One hundred years of motion pictures have illuminated the silver screen since Thomas Edison's first western in 1903. As a cultural history, this cinematic thread through time offers a vivid portrayal of Americans and the world we share with Hollywood. Having watched several thousand films, that realization set me to wondering if I could recall a movie-worth-watching-more-than-once for every year since The Great Train Robbery. Of course, some of the older films seem dated now. On the other hand, many of the black and white gems of the thirties fare better today than the Technicolor productions of the fifties and sixties. Great art holds our attention, as do many early films, just as a classic novel written in an archaic literary style can be enjoyed by generation after generation.
Looking for 100 good movies, in no time at all my list of worthies included 450 titles! That being more than a film a day for a year if you set out to watch them all, I figured that had to be enough. I put a check off box by each title and sent this list to friends who had asked for video recommendations. I was not surprised to hear reports that some people had seen half of the films on my list. Needless to say, I was pleasantly surprised to find out how they loved the prospect of being required to watch a movie a day for a year to achieve a better understanding of our common lot.
Since the original publication I have added fifty titles or so to bring things up to date.
I created my overview as a retrospective with the most recent film listed first. That is how I suggest you read this book, 2003-1903. An alphabetical index follows on page 66. The information in these lists differs somewhat: the chronology features my rationale for inclusion while the alphabetical list details key players and cites the books from which many of these films were made. As you read the chronological list back into time, profound changes reshape the look and role of films. The advent of sound, for instance, banished the silents almost overnight. Color, on the other hand, took nearly thirty years to make black and white productions seem anachronistic.
Nor have movie making techniques been the only influence shaping films. The American landscape itself, Manifest Destiny, the Civil War, World War I, women’s suffrage, prohibition, drug laws, science fiction, WWII, the Korean War, television, McCarthyism, civil-rights, the Vietnam War, video recorders, remote controls, VHS rentals, Dolby Surround Sound, MTV, each has left an indelible mark. Films also reflect national character, productions from Japan, Britain, France, Germany, China, or India each their own cultural affirmation. Now there is the internet, and the legacy of September 11, 2001.
Human nature dominates film as it does literature and theater. Foolish men and bitchy women populate the screen. An amazing number have guns. A few great monsters add the fantastic to a cast otherwise propelled as always by love, lust, greed, and ambition.
Books and movies are family. While the Internet Movie Database (IMDb.com) is a splendid resource, if you want to know more, read the book from which a film was made. There is simply nothing like the right book when you want more detail. History is much the same. If I were to recommend an overview of the Twentieth century to complement my selection of films, I would suggest Paul Johnson's Modern Times (1983). This well written book with its useful index is a delight. Then too, Ruth Benedict's insightful Patterns of Culture (1934) is an indispensible guide to the good, the bad, and the ugly.
Most life is daily life. Consequently, current events and film are likewise entwined. The tragedy of September 11, 2001 will spawn a film classic, and may well have already with Fahrenheit 911.
Over time, motion pictures have become more than entertainment. Computers, DVDs and the internet have reshaped film, creating a new avant garde. That is why my list includes Pirates of Silicon Valley 1999, a made for TV movie, and Bunyip Dreaming 1991, an in-store promotional video for surf wear. As ever, art is where your find it.
Movies, books and music are a continuum that embraces technology, people, politics, popcorn, and porn. Therein lies the cinematic contribution to the historical record. Films flow from their moment of conception, and each one will continue to reflect the unique social dynamics of its day as motion pictures have done for over a hundred years.