Wrong, wrong, wrong. The whippersnappers at Entertainment Weekly polled themselves and some of their friends the other day to determine "The 100 Best Movies on Video." Last week they published the results, and that's what they were: wrong, wrong, wrong.
I bow to no one in my admiration for Entertainment Weekly. In its existence of barely half a year, this latest brainchild of what is now unfortunately called Time Warner has proved itself to be a lively, irreverent and outspoken guide to the popular arts. It has, to be sure, the narrow vision that such a mandate entails -- its book reviewers are good but too often are wasted on trivial books, its notions of music don't stray far beyond the bounds of rock-and-roll in its latest incarnation -- but within that range it has something approximating standards, a rare quality indeed in contemporary American journalism.
That having been said, the limits of its range are all too evident in its list of the 100 "best movies." To be sure, they took in mind the shortcomings of television -- "on the small screen 'Lawrence of Arabia' looks like an insurrection on an ant farm and it isn't on our list" -- but with that single exception, the movies they recommend for video seem also to be the movies they'd endorse as the 100 best ever filmed.
Of course they're looking for disagreements and arguments; that's part of the fun of listmaking. Well, they've got disagreements and arguments from me. Choosing a list of the 10 or 50 or 100 best anything is by its very nature arbitrary and capricious and, when you get right down to it, silly, yet the process says something about what the person making the selection regards as valuable and worthwhile.
It's not difficult to figure out what counts most for the editors of Entertainment Weekly and the nine movie reviewers they polled. Of the 100 movies they rated, 53 were released in or after 1960 and 20 -- a breathtaking one-fifth of the total -- came out in the 1980s; though they pay due honor to some of the classics of the past, basically these movie buffs are children of film's modern era. That's reflected in their choice of "The Godfather" as first on their list and of "Dr. Strangelove" and "Chinatown" as others in the top 10; these are, notwithstanding their considerable and undeniable virtues, movies that reflect a 1960s outlook on American society and its institutions, as do many others lower on the list. As for their inclusion of two Woody Allen movies -- including one of his damp "serious" films -- in the top 100, that's merely trendy Manhattan provincialism.
Some of their selections I haven't seen, but on the whole their choices seem to reflect, apart from the qualities mentioned above, a preference for entertainment over art and a fascination with cinematic technique. That's fine; they're entitled. But my own preferences, no doubt reflecting not merely my age -- "Gone With the Wind" and I were issued simultaneously -- and my various crotchets, are for the old verities of drama and literature: character, setting, plot, theme, controlling intelligence.
So you're waiting, right? My own list reflects as you will see an admiration for the work of John Huston, David Lean and Alec Guinness, the last two of whom make, astonishingly, not a single appearance in Entertainment Weekly's catalogue. Here it is, with the ranking on EW's list in parentheses where applicable:
1. "Jules and Jim" (29). Francois Truffaut's dark, lyrical, heartbreaking romance. I will watch it to the end of my life and never get enough of it (1961).
2. "Henry V." Olivier's version, to be joined on the list by Kenneth Branagh's as soon as the tape becomes available (1945).
3. "The Man Who Would Be King." Huston's account, not his first but his best, of the wages of greed (1975).
4. "Lawrence of Arabia." Who cares about the little screen? Lean's masterpiece would be great on a postage stamp (1962).
5. "The Philadelphia Story." Cary Grant, Katharine Hepburn, James Stewart: Who could ask for anything more? (1940)
6. "Chinatown" (7). Forget Robert Towne's politics and revel in what Roman Polanski does with his people and story (1974).
7. "Citizen Kane" (2). Too much film school adulation has taken some of its edge off, but Orson Welles showed everyone how to make movies in this genuine original (1941).
8. "The Lavender Hill Mob" (1951), "The Ladykillers" (1955) and "The Horse's Mouth" (1958). That Entertainment Weekly could omit these Guinness classics defies explanation. As to which is the funniest, that is for each of us to decide; me, I vote for "The Horse's Mouth."
9. "Gone With the Wind" (46). Another case of small screen be damned. The years have exposed some of its creaky machinery, but it's still the Big One (1939).
10. "It's Always Fair Weather." Cyd Charisse, Dan Dailey, Gene Kelly and Michael Kidd in -- yes, I love "Singin' in the Rain" too -- the best movie musical of them all (1955).
12. "The Treasure of the Sierra Madre" (67). Bogart gets greedy, and Huston doesn't let him get away with it (1948).
13. "Some Like It Hot" (97). David Lean's favorite comedy; Billy Wilder directed, and at the top of his form (1959).
14. "Hamlet." Olivier's second filmed Shakespeare isn't as successful cinematically as his first, but the acting is out of this world. The play's not bad, either (1948).
15. "The Garden of the Finzi-Continis." Another inexplicable omission from EW's list. Vittorio De Sica's miniature of Europe at the dawn of catastrophe is literally a film for the ages (1971).
16. "Brief Encounter." Lean's first film as director. Even if you know it by heart, it still has the power to surprise and move you. Celia Johnson is unreal (1945).
17. "Pygmalion." A remarkably faithful adaptation of Shaw that tinkers only slightly with the ending. This was Wendy Hiller's cinematic debut, and she was unforgettable (1938).
18. "Beat the Devil." Huston played this one as it laid -- Truman Capote did the on-the-spot screenplay -- and got wrenchingly funny performances from Bogart, Jennifer Jones, Peter Lorre, Robert Morley and others (1954).
19. "The Magnificent Seven." Yes. I know. It's schlock, pure and simple. But if you can sit unmoved as the fired guns fend off the bandits, you've a stonier heart than I do. And James Coburn is too much (1960).
20. "Jazz on a Summer's Day." Personal reasons have something to do with this -- I was there -- but this day in the life of the Newport Jazz Festival is the best film, perhaps indeed the only good one, ever made about jazz (1959).
So as you can see, Entertainment Weekly and I agree only six times in 20, or 22 if you count all three Guinness comedies. Some films were tough to leave off -- "Casablanca," W.C. Fields, the Marx Brothers -- and others didn't make it because I decided to limit my choice to videotapes I actually own; someday I'll get "Amarcord" and "Atlantic City" and "Lonely Are the Brave" and "The Wild Bunch," and then the list will grow a little longer.
Not that the list means a thing to anyone except me. But it's August and it's hot and the Orioles are fading, so turn on the air conditioner, pop open the VCR and have a nice argument.