So I turned 40 this year. My intent was to write a post or two to mark the occasion, but I had a few problems. The main one was starting a new job which currently consumes most of my waking hours, but there was also a question of what I should write. I quickly ruled out the idea of films based around the number 40, given that the list appeared to consist of:
- 40 Days And 40 Nights (with Josh Hartnett, not seen)
- The 40 Year Old Virgin (seen, not bad)
- This Is 40 (seen, rubbish and it clearly isn’t what 40 is about based on the last three months)
- 40 Carats (comedy from 1973 with Liv Ullmann and Gene Kelly about a divorcee engaged to a younger man – oh the scandal! Haven’t seen it)
- North Dallas Forty (an American football comedy drama with Nick Nolte and Charles Durning. Nope.)
- Forty Guns (a Sam Fuller B-movie western starring Barbara Stanwyck. Err…)
- Forty Shades Of Blue (it’s something about Russian music and Memphis and it’s got Rip Torn in it. Whatevs.)
- Er, that’s it
I’m sure any Pulitzer prize winning journalist with too much time on their hands and several online film memberships could have spun nostalgic gold out of that list; sadly I think the day I win a prize for my writing might be the same day that a frozen hell is darkened further by a flock of winged pigs passing overhead.
What I also ruled out was any thoughts of “The 40 Best Films I’ve Ever Seen”, which as we’ve established previously my film knowledge has some significant gaps in it. However, what would give more of an insight into me, warts and all, is the forty films that I’ve seen most. This is a list I’ve pulled together with the help of family and friends, and is by no means a record of quality. But perhaps what it does do is show how my film taste has / hasn’t evolved over the years to become the obsessive cinephile I am now. It also counts home viewing as well as cinema trips – in fact, I’ve only seen 19 of this list in a cinema.
That first problem – work obligations – mean that my 40th birthday is now several weeks in the past. So instead, I present this list in honour of the 4th anniversary of this blog, which occurred last weekend. In that four years I’ve written over 500 posts and watched exactly 666 films at the cinema. I can assure you that there’s no demonic messages to be found if you read this post backwards. **
So here, I present for your reading pleasure in chronological order the list of the forty films I’ve watched most often in my lifetime. EDIT: I cannot stress strongly enough that this isn’t a list of my favourite films – I think, even now with my moderate film knowledge no more than a dozen of this list would make it on to an all-time top 40 – but more a documentation, for better or worse, of my viewing habits in my first four decades. Feel free to judge me, or tell me of your own obscure favourites in the comments.
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.