What's the "Best" Picture Ever?

Courtesy of Photofest
'Citizen Kane' (1941)

"Best" is a multi-form, hydra-headed, enigmatic and elusive concept that shifts from culture to culture, from generation to generation.

Is The Godfather the best film ever made? Or is it Citizen Kane? Or even Vertigo?

Each of those movies has topped various lists. Vertigo was named best picture in a critics’ poll conducted by Sight & Sound, dethroning Citizen Kane, which had reigned supreme for 50 years; while The Godfather came in No. 1 on The Hollywood Reporter’s poll, which surveyed thousands of industry members for their votes back in 2014.

Strictly speaking, THR didn’t deem it the “best” but rather Hollywood’s favorite, and therein lies a crucial distinction. When editors here began discussing the poll, there was some to-and-fro over what exactly our pollsters should ask. Were we inviting voters to rank the greatest movies? Or were we simply asking for their personal and highly subjective preferences? The latter won out, which is why such monumental works as Murnau’s Sunrise, Ozu’s Tokyo Story and Renoir’s The Rules of the Game didn’t make the list.

In fact, there are all sorts of ways to define “best,” even if you don’t resort to the word “favorite.”

One way is to look at what a movie accomplishes socially and politically. Black Panther, Crazy Rich Asians and The Farewell are all significant in terms of changing people’s thinking, subtly (and not so subtly) altering audiences’ ideas of what a hero or heroine should look like and expanding their empathy by allowing them to identify with Asian Americans and African Americans in heroic and romantic roles.

If changing people’s thinking is a prime purpose of art, one would have to say these pictures have achieved just as much as some major prize winners — whether the Oscar-winning Green Book last season or Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman in the current one. Shouldn’t those other films’ force in combatting prejudice factor into what we consider “best”?

Dismiss such ideology at your peril. The ideas a movie expresses have always played a role in “best” and always will. That’s why Leni Riefenstahl was never recognized in Hollywood, despite the indubitable skill she showed in her most influential works, 1935’s Triumph of the Will and 1938’s Olympia. If “best” were defined by artistry alone, her movies would be on everyone’s list of greats; as it is, they’re too nauseating to contemplate without revulsion.

By contrast, the ideology of Schindler’s List made that movie an Oscar darling, even if Steven Spielberg’s somewhat simplistic characterizations might give pause to anyone purely concerned with high art.

“Best” looks different to different people and different times. Gone with the Wind was the Academy’s best picture of 1939; it was hugely acclaimed then and yet seems grotesque today in its rose-tinted portrayal of antebellum life. By contrast, Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing, passed over for the Festival de Cannes’ top prize in 1989, seems more prescient, more pertinent to the issues with which we’re wrestling in the 2000s, than it did even at the time of its release.

There are other ways to look at “best.” If “best” means the picture that most celebrates what it is to be alive, well, why not go for 1953’s Roman Holiday? Has any picture ever made you so desperately wish to fall in love or featured two stars (Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck) who more eminently deserve it?

If “best” refers to the most intellectually dazzling work, why not one of Tarkovsky’s films, like the endlessly unfathomable Andrei Rublev (1966) or Solaris (1972), pillars of minimalist rigor that can keep scholars debating all night? Or how about Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, the most influential science fiction film ever made, which wasn’t even nominated for best picture for the year it came out, 1969?

If you want to go in a more populist direction, there’s the original Star Wars. No movie has been so embraced by multiple generations, no individual feature has spawned a mythology that can touch it. It’s certainly not my own favorite film or remotely one that I’d consider the “best” — but time has polished it and shined it and made it seem like the most impactful film in decades. Is that the same as “best”?

“Best” is a multi-form, hydra-headed, enigmatic and elusive concept that shifts from culture to culture, from generation to generation. We’re at a point when it’s changing again. Perhaps those of us sticking to an old-fashioned definition should reconsider what it truly means today, especially those in the Academy. Only by doing so will Oscar tip its hat to the pictures that “best” define our times.