1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die should be the ideal purchase for the movie buff in your life. It offers a large list of films, longer-than-a-paragraph entries, a slew of colour photos, and none of those inexplicable inclusions (Dolph Lundgren films, Friday the 13th sequels etc.) which never deserved a cinema release, let alone a review the same length as Citizen Kane (1941) or The Terminator (1984). So with all that fat sliced off and more space to breathe, Schneider’s glossy, paper breezeblock should keep my kind satisfied well into the New Year, if not until we die. The selection is interesting enough, with lots of inclusions most of us would like to have seen but have never gotten around to, plus a fair percentage I’ve never heard of.
Did this book inspire me to hunt them down? Well, no, as I’m all too aware at least a third of these films aren’t available on DVD in Region 2, and the situation in the US isn’t much better. I would love to see The Great Train Robbery (1903), Sullivan’s Travels (1941) and Il Giardino Dei Finzi-Contini (1970) but something tells me, even once the studios stop re-releasing the Alien and Indiana Jones franchises, none of these will be a priority. The bizarre short Hold Me While I’m Naked sounds fantastic, but I’m probably going to have to sacrifice my life in some time travel experiment to get to a screening in 1972, or ignore the book’s title, die, and hope that heaven has a well stocked video library. This makes many of the choices more infuriating than illuminating. But why should the "leading international critics" limit themselves to what market forces have defined as classics?
This kind of guide lives and dies by the selection. Any armchair critic could moan about the absence of Beat Takeshi, the abundance of Fassbinder, the choice of the cheesy Serpico (1973) over Lumet’s more vibrant The Pawnbroker (1962) or Fail-Safe (1964). Comic adaptations, the most obvious emergent genre of the 21st century, are covered by the token inclusions of Superman (1978) and Batman (1989). I accept that many of the well-respected names involved here are probably kicking themselves over the hundreds of masterpieces that couldn’t make the cut. I understand how hard this listing game is. But how anyone could justify the final four entries – essentially last year’s Oscar nominations – is betond me. These selections only serve to reveal how plain and pedestrian this guide becomes once we hit the mid 80s.
Gangs of New York (2002) is an interesting failure, The Pianist (2002) a personal work. Both directors laboured on better, more fundamentally special choices that have been rightly excluded due to space and universal appeal. The consciously middling Chicago is an awful candidate to end a book that claims that its entire catalogue is an essential part of any self-respecting cinemagoer’s life. Time constraints combined with a lack of editorial foresight saw these films included, and they only serve to water down any credibility the big name writers brought to the project.
And so we come to this book’s other major fault, which makes this a coffee table curio as opposed to a potential first stop for cinema lovers: the inherent insipidness of the writing. Adrian Danks, Karen Krizanovich, Ella Taylor et al are inherently distinctive, enjoyable writers who display real affection for the medium. Yet only that lovable old curmudgeon and tireless promoter of World Cinema, Jonathan Rosenbaum, is instantly recognisable by his style and opinions here. Everyone else seems homogenised. Perhaps it is the restrictive word limits, or the need to promote every film’s case – but would a bit of giant killing really have hurt? Battleship Potemkin (1925), Seven Samurai (1954) and Star Wars (1977) all have guaranteed seats in this theatre, but wouldn’t it have added some much needed chilli powder to challenge their status? Instead, a predictable formula emerges. Joanna Berry picks a perfect selection of teen movies and action films, but wouldn’t it be nice to see Rosenbaum attempt to justify the validity of these US genre flicks? Should each writer be so easily pigeonholed?
These anomalies mean that this rather nicely presented present is something you can more than live without. What I really need this 25th of December is some sellotape to hold together my threadbare old Time Out Guide – a book which will continue to provoke second viewings and inspire debate throughout our next turn around the sun.