Monday 19 June 2017

Empire's 100 Greatest Movies list contains few bad films, but is undermined by a chronic lack of diversity and too many baffling omissions

"You heard right, sir, The Shawshank Redemption really is in at #4..."

For the last few days I've been gently fulminating over the results of Empire magazine's readers' poll to find the 100 Greatest Movies of all-time [1]. You can go take a look at the whole wretched thing here, but to give you a flavour, this is the Top 10 in all its, um, glory.

1. The Godfather (1972)
2. Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
3. The Dark Knight (2008)
4. The Shawshank Redemption (1994)
5. Pulp Fiction (1994)
6. Goodfellas (1994)
7. Raiders Of The Lost Ark (1981)
8. Jaws (1975)
9. Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope (1977)
10. The Lord Of The Rings: The Fellowship Of The Ring (2001)

I happily accept that Empire is aimed at and consumed by the multiplex generation who love popcorn blockbusters and all things nerd – Batman, The Lord Of The Rings, Marvel, Star Wars, Spielberg etc. More than that, I've seen all 100 movies and few of them are bad (Forrest Gump at #61 is probably the worst of it). And, credit where due, Francis Ford Coppola's The Godfather is a fine choice at #1. But, even allowing for all that, this is a terribly myopic and incurious list. 

For a start, there are only five foreign language films in the 100 [2], of which Guillermo Del Toro's admittedly splendid Pan's Labyrinth is the highest placed at #55. Seven Samurai (#73), Oldboy (#78), Spirited Away (#80), and Amélie (#98) all follow. But where are Jean-Luc Godard, Federico Fellini, Roberto Rossellini, Krzysztof Kieslowski, Ingmar Bergman, Wong Kar-wai, Claude Chabrol, Claire Denis, François Truffaut, Takashi Miike, Jim Jarmusch, Luis Buñuel, Fritz Lang, Michael Haneke, Eric Rohmer, Pablo Almodovar, and Andrei Tarkovsky? It's a list I could carry on making all day but the point is a simple one. These directors may be foreign and some of their work may be difficult or challenging, but it's readily available for anyone who wants to find it. You don't need membership of an exclusive club or a special decoder ring to gain access to this stuff. When you have a top 100 that excludes even audience-friendly foreign language fare such as City Of God, The Lives Of Others and Cinema Paradiso, you know something has gone wrong somewhere.

It isn't as if there wouldn't be room for at least a few of these directors and their films either, not when Steven Spielberg has seven entries, Christopher Nolan five, and David Fincher, George Lucas, James Cameron, and Ridley Scott three each. That's nearly 25 per cent of the entire list right there!

There's no room for Woody Allen on Empire's list -  not even Annie Hall

There are no Woody Allen films in this top 100. I'll say that again because it bears repeating. There are no Woody Allen films in this top 100. No Annie Hall. No Crimes And Misdemeanors. No Manhattan. No Love And Death. No Hannah And Her Sisters. No Radio Days. For all the scandal in his personal life and variable quality of his later films, Allen has a body of work comparable with just about any director who has ever lived. But, hey, fuck that guy, here's Avengers Assemble in at #65 with its explosions and super people.

In fact, there's hardly any comedy featured full-stop. No Duck Soup, When Harry Met Sally, Ferris Bueller's Day Off, This Is Spinal Tap, Groundhog Day, Airplane, Life Of Brian, Borat, Anchorman, The Jerk, His Girl Friday, Clueless, Trading Places, or Young Frankenstein. It's a list that somehow manages to be low-brow and utterly po-faced at the same time. There's little in the way of horror either – no David Cronenberg or James Whale, no Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Evil Dead or Nosferatu. To give you some notion of just how safe it all is, the list can't even find room for Tim Burton or Paul Verhoeven – surely two of the most interesting directors working in mainstream Hollywood during the '80s and '90s. No Ed Wood, Edward Scissorhands, Beetlejuice, Robocop, Total Recall, or Starship Troopers.

Steven Spielberg has seven entries in the top 100, including Jaws

Like the thread on a cheap Primark jumper, once you start pulling you can't stop, and the whole thing soon completely unravels. No Roman Polanski (not even Chinatown), Robert Altman or anything directed by Clint Eastwood. Where are Mike Nichols' The Graduate, John Ford's The Searchers and Oliver Stone's Platoon? Why no room for brilliant Brits such as Alan Clarke, John Boorman, Ken Russell, Carol Reed, Mike Leigh, Terry Gilliam, Terence Davies, Lindsay Anderson, Ken Loach, Nicolas Roeg, or Jonathan Glazer? Where the ruddy heck are Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger?

Furthermore, if you absolutely have to have two films by Edgar Wright in the 100, surely Scott Pilgrim vs The World should be one of them? And if Steven Spielberg gets to have seven entries, how come Duel and Close Encounters aren't among them but Indiana Jones And The Last Crusade is? Out of his four entries, why is Martin Scorsese's The Departed in there but the vastly superior The King Of Comedy isn't? Where are the mavericks and madmen? John Waters, Werner Herzog, Alejandro Jodorowsky, Gaspar Noé, Lars von Trier, Guy Maddin, Leos Carax? The crazy risk-takers who surprise, appal and delight whilst continuing to move the medium forward?

Perhaps most damning of all, though, is the fact that out of 100 films only one of them is directed by a woman – Sofia Coppola's Lost In Translation, in there at a lowly #94 [3]. No Kathryn Bigelow, Kelly Reichardt, Andrea Arnold, Penny Marshall, Lynne Ramsey, Celine Schiamma, Ava DuVernay, Chantal Akerman, Patty Jenkins, Amy Heckerling, Mary Harron, Jane Campion or Agnès Varda [4]. And have a guess how many black filmmakers have directed a film on Empire's list. Yes, that's right, a big fat zero with no room even for Spike Lee.

Empire readers love blockbusters - all three Lord Of The Rings movies made the list

Elsewhere, there's a disappointing lack of interest in anything pre-1970. Thirty-two movies on this list were released on or after 2000 (that's almost a third), only 13 before 1970, only nine from before 1960, only three predate 1950, and there are none from before 1940. No Wizard Of Oz, Gone With The Wind, or M. No Bringing Up Baby, Modern Times, or It Happened One Night. Even the older films that make the list are the obvious ones – Casablanca, Citizen Kane, Some Like It Hot, Psycho, It's A Wonderful Life.

As I say, I mostly have no problem with the individual films on this list, and I'm delighted to see Nicholas Winding Refn's Drive on there at #45, Studio Ghibli animation Spirited Away at #80, and a young director like Damien Chazelle getting both Whiplash and La La Land in at #57 and #62 respectively. It's the top 100 when viewed in its entirety that has given me a migraine. I'm no snarky film snob either – Jason And The Argonauts and National Lampoon's Animal House would both probably make my own personal Top 10, neither of which are exactly high-brow. But I spend a lot of time watching movies and there's always excitement when I come across something new and think, "Ooh, I wonder what that's like?" If you're a film buff or cinephile, I imagine you have much the same reaction. But there's a lack of curiosity and adventure about many of the choices here; it's all so horribly square, safe and vanilla. If this list were a colour it would be beige, if it were a band it would be Huey Lewis And The News (although American Psycho didn't make the 100 either).

Nicholas Winding Refn's Drive made it to #45 on Empire's list

With streaming services of one kind or another and a world of downloads (legal and otherwise) at your fingertips, there are no excuses for not exploring a bit. I'm not asking you to download Apichatpong Weerasethakul's entire back catalogue, or watch all seven-plus hours of Bela Tarr's Satantango, but for heaven's sake at least take a look at something other than mega-budget Hollywood fodder or cosy childhood favourites from the '80s and '90s. You're grown-ups (presumably), venture out of your comfort zone once in a while.

You might argue that Empire's list is a much-needed corrective to that of Sight & Sound, whose own greatest film survey (voted for mostly by critics once a decade) almost totally eschews modern blockbusters and popcorn movies in favour of foreign, arthouse and older works. You may even have a point, but at least with those S&S lists you get the impression the people making them watch a wide range of material, that they aren't worried about getting cooties if they slip Multiple Maniacs or Werckmeister Harmonies into their DVD player. You get the exact opposite impression from Empire's.

I subscribe to the magazine and believe it has improved a good deal in the last 18 months under a new editor. And any poll that attracts the votes of 20,000 people certainly isn't to be sniffed at. But whilst I'm sure Empire's readers are happy to call themselves film fans or even cinephiles, they really aren't anything of the sort. They love modern Hollywood movies made by white men and very little else. To paraphrase Dorothy Parker: "This is not a list to be tossed aside lightly. It should be thrown with great force."

[1] Readers of UK movie magazine Empire were invited to send in votes for their top 10 favourite films of all time earlier this year. The last time Empire polled its readers was 2014, when The Empire Strikes Back came out on top.
[2] In the poll's favour, it's worth pointing out there are more foreign directors than foreign-language movies on this list. The likes of Sergio Leone (The Good, The Bad And The Ugly #27 and Once Upon A Time In The West #52), Milos Forman (One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest #43), and Luc Besson (Leon #85) all feature but as directors of English-language films.
[3]  No, you can't make a case for the inclusion of Lily and Lana Wachowski as female directors in this case because they both still identified as male in 1999 when The Matrix (#24) was released.
[4] For an incredibly comprehensive list of films directed by women, go here.


  1. "Obvious" is an apt description. I get the feeling that a lot of these films are in the list because Empire readers feel they should be in the list, rather than because they like them on their own merits.

    And yeah, any top ten list without Robocop is bobbins.

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