Many of the great debates on the internet are a matter of taste. Or as I like to look at them, people with taste bravely battling back the unwashed masses. But over the last few days I’ve seen some discussion spurred by Turner Classic Movie’s 15 Most Influential Movies list, and most of it doesn’t come down to taste. Most of it comes down to what we used to call Language Arts. It turns out that a lot of people have no fucking clue what influential means.

It means to have influence. What it doesn’t mean is ‘pioneering.’ This is a stunningly important distinction. Something doesn’t have to be first to be influential. In fact, many things that are influential (in any and all fields, not just cinema) aren’t the first of their kind – they’re just the ones that make their kind work best. They’re the ones that impact the way everybody else does it. They have influence, not simple chronological precedence.

This debate has sprung up on our message board and on message boards across the internet, where people keep mistaking milestones as things that are influential. Just because The Jazz Singer was the ‘first’ talkie doesn’t mean the film itself was influential, simply that it debuted new technology. Should you be making your own influential list and wanted to include a movie that influenced sound, you’d be better off finding a movie whose sound design was imitated for years to come, a film whose sound design became the standard (I’d argue for The Godfather or The Conversation or Apocalypse Now – one of the Coppola/Murch collaborations that changed the way sound was used in film forever).

Railing against message board posts and blog comments is a waste of time; it’s like punching fog. So instead let me turn your attention to an editorial that Slashfilm ran today where they name the ten most influential movies of the last ten years.

I must preface this by saying that I like the Slashfilm guys. I go to that site all the time. I think Peter Sciretta has a unique talent as a content aggregator, and more than any other web guy really understands what his audience wants. And the Slashfilmcast is terrific, and David Chen is a very decent guy who is smart as hell.

That said, the very idea of doing ‘ten most influential of the last ten years’ is resoundingly dunderheaded and feels like a way of giving people with no movie knowledge a list that doesn’t make them feel as dumb as the TCM list does*. I mean, I get that it’s a content-generating exercise but it’s a self-defeating one, as influence is impossible to determine without distance. You have to see how that influence plays out.

But forget that. Let’s just take the list as an intellectual exercise, a bit of guesstimating. It’s still awful.

Right off the bat it’s a mess: on what planet was Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow influential? Nobody saw it. Hell, you could argue that the movie almost set back the ‘green screen mania’ that Slashfilm attributes to it. This choice is a classic example of a writer simply not understanding what ‘influential’ means. Maybe we’ll look back at Sky Captain and see it as a milestone but unless it is rediscovered in a major way (which it frankly won’t be), Sky Captain has zero influence. This isn’t about the film’s quality. but simply about the film’s impact: none. If you want the ‘green screen mania’ film, you use Sin City, a movie that was a hit, that has been stylistically and functionally copied again and again since release and a movie that people saw.

The list does the same with Polar Express, a movie no one has tried to emulate in any way. It was an advanced use of motion capture, but there hasn’t been an explosion of mocap movies, and there won’t yet be, simply because nobody liked this film. I know Slashfilm is guessing at the future, but unless their guess includes a major shift in the perception of Polar Express and its creepy mocap, the real mocap influence hasn’t been released yet. Could it be Tintin? Maybe. Might as well add it to the list; it would be just as logical and realistic to add a movie that hasn’t even come out to this particular list.

There’s more. Why on Earth say The Bourne Ultimatum is the influential movie when it was patently Supremacy that made the initial impact with the style of camerawork and editing that’s being talked about? It seems weirdly arbitrary; if Slashfilm’s list wants to be all about pioneers instead of influencers, surely Supremacy makes more sense. Hell, even if you just want to actually use ‘influential’ properly you’d choose Supremacy.

And how in the world does Coraline make this list? Here’s the explanation from the article: ‘By manipulating the elements of 3D, Henry Sellick, Pete Kozachik and the Coraline camera team have pushed the language of cinema forward bravely, into largely uncharted territory.’ Well, that’s nice, but what does it mean? Just because you say it pushed the language of cinema forward (bravely or otherwise) doesn’t mean it did. When you make an assertion like that you want to back it up with examples. Even one example from the movie of how it pushed the language of cinema forward – even if it did it with cowardice! – would suffice. Just saying that it did isn’t enough. I saw Coraline, I loved Coraline, but to think that it did anything new… well, it’s a painful admission of ignorance of the history of film. The best you could argue that is that the tech behind the 3D presentation of Coraline is innovative (and it’s not, it’s evolutionary. Why wouldn’t you have Beowulf on your list for this? Hell, you could have it for this and the specious mocap entry as well. Two birds, one dumb stone), but the film itself is actually made fairly classically.

There are other entries that irritate, but not to the point of anger. What’s more annoying are the films left off. How do you have a list of movies that are the most influential of the last decade and not list either Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter? The face of horror has been utterly changed by Saw and Hostel. Where is the entry for the films that popularized the superhero genre? Superheroes are the face of the action genre today, and likely will be for the next decade. Hell, I wouldn’t agree with it, but you could probably mount a reasonable (based on Madame Cleo style prognosticating) arguement for The Dark Knight being on such a list. Those are just popular movies off the top of my head, without really consulting my crystal ball and avoiding anything artsy.

I acknowledge that it’s all silly; all lists are. And caring about a list is even sillier. But what gets my goat is something I see time and again on the internet: people molding words and concepts to fit their own meanings. It’s part of the internet’s way of facilitating people talking at each other, not with them. If you’re going to simply ignore the meaning of the word influential, don’t weigh in. Just because you have the ability to air your ignorance doesn’t mean you should.  

If you’re going to argue about the most influential films, argue about the most influential films. Don’t waste our time or insult our intelligence by bringing up the new lenses used in He’s Just Not That Into You.

* by the way, we’re in a new age. It used to be that people didn’t know any movies before Star Wars. Now we’re seeing more and more kids on the internet – some of them making their living writing about movies! – whose cinema knowledge seems to begin at Jurassic Park. Even the films of the 70s have rhythms and styles that they can’t get into in the same way the Star Wars generation couldn’t do black and white. My fear is that I will be doing this job long enough to face a generation whose movie knowledge starts at 300.