The IMDB Top 250: The Only Film Canon That Matters

‘The Shawshank Redemption’ is the Number One Film on the IMDB Top 250

I recently made the rookie mistake of watching L’Avventura (1960) on a rainy Sunday afternoon. I had some downtime, was scrolling through the Criterion Channel, and saw the title show up in my feed. I never got around to it in graduate school, but always knew it was considered an important work of modern cinema. I figured watching it would be a productive way to fill a knowledge gap. By the end I wondered, at what cost?

It wasn’t until later that evening when I realized that I was in the mood to watch a movie but instead selected something that needed to be studied. As Michelangelo Antonioni’s images slowly moved across the screen, I felt nothing but boredom. When it was all over, I worried that I wasted an entire afternoon. For a while, I wondered what was wrong with me for not appreciating a classic so many others claim to be a masterpiece.

To compensate for the disappointing experience, I decided to read and do some research. It was only then, once I got a sense of Antonioni’s creative use of mise-en-scène, that I began to admire what the auteur was doing.

L’Avventura might be a work of art, but is it actually a good movie? It’s considered crucial to the history of cinema, but does that automatically make it worth watching? I’m not so sure. It’s imperative to study cinema, but if the so-called important films we’re told to watch are more interesting to read about, what’s the point?

According to Sight & Sound, L’Avventura is one of the 100 Greatest Films of All Time. For scholars, critics, and even some filmmakers, Sight & Sound is the most respected film canon. Another canon that isn’t as respected is the IMDB Top 250, and coincidentally, L’Avventura isn’t on that list.

This got me thinking about the concept of a film canon. What makes a film great? Does it have to entertain us? Move us? Should cultural impact be considered, and if so, how can it be measured? Does being first matter more than being best?

The goal is to build a consensus around a list of films that everyone should see. According to editor Nick James, the ask for the most recent Sight & Sound poll was open-ended but purposeful: for each participant to single out the 10 greatest films ever made, which the publication would then calculate and rank: “We leave that open to your interpretation. You might choose the ten films you feel are most important to film history, or the ten that represent the aesthetic pinnacles of achievement, or indeed the ten films that have had the biggest impact on your own view of cinema.”

The Sight & Sound canon is still the perceived gold standard for film rankings. It proposes a prioritization. Don’t waste your time on that film; watch this one instead. Don’t focus on that director; follow this one instead. But does it have to be this way?

Forget Sight & Sound. More than any other film canon, the IMDB Top 250 showcases cinema’s greatness. Unlike the Sight & Sound canon, which only includes three films from the 21st century, the IMDB Top 250 is updated in real time as new movies are released and old movies are rediscovered and reevaluated. It’s the diverse, democratic film canon for the digital age

If the more established canons like Sight & Sound tend to be Eurocentric, the IMDB Top 250 is anything but, with films from South Korean auteurs like Bong-Joon-ho, Indian auteurs like Aamir Khan, and Iranian auteurs like Asghar Farhadi. Like Sight & Sound, the IMDB Top 250 acknowledges important works of world cinema like Tokyo Story (1953) and The Seventh Seal (1957), as well as important works of silent cinema like Metropolis (1927) and City Lights (1931), but it also makes room for contemporary popcorn flicks like The Dark Knight (2008) and Avengers: Infinity War (2018).

Sure, we can quibble with the inclusion of some films and the omission of others. I’m disappointed that there are only two films directed by women on the list, but it’s worth noting that Sight & Sound doesn’t do any better.

When I learned that anyone with an IMDB account can assign a film a star rating, I was convinced that the Top 250 would be populated with fanboy fare. There are some superhero films, and the Stars Wars and Lord of the Rings franchises feature prominently, but there are also numerous films by Buster Keaton and Hayao Miyazaki, suggesting an expansive scope.

Since the turn of the century, the cinephile community has only gotten more global. No longer confined to French cafes, the rise of social media accelerates the flow of information, enabling cinephiles to share recommendations more easily. Digital technology has also made films more widely accessible. As a result, cinephiles can seek out new releases from countries all over the world, as well as rediscover old works and reevaluate them for canon consideration.

When I was in high school in the early 2000s, Come and See (1985) wasn’t on the list. Now it’s at 109, and the rise in popularity is a sign that many cinephiles are seeing it for the first time and telling others to do the same. After all these years, Come and See is slowly gaining a reputation as one of the greatest war films ever made.

Some films like 12 Angry Men (1956) and The Shawshank Redemption (1994) seem to stay in the top 10 forever, whereas others enjoy a brief moment in the spotlight, only to be bumped out by new entries. This constant shuffling helps us see which films stand the test of time and which films are a flash in the pan.

Since the IMDB Top 250 updates in real time, new films are not discriminated against and old films are not deified as sacred cows. Last year’s phenomenon Parasite, for example, is already in the Top 30 with over 500,000 votes, which indicates its popularity and predicts its staying power. At the same time, some films rise and fall. I remember in high school how happy I was that Mystic River (2003), one of my favorites, made it to the Top 250 during awards season. Now it’s nowhere to be found.

More than anything, what makes the IMDB Top 250 worthy is its lack of underlying agenda. Unlike the Sight & Sound canon, which seems to evaluate films within a historical, cultural, social, or political context, the IMDB Top 250 evaluates films as films. This is important. For the world’s most populist art form, it seems fair that the films in the canon appeal to as many people as possible, regardless of when they were born, what language they speak, and where they live. Even if you know nothing about film theory, film history, art, politics, culture, and society, you should still be able to watch a film and see its greatness.

In the Sight & Sound canon, some films are selected simply for existing, without considering if a substantial number of people have seen them or loved them. Jeanne Dielman (1975), an art-house experiment by Chantal Akerman, is chosen for its form and feminist message. Film scholar Annette Kuhn states the film is “an essential inclusion for its aesthetically and politically groundbreaking qualities.”

Released the same year as Laura Mulvey’s “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” an important essay that inspired feminist film theory, I can see why scholars of a certain generation want to support Jeanne Dielman. But has anyone outside of academe actually watched Jeanne Dielman? Is anyone watching it today? No, they’re not.

If the majority of moviegoers have never heard of a film, let alone seen it, how can anyone seriously add it to the canon? We can all cherry pick a few films we personally cherish that we wish more people would discover, but doing so doesn’t elevate their status. The whole point of a canon is to build a consensus, and it’s awfully difficult to build a consensus around a film that isn’t regularly watched outside of a college campus. Jeanne Dielman may be a classroom staple, but it doesn’t belong in the canon. This dubious, intellectually dishonest inclusion alone destroys the Sight & Sound poll’s credibility.

The IMDB Top 250 tells us which films have resonated with the largest number of people over the longest period of time. It is a living, breathing testament to cinema’s power. It acknowledges films from the past that still reach people, and films of the present that are popular. It’s not perfect, but it’s the best example we have of an all-inclusive canon for an ever-evolving art form.

If you want to understand why cinema means so much to so many people, the IMDB Top 250 is the perfect place to start.

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