Paul’s History of Cinema Festival: R.I.P.

I now pronounce Paul’s History of Cinema Festival closed. It has been a wonderful trip, involving the viewing (or partial viewing) of 536 films, and has brought some surprises.

It began in November 2008, when my wife Kimmie and I decided to make a project of seeing the best movies in history, all in chronological order. I think we were both elated at the prospect before us; we were finally turning one of those “someday” projects into something that we were actually doing. Starting with a viewing of D. W. Griffith’s 1915 classic The Birth of a Nation, we ended on Sunday night with a screening of Martin Scorsese’s 2013 movie The Wolf of Wall Street starring Leo DiCaprio—so a span of 98 years of filmmaking.

Trying to find the “best” movies took some experimenting. At first I tried relying on the Leonard Maltin guides, but I found that my own taste diverged from his too often. Then I recalled that when I used to rent videos from a store, certain titles in the store’s backlist—shelves devoted to movies other than current releases—would be persistently rented, leaving empty spots among the shelves full of videos that mostly were not rented. When I rented these frequently rented movies myself, I found that I usually thought they were very good. It seemed that the general public, voting with their feet and dollars, were better at predicting my own tastes than were the professional film reviewers.

In choosing the movies for my festival (and it was my festival to curate; Kimmie was along for the ride), I thought I might be able to replicate my video-store experience by relying on an online version of the public taste: the movie website IMDb.com. Each movie there has a rating out of 10 based on the input of individual viewers, who often number in the hundreds of thousands. Could they provide my video-store popular vote?

I gave it a try. I arbitrarily made my cutoff an IMDb rating of 8.0 out of 10: if a movie was rated at least that high, I would put it in the festival. The only exceptions were certain movies that I had seen before and had decided I did not want to see again, and some other movies that I included simply because I wanted to see them (or see them again), regardless of how IMDb rated them. On viewing each movie, I would give it my own rating out of 10, and post that to IMDb to have my ratings tallied with those of other viewers, and would also give it my own custom rating of either A, B, or C. The meanings of these ratings were as follows:

  • A: top-notch, superb. Thoroughly enjoyable end to end.
  • B: good. Enjoyable and worth seeing again.
  • C: everything else. This is a movie I don’t want to see again.

Out of the 536 movies we watched, how many did I rate 10 out of 10, you’re wondering? The answer is 17. The first movie in the festival that I gave that top rating was the 1933 drama Counsellor at Law starring John Barrymore and directed by William Wyler, a sophisticated social drama about a New York lawyer with offices in the Empire State Building. You probably have not seen it; the movie as of now has only 730 ratings on IMDb. The last movie I gave 10 out of 10 was Pixar’s 2010 release Toy Story 3, which shares this further double honor in my festival: it’s the only sequel that I’ve given the top rating; and it’s the only time in cinematic history, that I’ve found, when a sequel has been not only as good as, but actually better than, the original movie (1995’s Toy Story I gave 9 out of 10).

Which reminds me: the movies I’ve rated 9 out of 10 are also mighty good—they just didn’t quite elicit the enthusiastic response that led me to give them a 10. But possibly, on re-viewing, I might change my mind. I might also change my mind about some of my 10s and downgrade them. To sift these possibilities, my next venture is Paul’s 9 and 10 Festival: a re-viewing of all those movies I’ve rated either 9 or 10, to find the ones I truly think best. (The total number of these, I’m pleased to say, is 91.)

I intend to write more about my festival. One thought that might spring to mind is: what do I think makes a movie good? And should my opinion matter to anyone else? I want to address these questions, among others. I intend also to publish my list of movies here on my site (and—note to self—please let me follow through with this intention!).

For Kimmie and me, the pleasure that lies before us is this: for the next 40-odd weeks, we’ll be watching only excellent movies. Sweet!

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