My friend the architect Colin Fraser Wishart says that the purpose of his craft is to help people live better. There’s beautiful simplicity, but also enormous gravity in that statement. Just imagine if every public building, city park, urban transportation hub, and home were constructed with the flourishing of humanity - in community or solitude - in mind. Sometimes this is already the case, and we know it when we see it. Our minds and hearts feel more free, we breathe more easily, we are inspired to create things - whether they be new thoughts of something hopeful, or friendships with strangers, or projects that will bring the energy of transformation yet still into the lives of others. If architecture, manifested at its highest purpose, helps us live better, then it is also easy to spot architecture that is divorced from this purpose. In our internal impressions of a building or other space made to function purely within the boundaries of current economic mythology - especially buildings made to house the so-called “making” of money - the color of hope only rarely reveals itself. Instead we are touched by melancholy, weighed down by drudgery, even compelled by the urge to get away. But when we see the shaping of a space whose stewards seem to have known that human kindness is more important than the free market, that poetry and breathing matter beyond bank balances and competition (a concert hall designed for the purest reflection of sound, a playground where the toys blend in with the trees, a train station where the transition from one place and way of being to another has been honored as a spiritual act), we know that it is possible to always be coming home.
This is not just true for architecture, but for all art; all human endeavor, actually. So when occasions arise to speak to the well-worn question of the greatest movies ever made, my criteria may differ from the dominant wisdom in the film critic community. One of these occasions arose recently with the BBC’s poll of the greatest American films. This poll suffers from the same problem as so many of its siblings: a lack of both ambition and imagination. First of all, such polls frequently produce the same results, especially around the top ten, which is both natural, as some films will always be seen by more people than others, and there’s a self-selecting bias toward films that already have the reputation of being ‘great’ as those will be the ones most recommended, and therefore most seen again. And second of all, ‘greatest’ is such a reductionist term - these days limited to evoking, basically, a notion of middle-brow acceptability, mingled - possibly - with a dose of trying to make sure that I vote for some of the films that everyone is supposed to vote for. But instead of ‘greatest’, what about ‘most humane’ or ‘transformative’ or ‘courageous’? What about ‘films that made me laugh to the point of tears as I felt more part of the human race’, or ‘films that led to healing social change’, or ‘films that made me want to grow up’?
In case some may say that this fails to account for the aesthetics and technical craft of filmmaking, let me aim to be clear:
For me, it’s simple: the purpose of cinema - as an art-form, and as a communal and individual experience - is to help us live better.
The best films help us understand more of who we are, and how to transcend our brokenness without excluding our shadows. My definition of a great film?
A great film is what results when humane wisdom and grace, and technical and aesthetic craft operating at their highest frequencies kiss each other.
I’ll soon be publishing the first draft of a ‘living list’ (which means it will be periodically revised) of the 100 or so films I felt most alive after seeing, have most helped me live better, and that I’d like to see again. For now, I hope you’ll consider joining me at the Movies & Meaning annual gathering, next March 17-20 in Albuquerque, NM, where art that helps us live better will be experienced in the glorious surroundings of the 650 seat KiMo theater, built pueblo-deco style in 1927, and one of the best places in the world to watch films. Tickets will be available soon. Subscribe to the Movies & Meaning newsletter for more information, and I look forward to seeing you there.