When I was a kid, I remember finishing an epic TV show, book, wuxia, or anime, and thinking, “Wow, that was the most awesome story I’ve heard. If this exists, there’s probably more stuff out as amazing out there. I just have to find it.”
That idea morphed into a few goals, including a to-do list to watch the top 100 films of all time, listen to the top 100 albums of all time, and maybe even read the top 100 books of all time. And, I wanted to listen to the top 100 of all these categories through a layman’s lens, not as a critic or expert.
This bucket list of our idea stayed as something that was just something in the back of my mind that I would do maybe once I was rich and retired. I didn’t see myself having the time when I could use my productive time to build towards accomplishing life goals.
I knew occasionally, I would have couple hours of free time that I could potentially use the chip away at this dream.
Well, a couple years ago, I decided to take a more serious attempt to start chipping away at this task. I think the main reason I decided to start earlier than expected was because I did have plenty of free time, especially on weekends, and I figured if not now, when? You never know how long you live, and I find it tragic that many people die on their deathbed without having experienced most of the amazing stories and art simply for lack of trying. Chances are no one’s going to shove most of the top 100 critically acclaimed films down your throat and force you to watch them, especially given how dated some of them are.
Of course, the Covid 19 pandemic helped free up some more of my time, which is help me with this task. I was originally planning on writing this article once I had completed at least one of those top 100 list. But given how much time I have already put into it and how far still have to go, I realize that it’s probably better to give a progress update or else, I won’t be able to write the article for many years.
So, let’s start with films.
In a nutshell, some films were as boring as I expected them to be despite using my willpower to watch the whole thing. Other films were refreshingly, surprisingly awesome despite being in black-and-white or looking dated. And some films were in between.
I don’t know about you, but I believe that if you’re young, you’re going to have a hard time convincing yourself to watch something because of how old the cover or the film looks. I urge you to use some willpower and still try because sometimes, it’s worth it. For example, I found Casablanca to be a trippy, exciting, shocking, and thought-provoking thriller. It was at times was a little ridiculous but was entertaining the whole way through. Once you get over the black-and-white, you realize that good storytelling is good storytelling.
A few other films I enjoyed were One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, the Godfather, the Godfather 2, the Dark Knight, and Psycho. As you can see, I prefer something with a little bit action, plot twists, or get you thinking. Frankly, some of those I just listed required some time to grow on me. I remember ranting a bit about why everyone love the Godfather so much after watching it.
Learning About What I Like
Frankly, I think there’s a good amount of subjectivity to films. Just because most people or professionals say that the film is amazing doesn’t mean that I have to believe the same. Sure, sometimes the articles that explain why film is so good convinced me a bit. Other times, I am still not convinced, and that’s perfectly okay. It’s the audiences privilege to choose.
Simply put, the list isn’t filled with gold, at least for me. I found myself sifting through films, willing myself to watch them, and occasionally striking something pretty good. I guess tastes are different depending on the person. And sometimes, I still think that some of the more more pop-culture classics, like Terminator or Star Wars, beats some of these critically acclaimed ones.
I also find it fascinating that a lot of these stories are stories about normal humans experiencing things that normal humans have the potential of experiencing. Despite the option of offering a world of unlimited creativity and no limits to fictional films. A lot of these top-rated films don’t have superpowers, supernatural abilities, magic, science fiction, or any of that awesome stuff. It makes you wonder if, sometimes, what really matters to a compelling, entertaining story is not so much the things we can’t do but wish we could do, but relatable characters, stories, experiences, values, and struggles.
There’s a lot of gold and a heart in some of these films, so I’d encourage anyone who’s hesitant to try any of these two look around. Not every film will be a hit for you, but some just have so much heart and spirit, that’s you can relate or you admire it. Specifically, I’m thinking of gone with the wind and It’s a wonderful life as I’m writing this.
On the other hand, I often found myself googling during or after the film, “why is X film so good?” Because I just couldn’t figure out what was so amazing about it. Frankly, some of the films reminded me of English class where I was forced to read some boring, critically acclaimed the book that had these hard to decipher themes in a world that’s literally bizarre.
Citizen Kane is a thinker. But is it something that I’d write home about? Probably not. I get how the ending gets you thinking, but the whole thing was a rather boring slog. I respect the mystery and character development of an honest man of the people to the corrupt wealthy politician and its reflection on reality, but it just doesn’t speak to me as deeply as to others. Money and power can corrupt. I already know that.
Similarly, Schlindler’s List and Apocalypse Now are films I’m glad I saw. But I would no way watch Apocalpyse Now on repeat multiple times a year like some fanatics. Sure, the film covers the descent into madness when you’re part of war and the jungle. Yet I found many of the scenes disorienting and confusing, which while aligned with the theme of the film, didn’t help me follow anything that gripped me with the story.
Is it really my “fault” or my bad for not liking a movie that many other’s like? I don’t think so. And I don’t think someone needs to should have to read a bunch of facts about why a film is so amazing afterwards to be convinced a film is good. It should be within my right to make my own judgments.
Some films I believe you just need to be older and more mature to appreciate it. I re-watched Pulp Fiction, something I found too boring to get through nine years ago, and now, I can appreciate it more. I have more context to the tenseness and suspense of the situation and the guns, whereas when I was younger, I just couldn’t get the point or why everyone kept talking so much.
Frankly, I loved a lot of “fun” films more than critically acclaimed films. These films didn’t win any Academy Awards and were somewhat ridiculous, but I enjoyed them and would recommend my younger self to watch them because I just loved the action, understandable story, and the clear effort and creativity: the first six Star Wars films, Game of Thrones (first few seasons especially), The Office, Breaking Bad, The Ip Man series, Kung Fu Hustle, the first two Back to the Future films, Stranger Things, Kill Bill 1 and 2, James Bond films, and Avatar the Last Airbender.
Things I Could Do Without
What’s the deal with Citizen Kane? It’s yet another story of political corruption and power. It’s a solid film and story, but I didn’t find it groundbreaking. Perhaps, it was at the time. The enigmatic ending was a nice touch that people would debate about, but meh, it’s just another dude who had good intentions and let power corrupt him.
Raging Bull is another film that I couldn’t figure out what was so great about it despite reading articles about what makes it so great afterwards. I still see it as just a character profile of a ill-tempered, reactive rather than rational middle-of-the-pack boxer who had some wins in life and some losses. If anything, it’s a strong portrayal of many real people who just can’t achieve the happiness and success they want in life. I’d rather be entertained with some amazing story, fictional additions, or action than see a story of a someone screwing up at life.
Some people will flip out that I put Apocalypse Now on this list because there are clear fanboys on the net who will watch this film every night before bed. The film’s theme seems to be the descent into madness caused by war. I found large parts of the film bizarre, confusing, and strange. If it more directly showed the horrors that people experienced in real-time that lead to the madness, I would’ve maybe enjoyed it more. Instead, it focused on finding someone who had already descending into that craziness deep in a jungle.
I know I’m probably missing some artistic or production-level beauty of the film, but it just goes to show that there’s different opinions about films. And I don’t think it’s fair to expect most of the general public who sees a film to have a deep background on the subtleties of film because they don’t. The general public don’t have that and their love of a film should be natural and obvious.
Middle of the Pack Films (Not Bad, Not Astounding)
Rocky – I know, it’s a classic, and maybe worth the watch. And maybe everyone should watch it before they die. It’s not a bad movie. But is it something to write home to mom about? No. I was rather underwhelmed. It was worth watching once, but not again. Perhaps there’s just so much pop culture reference to it that I could’ve figured out most of the “boxer” film before watching it. Mad props to Sly Stallone for making and fighting for this film though; it got home out of homelessness.
Jaws – I guess I had such high expectations. It’s such a pop culture phenomenon and likely the first of its kind. Mad respect for the director and story yet the thrill, danger, and fear of the shark seemed less than I desired.
2001: A Space Odyssey seemed right down my alley. I love a great sci-fi film. This one turned out to be a lot more confusing, mysterious, vague, and philosophical than expected. One person told me he disliked the film because of how weird it was. However, I give it credit. The film references something more intelligent and on a higher plane or dimension than humanity, which could be out there. It paved the way for films like Contact, Interstellar, and Arrival (I would rate them in that order) to do something similar. Yet it gets too vague and confusing while concluding with a somewhat simplistic view of extraterrestrial life.
Worth A Watch
By the time I watched Casablanca, I realized I enjoyed film noir movies. They seemed a little cheesy and ridiculous at first, but I like that. It’s always a black and while setting with the main character being this strong, savvy male detective type. And it always ends with a little philosophical pan out into the sky and some inspiring ending.
If you like thrillers with plot twists, politics, and some sci fi involving the American election, check out Manchurian Candidate. It gets enough pop culture references (even in Avengers) that you know it’s decent.
Critically Acclaimed Films I Did Respect
While some of films were lost on me because maybe I’m from a different time and don’t understand how groundbreaking the filmography or story was at the time, some acclaimed films still left a solid mark on me.
Lawrence of Arabia comes to mind. Two things that stick out to me is that the crazy story is based on a real person’s life and the wondrous, visual landscapes depicted in the film are still hard to match with modern films.
A large group of films that fit into this category are what I call “thinkers” because they make me think afterwards or deal strong emotions, even if those emotions aren’t always pleasant ones. Chinatown was a mystery drama that caused me a lot of anguish because of the injustices dealt during the ending and got me thinking about whether people of power in the real world get away with atrocious things.
The name of the film and the expectations I had around the name ended up being completely different from what the film was actually about. Chinatown was barely mentioned in the film and served mostly as symbolism for things that you just can’t solve and where hope goes to die.
Another thinker was One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, which coincidentally also features Jack Nicholson as the lead. At first glance, it seemed too much like a book you’re supposed to read in English class. But then, you start to realize how well they tell the story, how good the acting was throughout, how almost every character had a role, and the meaning of the shocking ending. Honestly, this was one of those where I was still somewhat confused and had to look it up online, but you get a deeper respect for it after thinking about it more.
Thankfully, Vertigo and Psycho made it easy for me to enjoy them. I expected some deep, confusing, boring story partially because of my experience and because they were old films. But they were fun, obvious thrillers with amazing twists. Psycho pulls you in immediately with a young woman on the run with a lot of money in the pouring rain.
Gone with the Wind and It’s A Wonderful Life just have so much heart, soul, American spirit, and kindness that you can’t help but to take something away from it. I like It’s A Wonderful Life better myself, but that’s just me.
Took Some Time, But I Get It Now
Some films took me some time to get. I admit I didn’t understand why The Godfather topped greatest film of all time lists after I saw it. But after watching the sequels and letting it sink in, I will give it some credit. I don’t know if I’d rate it best of all time, but it’s a solid film. From my layman’s perspective, I believe the series portrays gangsters and their livelihood more accurately than other films and it shows how the culture sucks people into it.
Goodfellas does a great job as well. If anything, it does a better job at showing how hot-headed, emotionally reactive, corrupt, and reactive some gangsters of the past can be. The History Buffs YouTube channel did a great job explaining to me how good the film is, so I have to give credit.
On Fear of Missing Out
There is a small part of me that has always had a sense that I’ve missed out on American pop culture. Perhaps, this fear came from the fact that my Chinese parents prioritize schoolwork above most of the things, which meant I spent less time watching TV, going to movies, and playing video games then the average American Or at least that’s what I perceived.
Therefore, I had the sense that I generally didn’t get as many pop culture references to big films or TV shows as the average person when they’re brought up. But after catching up and seeing so many as an adult, I realized that I really didn’t miss out on anything or much at all. A lot of the big films on the list I had already seen. It turns out I had more free time than I gave myself credit for. I let this story that I told myself consume my perception. In reality, I had already seen Star Wars, Indiana Jones, inception, the dark Knight, Harry Potter, and many of the other films that people talk about. Sure, there were a few films skewered there that I had to catch up watching. But they weren’t really that impactful to my day-to-day and I really don’t feel like I’m “more of the game” if it does come up in conversation, which is actually pretty rare. Pulp Fiction, Ferris Bueller’s day off, Bill and Ted’s excellent adventure, and 2001 space Odyssey are films that are decent and worth watching at least once. But I personally wouldn’t write home about them.
Basically, I don’t think I missed out as much as I made myself think. And I may have over dramatizing my head how bad it is when I don’t get some reference to some popular TV show or film at the time. It may seem like I’m missing out a lot, but now that I’ve watched them, it really is not a big deal, even when they are brought up in conversation. And frankly, the more people I meet in life, the more I find who are my age and still haven’t seen Star Wars or Harry Potter or Lord of the rings. And they don’t have an Asian upbringing, they just never want to because the never wanted to, never had the opportunity, or their parents didn’t want them to. And they turned out just fine as well. In my sentiment towards them is not that they’re missing out, or beneath me, or not part of the crowd, like I had pictured in my head, but instead, it’s just that it is a fine piece of story and art that I think they would appreciate if they ever get the free time.
Oh, and the sequels to these big films are usually just not as good. After watching the second Ghostbusters, the second bill intended venture, and the third back to the future, you realize that they do exist, they just weren’t good enough for people to remember. People bemoaned the modern reboots and forget that they actually did trying to do a sequel, they just didn’t end well.
As far as TV shows and films that were worth watching and were worth writing home about, Game of thrones, Breaking Bad, and Groundhog Day top the list. Most people I meet whining complain about how horrible game of thrones is because of the last season. I don’t think just because the last season’s bad makes the entire show and the seasons before bed. Plus, you’re bound to miss the mark when you start to divert from the source material. I thought it was well executed and the last season doesn’t make the whole thing horrible.
The Best of All Time
Maybe everyone’s list is different, which makes “lists” less effective. Or maybe those lists have gotten outdated. I’m not sure. But I have a few that I want to shout from the rooftops about how amazing they are. Maybe I’m wrong too since I have a subjective experience, but nonetheless here they are.
Amadeus – I saw this when I was young, and I’ve rewatched it. Perhaps I’m biased because of my experience competing in piano and understanding the complexity of classical music, but it truly shows the brilliance of Mozart. The acting is top notch.
Forrest Gump – I can’t remember how many times I’ve seen this now. It’s such a strong, amazing, ridiculous story that at its center is about having pure intentions, heart, and hard work push through disabilities and disadvantages that life throws you. It’s flawless. It’s funny, it touches on various American historical moments, and it’s Jack Ma’s favorite film. It reminds me a lot about one of China’s most famous wuxia series Legend of the Condor Heroes whose main character is also mentally slow but ends up defeating many cunning, stronger individuals through his good heart and friendships.
Not Exactly For Me, But Others Would Like
If you love musicals, dancing, or love stories, West Side Story is for you. I enjoyed the story and dancing, but it was a little too cutesy and over-the-top with the dancing. I’d describe it as a New York version of Romeo and Juliet.
The Sound of Music is another film I’ve seen a few times. It’s a musical with some memorable songs. Yet it has a story with a lot of heart. At the core of many of these great stories comes down to humans doing the right thing for other humans, whether that’s for children, their lovers, or friends, even if it costs themselves a little. And that’s why I think these old classic films do so well.
Themes That Don’t Keep Up With The Times
I felt disturbed from some seeing some clearly unwanted sexual advances in some films. These scenes often involved the man forcing themselves onto a protesting women. I don’t believe those scenes would’ve been appropriate if they were released in these modern times. The old James Bond films, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, and Gone With the Wind have these scenes. That said, to be fair, there’s usually some existing romantic interest on both ends, the men are handsome, well dressed, athletic, and charming, and they don’t fight back for that long.
So, I haven’t finished all 100 … yet. But I learned that it’s worth giving some movies a chance even if they look boring. And I learned that some movies actually aren’t entertaining for me even if they’re critically acclaimed. It’s a mixed bag, and I no longer have a completionist goal in mind.