Friday, January 25, 2013

Is There Such a Thing as a Must-See Movie?

People often compile lists of "must-see" movies.  These are the movies us film fans are supposed to feel ashamed that we haven't gotten around to watching.  Is there really such a thing as a must-see movie?  The simple answer is no because this is not life or death.  What about for cinephiles, though, and their credibility?  When the level of "must" is lowered, are there necessities?  Lastly, lists of must-see movies offer a slew of problems.

Are there must-see movies?  No.  "Must" is such a strong word.  I once saw the cover of a DVD jacket that claimed the enclosed movie was a "Must-see movie before you die!"  Needless to say, I won't be taking it to anyone's death bed.  This is pretty self-explanatory.

What if I'm not being painfully literal?  What of the case of cinephiles who want "street cred?"  To me, this is not necessary.  We have a vague film canon which is wonderful tool for newcomers.  I think movie lists are very helpful, but not absolute.  A real cinephile should at least cover the major bases of silent, sound, black and white, color, English-language, foreign, live-action and animation.  While I've linked the less mainstream side of these dichotomies to specific movies, ultimately many movies would fill the niche.  I would add to these the three meta-genres of narrative, documentary, and experimental.  I respect the cosmopolitan tastes of anyone who can find at least a few movies in each of these categories that they appreciate.  One movie missed does not necessarily signify anything.  If someone wants to explore, say, the French New Wave film movement, must they watch the famous film Breathless?  No.  You can still have a strong understanding without it.  If a film movement is only defined by one movie, then it's not a movement.  I can imagine the French New Wave without Breathless.

Must-see lists are unnecessary, but what is particularly wrong with them?  For starters, they seem to largely exist to enshrine the subjective taste of their makers, who have, of course, seen every movie on the list.  They stoke the person's ego and attempt to shame those who haven't seen all the same movies.  "You mean you haven't seen...?!"  Only lame fanboys get so caught up over exact movies.  Add to this fact that everyone has their own list.  By the time you try to please everyone, you may end up watching thousands of movies.  Thousands of movies can't be "must-see" so someone has to be wrong.  There are plenty of popular, critically-acclaimed and iconic movies out there, but they are not all must-see.

In spite of all this, I have come up with what I believe is a manageable must-see list.  I will try to forgive those who haven't seen these movies.

Must-See Movies

Citizen Kane
Director: Orson Welles     Year: 1941

It is cliche to say that Citizen Kane is the greatest movie of all time.  Kane is downright beloved in critical circles.  To me, beyond being a great story of a man destroyed by his own selfishness, it is the ultimate film school movie.  Why?  It's an example of nearly every technique seamlessly fused with narrative all in one movie.  It's stylish, but not excessive.  Having a class or writing a book on film technique?  Just use examples from Citizen Kane.  I first realized the importance of common reference points in film courses when everyone in class was bringing up random indie movies, but hadn't seen Kane.

Star Wars: Episode IV- A New Hope
Director: George Lucas     Year: 1977

The Star Wars Saga represents my favorite movies of my childhoodStar Wars is arguably the most enduring pop culture phenomenon out there right now.  This first movie is the masterpiece that started it all, from television shows and books to toys and internet memes.  One can't be in the loop with everything, but it only takes roughly two hours to cover so much with this fantastic movie.

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