How I'd build a film canon

I recently came across the popular book 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die. Something like this book would have been useful when I was starting to get into movies, just as IMDB and later, TSPDT have been. Rather than a point-by-point rebuke of the book itself, it’s a useful jumping-off point for the pitfalls associated with creating a film canon - a list of movies intended to represent the medium as a whole. I wondered what I would do if I was given this task.

Get a broad consensus of experts

The first problem with the concept is the idea of a single curator. I am especially unqualified to compile the list, having only seen about 780 unique movies. I feel qualified to say anything about the film canon only after years of engaging with movies, taking several classes, and making an effort to look outside the canon and see what’s missing. But even one hotshot critic is going to have their own biases and areas of expertise. Leaving just one editor in charge of the list, instead of assembling it from a consensus of ballots, is folly. The introduction to the book implies a collaborative process, but I’m suggesting several hundred raw ballots rather than working from pre-compiled “top movie” lists. This is especially important if some fabled movie is always #251 on several top 250 lists, leaving it out of the ranking when editors try to average several of those lists together.

Elevate minority voices and films

All those experts we got in step 1? They all have their own baggage. World cinema, by which I mean cinema from countries not usually considered in film circles, has been systematically discredited, denied, and suppressed. This is such a problem that Martin Scorsese had to found the World Cinema Project. Attaching his name to the project brings much-needed attention to movies not from the US, the UK, Japan, etc.. Africa in particular seems completely neglected by all but the most ambitious Western film fan, even though it’s a continent of of over a billion people.

Scorsese’s project began in 2007. What does that say about cinema scholarship before 2007? Citizen Kane won the prestigious Sight & Sound poll in 1962. Without criticizing Kane at all, how many movies were considered? We can’t evaluate what we can’t see. This is a vicious cycle - the canon is formed by what we see, and the canon determines what we see, in terms of theatrical re-releases, essays, analyses, books, and remasters.

Today, almost all movies watched in the western world pass through a digital system of some kind. There are few miraculous screenings of dusty old prints that become a audience favorites. Every film must be scanned digitally, at a cost of thousands of dollars. Most of them must be restored to become watchable to most audiences, adding additional thousands. These are not the costs one pays sight unseen. Commercial forces expect a return on their investment. Nonprofit funds are limited.

In light of all this, an “unbiased” average of ballots will itself be biased. A canonical film list must allocate space for under-appreciated films, mostly from people shut out of the film canon. Along with discrimination based on country or spoken language, we should also acknowledge discrimination on race, religion, age, sexual orientation, and gender. “Marketability” will provide cover for conscious or unconscious biases along those lines, but marketability will itself under-represent downright weird (relative to our expectations) films from appearing in the canon. People submitting and averaging ballots must be aware of this.

In practice, some “under appreciated” films that appear on ballots (from experts who study ex. minority cinema) could be given to other members of your expert panel. This would help those films get seen and maybe appear organically on best-of ballots once the mainstream critics have seen them. I’d still probably give extra weight to minority cinema, because it may be too unconventional to mesh with critics' preconceived notions of what film should be.

In cases where we’re correcting the oversights of the past, it makes sense to have some kind of quota. A naive approach would be to take the population of every country, find what percentage that population is related to the global population, and multiply that by 1,001. That gives us 170 African films on our list, guaranteed.

But this approach is too rigid. Each country began its cinema at different times. Some countries went through war and lost their films. Some countries, such as China, had incredibly censored cinema for years. Reasonable minds could disagree on the relative merits of different films from different parts of the world. Maybe 169 African films is fine if we give another film to South America. But something like 100 seems like a bare minimum. I say this as someone who’s only seen a handful of African films. Part of that is absolutely my fault, but part of it is the cultural mindset I just discussed. I had the chance to take classes in Chinese and Japanese cinema, but there was no such class at my university for African film (or, more appropriately, countries/regions within Africa).

Get explanations from die-hard fans

Each film in 1001 Movies has a write-up, with length based on relative importance. Anyone writing a companion essay for a movie should enjoy it. Even after watching a so-so film, I enjoy reading opinions of people who liked the film. It can give me a new way to think about the movie. This is also a good spot for context that may be missed. For example, Chilsu and Mansu was politically subversive when it was released in South Korea, but this is not obvious to a modern viewer.

Drop anything from the last 5 years

This is my soft rule, and it burns me sometimes. I still haven’t seen Whiplash - I knew it had captured the imagination, but there are so many movies every year. Whiplash remains in the top 50 on IMDB, unlike so many of its peers. (Gone Girl came out to similar IMDB hype at almost the same time, yet has dropped from #84 to #190.)

It is impossible to understand a movie’s legacy before that legacy has been written. It’s absolute arrogance to insist that a new release movie will be looked at favorably in 5 years, let alone 50.

Exclude short films

You wouldn’t say a still photograph is one of the best short films ever. We shouldn’t say a short film is one of the best films ever. It’s a different thing. Any film below 40 minutes should be its own category. I’d provide a small companion section on short films, including must-see short films like A Trip to the Moon (1902).

Arguably, very long films should be excluded as well. Can Shoah reasonably be called a film if no human can watch it in its entirety without multiple intermissions? If we’re compiling “best paintings”, is the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel compared alongside the Mona Lisa? A compromise would be to cap each entry in the list at 4 hours, so Shoah would be 2 or 3 “films” out of 1001.

Prioritize new experiences

Similar to the minority film argument, a film canon is better served as a list of different films than hundreds of attempts to make the same picture. Each additional entry from the same director should be balanced against a brand-new perspective from a new director. Much of Charlie Chaplin’s comedy blends together. Even different directors can make similar movies. James Bond movies follow an archetype, a lot of Disney movies have cliches they keep returning to. With limited time to watch every movie, a canon should showcase all the different ways to make a movie.

Get a balance of genres

As above. Existing canons seem to favor dramas and serious topics. Kids' movies are almost universally dismissed. And the amazing time I have with Pee-wee’s Big Adventure doesn’t mean anything to these people. Comedy, admittedly quite subjective, is kept in a little box, and only Charlie Chaplin and a few others are let out. I’d put quotas here too, just a simple floor to make sure every genre is represented. 1001 Movies puts it thus: “We are also mindful of not giving automatic preference … to self-consciously “quality” productions or high cinematic art … at the expense of ignoring the so-called “low” genres (slapstick comedy, 1930s gangster films, blaxspoitation cinema) …”

Focus on today, but remember the past

The literature canon (mostly) does not care what people thought were great books 100 years ago. Similarly, we should focus on the great movies of today, not historical favorites. However, old movies provide vital context and inspiration for newer movies. The split should be about 70% modern appeal and 30% historical significance – both within the list itself, and for individual items on the list.

Rank categories

1001 Movies is sorted chronologically. But they give up the game in essays like Citizen Kane, given more space in the book than Dumbo. If you think Citizen Kane is more important, than rank it higher. I don’t think an overall ranking of 1001 films is terribly useful, but I would love to see rankings within genres and movements. 1001 films is a lot to get through, so people should be able to prioritize what to see. A top 50 or 100 films would help.

At least 50 animated films

This aspect of 1001 Movies really pissed me off. They selected a mere FIFTEEN animated films. Animation is more likely than any other kind of film to take you in a new direction, because there is no limit on what can be shown on screen. I don’t know what the proper total is, but I could pick 50 brilliant animated movies with IMDB and a dartboard, and none of them would have two white guys staring at each other for 2 hours. 50 is also about what you get if you divide 1001 by the 23 genres on IMDB.

Include a porno

If we’re serious about documenting what film means to people, one of those meanings is pornography. Though we don’t need to pick even one “to see before you die”, it would make sense to include at least one in the canon. Pornographic cinema is (NSFW) about as old as cinema itself.


I don’t envy anyone trying to compile such a list. I hope I’ve explained some of the problems with a less-careful approach.