy Orlando - Sally Potter Triumph of the Will- Leni Riefenstahl Olympia - Leni Riefenstahl Too Early, Too Late - Jean-Marie Straub & Daniele Huillet (there are two other Straub-Huillet films but they only list Straub as director) Cleo from 5 to 7 - Agnes Varda Vagabond - Agnes Varda

Experimental cinema fares little better - My rough count is 19 titles that I would categorize as experimental:

L'Age d'or The Art of Vision The Blood of a Poet Un Chant d'amour Chelsea Girls Un Chien andalou Flaming Creatures The Hart of London La Jetee Koyaanisqatsi Lucifer Rising Meshes of the Afternoon La Region centrale Rose Hobart Scenes from Under Childhood Scorpio Rising Tom, Tom, The Piper's Son Wavelength Zorn's Lemna

You would assume that the number of documentaries, a genre that has thrived especially of late, would be significantly higher, but I count roughly 33 documentaries on the TSPDT 1000 (and that's using a fairly generous definition of the genre):

Berlin: Symphony of a Great City Caro diario Chronicle of a Summer Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach Close-Up A Diary for Timothy F for Fake Fellini's Roma Fires Were Started Gimme Shelter Grey Gardens Histoire(s) du cinema Hitler: A Film from Germany Hotel Terminus The Hour of the Furnaces Land of Silence and Darkness Land Without Bread Lessons of Darkness Les Maitres fous Man of Aran Moana A Moment of Innocence Nanook of the North Night and Fog Olympia Salesman Sans Soleil Shoah Song of Ceylon Too Early, Too Late The Thin Blue Line Triumph of the Will

[It's worth noting that Kazuo Hara's documentary The Emperor's Naked Army Marches On is the film that fell from the most spots off the list - from 454 to nowhere. How is that even possible?]

The degree to which the list mis-represents the "best" of cinema along lines of geography, genre and gender are enough to wonder if Dave Kehr is right all along - why place importance on a list at all? But rather than call for a dismissal of the list (which would be particularly heart-breaking for me, given the years of attention I've invested into it), I want to fall back upon the description I gave above, that this list isn't something set in stone, but an opening for discovery and dialogue. So I want to take what I perceive as deep flaws in the list as an opportunity to call upon the community of cinephiles around the world to help address those shortcomings.

I am calling for "critics, filmmakers, reviewers, scholars and other likely film types" who have a particular interest in any of the following types of movies to submit their lists of greatest films to me:

- cinemas outside of the U.S. or Europe - cinema by women - experimental cinema - documentary

I attempted to collect lists that give due attention to these cinemas after last December's update, with Bill Georgaris' blessing.  I only collected a handful last time - this time around I am making a much needed stronger effort. If you are such a person, or if you know someone, a professor, filmmaker or informed enthusias, who has a passion for any of those cinemas, I want lists that will go into the overall rankings and hopefully take the list beyond it's current lamentable state of 90% Hollywood/U.S./European narrative features, and something truly representative of the beautiful variety that the art of cinema has to offer.

Please submit your list to alsolikelife [at] gmail [dot] com, and I will forward to Bill for the next update.

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Getting back to the current update, I am happy to see a number of films added (or in some cases re-added) to the list, especially Rose Hobart, one of my favorite films, as well as Fort Apache, Angel Face, An American in Paris, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, and Vive L'amour, which marks the TSPDT 1000 debut of Taiwanese director Tsai Ming-liang. I'm glad that Quadrophenia is back, as it makes my original entry on the film relevant again. The same goes double for the three video essays for movies that were taken off the list a year ago but are happily back: Evil Dead II, The Heiress, and Unfaithfully Yours.

I am less happy about the inclusion of Lost in Translation, Trainspotting, and The Matrix. Less said on that the better, though it upsets me that they were added at the expense of films like Awaara, one of my all-time favorites, and When a Woman Ascends the Stairs, the first Naruse film I saw, which in addition to being a masterpiece has special personal significance to me.

Sadly, there are several films for which I produced video essays (some of which rank among the work I'm proudest of) that are no longer on the list.  If you have a moment, please watch these clips - though they are no longer on the list, the films (and videos) are still worthy of your attention.

...And God Created Woman The Draughtsman's Contract (featuring commentary by Karina Longworth) El Cid (featuring commentary by Mike D'Angelo) Hour of the Star Light Sleeper (featuring Paul Schrader and Ed Lachmann) The Saragossa Manuscript El Topo (featuring the IFC Center)