This site is unlike any other on the internet: this is the Louvre of great cinema and a suggestion to UNESCO for cinematic preservation.
And it all starts here, with a new story that contains traces and impressions of every story you’ve ever heard before.
Wait a minute, wait a minute! You ain’t heard nothin’ yet. The site’s podcasts are here.
For my people who like reading, let me tell you a story about the best work of hundreds of thousands. Their work has “Fencing, fighting, torture, revenge, giants, monsters, chases, escapes, true love, miracles, swordplay, evil princes, beautiful princesses, and yes, some kissing.” Sit back and listen to a story about stories by Shakespeare, Scheherazade, Socrates, Shikibu, and Spielberg, among many others. I want to tell you the story of the 24 stories told by this gallery, each of which contains 100 of the greatest stories.
But why? Because with streaming services monopolizing our collective national and international memory, we need a site like this, which says: SEE these films. SAVE these films. KNOW that these films exist. Hey, UNESCO: designate these films as cultural heritage.
Consider the UNESCO language: “outstanding universal value from the point of view of history, art, or science…outstanding universal value from the historical, aesthetic, ethnological, or anthropological point of view.” That’s this site – and that’s how it differs from most “best of” lists.
Right now you’re reading the story of this gallery, or website, a story that doesn’t really begin when I started creating the site. Nor did this gallery begin when humanity dawned as in the famous scene from 2001. No, the story that this site tells began in the nineteenth century, after people like Niepce and Daguerre created photography and other people began to make those pictures move like the Chinese picture wheels that had existed for millennia.
Little by little, person by person, advance by advance, motion pictures became a thing. Alice Guy-Blachè and Georges Méliès saw the Lumières’ astonishing actualities and turned them into new stories that showed the world possibilities of even more stories. Two decades later, the (responding) world showed that it was ready to sit in darkened theaters and watch filmed stories even, or especially, when the stories went on for more than an hour. In one sense, the 24 stories told here begin around that time, the mid-1910s, when people all around the world first heard the words “Hollywood” and “celebrity.”
In another very real sense, the 24 stories told by this site are each “about” 100 discreet stories (i.e. movies), and those 100 discreet motion pictures are each made out of hundreds of personal stories from the people who worked on the films, the thousands who have reviewed the films, and the millions who have enjoyed the films. The history of art is less of a procession of geniuses (as it is sometimes presented) and more of a conversation between artists and audiences. They hear stories, they modify them to tell us stories, we use their stories as part of new stories in and about our lives, and if we’re lucky, perhaps humanity progresses a little, or finds the comfort or release or jouissance to be able to progress a little.
In yet another sense, the story I’m telling you about this website begins in 1984, when I was 13, on a weeklong river-rafting trip from one end of the Grand Canyon to the other. I loved it, for sedimental reasons. I learned then that for me, the best possible job would be presenting history and beauty in equal measure. That is one part of the story of where you are right now, here at the equivalent of the headwaters of the Colorado River. Another part is my years of graduate film studies work at the University of Southern California and the University of Nottingham, as well as my decade of teaching film classes.
This site walks you through 24 different histories of the first century of feature-length cinema, with an emphasis on “best loved” cinema: most loved, highest ranked, and most influential. In a way, this is impossible; in another way, every museum does something similar. You visit a museum, you walk through the galleries, you see the art, you get an impression, and you leave. For some, it ends there. Others use their visits as a starting point to dig deeper into the stories that the art tells, the stories about making the art, the stories about the reception of the art, or more. This website means to serve both kinds of visitors. It serves visitors who want to just wander through and check out the posters and museum-appropriate placards (a few sentences about the film) and leave. But because we’re online and we can do it, every “stop” also includes what you see in the following description.
Each stop on this virtual-museum tour looks something like the screenshot from the “A” gallery at right (without the yellow highlighter): links to clips, trailers, imdb, letterboxd, rotten tomatoes, Wikipedia, and text and video analyses of the film, as well as a link to stream the film.
This story, this site, is about 2400 of the best-loved movies, but the links provide portals into more stories and more ways of looking at the same stories. When you travel, you inevitably meet someone who says “but wait have you been here?” And if you reroute to go there, you’ll meet a new person who says “so glad you came, now what about thisother thing?” We’ll never get to all of it, will we? Still, by providing surfeits of hyperlinks next to each film, we remain more conscious of the various ancestors and species and tributaries and geologic data that are near, if not always closely inspected, on our voyage through this Grand Canyon.
Ah, but why these 2400 stories (films)? Why these 24 lists? To be clear, objections to the content are part of the conversation. This is art, not the periodic table; we can always disagree. This site holds ten truths to be self-evident:
1) “Ranking” one film as “better” than another is less interesting than making several of them into a chronological story
2) Limits are often a good idea, as when other major historical museums do not attempt to showcase recent art; the first century of widespread feature filmmaking makes a similarly reasonable pool, from 1915 to 2019
3) Short films are great but again, limits are often necessary; except for non-fiction and experimental films, these are galleries of information about feature films, defined here as at least an hour long
4) The AFI and Letterboxd, among others, group off films by counts of 100, and grouping off 100 motion pictures in 100 years feels right
5) Lists are (or can be) stories and stories are (or can be) lists
6) Everything from Rashomon to remakes to prequels to “Wicked” has accustomed us to the notion of telling the “same” story from another angle, so there’s nothing wrong or weird about going through cinema history 24 different times from different angles
7) A list of 1000+ great movies is a little too long if merely presented in ranked, alphabetical, or chronological order; better to break them up into something like an Aarne-Thompson-Uther index of cinema (with letter and number, e.g. A57 or L22)
8) TV is great, but again, limits are helpful, and thus these galleries avoid films that were originally made for TV (with exceptions based loosely on international theatrical distribution)
9) “Great” isn’t the entire UNESCO criteria; “important” also means “influential,” and thus list/story readers should get used to a greatness-to-influence ratio of about 3-to-1
10) Worrying about film spoilers is silly; that said, the descriptions here try not to go beyond the film’s first 20 minutes, or what one might read on a Netflix description
Famous film scholars David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson constructed and deconstructed the “Basic Story” of film history, noting the Big Important Films of Introduction to Cinema classes as well as some of the reasons that those Big Important Films aren’t as important as reputed. To some degree this site follows and extends their insights. (That said, Bordwell often disagrees with those who claim to follow his insights.) Any website that mentions Citizen Kane and Battleship Potemkin, then gives equal time to more than two thousand other films, must somehow complicate the Basic Story (also called the Standard Version).
As with the Louvre or Hermitage or Vatican Museums or any other large collection of smaller collections, this site has an implied order, here corresponding to the English alphabet, partly for the same reason that a movie screen is a rectangle and not some other parallelogram: it just looks and feels better. Visitors to Louvre-like museums are well aware that the suggested viewing order is not a mandate, and often chart their own paths. (Here you could skip A and start at W with Women’s Film Wonders!)
Museums do not show you the same work twice, and neither does this site. One reason to visit the galleries in alphabetical order is that when the collections become more topic-specific, a casual viewer to, say, the Musical 100 might say, “but where’s Singin’ in the Rain”? Well, it was on the A-List. Think of the site like a multiacre museum that puts its greatest hits in the first eight rooms or so…with you knowing full well that the further afield rooms may display art closer to your tastes.
That brings us to the name “best loved films” and the need for justification of “best” and “loved” and “best-loved.” Some anti-elitists will object that the films of the early lists, especially A through G or so, may have been ranked “best” but are hardly “loved.” Others, including some elitists, will object that films on the later lists, especially in galleries O, R, S, and T, may be “loved” but are hardly “best.” Well, can’t we all get along? I believe some of the fans who hate it when “movies” are called “films” overstate how much watching canonized “great” films is a chore akin to eating your spinach. “Movie fans” trying some Basic Story films may be surprised how much they like or even love them. I also believe that some of the more hoity-toity cinema snobs can be too quick to pooh-pooh certain popular or midnight-matinee sensations, and if they were to give some of those “cheesy” films a chance, they might actually revise what they, ahem, love best.
Cinematic history does not easily distinguish between quality and influence; one often blends into the other. “Best loved” also means many of the “best” filmmakers have “loved” these films. You know their names (you will see them here) and the many awards they’ve won; if you google their Top 10 (or 20, or 50, or whatever) favorite films, that will help explain some of the choices that may seem otherwise idiosyncratic.
“Best loved films” also works as an escape clause when you tell me “but the entire site is meaningless because you forgot THIS film!” Ask yourself: is that film really “best loved”? You love it, yes, and so does a certain corner of the internet, but note where it did NOT get “best love.” The 2400 films here include everything from: Roger Ebert’s 370 Great Movies list, the most recent Sight and Sound Top 250, all the various AFI 100 lists, the IMDb Top 250 (before 2016), the many mainstay midnight matinees, the international Top 200 grossers of all time (adjusted for inflation), as well as every single movie (before 2016) with a “100” score from Rotten Tomatoes. (A “100” RT score means only that no one gave that film a bad review; that film may well be “worse” than one with a “90” score, simply because the “90” film was bold enough to risk mixed reactions.)
Remember that for most people, a site about 2400 films isn’t being too exclusive, it’s being too inclusive. The basic spirit of the site is to have and show love for so, so many different kinds of movies.
And fear not! I have a plan for your excluded film. The next gallery I create is going to be the Y-List: Your Next 100. Ping me (email, twitter, Instagram, whatever) and I will seriously consider Your Favorite Film(s).
This particular story ends here. Where it began. Where it begins 24 other stories. Which are each stories of 100 stories. Which are each part of millions of stories. Thank you for reading this story. Thank you for reading other stories. Thank you for making these stories part of your story. Thank you for best-loving cinema, and thank you, cinema, for best-loving us. You remind us again and again how much we have in common and how beautiful the world can be. And now, some more reminders.
Or…if 20+ galleries is too many, here’s a link to the ENTIRE COLLECTION, from A1 to W100.
(X1-Z100 coming in the future.)
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