An estimated fifteen million individual film and tv credits are documented in the imdb.com database, and dozens of new feature films are released each week in theatres and on dvd. Where can budding film buffs turn for pointers to the very best of these? Of course one man’s Casablanca is another man’s Ishtar, and there is no shortage of movie guidebooks and Top 10 lists for moviegoers to consult. But even these require some sort of meta-guide; imdb.com’s Top 250 list is notoriously vulnerable to ballot-box stuffing. (The Shawshank Redemption in the No. 1 position at time of writing, ahead of The Godfather? And The Dark Knight at No. 6? C’mon . . .)
In search of guidance I turned first to 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die (Barron’s)—a title with a nice apocalyptic ring to it: a memento mori seasoned with a dash of the imperative. You might call this the snack food of movie guidebooks; it’s fun to flip through the heavily illustrated pages until something catches your eye: Tom Cruise looking cocky with his Top Gun (1986) pilot’s helmet; the love and hate tattoos on Robert Mitchum’s knuckles (from The Night of the Hunter, 1955). But the many illustrations, and the sidebars, which give basic facts about each movie, leave less space for actual writing: just three paragraphs or so per film, which was insufficient to convince me of the merits of Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982).
The closer I examined this list of 1001 “must see” movies, the more I questioned the selections. How many movie buffs, I wondered, would choose to watch Russ Meyer’s Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! (a trashy exploitation film from 1965 ) from their deathbed? or Wes Craven’s The Hills Have Eyes (“a relentless chronicle of violence against and within the bourgeois family unit” from 1977 )? The book’s dust jacket reveals that Steven Jay Schneider, the general editor for the volume, has written or edited five separate books on horror films and violence in the cinema—which might explain an apparent bias toward these genres.