What's the best movie you've ever seen? Now: what's your favorite?
If you were to ask me about the best movie I've ever seen, my off-the-cuff response would be Citizen Kane. I've seen Citizen Kane upwards of a dozen times, and I've enjoyed it immensely each time. That's the mark of a great movie. Same goes for The Silence of the Lambs, another strong candidate for "best movie I've ever seen." But my favorite? That's a whole other story.
Suppose for the sake of discussion we were to define a person's "favorite movie" as the movie he or she would be interested in watching the greatest number of times. In that case, I've seen The Empire Strikes Back over a hundred times all the way through in my life, and I'm probably down for a few more. The Empire Strikes Back is by far my favorite movie. Other finalists include Aliens, Jurassic Park, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and the original Star Wars, each of which I've seen dozens of times and will likely watch again.
At the end of each year, we're often asked which pieces of entertainment we enjoyed most from that year. Our responses often depend on which way the question is asked. What was the best movie I saw last year? Keep in mind I haven't seen Oscar winner 12 Years a Slave yet, but the best film I saw in 2013 was probably Captain Phillips. I was really impressed by it. But my favorite movie last year, meaning the one I've seen the most times? There wasn't a single movie I saw twice in the theater (kind of unusual for me), but I ran out and bought Frozen the first day I could. My wife and I loved that picture, and I think it's a safe bet it'll be remembered as our favorite movie of 2013. It did win Best Animated Feature (and Best Song) at the Oscars, but was it nominated for Best Picture? Not even close.
I thought about that this morning as Frozen kept getting mentioned on Facebook. Frozen was the #3 box office hit of last year, and it's still making money in theaters even as people snap up the Blu-ray and DVD releases. The highest-earning Best Picture nominee was Gravity, at #6. Below that, American Hustle was way down at #17, The Wolf of Wall Street at #28, Captain Phillips at #32. To find 12 Years a Slave, you'd have to go all the way down to #62. What we love and what we respect are often two different things.
So I tried something. I listed all the years from 1927 to 2013, the years for which the Academy has named Best Pictures. Then I pulled up the IMDB Top 250, which charts IMDB users' rankings of the movies they most admire. Best? Favorite? I guess it's a little of both. For each year, I listed the highest-IMDB-ranking movie for that year. If a given year had more than one such movie in the Top 50, as often happened in the 1990s (there are a lot of thirtysomething IMDB users), I listed all of those in order and separated them with single dashes (/).
Since many years contributed zero movies to the IMDB Top 250, I typed "NONE" in their spaces. Then I looked at the top 200 box-office successes, adjusted for inflation. If the biggest hits for a given year weren't already on the list, I added them after a double dash (//).
One thing we learn from compiling a list like this is that some years (1939, for example) were much better movie years than others (I'm looking at you, 1970). You also learn people didn't spend a great deal of money on movies throughout the 1930s, Snow White notwithstanding. I've read many times that King Kong was a massive success in its day, for example, but it turns out it was only the third-biggest hit of 1933.
If a given year was still blank, I typed a triple dash (///) and looked up the biggest hit for that year. That happened a lot from 1928 to 1938. I can certainly understand why people didn't have a lot of disposable income back then...but seriously, why were the movies so damn bad?
Finally, I marked a movie "(N)" if it was nominated for Best Picture, and "(W)" if it won. Here's the completed list:
1928: NONE /// The Singing Fool
1929: NONE /// Gold Diggers of Broadway
1930: NONE /// All Quiet on the Western Front (W)
1931: City Lights
1932: NONE /// Shanghai Express (N)
1933: NONE /// Queen Christina
1934: It Happened One Night (W)
1935: NONE /// Mutiny on the Bounty (W)
1936: Modern Times
1937: NONE // Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs
1938: NONE /// Alexander’s Ragtime Band (N)
1939: Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (N) / Gone With the Wind (W) / The Wizard of Oz (N)
1940: The Great Dictator (N) // Pinocchio
1941: Citizen Kane (N) // Fantasia
1942: Casablanca // Bambi
1943: NONE /// For Whom the Bell Tolls (N)
1944: Double Indemnity (N)
1945: NONE // The Bells of St. Mary’s (N)
1946: It’s a Wonderful Life (N)
1947: NONE /// Unconquered
1948: Bicycle Thieves
1949: The Third Man
1950: Sunset Boulevard (N)
1951: Strangers on a Train
1952: Singin’ in the Rain
1953: Roman Holiday (N) // The Robe (N)
1954: Seven Samurai / Rear Window
1956: The Killing // The Ten Commandments (N) / Around the World in 80 Days (W)
1957: 12 Angry Men (N)
1959: North by Northwest // Ben-Hur (W) / Sleeping Beauty
1961: Yojimbo // 101 Dalmatians
1962: To Kill a Mockingbird (N)
1963: The Great Escape // Cleopatra (N)
1964: Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (N) // Mary Poppins (N) / Goldfinger
1965: For a Few Dollars More // The Sound of Music (W) / Doctor Zhivago (N) / Thunderball
1966: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly
1967: Cool Hand Luke // The Graduate (N) / Jungle Book
1968: Once Upon a Time in the West
1969: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (N)
1970: NONE // Love Story (N) / Airport (N)
1971: A Clockwork Orange (N)
1972: The Godfather (W)
1973: The Sting (W) // The Exorcist (N) / American Graffiti (N)
1974: The Godfather, Part II (W) // Blazing Saddles
1975: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (W) // Jaws (N)
1976: Taxi Driver (N) / Rocky (W)
1977: Star Wars, Episode IV: A New Hope (N)
1978: The Deer Hunter (W) // Grease
1979: Apocalypse Now (N) / Alien
1980: Star Wars, Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back
1981: Raiders of the Lost Ark (N)
1982: Blade Runner // E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (N)
1983: Star Wars, Episode VI: Return of the Jedi
1984: Once Upon a Time in America // Ghostbusters / Beverly Hills Cop
1985: Back to the Future
1987: Full Metal Jacket
1988: Cinema Paradiso
1989: Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade // Batman
1990: Goodfellas (N) // Home Alone
1991: The Silence of the Lambs (W) / Terminator 2: Judgment Day
1992: Reservoir Dogs
1993: Schindler’s List (W) // Jurassic Park
1994: The Shawshank Redemption (N) / Pulp Fiction (N) / Forrest Gump (W) / Léon: The Professional // The Lion King
1995: Se7en / The Usual Suspects
1996: Fargo (N) // Independence Day
1997: Life Is Beautiful // Titanic (W)
1998: American History X / Saving Private Ryan (N)
1999: Fight Club / The Matrix / The Green Mile (N) // Star Wars, Episode I: The Phantom Menace
2000: Memento / Gladiator (W)
2001: The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (N) / Spirited Away
2002: The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (N) / City of God / The Pianist (N) // Spider-Man
2003: The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (W)
2004: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind // Shrek 2
2005: Batman Begins
2006: The Departed (W) // Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest
2007: Like Stars on Earth (Indian)
2008: The Dark Knight
2009: Inglourious Basterds (N) // Avatar (N)
2010: Inception (N)
2011: The Intouchables (French)
2012: The Dark Knight Rises // Marvel’s The Avengers
2013: The Wolf of Wall Street (N)
I went to all this trouble in the hope that your favorite movie of all time is on that list somewhere. Did it work? If so, did your favorite win Best Picture that year? Probably not. Was it a huge box office success? Maybe, but not necessarily. According to IMDB users, The Shawshank Redemption is the greatest movie ever made--an assessment that leaves me baffled, honestly--but it isn't one of the thousand biggest box office hits of all time, even before inflationary adjustment. It made a mere $28.3 million in its domestic run. Even the Robocop reboot made more than that, and it's probably terrible.
There's a disconnect here. A lot of IMDB users are about my age, so of course we contributed our favorite 1980s movies to the Top 250 list. Yet the Academy didn't like our favorite movies, so huge box office hits like Empire or Back to the Future weren't even nominated. Should they have been? You tell me. If our collectively favorite movie of 2013 was Frozen, didn't it deserve a nomination? One could argue that many box office hits (Independence Day or The Phantom Menace, for example) are so bad it proves we have awful taste and should listen to the Academy, but Frozen is a really well-made movie with terrific songs, strong performances, jaw-dropping production designs, and one hell of a third-act plot/thematic twist. I submit to you that it deserved to be a nominee. It's just hard for Academy voters to take animated films seriously, a problem they've also had with comedy, fantasy, horror, and science fiction. Romantic comedies sometimes get a pass.
This becomes especially relevant as stage troupes plan their upcoming seasons, which many are in the process of doing right now. If you ask people at the end of a season to choose the finest play they saw, it's usually a well-acted drama. But if you ask them which show they're most excited about from the upcoming season, it's usually a musical. And if you ask specifically, "What was your favorite play from last year," then the answer will often be a comedy. That's why it's so important for theaters to select plays from each category. It's also important they pick scripts you may never have heard of, because most people pay little attention to new dramatic plays. Furthermore, once you've found a theater you like, it's vital that you trust that company's play selection committee and artistic director. Go see their picks even if they're obscure or sound "weird." Live a little. I mean, how attractive a title is Frozen? A cartoon about two sisters who can't interact, set in frigid Scandinavia...ugh, right? Sometimes, our favorite entertainment comes clean out of nowhere.
What's the best movie you saw last year? If it was an Oscar nominee, there's a strong chance you'll never, ever sit down and watch it again. But your favorite movie? In many homes, your kids are watching it even as we speak.