How To Make a Movie List

It’s not as easy as it sounds.

The Closest Thing To A Definitive List

Maybe that’s not true because maybe it doesn’t sound that easy, but making lists, particularly movie lists, can be kind of tricky. If you don’t believe me try to do something easy. Pick your favorite genre of film, I’ll give you a moment…

Okay, now make a top ten list of that genre.

I’ll give you a few minutes…

Okay, now hop on Netflix and look at all the movies they have available in that genre.

I swear, I’ll be patient while you look…

Great, how many times did you say “oh crap, I forgot about that one”?

Alright, now go ahead and redo your top 10 adding the movies you forgot and dropping some others.

Let me say this as an aside to those of you who are claiming you didn’t forget any… LIAR!

And guess what? I haven’t even told you to go to AFI and check out their list, you’ll see some you forgot their too. And then do a simple search “greatest action movies of all time” or whatever genre you chose. A whole bunch of lists will come up done by a whole bunch of different people and you will find a few more movies your forgot. Before you know it “top 10” seems impossible because you have too many, but I promise you, doing 25 or 50 isn’t any easier. Look, if you’ve seen enough movies to care about making a “best of” list (and believing you have a comprehensive enough knowledge that you can say best of with any authority) you’ve seen so many movies that whittling down those films into a list is hard for a lot of little reasons and three big reasons.

First, you are going to forget movies. Do the math, how many movies do you think you have seen? I’m not just talking about in the theaters, I mean at home, on Netflix or AppleTV or Amazon or Hulu or RedBox. How many movies do you catch while you’re channel surfing at night or on a Saturday afternoon when you feel like being lazy? One a week? Two a week? Let’s low ball it, let’s say you see 50 a year. That’s 1,000 movies every 20 years. And that number started accumulating when you were young. If you are in your 40’s it is a pretty safe bet you are sniffing 2,000 movies at least. Can you remember 2,000 of anything off the top of your head? I know I can’t. The point is you are going to forget some movies, even some really great movies.

Second, however many films you have seen you can be sure it is a minuscule fraction of the movies that have been made. In 2014 Box Office Mojo recorded box office information on 698 movies. SIX-HUNDRED-NINETY-EIGHT! That is nearly 700 movies that were produced and released into at least one theater last year. It is just past the halfway point of 2015 and they have 323, so things have apparently slowed down slightly. In the last 10 years over 6,000 movies have been released. Are a huge percentage of those arthouse movies or basically direct to video releases? Sure, obviously most of them would fit that category but who doesn’t have at least one favorite film that would also fit under those categorizations? Birdman, last year’s best picture winner, is the 70th highest grossing film released in the last 365 days. The point is there are a lot of movies, a lot of crappy movies, even more so-so movies, quite a few good movies and a fair number of great movies, and I will guarantee you’ve missed a lot a films that fall into each of those categories. I don’t know the exact number, but as close as I can estimate I have seen around 7,000 movies in my life. I mean, movies are one of my great passions, obviously, I have a blog devoted to them. Here are some of the movies I have missed (or never seen all the way through):

If I added up all the times I have seen parts of Schindler’s List and Sunset Blvd. I’ve probably seen them all, ditto for Nashville, but I have never sat through any of those films from beginning to end. What do those movies have in common, other than my not having seen them? They are all on the American Film Institutes list of 100 greatest movies ever made. A few years ago I gave a book, The 501 Movies Everyone Should See, to a bunch of people for Christmas. In talking to many of those people they would ask how many of the 501 I had seen, I had seen 411 of them. It became a bit of a contest to see who was closest to my number. The book got passed through family members, movie fans one and all, and no one else made it to 200. My point is simply we all have holes, big holes in our movie knowledge and if you are making a list you have to ask yourself if your holes are too big.
Third and finally film is just really subjective. If I do a top 10 baseball players list I can have statistical arguments that back my claims, the arguments may not be irrefutable but they can’t be entirely dismissed either. Art doesn’t work that way and film really doesn’t work that way. You can try to use box office numbers and while I am not one who believes box office means nothing in regards to quality, it certainly doesn’t mean everything. Good movies struggle to find an audience, pedestrian movies can hit it big, there is enough randomness to it that those numbers don’t make compelling arguments. The same can be said for awards and critics reviews and Rotten Tomato scores. In the end all any of those tell you is how a group of people feel about a movie, but it doesn’t tell you how you feel about a movie and how you feel about a movie can be impacted by so many things that the subjectivity of film is on steroids. Just consider these two examples of good/great movies; The Fugitive at home versus in a crowded theater in August of 1993, Star Wars at age 11 in 2004 when you have seen innumerable CGI based films versus Star Wars at age 11 in 1977 when you had never seen anything like Star Wars. Believe me those are entirely different experiences and that is not even adding things like the emotional resonance that can be attached to watching a film at a certain time with certain people. I can’t watch The Lego Movie without picturing my son’s raptured stare as he consumed that film. Too many factors go into how much you like a movie (by design), so how do you make a list with any kind of objectivity if the medium itself encourages you not to be objective?

So, making a movie list seems easy, but its not, at least it isn’t if you really love movies and you take the task semi-seriously. It’s not hard, necessarily, but it is tricky, until you figure out the tricks. I’ve been writing movie lists for years and I’ve learned the tricks, so if you want to do it here is a step by step guide to walk you through (then, after you do one, you’ll throw my guide out and do it your own way. It’s okay, I wont be offended)

Step One: What’s Your List

There are two parts to this. First is the general genre. Best Movies, Best Action Movies, Best Critically Acclaimed Romantic Comedies on Netflix, Best Movies Ever Released in April. Understand that the more specific is often the easier to do. Best Movies is the Mount Everest of movie lists because you are putting every film you’ve ever seen in play and you are having to judge between apple, oranges and passion fruit. Taking one of Netflix’s oddly specific genre sub-directories and ranking those, that’s pretty easy. The second part to this is the number you choose. Obviously there is a direct correlation between the specificity of your list and the number you choose (more specific = smaller number). I learned this lesson a number of years ago. I had always done either top 50 or top 100 lists, then I tried to do the top 50 pirate movies until I realized there were not 50 good pirate movies. The Top 25 Pirate Movies is still one of my most read lists and frankly it was hard to get to 25.

Step Two: Assemble A List Of Candidate

Don’t try to rank them, just start listing all of the movies that you can think (and have seen) that fit into your title. I do this in generally two steps. First, I just jot down the ones I was thinking of and then I go on line, look at other people who have made similar lists, see if I have forgotten some (like I said up top, you always forget some).

Step Three: Remind Yourself It Is YOUR List

This is the single most important part. There is no right answer with this stuff, there is only your answer. If you want to say that Star Wars is a pirate movie because Han Solo is a pirate and in some ways it is as much his movie as it is Luke’s, go for it. All you have to do (at most) is explain why you feel like it belongs, and if that explanation is simply because I like it, well, it is a subjective medium. If someone is looking for some objective list that tries to definitively answer the question of “best” they can go to Rotten Tomatoes and look at the aggregate critic reviews or AFI who conducts polls of their members or look at the IMDB Top 250 ratings which aggregate the consensus of all of their users. If you are authoring a list you need to own that list. So if you are a Transformers fan and Revenge of the Fallen is your favorite science fiction movie then Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen better be on your list or your list is a fraud.

Step Four: Split You Movies Into Tiers

Here’s where things can stall out, you get hung up on what movie should be #1 or #10 or whatever and you can’t move on because you can’t decide. If you are going to start with #1 and go forward I can almost guarantee that will happen more than once before you get to your magic number. It is better to break it into to tiers so you can debate order with yourself in smaller groups. Generally my tiers are; 1) Legitimate contenders for the top spot; 2) List wouldn’t be complete without them; 3) Definitely in the top (whatever your number is); 4) Pretty sure they are going to make it; 5) Whatever is left. Obviously if I am doing a top 10 I may not use all 5 tiers, but for 25, 50 and definitely for 100 I use them all.

Step Five: Figure Out Which Tier Is The Last Tier

This is pretty simple. Start with tier #1 and count. So, let’s say I am doing a top 50 romantic comedies. I’ve got say 6 in tier #1, I have another 11 in tier #2, Tier #3 has 30, so I know in my first three tiers I am at 47, which means only the top 3 films in tier #4 are going to make it. I can throw out tier #5 and worry about tier 1-3 later.

Step Six: Rank The Last Tier

Now, to use the rom com example from above, I know I just have room for my top 3 from tier #4. Since ranking only really works if you start from #1 and work backwards, you find the best film in tier #4 and that becomes #48 in your top 50. The #2 becomes #49 and #3 becomes #50 and you throw the rest away.

Step Seven: Rank The Remaining Tiers In Order

Next I go to tier #3 and put them in order. Whatever order they are they get transplanted into the top 50 as #47-#17. Then I follow suit with tier #2 and finally tier #1. I’ve found a side benefit to this method is that by the time I get to ranking the last tier I have kind of gotten into the groove of saying “this movie goes above that movie”. That’s really helpful when I get to the top handful, I find making those decisions is faster if not easier after doing it a few times before.

Step Eight: Make Sure The List Feels Right/Honest

I had a statistic professor in college who used to say that a good statistic wont shock you, it should feel right even if it isn’t what you expected. You see this with the whole advanced metrics in sports all the time, they may be new ideas but they make sense (like their being value to a guy who takes a lot of pitches in baseball because he wears out the pitcher among other benefits, it feels logical). The same basic principal applies here, except you are really looking to see if your list feels honest. Is your #1 movie really your favorite, or is it #1 because most people think of it as #1? Do you really like Citizen Kane or are you putting it on your list because everyone puts Citizen Kane on their list because it is the most influential film ever made? From my experience here is a general guideline of what your list should look like:

It shouldn’t have any movies you haven’t seen from beginning to end on it
It should have a few films that almost no one else would have on their list
It should have a number of classics (they are classics for a reason)
It should have a lot of similar movies (if you like Tarantino your list should have a lot of Tarantino)
It should be a list that most people would argue with

That last one is really the telling one. You can’t make your list to illicit argument, but when it is done if your list doesn’t illicit argument or at least disagreement then your list probably isn’t honest. This all goes back to the subjectivity thing. My dad’s two favorite movies were The Sound of Music and The God’s Must Be Crazy. No one would put those #1 and #2, no one except my dad. Now, I don’t know why he loved The God’s Must Be Crazy, maybe he saw it on just the right day, with just the right people and it struck his funny bone. We all have movies like that and those are the movies that should be on your list, that’s what makes your list interesting. And, those are the kinds of things that other people will argue about, which is great. I don’t want everyone to read my list, nod and say “yup, those are the best ones”, I want people to say “you can’t call Star Wars a pirate movie” or “The Fisher King? One of the best movies ever? Are you nuts?”. That’s what makes doing the lists fun and that’s when you know you’ve done it right.

There is one last thing you should know about your list, you will want to change it. I don’t think there is a list I have made that I haven’t looked at sometime later and thought “boy, that’s a bit too high for that movie” and “I really should have put that one in” and “I’m an idiot”. What are you going to do, our opinions change. Writing about movies, particularly when you write a review, you say things that aren’t literally accurate, because they can’t be. A reviewer will say a movie is boring, but since boring isn’t something that is a definitive thing what he or she is really saying is the I was bored. So when I say I have created the list of the Top 100 Movies of All-Time, what I’m really saying is this is my list of my top 100 movies of all time today. That is the best any of us can do.

By the way, I really did just finish the Mount Everest of lists, my Top 100. I have avoided it for years but my son finally convinced me to go for it. I’m going to start to unveil the list a movie at a time starting next week so check back if you are interested and create your own top 100 so you can compare it to mine and see how wrong I am.