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  • Ken Ilgunas

Must Great Be Bleak?



Every ten years, the British Film Institute (BFI) revises its list of the greatest 100 movies ever. A month ago, the BFI published its latest list.

As a film appreciator, film devourer, and (for a few classes) film student, I was appalled that I hadn’t seen 49 of them. Not only that, but I hadn’t even heard of number one! (More on that later.)

Of the 51 films I had seen, I’d say roughly 90 percent are characterized by bleakness, opacity, and tragedy. Very few were pleasurable experiences. Devoting 2-3 hours of your life to one of these movies feels like something you have to do but don’t want to do, like going to the dentist. Even if you think such a movie is great, you’ll probably never go out of your way to watch it again. (I liked Moonlight, but one watch was enough.)

I moan, but I like these lists. These movies are mostly slogs and the critics who vote for them are pretentious, but I’m glad there are a few pretentious lists out there, full of movies that have managed to escape my notice.

Say what you want about In the Mood for Love or Late Spring, but, by the time I flick the lights on and shut off my Blu-Ray player, these slogs always make me feel more cultured. A film from the 1920s (Sunrise) might seem dated and simple, and something from 1970s Russia (Mirror) might seem impenetrably bizarre, but they nevertheless always make me feel better connected to humanity.

These movies may not comfort or uplift, but they almost always make you think and feel. They’re good at creating an atmosphere that you’ll waft through well after the movie is over. Bleakness leads you down a new psychic crevasse. Opacity requires interpretation. Tragedy follows you up to bed.

But do great movies need to be bleak?

The BFI says nothing about bleakness when they talk about the criteria presented to voters: “The voters were asked to interpret ‘Greatest’ as they chose: to reflect the film’s importance in cinematic history, its aesthetic achievement, or perhaps its personal impact in their own life and their view of cinema.”

All of the above sounds well and good, but why not also consider cultural relevance, timelessness, rewatchability, and the evocation of joy as factors? Shouldn’t the un-rewatchability of a film be considered a flaw? You’d have to be a masochist to endure more than one sitting of Killer of Sheep, Au Hasard Balthazar, or L’Atalante. Why can’t universally loved and rewatchable movies — such as Wall-E, Avatar, and Terminator 2 — be part of the conversation?

After all, these popular movies are not only well-loved and rewatchable, but culturally relevant, impactful on the history of cinema, and more wide-reaching in their social critiquing than ::bleh:: Beau Travail. These movies have important things to say — whether it’s about environmental degradation, colonialism, or the threat of powerful technology — and they manage to convey these messages, not to thousands, but billions.

Again, I like these pretentious lists, but that doesn’t mean I can’t nit-pick them to death. Some of these choices are baffling, partly because the list suffers from recency bias.

- I really liked Get Out (2017), but is it a Top-100 movie? During its final act, the film’s IQ dropped from 130 to 80 when it became little more than a dumb slasher.

- I admired the visuals in the 2019 A Portrait of a Lady on Fire (I’m referring to the, uh, lighting), but it would be insane to call it a Top-30 movie of all time.

- I enjoyed Parasite (2019), but if giving it Best Picture was a stretch, then putting it on this list is a dislocated shoulder.

- Shouldn’t the critics consider, in their voting, a “great” movie from a child’s or a teen’s point of view, and not just the point of view of an eggheaded cosmopolitan adult? Why not include an E.T., a Wizard of Oz, or a Coco?

Anywho… I felt compelled to watch the supposed greatest movie ever—a 1975 Belgian/French picture called Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles.

It was 3.5 hours and felt like 3.5 days (probably because, to get through it, it took me 3.5 days). I’m not making things up when I tell you that there are scenes — 5-10 minutes in length — of the protagonist, Jeanne, doing something as mundane as peeling potatoes, eating potato soup, making coffee, or just quietly sitting in a room.

Throughout, I let out caustic guffaws and rolled my eyes, but, by the end, I had to grudgingly admit that the monotony was not a pretension, but a necessary device. The scenes in which nothing happens show the contours of this person’s life. They showed that this mundane (and comforting) routine was her life. The potatoes were necessary.

I thought it totally deserved to be on this list, but nowhere near #1.

I think I’ll make it a goal of mine to watch the other 48 movies in 2023, so this may not be the last time you hear of this pretentious list.

How to build your own to-watch list of films

It’s best to mix the popular with the pretentious. I have about 500 movies on my to-watch list, which I’ve built using other critics’ and film organizations’ lists. Here are a few helpful lists:

BFI’s Top-100 list - As pretentious as it gets, but it is eclectic, international, and diverse in every way possible.

IMDB Top 250 - A really good middlebrow list of fan favorites.

The Rewatchables - This is my favorite movie podcast. These critics aren’t afraid to suggest films that are embarrassing to like, and they often dig up forgotten movies from the 80s and 90s. As the podcast name suggests, they value, above anything, the rewatchability of a film.

AFI Top-100 - I was 14 when their 1997 top-100 list came out. This list, for me, was pre-Internet and therefore a treasured cultural resource, picked up at my local Blockbuster. I still have my crumpled copy in a drawer somewhere. Here’s the updated 2007 list of the best American movies.

Bruce Jackson & Diane Christian Film Seminars - I took their film course during my undergrad years at University at Buffalo, where they’ve been teaching for years. The link to their archives — which features hundreds of interesting films — is down, but I’m told they'll publish their list again soon. I’ll update this newsletter on my website when those changes are made.

The New Yorker’s top 27 movies of the 2000s - Richard Brody has a lot of suggestions you’ve probably never heard of. I’ve found a few gems on this list.

Uncle Ken’s Favorite 175 - My 16-year-old nephew is a budding cinephile, and after asking me for recommendations, I went overboard and made a list of my favorite 175 films.

Where to watch

The usual streaming services are not helpful in building a good to-watch list because their stock is limited and changes monthly. I’d find an old-fashioned DVD-by-post subscription.

- For US readers, I believe Netflix still has a DVD/Blu-Ray option. For UK readers, I subscribe to Cinema Paradiso for £10/month. They have about 95% of the movies I want to watch.

- UK readers can subscribe to BFI’s streaming service for a mere £50/year.

- I don’t have a MUBI subscription, but I’ve heard only good things. $13/month for a carefully curated list of movies.

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