There are four things that I believe are elemental in discerning a person’s taste: movies, TV, books and music. Different folks can have different opinions on contemporary art or food or boxer shorts or whatever — those are matters of opinion and, if it moves you, it moves you. People with wildly different preferences can easily coexist with each other.
But those big four … well, I think they go pretty far in determining whether someone is cultured. Yes, I can still be your friend if you like Nickelback or The Big Bang Theory. But it takes more effort, and friendship and admiration are not the same thing.
And so I set out now to alienate you. I’ve always wanted to figure out what my favorite movies are. But it would be too simple and prosaic to just offer a subjective list. So I have tried to develop a mostly objective, weighted ranking system that (if I do it right) will spit out the correct answers.
The link to my spreadsheet is at the end of this section. But before I do, I feel obligated to offer and explain my methodology.
My Movie Score is determined by individual scores in nine different categories, each assigned a relative weight. For each category, each movie is scored on a scale of one to 10 — whole numbers only. (For all intents and purposes, it’s really on a scale of five to 10. A movie generally couldn’t make the broader list without scoring at least a five in any given category. You might find the occasional three or four in there when something was really insultingly low in one category but made up for it in other areas.) The scores are then multiplied by their weight and added together for a maximum of 200 points.
The most difficult task was narrowing all the (thousands? of) movies I’ve ever seen into the ones that deserved to be scored. The top dozen or two were easy, and perhaps I should have stopped there. But I continued by adding movies from popular “best ever” lists and then — as a minimum threshold — adding any movie that, if I had nothing else to do and saw it in a channel lineup, I might stop to watch it.
I strongly suspect that the 250-plus movies listed here are not my favorite 250 movies. There have got to be some I am forgetting and I’m sure people will point them out to me. But this process was necessary to distill the top 100, which I am pretty confident is practically complete.
Someone out there might be cheesed that their favorite movie isn’t even on this extensive list. I’d like to imagine that if that’s so, I either haven’t seen it (there are a lot of movies I haven’t seen!) or I thought it was okay but I just didn’t like it as much as you did. To them I would say: make your own list.
Below, I describe each category in more detail, along with its weight.
When we sit down to watch a movie, we expect to be taken on a journey. This is a measurement of how interesting (or boring) that journey is. Is it engaging (or tedious)? Is it well-paced (or are there slow parts that I tend to skip)? Does it successfully convey a coherent theme? By the end of the movie, have I discovered something about myself or human nature? This category is perhaps the most elemental, although a great movie doesn’t necessarily have to have a great plot if everything else is done well, like Magnolia or 2001: A Space Odyssey.
If the plot is the road a movie takes you on, the script is the vehicle you’re riding in. But good scripts are not just propulsive, they’re incisive, funny, profound, like Dr. Strangelove. They produce rich, nuanced characters, like in Midnight Run. And they honor the language in which they’re written, like Miller’s Crossing, which is effortlessly lyrical in its use of 1920s American slang.
Maybe this is controversial, but I’m lumping “acting” right in with “casting,” and attributing at least half, maybe more, of the value of characterization to the script, rather than the performer. It’s not that I don’t value actors, but I do think acting is easy enough that the variance between the best actor and the worst actor is relatively small, unlike the difference between the best/worst violinist or the best/worst shortstop. And, at any rate, the producers deserve as much credit for identifying the right actor as the actor is at doing his job. So this category covers acting performance, ensemble chemistry and — candidly, since this is a visual medium — how pleasant the people are to look at. Most of what I know about comic timing I learned from watching the cast of Clue. And the acting is so good in The Big Short that it almost feels like a documentary.
Speaking of visual media, the images themselves are of course essential to a great film. This covers cinematography, set design, wardrobe, lighting, CGI — anything that makes for powerful imagery. To account for vast differences in budget, this is not just a technical category but also takes into account creativity and iconography. You can make a movie on a credit-card budget but still compose striking images that stick with the viewer after the credits roll. The Untouchables, for example, includes a number of set pieces that will be iconic forever. Out of Sight is a master class in lighting and color. Captain America: The Winter Soldier features the coolest fight scene (the one in the elevator) ever.
A great score, or a great song, or even the deft use of music licensing, elevates a film by completing the mood and enhancing dramatic tension. The very best extend a film’s power outside of the theater by taking up permanent space in the heads of the viewer. I awarded extra points in this category for soundtracks that I own or go back to regularly for inspiration. A musical like Guys and Dolls does well here, obviously, as do movies with naturally diagetic songs (like This is Spinal Tap), movies with deeply iconic scores (like the Empire Strikes Back) and movies featuring finely curated hits of yore (like Reservoir Dogs).
This category may be a bit misleading. It is not so much whether the story itself is new and original — there are only, like, a dozen stories when you get right down to it — but whether the movie prevents a fresh, ambitious, surprising or creative approach to the story that makes it feel new. Movies like Groundhog Day and Inception are genuine never-seen-that-before concepts, while Star Wars and Bull Durham made those familiar tropes feel totally unique. (Sequels and parodies naturally struggle in this category.)
Plainly: how well does it do what it’s trying to do? Is it a funny comedy, a moving drama, etc.? The Naked Gun has a case as the funniest pure comedy ever made. I pretty much hate horror movies, but The Shining gets a perfect effectiveness score because it still scares the everloving crap out of me.
A great movie has to hold up over time. We can qualify that in a number of ways. How many times have I seen it? Do I own the DVD? If I’m watching TV and I see it on the channel guide, how likely am I to tune in? Do I feel the need to watch it every so often? Do I seek out YouTube clips, justto make me feel something? Am I looking forward to watching it with my wife and/or daughter? Airplane! is not an exquisitely crafted piece of cinema but I’ve seen it like two dozen times since I was ten and I discover new jokes every time I watch it.
This is the most subjective category because it measures how much the movie has affected my life. The most resonant movies are those that I think about regularly, that have a sentimental meaning because of how and when I watched it, that say something about me as a fan. Back to the Future, for example, scores a 10 because it was my first favorite movie and I watched it five times in the movie theater. Casablanca scores a ten because I had my first kiss during that movie and I have its poster in my basement.
Having said all that, here’s the list:
You can lodge your complaints below.