PERSONAL: The Greatest Films of All Time, and Why They’re Not

Some of my favorites. Clockwise from top left: Lost in Translation (2003), Touch of Evil (1958), Vertigo (1958), Dr. Strangelove: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964), Cars (2006), Moonrise Kingdom (2012), Goodfellas (1990), Tokyo Drifter (1966), Star Wars (1977)

I was recently asked “what is the greatest film of all time?” I’ve spent nearly a week poring over this question, and I still have no answer. Of course, it’s impossible to choose one that will be universally agreed upon. I think it is possible, however, to choose something that is at least considered arguable by most people. Thus, what follows are my personal candidates for greatest movie of all time, but also why they didn’t make the cut.

First, for me, “greatest” means three things:

  1. Well-made, in that it is a perfect marriage of entertainment and art.
  2. It is historically influential, significant, or at least integrates past and/or new techniques in an innovative/masterful way.
  3. Is a good movie. That is, in terms of quality it can stand on its own. It isn’t worth watching only because of its significance/place in the annals of cinema.

Therefore, the greatest movie of all time is not going to necessarily be my personal favorite, or what I find to be the most competently directed, written, shot, etc. film of all time. Without further ado:

“You’ve taken your first step into a larger world.”

Star Wars (1977), dir. George Lucas

Why it could be the best

No, it’s not because space lasers go shooty and wow the Expanded Universe!! Note, when I refer to Star Wars I am talking only about what is now called Star Wars : Episode IV – A New Hope.

  • It’s a simple story, dressed up that it still feels fresh. Boy faces trials, saves princess. Star Wars took the classic Hero’s Journey structure and added a space-fantasy flair to it. What it resulted in was a movie that was deep down to its core familiar, set in a place/time/universe that made it feel like something totally new. It went to show that done well enough, even 2000-year old plots can still feel novel.
  • “Good artists copy, great artists steal.”. The movie is pastiche of movies that George Lucas loved growing up: campy sci-fi, samurai films, westerns, and WW2 films. Many of the shots, angles, and cinematography are even lifted directly from other movies. However, the number of influences is so vast, and they are combined in so many different ways, that Star Wars could hardly be called a copycat film. Instead, it demonstrates one of the great concepts of filmmaking, of how movies influence each other and how old/established elements can be blended into an original, integrated whole.
  • It started the blockbuster trend. Star Wars wasn’t the first *blockbuster,* but it was so wildly successful that it jump-started the trend of yearly big-budget movies, geared towards the whole family, made for the purpose of making money. This is, in my opinion, the biggest shift in cinematic history excepting maybe the transition from silent to sound. It’s often credited as one of the movies that brought about the end of the so-called artsier New Hollywood era, where audiences flocked to theaters to see Midnight Cowboy, The Godfather, and Taxi Driver just as much as they did for Animal House, Rocky II, and Grease. The mainstream movie-making process forever moved away from directorial expression, to the studio being ultimately being in control and prioritizing profit. Forty years later, it’s still like that.
Why it isn’t the best
  • It didn’t contribute to filmmaking as an art. Star Wars is a highly entertaining movie with a lot of heart behind it, that happened to become very successful. While it combined many elements to make a polished product, it will not necessarily ever be cited in cinema books for its acting, writing, or cinematography. In terms of filmmaking, it didn’t do anything new, exciting, or revolutionary. It also certainly has its flaws as a movie, that even among Star Wars fans, it’s often not up there as one of the best episodes.
  • The current direction of the mainstream film industry isn’t necessarily a good thing. Eight out of ten of the highest-grossing movies in the last decade were a sequel, reboot, or remake. The other two? Guardians of the Galaxy and Black Panther. Of course, box office gross has nothing to do with quality, nor does it imply that superhero, etc. films are the only ones being made anymore. But naturally, the most profitable types of films are also going to be the ones that have the most invested in them in terms of budget, talent, and manpower. Whether or not that is good, or whether it even matters at all, is up to you. I think we can all agree, however, there’s certainly better things Hollywood could be doing than rebooting some franchise for the third time.
“This song of the Man and his Wife is of no place and every place; you might hear it anywhere, at any time.”

Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927), dir. F. W. Murnau

Why it could be the best
  • It’s representative of the human experience. The subtitle “A Song of Two Humans” fits it perfectly. In just an hour and a half, you take a seat to nearly the full range of human experience: love, loss, comedy, tragedy, relief, anxiety. Though you may not have experienced the same events as the characters in the film, what they go through is immediately familiar to you. If the human race were wiped out and I could choose only one film to represent it to future archaeologists, it might just have to be Sunrise because of how universal its themes are.
  • It shows that quality withstands the test of time. Sunrise is a silent movie. While it wasn’t my first, it was the first that showed me that silent films can still wow. The first time I saw it, I was blown away. I had no idea something nearly 100 years old could still be powerful and emotional enough to almost bring me to tears.
  • It uses its format so well that it couldn’t have worked any other way. Sunrise is in many ways like a fairy tale. For example, if Cinderella were to be published/released on screen for the first time in 2021, it would probably be instantly relegated to the $5 DVD bin. The plot would be criticized as predictable yet implausible, the characters one-dimensional. But precisely because it’s not a modern melodrama/romance, we can ignore such “flaws” (flaws only because we’d be viewing it through modern lens) and focus just on the way the story is told. In the same vein, Sunrise being a silent film and the age that it is, is what makes it work. Such a plot would not work with dialogue, even. It’d be like having to write a monologue for a character that dies alone in bed– the more that is explained the deeper a narrative hole you dig. What is “lacking” in Sunrise, we fill in with our own impressions and emotions.
Why it isn’t the best
  • It’s a silent film. To me, the title “greatest of all time” would imply that this movie represents the heights to which cinema can each. I do believe that Sunrise could be the best silent film of all time. However, I feel that in choosing Sunrise as best movie, period, we’d be leaving out a whole other sense that is just as powerful a tool in storytelling as visuals are. Though it did make use of some synchronized sound effects, it felt merely like dressing and the movie would’ve been the exact same without them. The same couldn’t be said of a few other synchronized-sound, silent-dialogue films from that era.

Sunset Boulevard (1950) dir. Billy Wilder

” I am big. It’s the pictures that got small.”
Why it could be the best

Depending on if you’re an optimist or pessimist, I think that Sunset Boulevard is my candidate for best *American* movie of all time.

  • It represents a new level of maturity in subject material. What is stand-out about Sunset Boulevard is that it is a self-aware, critical look at the movie industry itself. It’s all about the transition from silent to sound films, and its unseen fallout. Many stars got left in the dust, completely forgotten and thrown away. It’s a unflattering portrait, or perhaps even expos√©, on how heartless Hollywood can be. In an even more meta moment, the has-been silent star character Norma Desmond was herself played by Gloria Swanson, who never quite survived the transition to sound. The thing is, at this point, movies had already dealt with a variety of racy topics, from mental illness to infidelity to even sex slavery. Yet, here was a movie about something arguably no one could have expected– the evil of Hollywood itself!
  • It’s a relatable story hidden among extraordinary circumstances/characters. Norma Desmond is obsessed with her past, to the point that she regularly rewatches films of herself. She is hung up on her glory days, which is certainly something we have been guilty of at least once. Though many of us here have not been sensational worldwide celebrities that then fell into hard times, we can all sympathize with the idea of yearning for what we used to be. That is the magic of movies– they are about ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances, or, as is the case with Sunset Boulevard, about extraordinary people wresting with ordinary things. It’s what keeps us coming back to them. We can get so emotionally invested and experience such depth of feeling, watching something happen to people that don’t exist or whom we’ll never meet. This relatability, too, is what I think elevates it above Singin’ in the Rain, another great film about the industry itself (and viable candidate for #1 American movie), but with a much more positive outlook.
  • It’s narratively shocking. I can’t think of any other film that starts and ends the same way Sunset Boulevard does. It completely breaks the fundamental rule of how narration is handled in a film, which is as much as I can say without spoiling if you haven’t seen it. Though 1950 seems like ancient history to us today, even at that time, hundreds of movies had already been released. Audiences back then would’ve been justified in thinking “what else new could there be?” Yet, there absolutely could be. It was true in 1950, and it’s still true in 2021: movies can still do things with their plots, cinematography, structure, etc. that have never been done before.
Why it isn’t the best
  • It’s American. Sunset Boulevard is about Hollywood, and American cinematic history. Even though the U.S. is one of the powerhouses in filmmaking, it is not the only one. To choose such an American-centric movie as best of ALL TIME, which would also include all the cinema made in the world, would be extremely unfair. That being said, that doesn’t mean that an American movie *cannot* be the greatest of all time. I am just saying that such a choice would have to be more universal and all-encompassing in its subject matter than Hollywood in the 1950s.
  • It’s kind of average in other respects. Aside from the legendary closing shot, the rest of the cinematography is pretty par for the course for noir films. Almost everything Norma Desmond says is gold, but if you look at the other characters’ dialogue, it’s honestly not anything to write home about. For example, this exchange between protagonist Joe Gillis and love interest Betty Schaefer, though witty, would not seem out of place in any other movie from this time period.

If you’ve somehow read up to this point, thank you. I know we are no closer to the answer than 2000 words ago, but it’s fun to think about, isn’t it?

What do YOU think the greatest film of all time is? I am collecting answers here. And I’d love to hear what YOU think, too!

Coronavirus Ends at 9PM Daily

Ten months since my last blog post, we are now in the FOURTH wave of coronavirus, and our second state of emergency this year. Throughout it all, one thing has remained constant– life itself. I still go to work like normal, classes are not socially-distanced, staggered, reduced in size, etc., and everything is open. However, restaurants must close by 8PM, and bars by 9. So, imagine if life was completely the same, except everyone wears masks and dinner out on the town has to be a little earlier than usual. That’s the coronavirus countermeasures in Japan. And believe it or not, it kind of has still worked! Who knew that the darkness destroys corona particles?

For those of you curious, here’s a rough timeline of how it has developed in Japan thus far:

Me avoiding the “three Cs” per the Japanese government: closed spaces, crowded places, close contact with others.

June 2020 – My telework from April ended. For me, this had been my only experience in true lockdown– restaurants were take-out only, bars and entertainment places were closed, and besides grocery shopping I only ever left my town once, to replace broken glasses. As for WORK from home, my school is fairly low-tech so we literally mailed students homework, and of course we had no online classes. Some hip teachers conduct some, but it didn’t seem to be required. Thus, I had no work to do whatsoever. Then, in June, back to school.

July 2020 – At the beginning, classes were staggered so that half the kids came in the morning and the other half came in the afternoon. Club activities were also reduced to something like, 3 hours only instead of the normal 4-5. Other such half-assed countermeasures. Flights are axed. What a strange thing an empty airport is!

Sometime later in summer idk – They decided to do away with the pretenses and class went completely back to normal. No social distancing, plastic barriers, etc. Just normal honest-to-god class.

I dressed up as a train driver on Halloween.

September/October 2020 – After puttering around for a few months doing nothing, I decide that if Japan’s going back to normal, I will too. So I start actually going out into society again. Though it is emptier overall, it’s not a ghost town either.

My 2020 Christmas card. In Japanese is the government coronavirus slogan, “Let’s avoid the three Cs!”

November/December 2020 – Cases start ACTUALLY getting bad; by late December the numbers actually started to resemble other first-world countries– my prefecture at about 500, Tokyo approaching 2000. Back into my hovel I go.

January 2021 – A second state of emergency is declared early in the month. I believe vaccines have started to be distributed, but general residents won’t get them until May. What a state of emergency means is, bars and restaurants must close at 8 or 9pm, while everywhere else can pretty much close as usual. You can’t get a bowl of ramen at 8pm anymore, but if you want to buy some books, clothes, electronics, go to the market, or well, anything at all, you can still do it. This early closure of eateries is the only measure that is actually being enforced: the other two aspects of the state of emergency is just “strongly advising” residents not to go out past 8pm, and for companies to telework 70% of their staff, but there is no punishment for not doing so. That being said, Japanese people are pretty obedient to the government so it has been a lot emptier overall, although given the work culture a lot of companies are not bothering to telework people.

February 2021 – Cases remain the same, and the government decides to extend the state of emergency another month.

March 2021 – Cases fell enough for the state of emergency to be lifted. Restaurants were allowed to go back to normal hours, more or less, but bars were still asked to close early.

April 2021 – Cases have risen again, enough for the government to officially deem this a fourth wave, and the state of emergency is back! That is, restaurants close at 8pm, bars at 9pm, and everything else continues as normal. I still go to work. There is no special social-distancing in classes.

Well, that’s pretty much it. My life has been incredibly dull and routine. There are a few highlights, including a trip to Okayama and my school making it to Koshien (!!), but I’ll save that for another blog post. Or not. Coronavirus really saps the ol’ motivation if nothing else.

A Forsaken Village Filled with Scarecrows: Nagoro

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There is a remote village on Shikoku Island in Japan, two hours up mountain roads, where as the population dwindled, this one lady decided to start making scarecrows to replace them. The result is a place spanning perhaps only two or three blocks, where the abandoned school is instead filled with students forever frozen in time and construction workers tend to a project that will never be finished.

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The first thing building you encounter upon arriving in Nagoro is their town hall. A handwritten sign taped to the door tells you “Come in!” but otherwise, no sign of human life. A lady is peeking in from the outside; apparently she didn’t get the memo. Turns out it’s the lady herself (or rather crowself), Ayano Tsukimi!

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On the table were guestbooks you could sign, with messages from all over the world, even as far away as Germany.

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The next stop was the now-defunct Nagoro Elementary School. In front stood an excavator, dirty and rusted, yet with a full tank of gas and the key still in the ignition. Creepy.

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The gym was filled with seemingly more adults than students.

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There was even a foreigner corner, perhaps past travelers who got stuck overnight. Adding to the “where did everyone go” vibe, there was still sports equipment in the closet.

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Looks like everyone was actually gathered for a wedding. Who gets married in a gym?

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The center of town was the tourist reception.

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I was even interviewed by the local reporter.

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Get out of here, kid! The place is haunted!

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Oh, right.

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Taking a siesta in the town hall.

Over one-tenth of the town’s human population was out and about– that is, two old ladies conversing in their driveway. We asked where the bathroom was and one of them graciously let us use the one in her house.¬† We also saw Ayano herself up in her house as she was sweeping, but sadly it was cordoned off with a sign saying “Visitors not permitted due to coronavirus.”

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Add the road in front of the school, another road in front of Ayano’s house, and this is the entire village.

According to the town’s own brochure, Ayano lived in Osaka most of her life, and came back to Nagoro to take care of her ailing father. When he passed away, she made a scarecrow in his likeness for their field. She thought it was charming that people would come by and greet it, so as more people started to move or pass away, she started making more scarecrows to make the town feel a little livelier. The population now stands at 27 humans and 300 scarecrows. She plans to keep doing this for as long as she can, and every month she holds a scarecrow-making workshop while every October there is a scarecrow festival. I hope to return one day, and who knows, maybe my blog posts will suddenly stop and a scarecrow looking uncannily like me will just pop up somewhere.

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Bye bye smoothskins!