The idea was to assemble 100 estimable films since TIME began, with the March 3, 1923 issue. Later, each of us was asked to contribute five items in sidebars called Great Performances (acting), Guilty Pleasures (trash treasures) and Top Scores (soundtracks). Essentially, though, a century of movies from 82 years. That shouldn't be hard: pick a picture for each year, with 18 slots left for honorable mentions.
Not so simple, in fact, for we faced a couple of complications. The first was that two of us were to agree on the selections; and, though my admiration for Schickel is hardly bounded, and he probably doesn't mind me, no two critics will agree on all, or even most, great films. The other is the onus of the list-making process. It's a truism that a list like this takes either an hour (go with your initial inspirations) or a month (weigh every film with Solomonic probity). Our effort clocked in at about four months, off and on. And the clock is still running.
Why do the list? I guess Josh and Mark and Jim Kelly, our peerless leader, hoped to sharpen the profile of the website, and indirectly the magazine. (Mission accomplished.) Our genial PR mavens saw some benefits in media exposure. (Schickel and I, in our first joint TV appearance after 25 years sharing the TIME film-critic gig, gassed with Charlie Rose last week.) It's possible that someone involved with the enterprise wanted to make money. Not I, of course. As a TIME staff member, I write for the website pro bono, or rather pro ego. Or, honestly, for the fun of it. That's how this TIME 100 started for me, and how it ended.
I feel one of my grand gender generalizations coming on, and I can't resist it, so here goes. Guys love to make lists. The assembling and codifying of useless information speaks to our inner math nerd, our rampant nostalgiast. Girls can play Little League baseball now, but the kid in the stands keeping the box score, and tallying individual achievements into season slugging percentages, is very likely to be a boy. Turning our pastimes into numbers is a way not only of quantifying but also of justifying them. They acquire an atomic weight; to rank them is to give them solidity, meaning.
As a kid I would study the major league batting averages in the Sunday paper more assiduously than any school subject, and I kept box scores of the games our neighborhood team played. Sometimes I devised imaginary box scores too. I know what you're thinking: he must have been a lonely child. Actually, I wasn't; I had a loving, indulgent family. But around the nation, countless other kids, more talented or preoccupied than I, were doing the same thing, bending the MLB numbers, reconfiguring the figures. Eventually they would form a group, the Society for American Baseball Research, SABR for short. One of their group, Bill James, coined the term SABRmetrics to describe the grown-up, boy-like study of those numbers. The statistics they produced, and the inferences they made from those stats, would enrich the game and change the way it was played. So there.
As with baseball, so with favorite movies, TV shows, comics. One of my youthful heroes was Fred Von Bernewitz, a Maryland boy not much older than I was. He created, mimeographed and published the E.C. Checklist, a compilation of every story in each of the dozen or so "New Trend" comic books (Vault of Horror, Weird Science, Mad, etc.) that EC published from 1950 to 1954. Bless his innocent obsession. His list was a signal to hundreds of other E.C. fan-addicts that our love was not a waste of time. I mean, how could it be, if so many other shared it? A half-century later, with the hardcover, much-expanded edition of the Checklist still in print (under the title Tales of Terror! The EC Companion), Von Bernewitz's labor of adolescent love is easy to celebrate as trash-art pedantry. Back then, though, applying the rudimentary scholarship of list-making to comics was as radical as Brando's first movie mumble, or the scream of Little Richard on "Long Tall Sally."
I too was a teenage listmaker. I saw a lot of movies and, at year's end, picked my favorites. I recently dug up my Top Five of 1959: The Seventh Seal, Some Like It Hot, North By Northwest, Rio Bravo and Imitation of Life. Looking at this quintet, I marvel at the maturity of my youthful tastesor do I curse my lifelong adolescence?since, 46 years later, I nominated all five for the TIME 100. The point is that listmaking is a first step to an informed enthusiasm. Juggling, sifting, thinking about the best films leads to measured judgments, the plundering of film histories, a nascent critical acuity. That's how a hobby becomes a craft, sometimes a career. Just add verbs and thoughts.
Can the choices Schickel and I made have the shelf life of the Von Bernewitz checklist? Probably not; this is just one of what must be a hundred 100-best-films lists. Does film criticism have an equivalent to SABRmetricscinemetrics? Not really. You can't calibrate genius. There are no Win Scores, no Favorite Toy, for movies and their makers. Many readers would say that Schickel and I have no greater claim than anyone else to impose our crotchets on you. Doesn't everyone see a lot of movies and, gradually, amass some all-time preferences? Sure.
But, pardon me, we're better. Our claims to expertise: 1. a combined 80 years (yikes!) writing about films; 2. even more yearsgoing back to our movie-mad youthsas consumers, lovers and analyzers of this art-entertainment-business hybrid; and 3. a magazine, TIME, that has generously underwritten our cinephilia for, respectively, 32 and 25 years. Our employment is our diploma.
Still and all, list of favorites like the All-TIME 100 Movies is just that: a banquet, a groaning board of our fondest prejudices. You're all invited to devour the food, or throw it at us.
ONCE, TWICE, THREE TIMES 100
There are 101 ways to choose 100 of anything. But I participated only in this century selection, so I'll tell you what I did.
First it's like a game: I'm throwing a partywho should be on the guest list? My idea was to invite different sorts for a richer mix. Highbrows and no-brows, the solemn and the frivolous, embracing many genres (musical, western) and forms (short films, experimental, documentaries). I want the Marx Brothers to co-exist with a Robert Bresson nano-drama. And Indian family melodramas to rub shoulders with 70s porno. An eight-decade, international melange.
Then it's research. I re-viewed many of the films under consideration. I looked at the IMDb's list of the top 250 films, as voted on by the site's members. I dipped once more into Roger Ebert's two volumes called The Great Movies, which contain some very thoughtful journalism on the subject. I also took a long browse through the stacks of that moldy old library of film trivia, my brain. The result was about 120 movies, leaving some wiggle room for negotiation. Richard the First (Schickel) had already compiled a list of 116 favorites. Neither of us knew the other's preferences until we'd finished this initial round. After this double-blind taste test, the serious work began on the All-TIME 100 Movies.
Finally, then, it's like a marriagethe intimate exchange of opinions and passions, the business of collating, collaborating and compromising. Once, twice, three times 100: Schickel's list, my list, our list.
For movie critics, deciding which films are best is an anecdotal way of debating first principles. It's theoretical and, toward the end of the process, it's personal. Schickel and I were the co-captains of a lifeboat, with some of our favorites clinging to the sides, and we had to determine whose stiff fingers to pry off, which noble films to send into the sea of anonymity.