Like many people who like movies, I have long had a long list of “Movies I Haven’t Seen But Should.” They are the gaps that formed when movies came to me mostly by circumstance. Who can say why your parents owned this VHS cassette and not another? Why did your cousin take you to see that one movie in the theater and not another? It’s not something you always have control over. For the most part, you see the movies you see. When I did grow to exercise a certain measure of control, I still had only limited access to the film canon as a whole. I watched what I could find in my public library, on Turner Classic Movies or the Independent Film Channel, and the mainstream offerings that reached my small-town Ohio mall theater. The rest were left as blind spots that, as I got older, busier and more distracted, I simply accepted.
When I decided recently to reapply myself to storytelling, I prioritized filling in my film knowledge gaps. I wanted to learn more about how films told stories, which meant taking in the best stories film had to offer as well as understanding more about film history and context. I also just liked the idea of finally watching all those movies about which I had always said, “I should watch that.”
In terms of access, I’m now in the entirely opposite position than I was when I was younger; thanks to the internet, virtually anything I want is available to me virtually immediately. Although, as a surfeit of opportunity often does, it created the problem of not knowing where to start. As it turns out, however, “Where to start” is less about the “where” than it is about the “start.” Where you begin something is often arbitrary. Many people like to have opinions about the correct ways to do this or that, but most of these people are annoying. Pick a place and begin. That’s really all you need.
To that end, I picked a framework in the form of the 1000 “greatest movies” list compiled by They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They? They created their master list by aggregating dozens of “best of” lists and outputting the average. Are these literally, objectively the greatest movies ever made? The truth is that I’m not interested in either that question or its potential answers. For me, it’s an effective way to fill in knowledge gaps by moving through a list of films that, for one reason or another, have endured years of discussion and critique and represent pieces of film culture as it has evolved to be now. So that’s what I’m doing.
My ground rules: 1) I only watch new-to-me films (re-watching movies I’ve seen before from my current, more observant perspective sounds like an interesting thing to do, but I’ll save that for a future experiment), and 2) I attempt to watch at least one film a week. That’s it, more or less. I’m not necessarily sticking to a one-by-one process (turns out a lot of renowned classic films are also fairly heavy in terms of subject matter, and many of the heaviest ones are front loaded in the list), but I am committed to completing a single hundred-item block before moving on to the next. For example, I plan to watch all of films, in whatever order, in slots 1-100 before I move on to watch any of the films in slots 101-200. I have no idea if I’ll carry this through all the way to the official end of the list. That would take a very long time, and, as I said, it’s a framework, a place to start. It’s not necessarily about completion. I began in earnest in February of 2018 and so far I’ve watched twenty-three “greatest” films I hadn’t seen before.
There’s more to this than checking items off of a list, however. I do love to check items off of lists, that much is true. But the chief result of this project so far has been a gloriously unmeasurable one: I’ve remembered, with all simplicity and sincerity, that I like movies. That realization has restarted the fervor for movie watching that I thought I had left behind in my younger years, and, because of that, my movie watching has begat more movie watching. I’ve inadvertently crossed off many items from later portions of the list because I’ve already started seeking out even more movies I had always meant to watch but never did before: Alien, Jaws, The Night of the Living Dead, Godzilla, Stagecoach, Cabaret. Yes, I know it’s wild that I like movies and hadn’t seen many of those films until recently. But I think we all have gaps like this, and I also think the crushing weight of modern conversation around film and pop culture in general has pushed many of us to feel a sort of shame about our gaps. Imagine if when we encountered someone who hasn’t seen some cinematic touchstone or another, we didn’t respond with outrage or shaming, but we instead shared our encouragement for them to experience and enjoy it. I’ve absorbed a lot of valuable lessons about filmmaking and storytelling while working my way through this list, but that’s no longer really the point. The point now is that great movies are great, full stop. And I like them.
(If you are so inclined to try a similar experiment, I hope the process I described is helpful. If you use Letterboxd, there is a Letterboxd version of the TSPDT master list and if you are a Letterboxd Pro user, you can clone it to your own account, as I have done here with my own 1000 greatest movies list. As far getting a hold of the films themselves, Filmstruck is invaluable and where I have been able to find most of the films on the list. I also utilize Amazon and, of course, the public library. If you’re looking for a particular hard-to-find film on this list, let me know and I might be able to let you know where I turned it up.)