It’s time, once again, for my biennial 50 Favorite Films. Okay, granted I’ve been doing it offline intermittently for about 30 years, but for comparison, you can also see my 2012 list and 2014 list. You can also read about how I rank the films via a pairwise comparison sort based on the criteria of quality, watchability, and personal resonance.
There were significant changes this year, something that convinces me this is a fun exercise to continue to do every two years or so. Many films plummeted in the rankings and there were even some shake-up in the top 10. I should point out, however, that just like in previous years, this list –like all highly subjective lists– is incredibly well-reasoned.
Yeah, well I made this list before seeing Rogue One. We’ll see if that makes the cut in 2018. Anyway, here are the ground rules:
- These must be feature films (narrative or documentary). Short films aren’t included.
- Film series or franchises do not count as one entry. Each must fend for itself.
- TV movies can be included (I don’t think any are in the top 50)
- TV mini-series are not included.
- Regular TV series are right out.
- These are my favorite films, not a “best of.” If anyone else entirely agrees with my list, one of the two of us is an evil doppelganger/replicant/host.
- There is no rule # 7.
So, without further ado, counting down from 50:
50) The Straight Story
49) Rear Window
48) Stray Dog
47) The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers
45) Groundhog Day
44) The Lego Movie
42) Sense and Sensibility
41) To Kill a Mockingbird
38) The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King
37) The Namesake
36) Mr. Smith Goes to Washington
35) Captain Horatio Hornblower
34) When Harry Met Sally
32) Rob Roy
31) The Dark Crystal
30) Guardians of the Galaxy
29) Field of Dreams
28) The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring
27) The English Patient
26) The Blues Brothers
25) Once Upon a Time in the West
24) The Incredibles
23) Ocean’s Eleven
22) Black Hawk Down
21) The Princess Bride
20) Galaxy Quest
19) The Count of Monte Cristo
17) The Empire Strikes Back
15) The Lives of Others
13) E.T.: The Extra-terrestrial
12) The Godfather, Part II
11) The Court Jester
10) Das Boot
9) North by Northwest
8) Schindler’s List
6) The Shawshank Redemption
4) Raiders of the Lost Ark
3) Master & Commander: The Far Side of the World
1) Singin’ in the Rain
And, as before, here are some…
Basic Stats (note: genres overlap, based on IMDb genres)
- Total films in sorting: 479
- Total Comedies: 11
- Total Dramas: 33
- Total Action-Adventure Films: 17
- Total Sci-Fi/Fantasy Films: 18
- Total Westerns: 2
- Total War Movies: 12
- Total Musicals: 5
- Total Animated Films: 4
- Total films with Liam Neeson: 3
- Mean average year of the 50 films (rounded up): 1986
- Decade with the most favorites: 1980s (12 films)
- The film at the bottom of the list (#479): The Exorcist
- The film at #51 which at least one reader will insist should rank higher: Airplane!
Thoughts? Films I should be sure to watch in time for the next cycle? Leave them in the comments below.
In the meantime, there’s some things I noted…
Long-term Franchises Fell
Star Wars, Star Trek, Lord of the Rings… all of these have been perennial residents of the top 50 for over a decade, and all took a hit. For example:
- Fellowship of the Ring went from #2 to #28
- Two Towers went from #10 to #47
- Return of the King went from #11 to #38
- Empire Strikes Back went from #13 to #17
- Star Wars went from #16 to #69
- Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan went from #44 to #65
Incidentally, for further trivia, the highest rated James Bond is Casino Royale at #78. The highest Monty Python film is Life of Brian at #109 (though the “Python adjacent” films Time Bandits and A Fish Called Wanda come it at #68 and #79 respectively). The highest ranking Space-Opera-set-Primarily-on-a-Desert-Planet is Dune at #119 — and it’s not in danger of being displaced by any other Space-Opera-set-Primarily-on-a-Desert-Planet anytime soon.
I’m wondering if some of the fall in franchise films is because any itch that a film franchise used to scratch is now being scratched by various TV series. Science fiction and fantasy still play a big role. There are 18 in the Favorite 50, with Raiders of the Lost Ark being the highest at #4. And also, the Marvel Cinematic Universe certainly counts as a franchise, and it has an entry in Guardians of the Galaxy at #30 rocketing up from #121 in 2014. Still, there feels like a fundamental shift in what I look for in feature films this year.
There’s a slight uptick in animated films
It’s more than just having 4 films in the top 50 versus 3 films two years ago. There’s 23 films in the top 200 versus 16 films two years ago. And then there’s Zootopia. It’s a 2016 film that’s also in the top 50. Even the impressive Arrival didn’t do that (coming in at #63).
Zootopia had a good shot at entering the top 50 anyway because it was both an excellent film (quality) and is also the first film we saw in the theater as a family (resonance). However, it certainly has been helped by being on streaming Netflix this Fall, and I’ve seen it a couple dozen more times thanks to my kids requesting it… and just like the Toy Story films, it holds up remarkably well on repeat viewing (watchability). And that’s the thing: my wife and I do get to watch films Not-Safe-For-Kids (NSFK), but we get a lot of kids or family programming. When I’m able to watch some PG and PG-13 films more frequently, I wonder if that will change. That leads to…
Frequency is a factor
If I were really wonky, I suppose I’d try and figure out the number of times I had watched each film, including partial views and views-in- completion — and also include the date I last saw the film. Then I could take those data and start hypothesizing on how the quantity and time of viewing influences rankings.
But seriously, this whole exercise is pretty nuts as is.
For right now, it seems sufficient to note where there are strong rankings and revisit films that rank highly and see if they still hold up… or if I’m clinging to memories. I re-watched long-time favorites Miracle on 34th Street and Like Water for Chocolate in the past year and while I still love both, they’ve both fell in the rankings. Miracle dropped so low that Die Hard is now officially my favorite Christmas movie! (albeit at #76)
Maybe I shouldn’t do quite so many films
Sometime, around recording the 250th film in the overall sort, I decided to curb my mania a tad in future sortings. I may still start with a sample size of 400+ films, but I’m probably not going to sort the first bottom half. The top 200+ films will just have to do. In other words, I assemble all 400+ index cards that seem like contenders, I pick the one card at random, and sort every film at either side of it (this year, the first pairwise comparison film was Kagemusha). Assuming my first or second pairwise comparison does elicit a stack of about 200 films on the bottom, I can merrily sort the top half, still getting the same thrill of seeing films race up and down rankings (and other stay steadfast in the Favorite 50).
Be a bit more rigorous on excluding films
Some films just aren’t contenders. I guess if I go ahead and don’t completely sort the bottom half of the stack of 400, this won’t be an issue, but I still think I should go ahead and be a bit more strict about booting films that don’t have a chance.
Readers with too much time on their hands will have noted The Exorcist ranked last in 2014 ranking as well. Yeah, I just don’t like this film, despite Max von Sydow. It’s getting the boot from the 2018 sort. There’s just no point in having it suffer any longer.
So, I didn’t think of a snazzy diagram last week, but this time I did. So the diagram below explains the film pool for the ranking, which is made up of films I love along with some films I’d like to rank. This often is the equivalent of a AA baseball team facing the New York Yankees, but the brutality is abstract, so I allow it. The pool of films is never meant to be “only the best films” — even the best films in their respective genres. And while I have seen a lot of films, there are many good ones that I have not seen, and good films I’ve seen, but do not love and will therefore not rank.
For example, Apocalypse Now is a good film. Some might consider it a great film. I’m sure it’ll make it into many people’s Favorite 50. I’ve seen it multiple times, mostly in theaters with good prints, with every cut of the film there is to see. While there’s many parts of it that I admire –and I think it’s important we all remember that Charlie don’t surf– it will never be one of my favorite films.
It’s also interesting to see films rocket up the list or plummet, so I like adding “new blood,” but the comprehensive quality of the ranking dissipates after #250 or so. In other words, you might be able to say, “What about [Cool film not in the sort]?” and I’ll say, “I completely forgot about that.” But even so, the fact that I forgot about it means it won’t crack the Favorite 50 (I know this because I thought of 8 films after I began the sort this year and folded them all into the rankings — none fared too well).
There will be homework for 2018
In the run up to December 2018, I’ll look over this list and watch some films whose ratings I’m wondering about… as well as making sure to watch some films that didn’t rank and, again, some might rank high and some I just want to see where they wind up.
These films include:
- Bloody Sunday – I remember it as a poster child for cinema verite docu-drama
- Dave – It’s such a fun Capra-esque throwback. I wonder how it’ll land in the rankings
- The Devil’s Backbone – I remember really liking this, but can’t remember much more than that…
- Fearless – Exceptional performances and exceptional sound design
- The Handmaid’s Tale – visually striking, but I thought of as emotionally disconnected when I last saw it
- Ice Station Zebra – I remember it being interesting, but unremarkable. But hey, it’s a submarine movie…
- Intacto – It has Max von Sydow and some really interesting world building. Maybe it’s a contender.
- 1984 – It just might feel more relevant given our world of would-be Ministries of Truth
- Omagh – This was a devastating docu-drama before I had children… so of course I need to watch it again now
- Ronin – How will it have aged?
- Time Bandits – Why is this not ranked higher?
- This is Spinal Tap – Same question. Maybe if it was played in D minor…
- Undercover Brother – I remember it having a high joke-per-minute ratio
- The Visitor – There’s a special place in my heart for quiet films with great performances
Any other films that should be in the mix? Will Singin’ in the Rain finally be toppled in 2018? Tune in 24 months hence!