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August 31, 2016

The art of the film list

In August, the musician Frank Ocean self-distributed a 366-page zine called “Boys Don’t Cry.” Alongside photography and poetry, the zine (an album release tie-in) made room for an unannotated list of Frank Ocean’s 100 favorite movies—although it wasn’t numbered, so the only way you would know that he’d aimed for a round sum was if you counted.
As an R&B singer, Ocean has had to imbue his commercial persona with an unmistakably artsy aura in order to win the creative regard that seems to be the birthright of white indie rockers. His zine may function as part of the same project; the film list—which was widely redistributed online with (occasionally condescending) admiration—certainly feels that way.
I’m only slightly familiar with Ocean’s musical work, but I looked at his movie list because I have a strong interest in movie lists—from the AFI’s Top 100 to the IMDb’s Top 250 to the selection of Adam Sandler comedies that once comprised the “Favorite Movies” section of your MySpace page.
Ocean’s collection of faves includes eight Stanley Kubrick films, five by David Lynch, five by Quentin Tarantino (six if you count “True Romance”), a fairly large foreign-language library (including three by Wong Kar-wai), four short films, zero documentaries, and zero movies directed by women.
Why do people feel compelled to make lists of their favorite movies? Is the endeavor a vain form of self-obsession or a valuable form of self-examination? Do these curated inventories offer anything of value to their readers apart from satisfying a potential personal curiosity about the tastes of their creators? Come to think of it, does the list even tell us anything about the list-maker, or does his unavoidable wish to look cool and smart inevitably override any honest disclosure he might make about what he really likes? Do movie preferences matter anyway?
Moreover, what does it mean for a movie to be your “favorite”? Is it the movie you’ve watched the most times in your life (almost sure, then, to be a childhood obsession—in my case, possibly “Tommy Boy”), or the one that had the strongest emotional impact upon you, or the one whose artistic craftsmanship you admire the most? Maybe no one really has a “favorite movie”—it’s one of those first-date questions that are intended more to generate conversation than to obtain a serious answer.
Back when, as a teenage movie fan, I often read the IMDb message boards, users would regularly post their carefully curated Top 100s and then ask their fellow users to “rate” their choices—not the individual titles but the result of their choosing process: how good of a favorite-list was it? The nakedness of this self-consciousness—and all that it implied about my own curated “personality”—made me uneasy, but I should have been more forgiving. Any list of favorites is bound to be self-conscious, and in my view list-makers tend to benefit by embracing the opportunity to construct, through the story of their film consumption, a particular presentation of themselves that reveals only as much as it conceals. Make yourself interesting: no one needs to be made aware that you, too, enjoyed “The Godfather.”
The main problem with Frank Ocean’s list, apart from being too long (a Top 10 is always better, as a list of 100 simply includes too much stuff to draw a clear, concise picture of a particular aesthetic sensibility), is that it contains far too many Film 101 consensus-classics: “Seven Samurai,” “Psycho,” “Metropolis,” “Battleship Potemkin.” The only “inappropriate” personal choice, the 2006 drama “ATL,” comes with an unnecessary apology (“atl is not the best movie lol but ok”—the list’s sole appended note). There are some genuine obscurities, like “Gods of the Plague” and “The Friends of Eddie Coyle,” but these are offset by telltale inclusions of overrated fanboy darlings like “Memento,” “Fight Club,” and “Battle Royale.” To put it bluntly, this guy isn’t legit.
Needless to say, I’ve thought a lot about what goes into making a great list of favorite movies. As I mentioned above, one should largely omit the obvious major titles of secure reputation—it may be wise to include just one common critical behemoth (“Citizen Kane,” for instance) or one historical commercial juggernaut (like “Gone with the Wind”) to fend off accusations of deliberate obscurity or elitism. Similarly, one should honor the great artists of cinema, but in doing so one should give preference to the neglected auteurs (Raoul Walsh, Charles Burnett, Chantal Akerman). Still, if you must include a Kubrick, make it “Killer’s Kiss” or “Lolita”—the so-called minor works frequently have just as much to offer. Definitely include a Godard, but it better not be “Breathless.”
Not every choice should be overtly artistic—clear off some Antonioni for at least one perfectly executed genre movie, a comedy that wants only to make its audience laugh, a shiny but unremembered Golden Age gem by a director who never accomplished much else of note. It’s vital, perhaps above all else, to demonstrate an understanding that great art emerges not only from the grand ambitions of deep thinkers but also from the expert workmanship of non-artists, from the accidents of the inept, from the particular twitch of a forgotten actor’s nose in 1944, from all manner of places: it seeps into films that don’t even want it there.
Pick at least one movie whose IMDb rating is lower than 6.5. Pick at least one movie that has fewer than 1000 IMDb votes. Pick at least one movie that made a tremendous impression on you before the age of 15. Make sure that at least half of your movies weren’t made by English-speaking white men. Adapt (or forgo) these rules to create a list that explains your deepest self, or creates a cumulative vision of the world that reflects your own, or suggests an alternate identity that you (or the list-reader) might simply want to try on for a little while.
What are your favorite movies?

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