Criteria for the Very Best Films of All Time

I hate people asking me for my all-time favorite film. I don’t even want to give them an all-time top ten. How do you choose between Ikiru and Singin’ in the Rain? They’re both masterpieces, but each succeeds in doing something entirely different from the other. It’s like comparing apples and orangutans.

But I’ve been thinking: Is there a set of criteria for identifying, even amongst the greatest movies, the few films that are the very best? Could there be some logical way to separate, out of hundreds of masterpieces, a handful that stand above the rest?

How about this? Amongst the great films, the very greatest must be outstanding in all of these areas:

Substance: A work of pure escapism can be a masterpiece, but can’t enter the stratified realm of the very best. Nor can a work with a simplistic theme of “Hooray for our side.” Such a film must say something intelligent and complex about the society in which it was made, or about the human condition.

Humanity: Even a complex message is cheapened if told through cardboard characters. The very best films, therefore, must explore their complex themes through believable, human characters.

Entertainment: There are plenty of great films of substance and humanity, but let’s be honest: They’re not all that much fun to watch. To stand out above that crowd, a deep and complex movie must also provide a good time.

Original Craftsmanship: It’s not enough for a film on the very top to be well written, designed, shot, acted, edited, and directed. It must avoid clichés and push the envelope. Uh, let me reword that. It must be well-made in an unusual, preferably ground-breaking way.

Well-Aged: A work of art can’t truly be a classic until it has stood the test of time. It’s not that new works are inferior, it’s just that we have no way of knowing if they’ll look great or absurd to the next generation–or to older versions of ourselves. I put the minimum age for a classic at 20 years. That’s long enough for it to be discovered by a generation too young to remember the world it was created in.

Now that we have the criteria, we can put together a completely objective list of the greatest of the great–the very best, movies ever made.

Yeah, and digital always looks better.

Even if everyone agreed with these criteria (and I don’t expect them to), no one would agree as to what films match it. But following this criteria, here’s my list of the 8 greatest films ever made (I couldn’t actually find 10 that made the list). I list the films chronologically because I wouldn’t dream of picking the best amongst this lot. The links lead to my microreviews.

  • The Crowd
  • Citizen Kane
  • Rear Window
  • Seven Samurai
  • Lawrence of Arabia
  • 8 1/2
  • The Godfather: Part II
  • Annie Hall

    What do you think of my criteria? And what films would you put on your own short list?

    [June 24, 2007: This post has been altered since I first wrote it. I originally left Annie Hall out as a complete oversight. I have since added it.]