#1 with a Bullet

August 06, 2008
A thought by James Berardinelli

What does it mean to be #1? If that position is to be determined based on pure box office gross (unadjusted by inflation), it's Titanic. Based on tickets sold, it's Gone with the Wind. Based on critics' polls, it's Citizen Kane. And based on voters cashing in their chips at IMDb, it's The Dark Knight.

Okay, I admit The Dark Knight is a great film - probably the best we've seen in about two years. It's a contender for my personal Top 100 (although it would be closer to the bottom of that list than the top). But #1 of all-time? Someone's been stuffing the ballot box. Vote early and often, as they say. IMDb's Top 250 represents a pretty good cross-section of very good-to-great films, although it skews recent, as one might expect considering that the voting population is young. For example, Star Wars (at #13) more than doubles up Citizen Kane (at #28). Still, this isn't just a collection of post-1980 titles. 10 of the Top 20 are pre-1980. But The Dark Knight stands out as an anomaly. More than anything else, it's reflective of who is voting. But that's always the case. Still, with 200,000 votes, it's hard to discount the result.

Is it possible to determine what the best film of all-time is? My answer is "no." One cannot reduce film to an equation where its component pieces can be analyzed impartially. And, without impartiality, there's no inarguable solution. Regardless of whether one views cinema as "art", "entertainment," or a combination of the two, there's no way to take personal taste out of any ranking system. It's an impossibility. So any list is less a representation of cinematic greatness than it is a reflection of those who compile the list. That's not to say lists should be ignored. Generally speaking, any list of "great" films contains a lot of titles worth seeing. But being insulted because your favorite places low (or does not place at all) is silly.

When I embarked upon the two-year unveiling of my Top 100, I never claimed to be providing a ranked list of the best films of all-time. This was nothing more than my 100 favorite movies, and "favorite" does not necessarily equate to "best." It's an eclectic list that contains plenty of titles one might find on a typical critic's list and plenty that one might not. When Harry Met Sally on the same list as Citizen Kane? A Fish Called Wanda rubbing elbows with Decalogue?

My favorite film is Patton. Anyone who has read more than a few random reviews on this site knows that. I think it is a great film, but I do not think it is the best movie ever made. (Again, I don't know what is.) The IMDb list has it at #192. That, I think, is fair. It's probably in the Top 200, maybe even in the Top 100. Patton has not always been my favorite film. It ascended to that position some time in the early '80s. For a long time, my favorite was the black-and-white King Kong, followed briefly by the 1976 color version. (Hey, I was nine years old!) Star Wars quickly supplanted King Kong and held the position until it was ousted by Patton. Could something ever replace Patton? Never say "never," but I think it unlikely. Patton is more than a movie to me at this point. It's ingrained in who I am as a film-lover. Something would really have to blow me away to top it.

Take 100 people at random, and it's a good bet you'll get between 50 and 70 choices for #1. The repeat titles will be familiar ones like Star Wars, Raider of the Lost Ark, and so forth. There will probably be a few The Dark Knights along the way. Film is universal but it's also personal. One person's poison is another's ambrosia. My least favorite mainstream release is Freddy Got Fingered, but I know someone who loves the movie to death. To the best of my knowledge, he is not brain damaged, although I sometimes wonder…

Back to The Dark Knight. It's #1 right now, but it's also the hottest film out there. Even at the old age of about 18 days (which, in movie terms, is about 60 years old), it continues to dominate. It probably won't get knocked off its perch this weekend. The next big test will be Star Wars: The Clone Wars, but it's unclear whether that movie has any credibility. Does the Star Wars name still mean anything? Of course, one could have asked the same question about Batman in the wake of the Joel Schumacher disaster, Batman and Robin. The passage of time does strange things. And, in another year, will The Dark Knight still be #1 on the IMDb's Top 100 list? My guess (and I am notoriously HORRIBLE at prognostication) is that it will have slipped from that lofty position, but will still be in the Top 5. After all, as with any #1, there's nowhere to go but down. Regardless of where it ends up, however, it will hold that top slot on many individual Top 100 lists. And, as is always the case, there are those contrarians out there who will despise it with a venom that I reserve only for Tom Green's debacle.