Knowing Where to Start: On the Necessity of Lists and the Canon

lists canon these wilder yearsI’m sitting on the couch of my share house flicking through the cable TCM guide and hitting record on the films of interest. Woman of the Year (1942) with Katherine Hepburn? Record. An Affair to Remember (1957) with Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr? Record. To Have and Have Not (1944) with Bogart and Bacall? Record. As I go to click record on These Wilder Years (1956) with Barbara Stanwyk and James Cagney an error message informs me that the hard drive is full. There’s no more space. And there’s not enough time either. My appetite for filmic knowledge has filled my DVR. It’s filled countless notebooks with lists. It’s filled my computer and my shelves, and as the list grows, it fills every spare minute of my time. The vast, insufferable history of film lingers over me like a raincloud, and as I sit on my couch attempting to deal with the hard facts—that I will not record These Wilder Years, and will probably never get to see it—I simply give up. I resign myself to the fact that I don’t have time to watch every film ever made. I don’t even have enough time to see all the essentials, because that list is growing too. Where people like me turn when this raincloud transpires is to the canon. The film canon, discussed and debated over, has transformed from an exercise of ranking the greatest films into an expanding universe of lists on any given topic. It comes from our innate compulsion to judge a work of art by its counterparts in order to assess its worth, and as it becomes increasingly confusing and debated over, its value increases.

How does someone who saw the 2005 version of the The Producers before the 1968 version gather the essentials of film history into a concise, concrete and expertly packaged bundle? Paul Schrader, in his Film Comment piece ‘Canon Fodder’, writes “there are too many films, too much history, for today’s student to master”. As one of today’s students, Schrader’s comment leaves me no choice but to admit a fact that so many good film writers today happily ignore: the canon is essential, but also impossible. The canon can only exist through a multitude of different lists from different outlets, each given the same weight. It’s easy to dismiss film lists as gimmicky click-bait, but it’s harder to admit that the list is essential to the modern filmgoer. If one were to argue against the multitude of lists circulating film journalism, I’d argue that exclusivity is exactly the opposite purpose of such lists. If I were to look only at Sight & Sound’s poll, conducted every decade, not only would I exclude the vast majority of Hollywood’s output, but I’d be tipping my nose upwards, giving favour to films considered high art and ignoring the very thing films were originally created for—entertainment. Were I only to look at Rotten Tomatoes’ Top 100 Movies of All Time, I’d be doing the opposite, and ignoring the great innovators of artistic cinema. A multitude of lists provides vast coverage across all countries, genres, styles and periods. Of course, these insights can only be provided if we ensure we’re looking at them all. To canonise the different canons would be a post-modern exercise beyond all purpose. Let them all be equal, and let the canon be as lucid as film itself.

lists canon in the mood for loveLooking at the canon as a singularity also provides a major disturbance in film history. It gives repute to a select few films and ignores great chunks of film history that, unless given their valorisation, will lie in the depths of history. The valorisation of great films and great directors leads to in imperturbable ignorance of the histories unfolding before us. It blinds us from the movements and innovations that are occurring beneath our eyes at this very moment. Who is to say that in fifty years time, the history books won’t read “2010-2020: The Superhero Years”, or that Avatar (2009), like The Birth of a Nation (1915), will be fondly remembered for its bold innovation above its narrative. The lists that are given weight in the current film criticism climate—Sight & Sound’s in particular—ignore any modern films that don’t bear that indelible stamp of ‘high art’, giving way to films like In the Mood for Love (2000), The Tree of Life (2011) and The Turin Horse (2011), lauded beyond any recognition of their importance in terms of innovation, influence and entertainment value. To find balance we must also look elsewhere—yes, to the depths of the Internet and the back issues of magazines.

The formulation of a canon also blinds us of subjective judgement if taken too seriously. As I watch Jean Renoir’s The River (1951) — essentialistic, aged and snobbish — I struggle to find any reason why it’s inclusion on any list could be reasonable. Others have found immense significance in the film; perhaps its aesthetic holds value to them. Were I to have watched this film five years ago, before I studied, I’d have happily lauded it too. The canon, a pushy sort of artistic grading, should never blind this perception. The answer, again, lies in forbidding the canon as a singularity. Respectable opinion from the glorified canon led me to watch The River, and as I sit through to its conclusion I wonder if I may have had a better time if I’d consulted Empire’s 500 Greatest Movies of All Time, or 1001 Films to See Before You Die.

lists canon baby faceThese lists should never cloud our subjective judgement of a work, and nor should they take precedent over the words written about them. The consultation of writing on film should always come first. A single piece of writing about a film can enlighten us beyond its placement on a list.

So as I sit here, distressed that These Wilder Years won’t ever reach my eyes, and anxious that my time on Earth might not allow me to plunge the impenetrable depths of film history, I gladly remember that the plenitude of lists in books, magazines and the four corners of the Internet exist to guide me through it all. Let there be lists! Let this list guide me to Baby Face (1933) and this one to Come and See (1985). Let the list exist in hordes and varieties so as to not be ignorant or pretentious or exclusive. As we, the new generation of students, attempt to grasp film history in an age of countless lists, let the list be our canon.

About the Author

Jaymes Durante is the founder and editor of  He is currently completing his BA in film studies at Curtin University and is a member of the Australian Film Critics Association. Jaymes panics regularly at the thought that he may never reach the end of his ‘to watch’ list. Read his reviews here.


15 thoughts on “Knowing Where to Start: On the Necessity of Lists and the Canon

  1. All I can say is that I wish I had written this article! I agree completely, and I’m glad you understand that films can have value even if they aren’t “critically lauded,” whatever that means.

    I’m sometimes dismayed by the fact that I’ve seen comparatively few of the canonical films (e.g., I just watched “Apocalypse Now” last month). But I’ve found that watching a great quantity of films doesn’t necessarily make you a better film critic. It’s true that you have a wider pool of films that you can compare to each other, but it doesn’t necessarily follow that your reviews will be any more in-depth. I’m not saying that it’s not important to watch the canons—it can certainly help, and probably often does. But millions of people have read literary classics like “The Awakening” and “Anna Karenina” and “Pride and Prejudice” and not seen any value in them. Reading and watching wildly all over the place can *help* you become more thoughtful, but it’s never a guarantee that it will.

    • Cheers Alina. It’s certainly a force that bears down on many a young film critic. Of course, the more you watch the more you know. It is important to be able to recognise innovation and greatness, but it’s also important to know that not all films have such admirable aims, and need to be judged on their own terms and merits.

  2. One solution to the dilemmma: a list that aggregates other lists and comes up with a weighted average. It does exist: the 1000 Best Films list at They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They? That was the list that started me down my more rigorous journey into the canon seven or eight years ago.

    The upside is that they take damn near everything that’s out there and aggregate it, and their weighting algorithm has changed in the name of accuracy as time has gone on (e.g., they now rate more recent Sight and Sound lists more heavily than those from 15-20 years ago when determining a movie’s rank).

    The downside is that I agree strongly with Ebert that aggregate lists, by their very nature, file off all the interesting singletons that make individual lists like Piero Scaruffi’s and Jonathan Rosenbaum’s, so interesting. (Scaruffi’s list introduced me to Theo Angelopoulos. Rosenbaum’s, well, it’s my personal canon; I have yet to watch a movie on it that did not resonate with me in some way, save films by those directors I had already sampled and rejected before discovering the list.)

    Certainly not a definitive solution, but a starting point for a discussion.

    • I absolutely agree about They Shoot Pictures Don’t They. I obsessed over that list for ages, but it’s still a cross to bear. I’ve only seen half of the films out of the thousand, and I still think that’s pretty good. It remains a very exclusive list, but some totally enjoyable mainstream gems did sneak in there.

      I also strongly agree about your point on individual lists. I found that reading through all the individual submissions in Sight & Sound’s 2012 poll issue was far more interesting than the poll itself, especially where the critics and directors gave comments.

  3. Interesting article which raises two points for me.

    Firstly, there’s the matter of lists and their usefulness. Frankly, I like lists. I like making them and I kike reading them too – they act both as a guide and as a framework for discussion. There is a tendency by some to see them as frivolous and that’s understandable enough I guess when you read examples that are indeed compiled merely as a kind of provocation, stirring up controversy here none really exists. However, a well thought out list that reflects the honest feelings of the compiler is of value and can lead you towards areas you had previously neglected.

    And then there’s the whole question of the nature of the canon, and the definition of essential films. This is thorny stuff indeed and it’s all too easy to get trapped in a mire of indecision based on the nebulous notion of worthiness. I’ve reached a stage in life now where I’ve seen an awful lot of movies, some of them would be broadly accepted as examples of the great and the important, others most certainly would not. And I’m not talking about cheap schlock or derivative trash – there’s a sizable body of work out there that is simply ignored by the majority of critics, partly through genuine ignorance and partly through a kind of cultural snobbery. So what’s one to do?

    I’d say you should work through as many movies as you can and see what appeals, and what doesn’t. I think you inevitably end up specializing to a certain extent because all styles, genres or eras will not work for you. I also feel it’s necessary to cut yourself free from what might be termed the critical consensus, in other words to learn to develop your own critical faculties and then trust in your own judgment. Ultimately, for a film to have artistic value to you it must speak to you in some meaningful way. I guess the point I’m trying to make here is the so-called canon can be a double-edged sword in that while it serves to introduce one to myriad films it can, if you’re not careful, pervert your appreciation of film.

  4. Great essay, but I guess I disagree a bit with the point that you don’t have time to see all of the essential films. Paul Schrader makes the same point in the article you site, saying “It is no longer possible for a young filmgoer to watch the history of film and make up his or her own mind: there are just too many movies.”

    Is this true?

    I know I come from a literary studies background and it’s certainly true there that you can’t read everything there is to read even just restricting yourself to primary sources (though that arch-canon magistrate Harold Bloom has stated in interviews that he in fact has). But when I got in a conversation with a film friend about a decade ago about this same matter he told me that one of the attractions for him of being a cinephile was that you really could see everything worth watching in a matter of years, even keeping to a non-professional, relatively relaxed schedule.

    I guess it depends on how large the field of essential films is. But even as big a number as 10,000 is certainly do-able. I know people who have watched far more than that, and I think most professional film critics have probably seen several times that many. And we’re talking about numbers now that take us far outside any notion of a canon.

    So yes, I would argue that one person really can, still, see everything worth seeing. Where I think it’s really getting harder, especially if you’re a scholar or professional critic, is keeping up with all the extra information and writings about film. I don’t know if it’s possible any more to read everything that’s out there (in print and on the Internet) on Hitchcock, or for that matter even on Psycho. Then there are all the “extras” that come with DVDS now: all the added features, documentaries and commentaries. There are four full-length commentaries on my DVD of Hostel. Four! On Hostel! Even with the Internet, getting “fully informed” on some titles is becoming hugely time consuming.

  5. I must have watched The River half a dozen times before I liked it, so I commisurate with your struggle. When I was starting out, all we had was a public library filled with books on film, and I despaired of being able to see even a fraction of those classic films represented by such intriguing stills. Now, fifty years later, I have seen them all…but there is still so much left to discover. Every day, something emerges from that huge unknown library of films that was never included on any list or canon. Jaymes, your article so articulately expounds one of the dilemmas of today’s student of film. There is no list that can steer you to the films you should see, it is best to just let one film point you to another film and there will always be another film to see. Eventually, you will have seen enough to establish your own aesthetic through which you will be able to assess most of what subsequently comes your way. And then a new deluge of cinema will challenge everything you knew up to that point. About ten years ago, I was asked to contribute to the book, Videohound’s Dragon: Asian Action and Cult Flicks. After writing about 100 capsule reviews, i became embarassed at how little I knew about Asian films, so I embarked upon a three year study of them, during which I watched at least two films a day. those three years gave me a foundation, but still I feel only minimally qualified to write on the subject. There will always be fields that are of interest to others, but of which you find little of interest. I happen to think In the Mood for Love, and its sequel 2046, is a masterpiece, but if it does nothing for you, leave it alone. I agree with you on the Tree of Life and the turin Horse, and there are many other highly lauded films and directors who do nothng for me. among the directors: Clair Denis,
    Abbas Kiarostami, and David Lynch. All this list-making can be traced back to Andrew Sarris’ 1968 book,The american cinema, which became the official canon of American film, with each director given their place in Sarris’ Dantean system. At the time, it provided a valuable starting point for an evaluation of american film up to that point, but his judgments were not neccessarily valid. so use lists as motivators, but be free to depart from them according to your own aesthetics. It is paramount at this time in film history for a new generation of film critics to re-asses the whole history of film from their 21st Century perspectives. If this means canonizing Avatar, so be it. It is really no worse than Star Wars or Saving Private Ryan. Good luck in your journey, Jaymes. I can tell by your article that you have what it takes to meet the challenges of the impossible task you have set for yourself, and it is a pleasure to have you aboard the Curnblog.

    • Thanks Bill!

      As you’ve shown, there’s so much to say on this topic that I struggled to include in my article. I absolutely agree that only through viewing can we really find films that are meaningful to us; by just following that never-ending trail from one film to the next. As for The River, I read as much as I could about the film to try and really understand it. Bazin’s chapter on it in his book on Renoir was the most enlightening, and it does make sense as to why he considers it a pure masterpiece, but watching it a second time I still struggled. Maybe one day, after half-a-dozen viewings like you said!

      I do want to clarify one point. I also consider In The Mood For Love to be a masterpiece (not so much 2046). I feel the same about The Tree of Life. My only issue is that if we look at reputable sources for their opinions on the best cinema, these two frequently pop up as singularities of the 21st Century. They are brilliant films, but there are countless others too that warrant their positions. Hence my insistence on multitudes of lists that can point us elsewhere. I hope my point wasn’t skewed. I definitely didn’t want to throw those films under the bus.

  6. This is fascinating, Jaymes–I’ve suffered through a similar trial … that of not being able to watch every important movie in the canon. And good point about lists; I definitely agree that many of the most highly regarded films may not necessarily warrant their status, although I do feel that a movie can be arty and entertaining at the same time. (I find The Seventh Seal a fast-moving flick, for example, and actually enjoy watching it!) But you’re right about films of today–who is to say that something like Avatar won’t wind its way into the canon–and perhaps its inclusion would be merited. We haven’t come to the end of cinematic history; I think we’re just beginning. And there’s plenty more wonderful film to enjoy, as well as include in comprehensive lists!

  7. In Jim Jarmusch’s Coffee and Cigarettes, two characters mention how they like to drink a lot of coffee right before they go to bed because it speeds up their dreams. I sometimes wonder if technology will ever conceive of a way to watch a two hour movie in twenty minutes without missing the temporal element. I suppose not, though it would certainly help.

    It’s really interesting perspective, Jaymes. Thanks for sharing it. There was a time before DVRs and streaming, before YouTube and home video, when film fans had to haunt festivals and art houses, and when if you lived in the wrong town, your options were severely limited. There may be more to see every year, but seeing it is also more doable. I remind myself of that often when I start feeling what you describe here. Helps some. Then I add two Jim Finns and two Elvis Pressleys to my list and realize I’ll never get there.

    • Thanks Jon!

      Here’s a thought:

      Perhaps having the entire history of film available at the click-of-a-button is not such a good thing after all. Just reading your comment, I found myself envying your experience. Having everything all at once is probably contributing to my neurosis. There’s no sense of measure or patience and there’s only one thing against you: time! Having said that, I’m glad the internet exists, because I was sadly born in the wrong town.

  8. So many lists, so little time…Great counter to my opposite view Jaymes. I suppose if a list got you to watch ‘Come and See’ (one of the films I would have on a list, if I did lists), I should forgive them a little.
    That’s one hell of a name to carry through life, though not so many younger people would get the connection, I suppose. Let’s just say that I was expecting a spoof, after seeing it above the article.
    Regards from Norfolk, Pete.

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