Watching any film comes with opportunity costs. Why watch movie X instead of movie Y? How to decide? Seeking out the opinion of like-minded cinephiles might help. Roger Ebert was one of my first guides in cinema. I used his Great Movies as a compass. Since then, I learned a lot about my taste; like an adult who is financially independent of his parent’s/guardian’s financial support, I am no longer dependent on Ebert’s guidance. Years ago I composed my own list, and I’d like to share its “Why?”; its raison-d’exister.
Twodark’s Canon is a list of movies on Letterboxd. It resulted from 1,240 hours spent watching 893 short and feature films. The canon went through various editions. The most recent version that will be discussed in this post is archived here (with minor edits). The films will be referred to by their title or boldfaced rank in the archived list (eg 1 refers to La double vie de Véronique). I use the Letterboxd (LB)/TMDB film data unless otherwise specified.
Even though 1,240 hours may seem a lot, I only know a little bit about US and French cinema—and much less about the cinema of any other country. I have watched 41% from the Top 100 US Films Poll by the Super Champion Film Zone (an online cinephile community; SCFZ abbreviated), and 44% from SCFZ’s Top 100 French Films Poll. Though the SCFZ polls are nothing close to authoritative, I consider them a useful benchmark by virtue of the often-substantial cinematic knowledge of its voters.
Furthermore, I have only seen French films subtitled in English as I’m not conversant in French; I also must have missed countless literary and non-literary references, as my understanding of French culture is deficient. What then is my justification for composing a list of movies? My purpose is to share a certain sensibility and understanding with those who have a similar taste in movies, by touching upon the works of a variety of directors (1920s–2010s); I couldn’t have developed my taste without others having articulated their sensibility on Letterboxd and elsewhere.
The Canon’s Structure
The canon follows some rules, none of them strict: (a) one entry per director, (b) fundamentals listed first, (c) entries should reflect my taste, (d) balance between old and new films, (e) focus on feature-length films, (f) canon fully watched.
The first two films, La double vie de Véronique (1991) and Dekalog, jeden (1989) are by the same director, Krzysztof Kieślowski. Why? I found the films from the Dekalog (1989) decalogy significant enough to break (a) in favor of (b). For aesthetic reasons, I chose to position the Dekalogs second in each of the first ten five-movie wide rows.
The fourth and fifth film, both belonging to the Ningen no Jôken trilogy (1959-1961), are by the same director, Masaki Kobayashi. Why? The first five non-Dekalog films (1, 3-6; not counting Dekalog, jeden) are my “favorites,” and not subject to (a). Out 1, noli me tangere (1971) is the second film by Rivette after Céline et Julie vont en bateau (1974), but was co-directed by Schiffman; similarly, Werckmeister harmóniák (2000) was co-directed by Hranitzky (not credited on LB), leaving Sátántangó (1994) for Tarr’s entry.
Films 8-11, and 13 are US/USSR classics; films from superpowers (13) and superpowers-in-the-making (8, 9, 10, 11); I found these films invaluable in understanding the potential of motion pictures (Александр Невский seems particularly underrated; I’d recommend Esther Bensadon’s essay for those familiar with Eisenstein’s 1938 masterpiece). Films 14-16, 18-19 have outstanding directors: Bresson, Dreyer, Bergman, Mizoguchi, and Antonioni (I used an algorithm to arrive at these directors, but have forgotten the specifics); films 20-21, 23-25 stand out in quality; films 26, 28-29 draw on the Bresson-Antonioni heritage—among a plethora of other cinematic and non-cinematic influences. Films 30-31, 33-36, 38-41, 43-46, 48-50 (together with 14, 19) chronicle a fragment of French-Italian cinema in the pseudo-arbitrary period of 1937-1973, and 1980s (49, 50); similarly, films 51-57 (with 10-11) cover a smidgen of 1923-1950 US film. The remaining films are (roughly) sorted chronologically. Aggregately, the canon contains 16% of feature films I watched and 0.7% of short films I watched.
Choices in Composition
- La double vie de Véronique instead of Trois couleurs : Rouge (1994) and Trois couleurs : Bleu (1993). (Quiz: which of these movies passes the Reverse Bechdel, if any?) As quoted from a review I wrote:
Kieślowski ’s masterpiece really stands out for me kindness-wise, gentleness-wise, childlike-wise, acceptance-wise, compassion-wise, magic-wise, love-wise and otherwise-wise (…).
This film (…) has the heart of a blue whale.
The Three Colors trilogy is close to my heart. Yet Véronique is more intuitive, more ethereal.
- Song to Song (2017) instead of Malick’s earlier work: Days of Heaven (1978), Badlands (1973), The Thin Red Line (1998). Malick’s post-Tree of Life work is significantly underrated—not unlike the Godards after Pierrot Le Fou (1965). Song to Song is dense, exhilarating, subversive, excellent.
- No Welles, Scorsese, Hawks, etc. The canon is not meant to be comprehensive (see They Shoot Pictures Don’t They (TSPDT) for some notorious films and directors). I lack knowledge about some directors. Some movies didn’t make the cut after correcting for rule (d). The balance I try to maintain is approximately 4-6-7-12-17-15-13-11-10-5* (1920s-2010s): each integer indicates the ideal number of movies for that decade out of a hundred movies; the 2010s are hard to call, but should contain at least five entries). I came to this distribution by analyzing the distribution of critically acclaimed films over the decades.
- Only two short movies appear on the list: La Jetée (1962) and Le Ballon Rouge (1956). Other shorts are listed in a separate less selective list, Twodark’s Canon of Shorts.
A beacon is meant to guide near-by ships, not ships far away. My canon is meant to guide people with similar taste in film. The films 35, 38, 1, 3, and the 4-6 trilogy belong to the 1% of short and feature-length films I watched. Percentages aside, most entries open up a window to a director’s world, not only to one film—some worlds well-known, like Hitchcock’s, others not so much, like Monteiro’s.