The greatest movie of all time?

“What is the greatest movie of all time?”

That question has been endlessly debated by film aficionados and critics, and understandably, it’s difficult to arrive at a definitive answer. Since film is an art and art, by nature, is subjective, it’s almost impossible to be completely objective when reviewing movies. This task also is difficult because reviewers don’t always agree what factors define a great film.

Still, that hasn’t dissuaded critics from coming up with lists that rank the supposed greatest movies of all time, with classic films like “Citizen Kane” (1941) and “Casablanca” (1942) frequently topping the list. The British Film Institute’s Sight and Sound magazine recently generated quite a bit of discussion when its once-a-decade survey declared Alfred Hitchcock’s “Vertigo” (1958) to be the greatest film of all time, ending “Citizen Kane’s” 50-year reign at the top. The panel surveyed by the institute included distributors, critics and academics.

I haven’t seen “Vertigo” yet, so I can’t comment on whether I think it deserves to top “Citizen Kane” (which is a film I believe all movie buffs should see). But the announcement about this survey got me to thinking about the “greatest movie of all time” discussion and if maybe Hollywood is going about this discussion in the wrong way.

To be honest, I’ve never been quite sure what to think of the “greatest movie of all time” debate. When someone asks what I think the greatest movie is, I tend to bring up some of the more serious, “artistic” films that have been made by Hollywood. These are the types of films that dominate the British Film Institute’s list, which you can view at this link: You typically won’t find films like “Star Wars” or “Lord of the Rings” on this type of list, although these films rank highly on another list — the highest grossing films of all time.

Film critics tend to look down somewhat on blockbusters like these. These movies are usually crowd-pleasers that are less serious in tone, and the assumption is that makes them less worthy, and more “entertainment” than “art.” However, I don’t think critics should completely discount these movies, and while I’m not necessarily advocating they should have a shot at making the greatest movies of all time list, these types of movies are important in their own way. “Star Wars” and similar well-loved blockbusters may not be “high art,” but I don’t think it’s fair to dismiss stories like this as just mindless entertainment.

As much as I love “Star Wars,” I won’t claim it’s the greatest movie of all time (even though I’d really like to). 😉 It is, however, the movie that I love the most (“The Empire Strikes Back” is my favorite entry in the saga). Some of the greatest movie characters — Darth Vader, Yoda, Obi-Wan Kenobi — have come out of this film saga, and it’s a rousing, epic adventure. In a way, it’s the space age version of the King Arthur legend, a tale of good and evil that takes place in a far-off, magical realm. “Star Wars” is an important film in that it has impacted and influenced pretty much every special effects heavy action/adventure film that has come after it. Love him or hate him, George Lucas pioneered many digital effects in his original “Star Wars” trilogy. Without him, we probably wouldn’t have “Lord of the Rings” or the recent run of successful Marvel superhero films.

While I think it’s important to honor the more “serious” films on the British Film Institute’s list, there’s nothing wrong with critics showing a little love for some well-made blockbusters such as “Indiana Jones” and Christopher Nolan’s “Dark Knight” trilogy, as well. There’s room for both types of films in Hollywood, and I think the film industry is better off because of this diversity. Everyone has different tastes, and there’s plenty to choose from.

And if I did have to pick what I thought the greatest film of all time was, I’d probably have to say “Casablanca,” a black and white World War II era drama. I was surprised to see this film didn’t make the British Film Institute’s recent list, and it’s one of my personal favorites. It’s a timeless, elegant classic with an excellent cast, and it’s well worth renting if you haven’t seen it yet.

So, what would you pick as the greatest film of all time? Is it the same as your personal favorite movie?


10 thoughts on “The greatest movie of all time?

  1. I agree with every word. Including your pick of Casablanca as the greatest film of all time. Citizen Kane is a technically superior film. And Hitchcock is a master of visual storytelling. But Casablanca can stand up against any classic and is immensely entertaining, as well as timeless (it can never be remade.. no need) and beautiful in every way. It’s almost perfect, almost- I have a problem with one line in the film – When Ilsa refers to Sam as that BOY playing the piano, a term used in America at the time but not as much in Europe or in Africa to describe a man probably twice her age – And even though I cringe every time I hear that line, Casablanca is one of my favorite films (I have a rotating list of three favorite films Blade Runner, Raiders of the Lost Ark & Casablanca)

    And you’re right, blockbusters don’t get as much respect from film historians as they should. But it takes time. The further we are removed from… pop, the more we appreciate the art involved. The same with music or fine art. The ones that sell the most don’t get as much honor even after they die but 20, 30 years down the line… Andy Warhol, Elvis made millions… but none of their contemporaries gave them credit for being great artists until decades after they died.

    • Agreed – Citizen Kane is probably technically superior to Casablanca, but I felt like Casablanca has more heart, and I ultimately enjoyed it more. 🙂 This is one movie I hope Hollywood NEVER remakes! And I love Raiders of the Lost Ark, as well; it’s a fun, timeless classic.

      Also, you raise a good point about pop art being appreciated more further down the road. I think Indiana Jones and the original Star Wars trilogy are popular classics that have stood the test of time. It will be interesting to see what films from this era remain popular. Will Pirates of the Caribbean, Harry Potter and some of the Marvel superhero films be thought of as classics years down the road? It will be interesting to see!

      • My prediction would be that Harry Potter becomes one of those series that is shown every Christmas until the end of time, like Wizard of Oz. And in my estimation the Pirates films will not survive, they were fun but kind of silly and dated. As well as the Superhero movies but I think more for the effects. Effects will get so good, 3D will get so good that looking back at these amazing films in the future will be met w/ “That looks so fake!” I don’t know. I’m an old man. I won’t be around. But these words will be. They will live on in cyberspace.

  2. Great article. It is a fine balance between art and entertainment, and if a film is to be crowned as “the best” it needs to accomplish both of those things.
    And we have to remember that movies are not only an art, but also a craft. And crafts are easier to judge than art since it moves further away from the subjective end of the spectrum. All movies set out to accomplish a certain goal, and whether or not its an art film or a blockbuster, its greatness should be judged on how well it meets that goal.

    • Excellent point! Some movies set out to be more “high concept,” “serious” works of art, while others movies are meant more to be a simple fun, entertaining experience. Indiana Jones is not serious social commentary, but it’s a fun, really well-made and well-acted film. Like you said, I think sometimes film critics don’t always judge a film by how well it met its particular goal.

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