Cranky Hanke’s Screening Room: The 100 Best?

Cranky Hanke’s Screening Room: The 100 Best?-attachment0

Last week sometime I was approached to be part of a group of critics submitting—for Lubitsch knows what reason—their picks for the 100 greatest or favorite films of all time. Somewhat against my better judgment, I said yes. I probably would not have said yes if that “or favorite” phrase had not been attached. Anyone who believes him or herself actually qualified to categorically name the 100 greatest movies ever made is frankly deluded—for a variety of reasons. Other inducements to do this were the fact that the list is merely alphabetical, and the knowledge that I would not only be the only critic with Harry d’Abaddie d’Arrast’s Laughter (1930) on his list, but very possibly the only one who’s even seen it. However, how can a movie in which Fredric March and Nancy Carroll don bearskin rugs and growl at each other not be on such a list?

That last reason is also one of the primary reasons that it’s really impossible for anyone to actually churn out a supposedly authoritative list of 100 greatest films. I don’t care who you are or how much you think you know or have seen, you simply ain’t seen it all—and neither have I. There are eras I frankly gravitate toward based entirely on my life experience that they are much more apt to contain movies I will like. Unless you happen to find yourself in a position where you end up with some immersive dose of an era you aren’t familiar with, your natural tendency is to explore periods and filmmakers that have pleased you more than those that haven’t. Let’s face it, there’s about 100 years* of movies out there and no way to watch them all even were you so inclined—and chances are you’re not.

Here’s an example of how hit or miss it can be what you do and don’t know. I was impressed the other day when that out-of-nowhere (it seemed), 24-year-old film critic Ignatiy Vishnevetsky found a spot on Ebert Presents at the Movies talking about Stephen Roberts’ The Story of Temple Drake (1933). Vishnevetsky not only knew who Stephen Roberts was, also but had some feel for the man’s style. I’m still not entirely sold on Vishnevetsky as a critic, but that impressed me. We are, after all, talking about a director who died at the age of 40 in 1936 after only 12 feature films—most of them fairly obscure. (Asheville Film Society members may recall his two segments—“Violet” and “Grandma”—of If I Had a Million (1932), which was run last month.) I’ve seen half of them and had never much thought about Roberts’ style, but when Vishnevetsky described it, I immediately recognized that he was right.

Of course, you could presumably check out other lists in an attempt to “play it safe” and pick titles that a lot of people claim are great. But that’s not your list. It’s something else. Then again, how can you even be sure that that’s not exactly how some of these titles keep showing up on such lists? Really, you can’t. You could very well be perpetuating a base falsehood. The other option is to salt your list with works by filmmakers you know you’re supposed to like. I suppose I’m expected to include a film or two by Douglas Sirk and Nicholas Ray, but I can’t do it because I’ve just never liked anything they’ve made all that much.

There’s also the question—at least in my mind—about how long it’s been since you’ve seen a movie and how many times you’ve seen it. Is it reasonable to rely on a memory of 20 or 30 years ago on a film you saw once? Some will say it is, but I’m uncomfortable with it. I can’t deny that I was very impressed with Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin (1925), which I saw so long ago that it was still being called by its U.S. title Potemkin. That means that—apart from clips—it’s nearly 40 years since I actually sat down and watched it. Some aspects of the film are as clear in my mind as if I’d seen them yesterday—or so I think. But are they? I’m not satisfied that they are. Just looking at bits of it I noticed, for example, that the famous ending shot—while still powerful—isn’t nearly as well accomplished as I remembered.

So having set some guidelines for myself—the folks in charge really didn’t have any—I proceeded to attempt this probably foolish undertaking. I’ve nearly completed my first pass—I think I’m at 92—and I’m not displeased with the list. I certainly have no notions whatever that it’s the definitive anything. It doesn’t even come near being a list of “essentials.” I’m not sure it’s reasonable to claim cinematic literacy without seeing Birth of a Nation (1915), Intolerance (1916), The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), Battleship Potemkin, Gone with the Wind (1939) or Casablanca (1942), but they’re not on here. At the same time, for me, the films I have down are essentials in their own way—and I could easily add another 100 that I think everyone should see.

What then is the value of such a list—of any such list? There probably isn’t any—except the prospect of getting someone to watch something they otherwise mightn’t have considered. But lists are somehow appealing to most of us. I won’t go public with this list until the people who asked me to do this have published it—or whatever exactly they’re going to do—but I’m sure some of you can guess a lot of what’s on it. And if anyone wants to tackle a list of their own—or simply feels the need to throw out a few titles they’d consider essential—feel free to do so.

*Narrative film has been around for more than 100 years, but I’m hard-pressed to think of anything pre-1915 that I’d consider for such a list. Others may disagree.

SHARE
About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress since December 2000. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

28 thoughts on “Cranky Hanke’s Screening Room: The 100 Best?

  1. Chip Kaufmann

    I can think of 2 pre-1915 movies that would qualify. One is Giovanni Pastrone’s CABIRIA (1914), the grandest of the early Italian silent epics which features tracking shots and advanced editing (it inspired D.W. Griffith to make INTOLERANCE and Fellini quotes from it years later),

    The other is Louis Feuillade’s 5 1/2 hour crime serial FANTOMAS (1913-14), one of the first movies to feature an archcriminal who is a master of disguise and the dogged attempts of a French police inspector and his sidekick to bring him down. Both are available on DVD from Kino International.

  2. Dionysis

    It seems to me that a list of, perhaps, the 100 films that are most memorable to a viewer might be of some interest. Lists like this are of dubious value given their subjectivity, but it can be interesting to learn what films resonate with different people. A few titles that might be on my personal list could hardly be considered “best” by any objective standard.

  3. Ken Hanke

    I can think of 2 pre-1915 movies that would qualify.

    You are exactly who I expected to take issue with that statement.

    I’m pretty sure you passed on a Region 2 copy of Fantomas to me. Cabiria I’ve heard of, of course, but I’ve never seen it.

  4. Ken Hanke

    A few titles that might be on my personal list could hardly be considered “best” by any objective standard.

    I am not at all sure I believe in objectivity past a certain point with art, but I’m curious to know what these few titles might be.

  5. Dionysis

    ” I’m curious to know what these few titles might be.”

    Well, a few titles on my list might be considered highly by many (i.e. ’12 Angry Men’, ‘Treasure of the Sierra Madre’, ‘Fail Safe’) whereas others…not so much (‘The Incredible Shrinking Man’, ‘Fiend Without a Face’, ‘Black Sunday’).

    My guess is that should I sit down and identify a full 100 films, they’d probably break down to 60% or so considered at least ‘good’ films, and 40% questionable (to the viewing public at large).

  6. Dionysis

    “I was hoping for something more outre. Then again, none of the titles you named are on my list”

    You won’t be seeing something like ‘The Human Centipede’ on my list. Would it be on yours (ultra-outre)? The closest I can think of would be John Carpenter’s ‘In the Mouth of Madness’, which I’ve mentioned before (usually met by ‘huh’ or ‘you gotta be kidding’).

  7. Ken Hanke

    You won’t be seeing something like ‘The Human Centipede’ on my list. Would it be on yours (ultra-outre)?

    Oh, good heavens, no. Once you get past the premise, it’s not all that shocking. In fact, large chunks of it are rather dull. I was thinking of things that are just rather indefensible like Voodoo Man, Scared to Death or The Giant Claw.

  8. Dionysis

    “The Giant Claw.”

    Okay, if I were to compile a list titled, say, ‘Incredibly Cheesy Movies That I Admit to Liking”, then I could probably come up with somewhere near 100 titles, and that would include ‘The Giant Claw’, ‘Missile to the Moon’, ‘Mesa of Lost Women’, ‘Monster of Piedras Blancas’ and many other such titles.

    Hey, come to think of it, that kind of list would be more fun to both compile and to compare with others’ comparable lists. No one will ever agree on “the 100 best” anyway.

  9. Dionysis

    One title that would make my ’100 best’ list is coming out in October as a Criterion release, both on standard DVD and Blu-Ray…’Island of Lost Souls’. Oh joy!

  10. DrSerizawa

    After being forced to watch Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle (which was even worse then the first one) in a seedy motel in Afton, Wyoming last Monday it certainly won’t be on my top 100 list or even a cheese list. It made me long for the cinematic skills of Bert I. Gordon. It’s hard to think of many movies from the last decade that would make any top 100 list. Sort of depressing. Except for Hobo With A Shotgun. Now that belongs on my top 100 list.

    Which gets me thinking. Which decade would be most represented on a top 100 list? Which would least?

  11. Ken Hanke

    Which decade would be most represented on a top 100 list? Which would least?

    I can only answer for mine. I haven’t worked it out, but my guess is more are from the 30s than any other decade and least are from the 50s and/or 80s. Actually, when I have time and a for sure final list, I’ll break it down by decade.

  12. Chip Kaufmann

    Excluding the silent era which for most people is understandably out of the mainstream, I would have to pick parts of different decades with 1929-1936 being at the top in the number of pictures made followed by 1968-1977.

  13. Ken Hanke

    I would have to pick parts of different decades with 1929-1936 being at the top in the number of pictures made followed by 1968-1977.

    We’re not far apart. I think all of my 1920s choices are silents. And I have at least two post-1936 titles in the 30s — Make Way for Tomorrow and Only Angels Have Wings. My 1960s starts before yours, but the combination of 60s and 70s for me mostly ends in 1975. (I think The Tenant, Manhattan and Tess are the exceptions.) But the 1930s and the combination of 60s and 70s outweight the other decades.

  14. Chip Kaufmann

    I should also add 1956-1964 to include several drive-in B movies and low budget horror pictures. While they are not great cinema, they are the films I grew up with and now I can also appreciate them for what they were able to accomplish with so little money.

  15. Ken Hanke

    While they are not great cinema, they are the films I grew up with and now I can also appreciate them for what they were able to accomplish with so little money.

    I can appreciate that, but not enough to rate them as favorites.

  16. brianpaige

    I have seen Laughter but I don’t really feel as though I can rate it since the copy I have is really crappy. I don’t recall thinking it would sniff a best of list though. Halliwell’s old guide used to rate it highly, which is where I first heard of it.

    I don’t think I could ever do a list like this. I’d prefer doing a favorite 100 list, but not the greatest 100.

  17. Ken Hanke

    I have seen Laughter but I don’t really feel as though I can rate it since the copy I have is really crappy. I don’t recall thinking it would sniff a best of list though. Halliwell’s old guide used to rate it highly, which is where I first heard of it

    I won’t hold that last against it. I first heard of Laughter from William K. Everson (I don’t remember the context) and I had a friend, Paul Nemcek (who wrote The Films of Nancy Carroll) who was nuts about Nancy Carroll (see previous parenthetical). Somehow he has bamboozled Universal into leasing him a print of the film (maybe this was easier in the 1960s) and I borrowed his print two or three times. None of the DVD or VHS or YouTube copies do it justice. It may, however, be a film like Bulldog Drummond (1929) that is more impressive in the context of its year than on its own. I won’t swear to that one way or the other.

    I don’t think I could ever do a list like this. I’d prefer doing a favorite 100 list, but not the greatest 100.

    That was the only reason I agreed to this — it was put forth as best or favorite. What I ended up with satisfies me as a combination of both. Maybe 80% would also be on an attempted best list.

  18. DrSerizawa

    I’d put a lot of movies from the 40s to early 50′s on my list, but then I have a particular liking for what’s loosely called “Film Noir”.

  19. Ken Hanke

    I’d put a lot of movies from the 40s to early 50’s on my list, but then I have a particular liking for what’s loosely called “Film Noir”.

    I’d have to look over my list to see if I have anything that really qualifies.

  20. Ken Hanke

    The list — such as it is — has been finalized and submitted. They thanked me. Whether this will be followed by “You’ve got to be f*cking kidding, right?” remains to be seen.

Leave a Reply