Who will be remembered?

A look at new critical books on the contours of film art beyond American-centric Best Of lists

CREATURES OF LIGHT AND DARKNESS Orson Welles seeks shelter in the shadows of post-war Vienna in Carol Reed’s film adaptation of Graham Greene’s <i>The Third Man.</i>

CREATURES OF LIGHT AND DARKNESS Orson Welles seeks shelter in the shadows of post-war Vienna in Carol Reed’s film adaptation of Graham Greene’s The Third Man.

In 1996-97, when a loose-jointed celebration of the centennial of motion pictures was underway worldwide, the American responses were for the most part embarrassingly self-serving. The American Film Institute’s ongoing series of fatuous Hollywood-centric Best 100 lists began to emerge in that period, and even Martin Scorsese’s admirable American Movies: A Personal Journey, both in book form and as a TV documentary, seemed to tacitly endorse the unfounded notion that cinema’s first 100 years were basically an American century.

The one Anglo-American exception to this tendency was a wonderfully eccentric book called Flickers by Gilbert Adair, which addressed the diverse genius of film history by singling out one film from each year in the past hundred and providing friskily inventive commentaries for each. Adair’s idiosyncratic choices of films made Flickers into a brilliantly enlightening tour of the multitude of possibilities that the art form has found for itself during its first century, in Hollywood and everywhere else.

Since then, Scorsese has made amends, of a sort, and helped restore a broader perspective with his My Journey to Italy, a monumental four-hour documentary on the masterpieces of Italian cinema in the post-World War II decades. And the Cinema Europe series of documentaries, the audio version of Jean-Luc Godard’s massive and provocative Histoires du Cinema, and Agnes Varda’s deceptively whimsical film One Thousand Nights of Simon Cinema have all leaked into at least the margins of American film culture.

But the really good news on this front is that American and English film critics and historians have recently produced a half-dozen tomes that not only provide much-needed antidotes to the silliness and solipsism of the AFI lists but also pay enlightening tributes to the genuinely substantial artistic accomplishments of world cinema. With these books, a far-reaching question—which particular films most belong in the pantheon of cinema history—gets a more probing and perceptive going-over than it has had in over a generation.

Anita Louise as Titania and James Cagney as Bottom in <i>A Midsummer Night’s Dream</i> as shot by William Dieterle in 1935.

What are the 10 best films of all time? Or the 100 best? This may be an impossible question to answer, but if the movies are to have any meaningful heritage, it remains an important question to ask. The answers, of course, will vary from critic to critic and viewer to viewer. But the accompanying argument is absolutely necessary.

The best of these new books—The A-List, Film: The Critics’ Choice, and The Great Movies—offer a compelling sense of what such a pantheon might look like. Not surprisingly, the approaches and the terminology vary: “100 essential films,” “150 masterpieces,” a 100 or so “great movies.” And the historical emphases vary too: Two thirds of the films on The A-List were made before 1960, while the comparable bulk is in 1940-1980 in The Great Movies and 1960-2000 in Film: The Critics’ Choice.

Meanwhile, The Director’s Vision (whose author is also the editor of The Critics’ Choice) takes a more generalized approach to the question by singling out “250 great filmmakers,” with one page on each. And Bogdanovich’s Movie of the Week and Richie’s A Hundred Years of Japanese Film have less comprehensive and more specialized approaches, but both give eloquent and persuasive testimony on what a “classic film” might look like and on where we might find some valuable examples to consider.

The A-List: The National Society of Film Critics’ 100 Essential Films (edited by Jay Carr, Da Capo Press, paperback $17.50) is the most pointedly pedagogical of these books and, with 41 different writers involved, the most diverse in its authorship. With its emphasis on pre-1960 films, it might seem the most conservative and “classical” of these books, but its artful appreciations of older films is its greatest strength. And with 29 selections from the 1950s, it is also an eloquent defense of that supposedly stodgy decade’s cinematic creativity.

Film: The Critics’ Choice ("150 masterpieces of world cinema selected and defined by the experts” edited by Geoff Andrew, Billboard Books, hardcover $40.00) is the handsomest book in the bunch and the most distinctively cosmopolitan as well. Better yet, it puts a particularly interesting and argumentative spin on the pantheon question by singling out a handful of the richest phases of film history and turning a different film critic loose on each.

Andrew and company give special emphasis to a half-dozen distinct periods of European and American film, but they also honor the diversity of film history with individual sections on the silent-film era (worldwide), the British cinema, the animated film, and “International Cinema” (mostly Asian, in this case). Apart from David Thomson’s superb commentary on the “Studio Years” in America, the European sections (by Gilbert Adair, Jonathan Rosenbaum and Jonathan Romney, respectively) are the strongest and most substantial aspects of this consistently substantial book.

Roger Ebert’s The Great Movies (Broadway Books, hardcover $27.50) reflects the intelligent, epicurean good taste of America’s most famous movie reviewer. American films outnumber foreign films by 2 to 1 in Ebert’s selections, but his appreciations of European and Japanese classics are crucial parts of the book’s range. He is particularly attentive to the 1960s, which seems appropriate in a critic with such a good sense of the balance between film art and movie entertainment.

Peter Bogdanovich’s Movie of the Week: 52 Classic Films for One Full Year (Ballantine Books paperback $11.00), which is mostly about American movies, gives us a kind of double perspective on a selection of extraordinary films. A notable director in his own right (his The Last Picture Show is featured in The Critics’ Choice), he is also a lifelong student of Hollywood’s Golden Age, and he brings his combined knowledge into lively form in these commentaries.

The Director’s Vision: A Concise Guide to the Art of 250 Great Filmmakers by Geoff Andrew (A Cappella Books paperback $24.95) has no lengthy discussions, but its range is admirably international. Curiously, the author’s list of 250 film greats includes a number of still young directors who haven’t yet made a great film (Baz Luhrman, Kathryn Bigelow, etc.) while excluding a dozen or so older directors who have (Agnes Varda, Jean Eustache, Percy Adlon, Claire Denis, etc. as well as two directors included in The Critics’ Choice).

A Hundred Years of Japanese Film: A Concise History, with a Selective Guide to Videos and DVDs (Kodansha International hardcover $30.00), is the work of Donald Richie, the pre-eminent English-language scholar of Japanese cinema. I’ve included it here because of its “Selective Guide to Videos and DVDs,” a feature that addresses a problem the other books would have done well to face—where exactly can interested viewers obtain copies of the classics toward which the authors are directing us?

Do these books reach any kind of consensus on the “masterpieces” of cinematic art? Well, not really, even though there is much that is instructive in the patterns of their respective selections. There are only nine films, for example, that appear in as many as four of these books: Bonnie and Clyde, Citizen Kane, Do the Right Thing, The Godfather, M, Singin’ in the Rain, Star Wars, The Third Man and The Wild Bunch. On the whole, that list of nine is not nearly as impressive as the list of films, 22 all told, that appear in three of the five books:

All About Eve, The Battleship Potemkin, Fargo, The General, Gone with the Wind, Greed, La Dolce Vita, Last Year at Marienbad, L’Atalante, Lawrence of Arabia, Metropolis, Nashville, The Night of the Hunter, Nosferatu, Pandora’s Box, The Passion of Joan of Arc, Psycho, Pulp Fiction, Raging Bull, The Seven Samurai, Sunset Boulevard, Trouble in Paradise.

Both those lists tell you something about important films on which there is fairly wide agreement among critics. But some of these films (Gone with the Wind, Star Wars, etc.) are probably more successful and important than they are good, let alone excellent, and some of the others (Pulp Fiction, Fargo, Do the Right Thing, etc.) are just too recent for us to be able to say or know much about their enduring value.

Perhaps there is another kind of perspective to be gained from the short lists of directors who are cited more than once in these books. Only seven directors, for example, have two films rather than one on The A-List: F. W. Murnau, Fritz Lang, Alfred Hitchcock, Orson Welles, Akira Kurosawa and Federico Fellini. Repeat citations are equally rare in Film: The Critics’ Choice: Lang and Hitchcock are featured three times each, while Carl Dreyer, Manoel de Oliveira, Luís Buíuel, Eric Rohmer, Jean-Luc Godard and Martin Scorsese each turn up twice.

Ebert, meanwhile, might seem to be more of a movie buff than an auteur critic, but his Great Movies just may be the most elitely auteur-oriented book in the bunch. His 100 selections are drawn from the work of just 81 directors, with a dozen (Lang, Howard Hawks, Victor Fleming, Kurosawa, Ingmar Bergman, Fellini, Michelangelo Antonioni, Stanley Kubrick, Robert Altman, Francis Ford Coppola, Steven Spielberg, and Scorsese) turning up twice and three others even more often: Hitchcock and Buíuel (three times each) and Billy Wilder (four times).

Each of these de facto all-star lineups is worthy and instructive, but repeat citations tell only part of the “great film authors” story. Arguably an even better all-star list can be culled from a list of directors who get little in the way of repeat mentions above, but who are recurring figures in these books, even though not always for the same film: Jean Renoir, Robert Bresson, John Ford, D.W. Griffith, Yasujiro Ozu, Kenji Mizoguchi, Jean Cocteau, Francois Truffaut, Theo Angelopoulos.

The size and variability of these lists may be daunting and/or downright discouraging to some, but the provisional nature and general instability of our pantheons is a fact of our contemporary culture life, and probably a healthy one at that. But these books are very instructive roadmaps for viewers trying to get a working grip on the contours of film art and on its most valuable and cherished moments.

Better yet, the best of the writers in these books—Thomson, Ebert, Adair, Rosenbaum, etc.—are giving us instruction in fully engaged film viewing. They are modeling a resourceful, multi-faceted sensitivity to great films and following up with articulate accounts of what they—and we—might see when we’re watching films with everything we’ve got.

On the debit side, there’s still much that’s neglected in these efforts at comprehensive evaluation. Only Ebert and The A-List go to the trouble of citing one or two documentaries and short films. As J Hoberman notes in his A-List piece on the silent classic Man With the Movie Camera, Vertov’s film reminds us of how much our convention-bound film histories on film-as-narrative are missing when it comes to the enduring accomplishments in film art.