Forty Films Before 40
So, on Monday of this week I turned 39 1/2. I’ve set myself an objective to pick off some of the more glaring holes before I turn 40, so I’ve set about the task of identifying forty films which are the most critical gaps from my film watching. It’s been a fascinating week: educating, informing, slightly humbling, but also freeing and to a certain extent inspiring. However, one thing is clear: attempting to narrow this down to a definitive list of forty films before I’ve actually seen them might be a fool’s errand, so before we’ve even started this has become At Least Forty Films To See Before I’m 40. Possibly Four Hundred Films To See Before I’m 40.
I’m also not going to draw a line in February next year; clearly this needs to generate some momentum, so I hope I can continue to carry that momentum forward into next year, and truly enhance my own film education in the process. The reactions this week have almost had their own curve: we started with general incredulity on Monday when I announced my intent, replaced to some extent by a sense of empathy over the course of the week, with several people telling me it may inspire them to similar exercises to explore their own back catalogue and it’s also brought to my attention opportunities in local cinemas, on TV and even in my local cathedral to catch some of the suggested films, in addition to my own extensive DVD archive.
It’s also made me realise a few things about my gaps. Firstly, it’s not that I’m not aware of these films, as 99% of the films suggested are not only films I’ve heard of, but that I could probably relay most of the plot and have seen the pivotal scenes at some point, just not the film in its entirety. Secondly, I’m far from the only person with gaps, but most people try to plug their gaps discreetly in the background. For me this is an open wound that bothers me, and having put a sticking plaster on it with cinema catch-ups for a few years I’m now ripping the plaster off, and it feels good. And thirdly, everyone has their own gaps, but also everyone has their own favourites; there’s very little overlap in terms of the suggestions people have made.
So, to progress. This week has been about data capture, leaving me twenty five weeks until the not-really-dreaded 40th to churn through as many as possible. I’m hoping to average at least two a week, so I’m hoping to manage at least 50 before the hammer drops. Let’s have a look at the various nominations made so far.
Nominations following the original post on Monday
Between Twitter, e-mail and the comments on this blog, there was quite a list generated pretty quickly. Within half an hour I had Valerie and Her Week Of Wonders. 5000 Fingers of Dr T, World On A Wire, The Music Room, Contraband, Claire’s Knee, Hausu, Ministry Of Fear, Ride The High Country, Nightmare Alley, Detour – and that was just from the first person! (Thanks @tobytram.) Two people then rightly chastised me for not seeing Singin’ In The Rain. (This will get worse before it gets better.) Before Twitter had finished, it offered up The Wages Of Fear, a Bill Forsyth double bill in the shape of Gregory’s Girl and Local Hero and One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest (which I’ve seen half of – not sure if that counts or not). E-mail also threw up The General and Day For Night, and the comments on the blog post provided Fanny And Alexander, Jules Et Jim and Hannah And Her Sisters. I also posted a couple of Facebook links, which threw up Way of the Dragon, The Big Boss, The Outlaw Josie Wales and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, as well as Mr. Holland’s Opus, Watership Down, The Odd Couple, Harvey and Dames. So far, so embarrassing.
Current potential list: 30
The Letterboxd Draw Of Shame (sic)
On Wednesday, emboldened by my shaming on the first day, I laid myself truly bare to ridicule, by listing out some DVDs. It’s all well and good to try to watch these films, but with a two at a time account from LoveFilm and a limited budget, the extensive DVD and Blu-ray collection I’ve already amassed over the past thirteen years should be a reasonable place to start. So I publicised the Letterboxd list which contains all of my unwatched classics, conveniently collected into a single drawer in my IKEA DVD tower. Twitter then came up with a further list of nominations, based on what users would nominate as their first pick from what I realised I’d incorrectly called a draw. As if it wasn’t bad enough already.
So from that exercise, I’ve captured Rebecca, Amelie, Strangers On A Train, An American Werewolf In London, Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid, City Of God, Dr. Strangelove, Or How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Bomb, The Good, The Bad And the Ugly, The Lives Of Others, Spirited Away and Zulu. Impressively, Spirited Away wasn’t even on the list but it managed to come up in conversation and I own it and have only seen bits.
Current potential list: 41
Casual conversations over the weekend
Of course, it’s now an inevitability that whenever this comes up in conversation, people will hit on another film. So between my choir practice on Friday, a discussion after Saturday’s Bums On Seats and a leaving do on Saturday evening, I’ve also been advised of Love Story, The Graduate, Bonnie And Clyde, Educating Rita, High Noon, Easter Parade, Bad Day At Black Rock, Love Is A Many-Splendored Thing, Silent Running, Glory, Planes, Trains And Automobiles and Network. An additional pass at Twitter yesterday offered Howl’s Moving Castle, The Craft and A Matter Of Life And Death, as well as The Last Of The Mohicans, Young Frankenstein, The Hunger and Natural Born Killers. The last four were suggested from a list of their directors as being essential; while I have seen most of the body of work of all four, those are the most prominent gaps in each.
Thankfully, these conversations also managed to finally start offering up some films I had seen, including (but not exclusively) Pretty Woman, Close Encounters Of The Third Kind, The Terminator, Garden State, The Tree Of Life and Star Wars. So I have seen some films. Honest.
Current potential list: 60
The Internet Movie Database Top 250
When I originally blogged on this a week ago, I referred to a few other potential sources. The first is that barometer of popular opinion, the Internet Movie Database and their list of the Top 250 films of all time (excluding documentaries, Bollywood and a few other anomalies). As I mentioned then, of the Top 250 I can only lay claim to having seen 120 – I’ve since managed to revise that figure up to 126 by more thorough checking – but there’s a more definite split. Of films released since I got married in 2005 on the list, I’ve managed to see 87%. If you look over the rest of my lifespan, back to 1974, that figure falls to 61%, but of anything on the list prior to my birth I have seen just a meagre 18%. So while my love of cinema has helped me to keep on top of the present, it’s failing badly in allowing me to address the past. (It also shows you how tolerant my wife has been for the last eight years. Thanks, Mrs. Evangelist.)
The Top 250 list is a pretty solid list, a mix of both high and popular culture, so I feel that scooping the cream from the list should also allow me to fill some key gaps in my viewing. For now, I’m going to arbitrarily draw a line at 75 on the list, which leaves me 19 that I’ve not seen and are not already mentioned here (and over 50 which I actually have seen – phew). So I’m throwing into the mix in supposedly descending order of greatness The Godfather: Part II, Seven Samurai, Once Upon a Time in the West, Sunset Boulevard, American History X, City Lights, Modern Times, Life Is Beautiful, The Pianist, M, Paths of Glory, Taxi Driver, Double Indemnity, The Great Dictator, A Clockwork Orange, To Kill a Mockingbird, Das Boot, Cinema Paradiso and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. If I manage most of that lot, I’ll move the line down a bit from 75, but for now I think this is a decent supplement.
Current potential list: 79
Sight And Sound and BFI polls
The other two sources of moderated greatness I mentioned were the annual Sight And Sound poll and the BFI list of 50 films to see before you’re 14. Helpfully, the latter list had prioritised a top 10, of which I have only seen three. Of those not already mentioned, the ones to add now are Bicycle Thieves, Kes, The Night Of The Hunter, Show Me Love, The 400 Blows and Where Is The Friend’s Home? Although in fairness, you find me a fourteen year old who’s seen any more than the other four on the list (Toy Story, E.T., The Wizard Of Oz and Spirited Away) and I think you’ll be doing well.
The more famous poll is that of Sight And Sound, which has been published by the British Film Institute since 1934. Since 1952 they have been polling critics, and more recently directors, every ten years since 1952 to find out their top film choices, and in that time only three films have ever topped the list: Bicycle Thieves, Citizen Kane and Vertigo. I’m not going to lie to you, there’s a reasonable chunk of their top 250 I’ve never heard of, and probably won’t get anywhere near until I’m nearer retirement age or if I win the lottery and can just sit at home and watch films all day. So to try to narrow it down, I’ve taken the most recent poll from 2012, which features not only a critics’ top 250 but a directors’ top 100. I’ve taken the top 50 from each list, and then compared the two lists to find films that appear on both. Ruling out those already seen and previously listed here, that’s given me a final list of Tokyo Story, 2001: A Space Odyssey, 8½, Mirror, Breathless, Persona, Andrei Rublev, Rashomon, Ordet, Battle of Algiers, The Close-Up, La dolce vita and Playtime.
Current potential list: 98
That’s probably enough asking for now, although there are a couple of other steps I plan to take in the next couple of weeks which will likely edge the list just over 100. Now I need to start watching them.
Already, fortune has favoured the bold – or the hopelessly naive, but either way, I’m good – as Paths Of Glory was on TV yesterday. Additionally, the Cambridge Film Festival is organising a number of outdoor screenings as part of its regular programme, which this year include both Some Like It Hot and Singin’ In The Rain. And Ely Cathedral has a showing of The General in a couple of weeks with a live organ accompaniment. Add to that the dozen or so I already own, and I’m in a position to make a serious dent in this list.
This also seems to have prompted a few others to consider revisiting their own collections, so if you’re reading all this and thinking, “how does this guy even have the nerve to write a film blog?” I would suggest you get your own house in order first. If that DVD of Goodfellas, Rear Window or 3 Ninjas has been sitting in your collection unwatched for more than a few weeks, maybe now is the time to take the opportunity to finally get it watched. And no, I haven’t seen 3 Ninjas, but unless I hear a strong groundswell of opinion it’s not going on the list.
But if you live locally to me, straddling the Cambridgeshire and Suffolk border as I do, and are likely to see me around and can loan any DVDs, Blu-rays or VHS films to help the cause, please do. If you spot any screenings of any of these films, showing absolutely anywhere, please do draw them to my attention. And keep the suggestions coming – it may be that you’ve patiently read through the list here and thought, “I wonder if he’s seen…” I will be posting weekly progress updates with brief reviews of anything I watch between now and February, at which point I hope to produce my own definitive list of Forty Films To See Before You’re 40 – but that’s a way off yet. For now, I just need to get watching. Wish me luck.
EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: Tell me what films I should have seen before I turn 40. I would like to make a list of 40 of them, and then make sure I’ve seen them before I hit the big day. Scroll down to the bottom if you need some inspiration.
USUAL EXTENDED WAFFLING: I reached a significant milestone in my life in February last year. I had some very nice cards, but didn’t have a big party or a massive celebration. Because, for some reason I can’t begin to fathom, it’s not seen as a major achievement by most to be 20,000,000 minutes old. To me, birthdays are boring, one year passes so slowly and small numbers don’t have the fascination to my mathematical mind that larger ones do. So in my own little universe, I’ll be more interested in March 2015, when I’m 15,000 hours old, or December 2037 when, God willing, my age in minutes will be a perfect number – 33,550,336 – which, unless I turn out to be the Highlander, will be the last time in my life when any measure of my age (years, days, hours, minutes or seconds) will be a perfect number. But for those who are in thrall of society’s conventions, today could almost be seen as a significant day, for today I am exactly six months away from my fortieth birthday. I am, sigh, thirty-nine and a half years old today.
Except: hold that sigh. There’s nothing wrong with being forty any more. It might be the half way point for most people of average life spans, but that just means that, barring illness or injury, I’ve got the chance to double up the amount of life experience I’ve already had. I had an existential life crisis when I turned 25, for I felt I hadn’t achieved anything significant with my life: I was stuck in a menial job, having not been able to find suitable work after two different university courses, I was renting a tiny room in a run-down house, I’d never had a steady girlfriend, I couldn’t drive, I’d been abroad for a grand total of one day, and so the list went on: I didn’t feel I’d managed to achieve anything significant with my life.
Now I’m on the cusp of middle age, I’ve removed any possibility for grumbling. From that menial job I’ve built a worthwhile and well paid career, with a wife who loves me and puts up with all of my more insane addictions, I’m ten years into a twenty-five year mortgage, I’ve done 40,000 miles driving in a year and a half for work and to the cinema, I’ve been to three different continents – as well as seeing a lot more of this country and realising you don’t always need to go abroad for a great holiday – and as well as the film blog and the various other media contributions I now make to film studies such as Bums On Seats, I have my name on a plaque on a church wall that may well outlast me, and I conduct my church choir, write occasional music for them and even have a qualification in doing it. I also managed to run 10k last year in under an hour, and if I can ever get this persistent ankle injury sorted I still have hopes of something much longer. I’m pretty happy at this point with the hand that life’s dealt me.
Sure, I’m starting to feel my age a little. There’s just the odd wrinkle appearing at the corners of my eyes, which are now covered by glasses that little bit thicker than when I was 25, and the lithe and limber frame of a skin and bone teenager who could put his legs behind his head has given way to a creaky middle-aged man with a slight paunch who can barely touch his toes, but on the up side I still have all my own ginger hair and three quarters of my own teeth and I can still run up the stairs two at a time, so for now the idea of being forty isn’t filling me with too much dread. But there’s just one area where I feel I have a gap in one of my regular interests that I’d like to use my last six months of thirtyhood to address, and you’ll be relieved to hear – given that you’ve had to read four paragraphs of my rambling before I’ve gotten to any kind of point – that it’s film related. (If I ramble this much now, what am I going to be like when I’m 33,550,336?)
Down to business, then: I still feel there are some significant gaps in my film knowledge, and I’d like to plug a few of them before I hit the big four-oh. Unless you’re a paid up film reviewer, you’re not going to have seen everything, and there’s bound to be a few gaps in the knowledge of just about everyone. Last Friday, for example, I saw Time Bandits at the cinema, and I was concerned that I’d be in the minority, not previously having seen it; as it turns out, of those I spoke to the majority were Time Bandits virgins. (My review? It’s great, see it if you get the chance, it’s held up well for something well over thirty years old. I’d like to think it’s not alone.)
But there are some major holes in my film knowledge that I feel would improve the blog, and my critiquing in general, were I to fill them. I do always try to judge each film on its own merits; for example, in my Frances Ha review recently, I wondered if knowing that Greta Gerwig running down the street to David Bowie is a reference to Denis Lavant doing the same in Leos Carax’s Mauvais Sang improves your understanding of the film. In my view, such moments need to work on their own terms, not purely the self-referential, so I still firmly believe that your knowledge of other film merely enhances, rather than defines, your understanding and enjoyment of any given film. At the same time, it can’t hurt to have a bit of insider info.
So what I intend to do over the next six months is to plug up to forty of the most significant gaps in my back catalogue, and this is where I’d like your help, faithful reader. I’d like you to tell me, via comments here, social media or just accosting me in the bar of one of my local cinemas if you see me (I’m easy to spot – tall, ginger hair, runs up the stairs two at a time) what films I should have seen. Over the next six months I will use the blog to catalogue my efforts, I’ll see any of the films nominated in the cinema, and by February next year I’ll produce a list of not only what I saw, but what I think any reasonable cinephile should have ticked off as a bare minimum.
I did try to assess the list myself, but there are so many gaps I’m not really sure I know where to start. I do feel I’ve made progress over the last five years of cinema obsession, and as well as an evolving fascination with Haneke and a reinforced love for the Coens, I can now tell my Kiarostami from my Kaurismaki, I’ve opened myself up to classic British film makers from David Lean to Mike Leigh and Ken Loach and since I started the blog I’ve mopped up everything from the likes of Chinatown to Battleship Potemkin and The Discreet Charm Of The Bourgeoisie, but in my quest to watch films in their best environment (the cinema, obviously) I can only be served by what’s showing at any given point.
The use of technology or established writing to try to compose the list just complicated the matter further. The Internet Movie Database have a Top 250 list, and if you’re logged into the site and have rated the films you’ve seen, it will tell you how many you still have left to see. Which in my case is 130. (Gulp.) I also own a number of film books, one of which is called “1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die”, and mathematically speaking, the list of films I’ve actually seen is notably dwarfed by the list of films I haven’t even heard of. There’s even a list that the BFI put together in 2005 entitled “50 Films To See Before You’re 14“, of which I’ve mustered a grand total of 13. (*beats head repeatedly against wall*) So you can see that the position is pretty desperate.
So tell me. Tell me what I should have seen. Tell me what are the classics, the simple pleasures, the pivotal moments in cinema history, or just the films that you keep going back to. I can’t undo all of those repeated childhood viewings of Return Of The Jedi or Beverly Hills Cop 2 or Space Camp or even Dirty Dancing – my mother’s favourite film at the time, and with only one colour TV in the house I could probably recite most of it word for word, even now – but I can look forward, and make amends for the sins of omission of the past by hammering the internet and my LoveFilm account for the next six months. Then who knows where these new avenues will take me?
You can nominate as many or as few films as you like, but I just ask two things: please make a list of less than forty, otherwise you’re just not helping, and if your choices are likely to fall into the “you probably won’t have heard of it” camp, then I might ask you to justify your reasoning somewhat. Don’t be afraid to nominate things you might have seen, I’d rather have a Spielberg or a Scorcese film on the list if it’s important and it might just be the one I’ve missed. But please be vocal, and get nominating now!
To get you started, I’ve compiled a list of my ten most sinful omissions, the ten biggest gaps likely to get me drummed out of the local film reviewer’s circle and shunned to the back row of the greasiest multiplex imaginable, all of my cinema memberships revoked in disgust. Please don’t restrict yourself to just items on this list when making suggestions; there are bound to be some other horrendous voids in my knowledge, these are just to get the ball rolling. You may well be appalled at some of the things on this list, you might even find yourself making a sharp intake of breath at some points in sheer horror, but that’s fine: the whole idea is to plug these gaps before it’s arbitrarily too late. You might want to nominate films from these lists, or others entirely, but I will respond to any and every suggestion. Probably at great and waffly length.
For some reason, the thought of Westerns has always left me completely cold. Maybe it’s the (completely incorrect) mental connection between country and western music, which also gives me mental shivers, or maybe it’s just all of those grubby men in badly fitting clothes grumbing in the desert that just never engaged me. To give you an idea of just why this is the number one gap on the list, here’s the Time Out list of the 50 Greatest Westerns. How many have I seen? Two. And one of them’s Blazing Saddles.
2. Japanese cinema
I’ve seen a lot of Korean cinema over the past few years, from Oldboy to The Host and The Yellow Sea, but the fact that Confessions was my favourite film of 2011 sits as something more of an anomaly in my viewing habits. I bought a batch of around 40 DVDs from an employee of mine a few years ago that contained large amounts of Kurosawa (all still unwatched), the likes of Ozu – who sits at third on the most recent Sight and Sound poll of the greatest films of all time – have completely passed me by, and my viewing of Studio Ghibli extends to those films released in the past five years. If there’s one country I’d love to visit, it’s Japan, but I fear I may need to watch more of their films before they consider letting me in.
3. Billy Wilder
This is where I must really hang my head in shame. I’ve not seen many Westerns or Japanese films, but the DVDs are sat at home waiting for me to watch. Apart from the last 20 minutes of Some Like It Hot, I’ve never seen, and nor do I own, any Billy Wilder. Double Indemnity, Sunset Boulevard, Sabrina, The Spirit Of St. Louis, Witness For The Prosecution, Irma La Douce, The Apartment – the list is as long as it is painful, and surely must be redressed somewhere in the forty. Or should it?
4. The martial artists
Saw a fascinating documentary at the Prince Charles Cinema last year called I Am Bruce Lee. I just hadn’t seen most of the films that the documentary actually referred to. I am already hoping at this point in the list that at least knowing what I haven’t see is counting somewhat in my favour.
5. Early Woody Allen
Another monumental director whose work I’ve only engaged with since I started regularly visiting the cinema as an adult. In this case, anything good from Mighty Aphrodite is likely to be on the seen list, anything prior is likely to be up for debate. Woody’s the main example, but pick any major director and there will be the odd one or two films in just about anyone’s portfolio of work that I’ve so far missed. In Woody’s case it might just be one or two dozen. Ahem.
6. The French New Wave
I made a joke in my Frances Ha review recently that some people think that Francois Truffaut is just the French guy from Close Encounters. While I’m not quite that bad, my list of films influenced by the French New Wave, from Wes Anderson to Michel Gondry and Quentin Tarantino significantly outnumbers the list of films from the actual French New Wave that I’ve seen. (Just reading this is depressing me, if it’s any consolation.)
7. George Romero
As we get down the list, the balance between the seen and the unseen starts to tip further in the other direction. I can claim to have seen The Exorcist on a very scratchy print at a cinema back in the Nineties before it became widely available again; I recently ticked off one of my other major gaps of The Evil Dead trilogy before the release of the new version this year, and I have history in everything from Peter Jackson to Eli Roth. (Not that I see that as necessarily a good thing.) But the biggest gap in my backstory is George Romero’s Dead series, which has still eluded me more effectively than a fast zombie running in the other direction. Also probably worth me dropping in Dario Argento’s name here as well, just in case you weren’t depressed enough already.
8. Silent classics
Charlie Chapin? Nope. Buster Keaton? Nada. Laurel and Hardy? Forget it. I wouldn’t blame you for disowning me at this point, I really wouldn’t.
9. Classic musicals
Thankfully we’re into the realms of barrel scraping here. Not only can I cover the modern exponents like Chicago or Moulin Rouge, I can lay claim to having seen earlier classics from Grease to The Sound Of Music and The Wizard Of Oz to The Blues Brothers. Unlike the list of westerns, I’ve seen around half of this list of 50 Greatest Musicals but that still leaves about half of the list open to selection – including, shamefully, the one in the picture.
And finally, in the name of true diversity, an example of another whole genre that’s completely passed me by, with the exception of send-up Black Dynamite. Is any such list complete without the black private dick who’s a sex machine to all the chicks? You tell me.
So get nominating. E-mail me at the address in the sidebar of this page, tweet me at @MovieEvangelist with the hashtag #Forty40, find me on Facebook, accost me in the cinema or in the street or sit outside my house late at night, shouting general abuse. Just let me know, and I’ll keep you regularly updated on progress. Thanks in advance!