If you’re like most people, you probably freeze when someone asks you what you think is the best movie of all time. What if you give a confident answer, only to wake up in the middle of the night, certain you should have said something else? And do you choose the movie you love most, or one you know is commonly identified as great? After all, if you go with one of the classic, default choices—Citizen Kane, Casablanca, The Godfather—no one can accuse you of having bad taste, or strange taste. Or the wrong taste.

After compiling and annotating my own list of the 100 best movies of the past century—broken down by decade, 10 pictures in each—I’m here to reassure you that there’s no such thing as the wrong taste. And if there is such a thing as bad or strange taste, then my advice is to own it. No one can dictate your preferences to you; they’re as individual as your fingerprints. Besides, the issue is further complicated by the fact that there are so many barometers of greatness. Is the best movie the one you can watch anytime, the one that always lifts your mood? Is it the one that makes you cry the hardest? Is it the one with the actors you never tire of watching?

Your decisions about what constitutes greatness will be specific to you. In this case, I’m giving you mine. The internet is full of polls that have divined, by soliciting votes from film critics and filmmakers, what are ostensibly the greatest movies of all time. This list isn’t the result of a poll. Aside from the question of whether we really need yet another film survey, there’s a way in which choosing by committee irons the idea of loving movies into a smooth, flat sheet, as if the right amount of number crunching will yield the answer. But as with all individuals, our sensibilities are much more nuanced; there is no such thing as an objective truth when it comes to art. Our movie tastes are determined by some indefinable electrical current of enthusiasm or joy or deep, radiating sadness, or some combination of the three. In that sense, our favorite movies aren’t about taste at all, but simply about listening to what really speaks to us.

So how did I choose these 100 films? I’ve spent more than 50 years choosing. These are movies that entwine craftsmanship and spirit. They often feature striking performances. For whatever reason, they touch me deeply.

And all speak, in some way, about the era in which they were made; they’re place markers for the things we’ve seen and the places we’ve been and the experiences of our forebears—or, more accurately, some of our forebears. The unfortunate truth is that through most of the 20th century, the world of filmmaking belonged to white men, at least behind the camera. (Women flexed their power with great performances, many of which are reflected in this list.) There were certainly women filmmakers working in the early part of the century—Alice Guy-Blaché, Dorothy Arzner, Ida Lupino—but until the 1960s and 1970s, at least, the barriers to entry were high. The same is true for filmmakers of color, particularly in the U.S. Through much of the 20th century, it was easier for Black artists to make their mark in music, literature, and painting than in movies. There are exceptions: there was a flowering of so-called race films in the early part of the century, films made specifically for Black American audiences. The novelist and filmmaker Oscar Micheaux was an early, successful pioneer, but it would be decades before filmmakers like Charles Burnett, Melvin Van Peebles, and Julie Dash would find a footing. In that sense, one component of the past 100 years of cinema is a blank space filled with unrealized possibilities. American history is filled with such blank spaces, and they say a lot about us.

Another note about this list: it’s marked by what some will see as glaring omissions, including many of those default classics. There’s no Citizen Kane, no Casablanca, no Wizard of Oz, no Goodfellas. It’s not that I dislike those films. But sometimes the filmmakers behind those pictures have made other movies I love more: I’m thinking of Orson Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons, or Michael Curtiz’s Mildred Pierce, great movies that deserve some space in the spotlight.

Because this list is broken down by decade, certain patterns emerged, motifs that couldn’t help influencing my choices. For example, any list of great movies might contain a few films each by Howard Hawks and Alfred Hitchcock, lumped in with all the rest. But scrutinizing each decade also means recontextualizing the filmmakers with the longest careers: the same man who made Scarface in the 1930s had something totally different to say in the late 1950s, with Rio Bravo. And some decades filled up astonishingly quickly: the 1950s, in particular, left many favorites on the cutting-room floor. It’s almost incomprehensible to me that All About Eve, Tokyo Story, Sunset Boulevard, Gun Crazy, and The Breaking Point are not on this list, but triage was necessary. The days I had to cut films like Alien, Fantastic Mr. Fox, Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, Cold War, and John Guillermin’s 1976 King Kong (which I prefer to the original) weren’t happy ones.

On the plus side, this list includes more comedies than most poll-derived lists do. Comedies are often the also-rans; everyone wants to be taken seriously, and comedies—even the greatest of them, by the likes of Hawks, Preston Sturges, or Billy Wilder—are frequently treated as a frivolity. But they often reveal even more of a soul than so-called serious movies do—if movies can be said to have souls, and I think they can. That’s why our love for them stretches so wide and deep that no single list, whether made by an individual or a group of experts, can contain it. Rather than appease some invisible god of movie objectivity, I’m hoping this list will foster a sense of discovery, adventure, and imagination. Idiosyncrasies are a huge part of what makes us fall in love with other human beings. They’re the heart of movie love too—the wrong taste that’s totally right.

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The Godfather Part II (1974)
Jaws (1975)
E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982)
The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
Little Women (2019)