Ian Haydn Smith on Compiling a Compendium of Must-See Movies

Film journalist and critic Ian Haydn Smith presents Barron’s seventh edition of the celebrated 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die collection of classic, popular, and influential movies throughout history

What is your selection process?

The original list was compiled by ­Steven Jay Schneider, who has since gone on to become a successful film producer. I can imagine drawing up the original list must have been both fun and frustrating. There are films that would clearly make it onto the list with little thought. Most people could name 100—perhaps even 500—films that deserved to be on the list. After that it can get tricky. It can become too subjective. At the same time, there need to be the “controversial” choices that get people talking.

My initial role in replacing Schneider was to update each annual edition. However, I recently oversaw a more comprehensive update of the book, going back to cinema’s early years and deciding what should be removed and added. [As with] the original selection, the aim of this updated list is to achieve the best balance of critically acclaimed features, popular favorites, and guilty pleasures.

How do you decide what details to include in the descriptions of the films?

It’s not simply describing why a film is good. It’s identifying the specific qualities that warrant its inclusion with the other 1,000 titles. Some films’ place might be guaranteed (Citizen Kane; Vertigo; Jaws), but each contributor’s job is to argue for that film, highlighting what makes it unique or important.

Some films can be problematic. Styles of filmmaking have changed over the years, so a title might require some context to justify its presence. With other titles, certain political, social, or moral viewpoints have become unfashionable, anachronistic, or—in a small number of cases—reprehensible. The recent furor over a public screening in the United States of Gone with the Wind is a good example. We may no longer identify with attitudes presented in that film, but its place in the history of American cinema—for good or bad—is unquestionable. By including it, we can highlight what’s wrong with the film as well as what’s so impressive about it.

How important is having a balanced array of films?

America’s place in film history—particularly tech­nological advances that date back to Thomas Edison—is unquestionable. But to focus solely on American film would be myopic. The cinemas of France, Japan, India, Italy, China, the UK, and so many other countries have all made significant contributions to the development of film. And they have produced some of the greatest filmmakers.

As well as being a celebration of cinema, 1001 Movies also charts a time line of how the medium has developed and the links between films past and present. Paul Thomas Anderson (There Will Be Blood) makes the films he does because he immersed himself in the work of Jean Renoir (The Rules of the Game; Grand Illusion) and Robert Altman (M*A*S*H; Nashville; Short Cuts).

Are the films ranked by significance?

The list is chronological, and the approach is egalitarian—critically acclaimed films rank alongside popular ones, not above them. A good example is The Shawshank Redemption. It never appears high—if at all—on critics’ lists. But it remains one of the most popular films of the last 25 years, and so it has a place among the 1,001 films.

What has changed since the first edition?

Each edition features a number of changes. These tend to be recent films—both removals and additions. One year’s classic might, in the space of 12 months, [no longer] seem the unique film it initially appeared to be. Or it has been surpassed by a subsequent release. This is particularly true when it comes to films that feature cutting-edge effects. What hasn’t changed, however, is the importance of storytelling. No amount of effects or techniques can compensate for a screenplay that has nothing to say.

What has the reader response been?

I regularly receive letters or emails from readers. Some are happy that a favorite film has been included. Others wonder why another film wasn’t (they make up the majority). Readers have also compiled their own lists. One woman even accused us of sabotaging her marriage because of her husband’s obsessive quest to watch every one of the films listed.

Mahnaz Dar About Mahnaz Dar

Mahnaz Dar (mdar@mediasourceinc.com) is an Associate Editor for School Library Journal, and can be found on Twitter @DibblyFresh.

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