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The 1001 Movies You'll Never See Before You Die (and That's OK)

By Daniel Carlson | Think Pieces | January 15, 2014 | Comments ()


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1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die. 1000 films to see before you die. 100 Movies You Need to See Before You Die. 50 Films to See Before You Die. On and on. I haven’t even gotten to the genre breakdowns, either: action, sci-fi, horror, cult. They pile up like dunes, each film a single grain, and it’s maddening to think of them all heaped there, waiting to be watched, pressing upon you, that mountain of things you absolutely positively must do before your body gives out.

For the past few years, I’ve kept track of how many movies I’ve watched each year. I don’t count films I’ve seen before, or those I didn’t watch all the way through, but if it’s new to me, it goes in the books. In 2011, that added up to 79 movies, with another 68 in 2012. Sometime during 2013, though, I arbitrarily decided to see if I could make it to 100, and thanks to the end-of-year rush, I actually went just past that mark, winding up at 104. Every year, I’ve enjoyed tallying the films I’ve seen, but over the past couple weeks, I’ve felt a little bloated from the way I gorged myself on movies in November and December. Sometimes I was excited to see a movie, and sometimes I was screening something in a professional capacity. But other times I was just plowing through available titles, figuring each time that I had a couple hours to kill and I might as well add something else to the list so I could be sure to crack triple digits by New Year’s. I was a man working at a task, as if I were laying brick or doing homework, anything but sitting back to watch a movie. I loved so many of the movies I saw last year — I was finally able, for instance, to catch up with classics like The Lady Vanishes and Rebecca — but something about the way I was consuming them as I came in sight of the finish line has me uneasy. Hell, the idea of a finish line in general can’t be good. I haven’t watched any movies in a couple weeks. Aside from TV shows on Netflix and Hulu, I haven’t watched much of anything.

What started as a fun way to remember the movies I watched each year started to turn — if just a little — into a contest of consumption for its own sake. Instead of seeking out something I’d always meant to see, I was approaching the task with a self-created and self-directed pressure, not unlike the breathless, commanding tone behind a list of movies you “must see before you die.” Because what else is such a command but a threat? It says that your own taste and motivation aren’t enough, and that time’s been running out since before you knew there was a clock. You must see these things. You must. You just have to.

But we can’t. We can never see it all. Even the kindest of actuarial tables will have us all passing away long before we can hope to see every movie that’s thrust into our hands. There’s a century of history to draw from, domestically and internationally, with more coming every day. And what about other art forms? The books we “must” read, the music we “must” hear? Those titles are out there, but it’s a fool’s dream to think we can experience them all. There’s no hope of spending time with a work, of sitting with it and growing with it and figuring out how it moves with you, if the goal is simply abstract collection. There’s too much. I pray to the God I believe in that I had decades left ahead of me, and even as I think of what those years might bring, I know that there will be movies and stories and songs I’ll miss. I won’t want to, but I also won’t have a choice.

Books and lists like that invoke death in their titles, but they’re actually our way of denying death. By pretending that we can somehow see everything we “must” see, we tell ourselves that we can live lives that can be considered complete, full, as packed with the human experience as possible. We turn engagement with art into a series of boxes to be checked and medals to be awarded to ourselves, forgetting again that aesthetic experiences are autobiographical. Watching movies, reading books, etc. — we all come to different works at different ages, and the order and manner in which we find those works is part of what makes us who we are. There’s no such thing as “late to the party,” or “How come you haven’t seen that movie yet?” or anything else. There’s only the openness, the willingness, to try something new. By embracing an ideology that assumes we can somehow complete that quest, we get to ignore the uncomfortable fact that, yes, we will die, and on those deathbeds we might have regrets. And not just about the movies we never made time for, or the books we never put on our shelves. There could very well be a whole host of things we miss.

I don’t want my love of movies and desire to discover them to metastasize into a compulsion that can never make a forest from the trees, nor that makes me think I can somehow, some day, finally see it all. I want to keep exploring genres and eras and nationalities because I love the promise of film, and I think the medium’s power as an art form for showing us who we are and who we wish we were is limitless. But I, myself, have limits. No matter how hard I try, masterpieces will slip by me. And rather than mourn the ones I missed — or tell myself I failed by missing them — I’d like to try and take comfort in those I found.

Daniel Carlson is the managing editor of Pajiba and a member of the Houston Film Critics Society and the Online Film Critics Society. You can also find him on Twitter.







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Comments Are Welcome, Bigots and Trolls Are Not


  • ellie

    I made my own list of films that I want to see, that I add to every time I think of another one. That way I don't watch something that I know I won't enjoy and I still manage to watch a steady number of great films because I love the satisfaction of crossing one off the list.

  • Three_nineteen

    Those lists are great as a reference or guide, especially for older movies that don't get a lot of recognition anymore. If it weren't for my copy of 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die, I probably never would have heard of, let alone watched, Ikiru. It's fun to go through those lists, tally up the ones I've seen, and put some that I haven't in my Netflix queue.

  • Ryan Ambrose

    As a person who loves films and cinema, I can relate to the feeling of missing out a potential gem or an obscure masterpiece — due to lack of time or awareness and the enormity of available genres, sub-genres and eras to choose from — instead of taking comfort in having seen many great ones.

    Great piece, Dan.

  • Sara_Tonin00

    I have to say, only 2 weeks in to my first attempt, this a little bit how I feel about Cannonball Read. (the rest of me thinks, something that make me step away from the laptop/tv and put my nose in a book outside of commuter hours is a good thing)

  • Yossarian

    Same here. I'm happy to be a Cannonball cheerleader and more power to those who find that it helps them read more, but I really didn't like he way I was reading when I was reading to meet a Cannonball goal.

  • I read on average between 15-20 books a year. I met the half cannonball once and that was enough because I had to be more strategic in what I was reading. Now I just do it to honor Alabama Pink and to motivate me to write up the books I do read. I don't have the time to read 52 books a year so I don't feel the pressure to try. The important thing is to read, that's the goal. Everything else is personal preference.

    I think the race aspect is a bit detrimental actually because there is a glut of YA clones on CBR that probably wouldn't be getting aired out if they weren't easy to finish in a couple days.

  • Sara_Tonin00

    I set myself the reasonable goal of 26 books - which is less than I typically read in a year, but this includes reviewing and that's more what the challenge is about for me personally. But I saw someone post review #12 the other day and I was like wtf?! What I don't want is to opt out of the longer books on my shelves because a 500 page book counts as much as a 200 page book, and a crappy book counts as much as a good one. I'm surprised by how quickly I felt the (self-imposed) pressure though.

  • bonnie

    I'm totally with you on that. Last year was my first Cannonball, and I just had to learn to tell myself, "Numbers be damned," and just enjoy reading what I wanted to read. No crappy serials for me. I just started David Kirby's "Death at Sea World." It's going to take weeks, but who cares? I am enjoying it so much right now.

  • Well said. I gave up on the race aspect of it pretty quickly, because a) it's hardly a "race" unless we're all reading the same thing, which would be boring as hell, and b) it seems to defeat the purpose of reading in general. I take nothing away from those chalking up reviews at a lightning pace - they're probably better managers of their time than I am, so good on'em - but I will be quite content to finish my 52-book pledge this year, earn a bit of coin for Lil' Pink's college fund, and come out reading 40 more (non-work-related) books than I have since I was a kid.

  • AvaLehra

    As far as movie viewing goes, I've seen Bubba Ho Tep so I think I can go ahead and die peacefully now...

  • Donna SHerman

    This is possibly my favourite thing you've ever written, Dan, and I love a LOT of your stuff.

  • PDamian

    Me, too. Lovely essay.

  • There's some movies I'm sure people have never seen but they know of them through our collective zeitgeist. They know that "Rosebud" is a sled. That the Godfather "made an offer that he can't refuse." That Norman Bates is the killer. That Darth Vader is Luke's father.

    SO I wonder how necessary it is to see each and every one of those "must see" movies. At some point, they become like listening to old rockabilly and blues records -- the foundation upon which modern music is built. But just because they're the foundation doesn't mandate you listen to them and like them to enjoy the music today. (You should try to expose yourself, but not get hung up on it like a missed assignment).

  • I knew Rosebud was a sled only because of "The Homecoming Queen's Got a Gun". Thank God for Julie Brown, because I found Citizen Kane to be torturous.

  • Sara_Tonin00

    I see the point, but if you minimize The Godfather to "an offer he couldn't refuse" or Gone with the Wind to "Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn" then you are cutting all of the art of out of the equation, and rendering it nothing more than a pop culture sound byte. And, largely, missing the actual value of the films.

  • I think the point I (poorly) tried to make was that these movies are such influences -- their dialogue, their cinematography, their acting -- that we've seen copies upon copies of them down through the years. Does that diminish the power of them? To some it does. To others, not so much.

  • Absolutely love this piece, Dan. Cheers.

  • jennp421

    "something about the way I was consuming them as I came in sight of the finish line has me uneasy. Hell, the idea of a finish line in general can’t be good. I haven’t watched any movies in a couple weeks. "
    This is exactly how I feel about my reading habits sometimes. I love to read, I love books, but sometimes I wonder if things like book blogging and Goodreads (which are great tools) actually make me more concerned with numbers read and the types of books read, thus making it harder for me to immerse myself in the story and just enjoy myself. I also have become more critical with age, of course, since i recognize tropes and common plot lines.

  • Just wanted to throw in another comment commending Goodreads. I just discovered it recently and I've found it extremely helpful as a guide to new authors who are/might be up my alley. I recommend it to everyone!

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