I'm getting very close to the halfway point of the "They Shoot Pictures Don't They?" ("TSPDT") website's list of the top one thousand greatest films. It's been a great resource for getting into world cinema, and it's pointed me toward titles I never would have considered picking up on my own. The list has been in existence since 2006 and changes every year to keep current with the times. I haven't been watching the films in order, but I have been leaning heavily toward the titles that are at the top of the list, since they're usually easier to find and feel like more necessary viewing. But now that I'm getting into more of the mid-range and lower range titles, I'm becoming less satisfied with some of the selections and placement - even more so since I took a look at some of the movies that have been dropped from the list over the years.
Lots of different variables are involved with the designation of anything as the "Greatest." Many films on the list are there because they're of particular historical or cultural importance, because they were influential or because they pioneered some filmmaking technique. I get that pure artistic merit is only part of the picture and the perceived value of specific pieces of art always changes with the times. This year the French Impressionists are in and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow is out. This year the filmmakers and critics polled for the TSPDT list decided the "Lord of the Rings" films were in and a couple of Werner Herzog's shorter features were out. So it goes. I can guarantee that the latter two "Lord of the Rings" films will drop in the standings in the years to come, if they don't tumble off the edges altogether.
However, there are several films that I don't see how anyone could justify keeping on the list or placing anywhere near as high in the rankings as they are. These are the lesser films of very well-known directors like Federico Fellini and F.W. Murnau, which I highly doubt would have been remembered, let alone elevated, if they had other people's names attached. The auteur theory of criticism popularized by Andrew Sarris and Pauline Kael treats directors like painters, their individual films part of a collective body of work that can be evaluated for style and technique and artistry specific to that particular director. Thus, even less successful works reveal insights about their creator. It's a good approach to take if you're trying to compare directors to each other, but when you're looking at the specific films themselves, it can be counterproductive. Even given that comparing films is like comparing apples and oranges, I was really taken aback by some of the films that have earned kudos just by being associated with the great directors.
Frankly, I've never met anyone who likes "Juliet of the Spirits." It's Fellini's first color film and his third with the great Giulietta Masina, but it's a chaotic, confused piece of work that was a huge step down from "8 & 1/2," the masterpiece that immediately preceded it. But there it is, listed as #630, along with eleven other Fellini films on the list. And let's be honest. Whatever the revisionists want to say about the unfairness of the critical response to "Heaven's Gate" at the time of its release, the only reason it's on the list now, at #593, is because director Michael Cimino made "The Deer Hunter," one of the seminal works of 70s New Hollywood, and "Heaven's Gate" is the only other noteworthy picture in his filmography that "Deer Hunter" can be evaluated against. Similar factors no doubt kept the famously derided "The Godfather Part III" around, currently ranked #633 above every single Wes Anderson and Kon Ichikawa film.
I look at the films that have been squeezed out of the TSPDT list and grimace. Abel Ferrara's "Bad Lieutenant." Mathieu Kassovitz's "La Haine." The great W.C. Fields comedy, "The Bank Dick." George Cukor's "Gaslight." "From Here to Eternity," "Rififi," "Patton," and "Remains of the Day." Their only crimes are that they were made by directors that don't have as much cinematic clout as Francis Ford Coppolla. And sure, a mediocre Fritz Lang film is better than most directors' best, but am I supposed to believe that all sixteen of the Lang films currently on the list are more influential, more groundbreaking, and more worthy of notice than "The Thin Man" or "Jason and the Argonauts"? I understand the impulse to stay with the familiar and already acclaimed - I'm far more likely to reach for an obscure Kurosawa or Fassbinder film than I am to try something by a director I've never heard of with only a single, low-ranked entry on the list. But this is getting unreasonable.
To the credit of TSPDT, all the "ex-1000" films are listed on the site along with their former positions on the list, and readily accessible to curious users. And of course, there's the "Doubling the Canon" list, featuring a thousand films that didn't make the cut, including most of the castoffs I've listed. And there's documentation of all the critics' lists and ballots that were used to make the lists, and hundreds of pages of supplemental material to go with them, all making the case that the process was fair and free from the bias and any influence from the tabulators. Maybe the general consensus really is that "The Godfather Part III" contains significant artistic merit worthy of placing it among the greats.
But really - I doubt it.