Wednesday, October 8, 2008

My Favorite Movie is the Same Movie as The Best Movie of All Time

Note to the Internets: If you think this is the best movie ever made, just say so!


This is rather long-delayed response to a post over at He Shot Cyrus, "What's Your Favorite Movie." In that post, Scott (arguing what I think is the majority opinion) lays down the law on people like me, who hold the minority opinion. His first nightmare scenario, when asked about his favorite movie, is: "Scenario#1: This guy can't distinguish between favorite and best. Is The Warriors the best movie or my favorite movie? When I tell him my favorite movie is The Warriors, he tells me I'm wrong and then proceeds to explain to me the artistic mastery of Peter Jackson."

Well, like Scott, I'm frustrated by the "favorite movie" question and I understand all of his frustrations; if you say anything besides the list he mentions (Godfather, Pulp Fiction, Fight Club, something in the last 6 months, etc) you get confusion. After trying to explain Bridge on the River Kwai and The Searchers too many times, I've reverted back to my high school answer: Gladiator (which is still one of my favorites). Casual cinema fans always know the movie and almost always like it; Crowe-hating cinephiles have steam come out of their ears, and try to explain the greatness of The Searchers to me.

But unlike Scott, I make no distinction between "best" and "favorite" movie. I've actually discussed this several times with people, and have only found one who agrees with me. But here goes:

I have absolutely no criteria for judging a movie beyond how much I like it. How could I? One person I knew who argued that Citizen Kane was the best movie ever made but not his favorite tried to do so under the banner of technical competence. And yeah, Citizen Kane is probably the best made movie ever made. But why should that make it the best movie ever made? Saving Private Ryan is also one of the most technically impressive movies ever made, but I considered it a hokey piece of patriotic bullshit. Being well-made doesn't make it the best movie I've ever seen; me liking a movie a lot makes it the best movie I've ever seen.

The main point I have here is that I don't believe that there's any sort of universal or external criteria for judging movies. There just aren't. There's absolutely no way to sit in front of a movie screen and watch a movie and then say "That was one of the best movies ever made, but I didn't like it that much." If you can say that, your judging criteria are broken, and you're going to go see a lot more "best" movies that you don't like very much. Even I sometimes offer up the cheesy chestnut "I admired the movie but didn't like it that much," but that qualifies it for neither favorite nor best - just impressive in some manner that didn't really appeal to me.

I personally think that most people who make the favorite/best distinction do so for personal protection. There favorite movie is Dumb and Dumber, but they tell people Pulp Fiction, because they know Dumb and Dumber won't pass muster, so they distinguish between "favorite" and "best" disingenuously. I've just never found a reason to do that. I'm happy to tell people that Breathless, The Third Man, and Citizen Kane share space on my favorite/best film list with Zoolander, Knocked Up, and Sin City. Sure, those last three didn't win any Oscars, but fuck that. They're awesome! The bottom line is: each individual person can only judge a movie based on what they thought of it. There's no reason to hide what you felt about a movie from other people, and there's no reason to think that you're qualified to judge a movie based on any criteria other than how much you liked it.

Scott actually seems to offer up a different way to distinguish between favorite and best movies in a later post: Even back in high school, he says, "I knew the difference between "best" and "favorite." These were my favorite films, the ones you could put on anytime, over and over, and I'd watch them."

This is totally different from the distinction between personal favorite/universal best that I hate so much. Scott doesn't offer up a definition for best here, but he does offer up one for favorite: your favorite movies are the ones you can and do watch most often and always enjoy. Maybe I'm really weird but, again, this distinction wouldn't work for me personally. Sure, there are some films that I consider best/favorite that I've only seen two or three times (Citizen Kane, Third Man, etc). And there are others (Hellboy, for example) that I've watched many times and don't consider among the best I've ever seen, although they might qualify for "favorite" approval. But most of the movies on my favorite/best list are the same ones that I watch over and over again; Zoolander, The Departed, Lost in Translation, Royal Tenenbaums The Philadelphia Story, Sin City, The Searchers, Meet John Doe, Gladiator, pretty much every Coen Brothers movie...all of these films will make any top movies list I make, and I will watch them multiple times. For me, in almost every case, favorite=best=most watched and most rewatchable.

Irony Caveat: There's only one place where I will distinguish between favorite and best, and that's when one of my favorite movies sucks in whole or in part (complete or partial irony). I take things like my favorite movies and top films list much too seriously to ever put this kind of movie in those categories, but I watch at least part of, say, Red Dawn, almost every time it comes on. I don't ever watch all of it, because it's a horrible movie and I get tired of it, but Ifor a while, I enjoy its horribleness. Only when I love a movie for being bad would I be willing to distinguish between favorite and best.

As always, I want to know what you guys think. Do you have a different way to distinguish between favorite and best? Am I weird that Scott's definition of "favorite" movie doesn't eliminate many of the "best" movies I've seen? And of course, tell me what your favorite and/or best movies are - especially if the answer is Blade Runner. I would especially like to hear from Scott, but I don't even know if he reads this blog, so we'll just have to see about that.

9 comments:

tri(sarah)tops said...

it seems people are afraid of this post. anyway, i agree with you about collapsing favorite and best. in theory.
i definitely make the distinction, usually in the negative sense you describe, where some of my favorite movies are admittedly terrible. Like the Fifth Element, these are movies i tend to label as "fun." i would never, however, consider a film one of the best if it wasn't also a favorite. i sort of hated Gone With the Wind, for instance.
to me, it's some sort of Venn diagram, where best is completely encased within the sphere of favorites. so i guess i still want best to mean something greater than just favorite, though i'm awful blurry on how to actually mark that line. maybe i just try to make specific qualifications, e.g., "Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure is the best movie starring Keanu Reeves."
i can understand not being able to generate an objective "best movie" list (even though everyone tries). i just think there can still be room for distinctions within the subjective realm of favorite, which maybe comes with the reasons why we like whatever films we do: is it because i love Christian Bale (Newsies!) or because it had a great script backed up by perfomances, cinematography, etc (Fargo)? obviously when both of those things come together (Dark Knight), i am over the moon.

as for an actual favorite movie, i'm going to go with Modern Times. but that could change daily, so whatever.

and as a side note: i imagine it's easier to collapse the two sides when you've seen as many films as you have, since "best" seems to imply an extensive knowledge of the entire set, which is probably why people stick to the classic responses in the first place.

Graham said...

Indeed, no one seems to want to touch this one. Oh well.

Your "best is a subset of favorite" argument rings true to a certain degree to me, and it probably would be a lot more palatable to people than actually declaring Dumb and Dumber or Zoolander to be the greatest movie ever made.

I think you've really touched on something when you discuss the "reasons" that a movie is favorite or best. This was supposed to be my point, but I'm not sure I ever made it: favorite and best should be the same thing, but instead people divide them between two types of reasons: subjective (I like Christian Bale) and objective (cinematography, writing, editing, etc). And I just don't see a reason to make distinctions like that; just make your subjective judgments (which are certainly affected by "objective" elements of craft) and put them on the table.

This is why "Best" lists are always created by ballot. Are you a member of the Academy who thought Zoolander was the best film of the year? I would have voted for it - that's just what I felt. But it wouldn't have gotten enough votes to win an award or even a nom.

That's what I was trying to say: don't try to separate objective and subjective judgments, just make your call, and if people say Dumb and Dumber is clearly not the best movie, just tell them you don't care much for Vertigo. Everyone feels differently about these things.

Of course, when movies are bad (aka 5th Element), of course best and favorite should be separate!

tri(sarah)tops said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
tri(sarah)tops said...

i think i still just get hung up on the reasons bit. i glossed over this a bit, so perhaps a better explanation is in order: i accept that things like editing & cinematography aren't really ever objective, but i still think a movie that has multiple things i love is higher up on the favorite list (and maybe, therefore, part of the best set) than a movie that just has one performance or one sequence or whatever that i love. so Christian Bale acting his little teenage heart out doesn't really save Newsies, or put it on the same page as a more personally beloved musical like Gigi.

part of my problem, though, might be that i am too liberal with "favorite," which makes me inclined to reserve some other term for the exalted ones.

and just out of curiosity, do you make the same case for things like books, photography, paintings, etc?

Graham said...

I think I understand what you're saying about reasons a bit better now. I am a bit skeptical about reasons in general though; I usually accept the cliche that reasons come after response. You like a movie; retroactively, you decide you liked it because of the cinematography. etc.

I do tend to hold those exact same standards for other media, although I would never declare my favorite painting to be the best ever made, since I don't know that much about painting. I still wouldn't distinguish between favorite and best.

But yeah, I think Catch-22 is better than Hamlet. I like it more, so it's better. I certainly don't have anyway of judging otherwise, that I can think of.

blake said...

I think one could logically say that a certain film is their favorite, but could also hold the opinion that a different film is the greatest film, for being technically better. While I recognize 'The Godfather' is a nearly perfect film, it's nowhere close to my favorite.

MovieMan0283 said...

Hmmm. Well, aside from your slamming of Saving Private Ryan, which I think IS a great movie, I have some other differences of opinion.

I think the distinction between best and favorite is as simple as a distinction between objective and subjective. I've heard the argument that there's no objective criteria for judging greatness, but frankly I think that's a load of bunk. I will admit that at some point objectivity rests on a bed of subjectivity, but aesthetic opinion is essentially a social contract - we tend to agree on the basis of what is "good" or "bad", then differ on what qualifies. This could get quite lengthy if I tried to get into all the distinctions, but by way of a quick, cheap analogy, think the difference between junk food and a meal at a five-star restaurant. Common sense (and our stomach's reaction) tells us there's a difference, and intellectual inquiry can help us parse that difference more particularly.

Anyway, I think you yourself acknowledge a distinction when you recognize that some bad films are among your favorites. This is a pretty big hole, through which the "there's a difference" camp can march in and conquer your aesthetic criterion. How can you say the movie's bad if you like it? It's because you know that it doesn't meet certain criteria, that essentially you like it because it takes shortcuts (it has an actor you like, it's about a subject you enjoy, it has nostalgic value because it reminds you of a good time in your life, when you first saw it, etc.). A great movie, a "best" movie, can be judged apart from these EXTREMELY subjective elements. And I think once you establish this difference, there's varying degrees to which you can apply it. It's a huge, long spectrum, not a narrow litmus test.

To repeat, if you want to take it far enough, then sure, all objectivity rests on a bed of subjectivity. At a certain point the things we think are "good" and "bad" derive from certain instinctual responses. But that's true of all values systems, including those that distinguish between the morality or immorality of murder or abuse. All ethics, and all aesthetics, rest upon certain common assumptions we make, i.e. we have to start from the same place to make these judgements.

I hope this hasn't been too abstract, the case can be quite difficult to articulate.

Oh, and per Scott's example, if the guy is explaining to him the aristic mastery of Peter Jackson, then not only can he not differentiate between "favorite" and "best," he sure as hell doesn't know how to define "best"!

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