Travels with Myself

A Journal of Discovery and Transition
Doug Jordan, Author

23.16 ‘Best’ Movies of All Time

Now there’s a problem right there: Rating qualitative things is challenging because it lacks objectivity. Even when a set of relatively objective criteria is applied, the judging still holds elements of personal bias. 

Take dog confirmation judging, for example. The standard for the Standard Poodle is about twenty-three pages long. A judge is supposed to know this meticulous standard by heart and then in examining each candidate in the ring, compare each, not against each other, but against the standard. The dog, or bitch, that comes closest to the overall standard in the judgment of the judge, is declared, him, or her, Best in Breed. (If you’re really keen on this topic, you could read my books about living with Standard Poodles, The Maxim Chronicles and The Hallelujah Chorus.) 

But that’s not all, the Best in Breed then goes into competition with the best in breed of the other 17 breeds in the category; for Standard Poodles, the Category is Non-Sporting Breeds (for goodness sakes) and the competition includes such esoterica as Pomeranians and chow-chows, not to mention Schipperkes. The judge in this Category must know the standards of every breed in the Category, and pick from the contestants the one that best meets the standard for its breed. Whew. But then, to be selected as Best In Show, the judge, independent from the previous judges, must chose the candidate of all the Best in Category champions which best meets the standard for its own breed. Very challenging. And of course a judge must overcome any personal bias he or she may have. (The quality of the handler in the ring, or her appearance, is irrelevant.) Ha!

Now, I don’t know how the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences choose the Best Picture of the year; is there a set of published criteria the 10,000 members of the Academy must consider? Do they compare the candidates against each other or against the ‘standard’? Do they actually have to see the picture to vote? One gets the idea it’s really just popularity contest influenced significantly by promotion and box office results.

In my autobiography, My Story, Mostly[1], there are two chapters, or sections of chapters, which give me the opportunity to talk about movies. We give ourselves the leeway to select our ‘favourite’ movies, which are not necessarily ‘the best’. My ‘standards were/are purely subjective derived from emotional experience. 

[1] Inspired by Jeffrey Mason’s Dad, I Want to Hear Your Story (2019)

Here are my lists. Go ahead, argue with me. Make your own lists.

The ‘best’ movies of my youth (arbitrarily determined as the year I was 15 years old, give or take):

The Best Picture of 1962 (awarded in 1963) was Lawrence of Arabia. Typically, the best pictures are released in the last months of the year and so many people don’t even get to see them until well into the following year, especially if you live in a small Canadian town with only one or two theatres. I probably saw Lawrence in the summer of 1963. And it’s probably that film to which I took my ‘girlfriend’ at the time, first actual movie date on my own. 

There were a number of other famous films from those years but I don’t remember going to see them at the theatres; more likely I saw them later on TV. According to google these were the top movies of 1962:

  • The Longest Day, about D-day and the assault on German forces on the beaches of Normandy; good history lesson;
  • To Kill a Mocking Bird, very memorable film, still relevant today; Gregory Peck as defense lawyer Atticus Finch defending a young black man (Negro in those days) falsely accused of murder, was superb;
  • Days of Wine and Roses (which won the Oscar for Best Original Song), and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence, are mostly remembered, by me at least, for the songs;

In checking the films of 1963, most were largely forgettable.

And what were my ‘Top Ten’ favourite movies of all time: 

Well, Casablanca, (Best Picture Oscar, 1942), easy.

The rest of the list is harder to pin down.

  • Vicki, Christina, Barcelona
  • 12 Angry Men (Best Picture Oscar, 1942)
  • Lawrence of Arabia (Best Picture Oscar, 1963)
  • Amadeus (Best Picture Oscar, 1984)
  • Shakespeare In Love (Best Picture Oscar, 1998)
  • High Noon
  • The Sting (Best Picture Oscar, 1973)
  • Toy Story
  • The Pink Panther
  • To Sir With Love (Oops, that makes eleven, but leave it.)

(And speaking of objectivity standards, I suppose Best in Show, a zany comedy about confirmation dog shows, should also be on the list but that might be a bit too esoteric.) Each of these movies say something to me, or meant something to me at the time I saw them and the memory stays with me. Most of these were seen on the big screen, but a few on TV. Some of these titles will always be on the top ten list while others might slip to 11 or 19, depending on what other titles might come to mind at any given time. But for now, let’s accept these as my top ten.

I don’t think any of these would have made Marlene’s top ten list: Shakespeare in Love maybe. Interestingly, while Marlene loved the movies, only four of these were movies we saw together. She preferred lighter fare for the most part but every once in a while something deep. Her favourite movie of all time was Pretty Woman; Shawshank Redemption would be on her list, but maybe because she liked watching it with son Ryan. She thought Brokeback Mountainamazing but it made me uncomfortable (and that’s the stuff of a whole other paragraph).

I suppose it should be said she often let me decide what movie we’d watch and report on it afterwards with short sharp evaluations: Good, Bad. I loved adventure movies and she indulged me in that: the Mission Impossible, and Bourne Identity series, and especially James Bond (curiously, none of these are on my top ten list; I’ve seen all the James Bond movies, some of them two or three times, and almost all of them with Marlene). I used to read movie reviews and often picked arty intellectual movies: these mostly got ‘Bad’ reviews from Marlene. Serious romantic movies were my favourite; fluffball stuff were not.

Casablanca isn’t just my favourite movie, it is widely seen as one of the best movies of all time: for the romance; for the times (made in 1942, and deals with WWII); for the ethical conflict and the hard choice hard-boiled Rick (Humphrey Bogart) has to make; for the famous lines (‘Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, and you had to walk into mine’; ‘play it again Sam’; ‘round up the usual suspects’); the music/theme song (‘As Time Goes By’[1]). Wonderful, even if a bit clichéd and filmed in a Hollywood backlot.

Vicki, Christina, Barcelona, because it is the best of Woody Allens’ many films, not all of which are great. ‘Annie Hall’ is often mentioned as Woody Allen’s best movie but when Marlene and I saw it in 1969 I thought it was ridiculous. Maybe I wasn’t mature enough to appreciate the message or educated enough in film to appreciate the genre, but hey. Maybe I should watch it again, now 50 years later. ‘VCB’ on the other hand is wonderfully insightful about stages of life and life lessons: Allen the philosopher has some serious wisdom here for those paying attention, which I was at the time (2009) reflecting on my own life.

12 Angry Men (the original version (1957), not the 1997 remake) is a classic court room drama, but from the jury’s perspective. The film is especially concerned with serious psychology issues: perceptual bias, the effect of individual values and life events in forming judgments, the effect of peer pressure in making decisions, or changing them. I used this film a few times when I was teaching Organization Behaviour at Carleton University as a demonstration of group dynamics.

Lawrence of Arabia, for a host of reasons: it was a spectacle; the cinematography; it celebrated a genuine though unlikely hero from the Great War, set in Palestine; it raised some uncomfortable sexual orientation questions in a very obscure way; the music. It also was the first movie I ever took a girl on a date with (1963).

Amadeus introduced me to the character of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart in a way I had no previous sense of. To that point I wasn’t especially fond of Mozart music and I never much thought of the composer – I suppose I stereotyped him as just another of those classical composers as old guys – but Amadeus showed Mozart as an autistic genius and put a whole different light on the idea that people of ages past had to deal with the same psychological issues and conditions as people of today. And the music, Piano Concerto # 20…

Shakespeare in Love is a movie within a movie[2] (well actually a play). It is the imagined life and forbidden love affair Shakespeare had with a young noble woman who yearned to be an actress, mirroring the forbidden love affair of Romeo and Juliet as Shakespeare writes it. It’s lush, it’s comedic, it’s tragic. It’s wonderful. Marlene liked it too, especially Judy Dench as Queen Elizabeth! Go figure.

High Noon I would have seen on TV when I was about 10 or 11. For me, then, the drama was almost unbearable, and the surprise action of the Quaker wife, very satisfying. The theme music stayed with me long after the movie itself, and now that I’ve seen it twice more as an adult the casting, the staging and the acting is much more mechanical than I remembered. But I still remember the drama. And the song: ‘Do not forsake me ‘o my Darling’. I often thought of it as my own theme song.

The Sting is memorable to me for three reasons: it was a clever plot, it had catchy music (revival of Scott Joplin’s rag music), and I saw it with a work mate while we were recruiting machinists in Windsor Ontario and we needed to entertain ourselves of a Wednesday night.

(I didn’t put the original ‘Rocky’ movie on this list, though I might have, and the reasons would have been similar, I saw it with my old friend and colleague in Montreal on some AECL business trip.)

Toy Story. I loved all of the Toy Story movies but the first one is the best because it captures the mood so novelly: entertaining for little kids, nostalgia trip for adults. Wonderful.

The Pink Panther showing the comic genius of Peter Sellers, much better than all the sequels which got zanier and zanier. This move took on special meaning for me when, decades later, I began ‘Friday Night at the Movies’ with 10-year-old daughter Alison (and sometimes 15-year-old son, Ryan) so they didn’t feel left out when Shannon (and sometimes Ryan) was off having a social life. Not sure where Marlene was those many Friday nights, probably went to her bedroom to read, not interested in watching stupid movies she’d already seen once.

And my last choice (actually number 11), To Sir With Love, a frothy feel-good movie of a black engineer (Sidney Poitier) having to teach an inner London or Manchester high school leaving class. The theme song of the movie was a big hit at the time and always made me think of adolescent confusion. This movie is also memorable to me because I didn’t see it with Marlene (actually I did, but I’d already seen it with another girl), and that girl was very active in the darkness of the movie theatre.

And speaking of the movies, here’s an interesting question Jeffrey Mason (Dad, I Want to Hear Your Story) puts to us: Who would you cast to play yourself in the movie of your life? How about the rest of your family?

Groucho Marx, and his brothers can play the rest of the other characters in my family; or maybe Woody Allen (but he’s pretty nerdy). Grace Kelly has to play Marlene. Rosalyn Russell my mother, or perhaps Joan Fountaine in her severe look. Dad, Robert Downie Junior (or from his own era, maybe Dean Martin).

Actually, it’s a good question. I flatter myself to think I’d like Robert Downie Junior, especially as he played the Sherlock Holmes character, to play me.

Okay – your turn.

Doug Jordan, reporting to you from Kanata, Canada

© Douglas Jordan & AFS Publishing All rights reserved. No part of these blogs and newsletters may be reproduced without the express permission of the author and/or the publisher, except upon payment of a small royalty, 5¢. 

[1] Mason asks, what would be the theme song for your life? ‘As Time Goes By’ has to be it.

[2] And that reminds me of another ‘movie in a movie’ movie Marlene and I enjoyed: ‘The French Lieutenant’s Woman’. We especially reflected on it when we visited Lyme Regis where the move (and maybe the novel) was set.

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