How many movies are there in the world?  How many movies have been made since the invention of cinema, way back in those last years of the nineteenth century?  These questions are just about impossible to answer, so how about this one:  How many movies can one person see in a lifetime?  And if that person managed to list them, in what order would he organize them?

The answer lies with a man named Brad Bourland, a grocery store employee from Austin, Texas, who was profiled by the New York Times in April.  On April 15th, 2010, Bourland posted to his website the most up-to-date version of his current project, a movie list which represents, in numeric ranking, the greatest films of the twentieth century.

That list can be found here.

The rankings are relatively predictable in places, highly questionable in others, and outright preposterous in others.  Bourland tells the New York Times that he hopes people don’t get too wrapped up in the rankings, and that’s the right move.  What Bourland is trying to do, if I understand it correctly, is rank the movies in order of esteem – in other words, Casablanca is number one on the list because critics and audiences almost universally deem it so, not necessarily because Bourland himself agrees (although in this case, one suspects that he does.)  He also wants to make sure that those great movies which may have been forgotten, or are in danger of being forgotten, remain in the national conversation alongside the more popular and the more recent great movies.  (This is an altruistic goal, even if it’s already being done well in many quarters, for example by the folks at TCM and the Cinefamily in Los Angeles.)

Of course, ranking movies in order of appreciation is nearly as difficult to quantify as ranking them in order of quality.  The value of a list like this one is, in part, the fact that it demonstrates how silly list-making generally is.  For one thing, it can never really be comprehensive, even though Bourland has limited the list to the films of the twentieth century, even though he has put out the call to film fans everywhere to help him add in the entries he may have missed.  For another thing, documentaries, silent movies, and animated films have not been factored in, whether that is due to Bourland’s personal tastes or his [understandable] concerns about manageability.  However, the list is called “The 9133 Best, Most Beloved and the Most Important English Language Films of the 20th Century. In Order.”  By definition, that demands the inclusion of documentaries, silents, and cartoons – and that’s not even raising the argument for foreign films.

And really, if the list is anywhere labeled “Best,” then it really shouldn’t include – just to take a few examples off the bottom end – Leprechaun, Real Men, Q: The Winged Serpent, Alien From L.A., Silent Night Deadly Night, Cleopatra Jones, Basket Case, Night Of The Lepus, or Ratboy.  How could one reasonably compare Casablanca to those other films?  Their artistic goals are diametrically opposed.  There are only two qualities these works share: one is that they were all filmed with a movie camera, and the other is that I don’t think anyone has seen them all besides Brad Bourland and myself.

So sure, it’s just an absurd project, and one that’s conceptually flawed, even if I find it bizarrely admirable – maybe even because of how absurd it is.  People love lists – really, they do – but no one is so determined that they would list this many movies and then attempt to rank them.  Well, not until now.  Brad Bourland of Austin, Texas is that determined.

Since I’m crazy, I made a rough count of how many movies from this list I have seen.  The result is either shocking or reassuring, depending on whether you are a friend or relative, or whether you are me:  I have seen about 1,231 out of 9,133.  What is that, around eleven percent? 

I found that reassuring because, as many movies as I’ve seen, it’s apparently not as many as I (or my friends and family) think – although when my thoughts venture towards the realm of movies I’ve seen that weren’t included on the list, it begins to disturb.  (Brad Bourland just plain hasn’t seen as much shoddy horror as I have, evidently.)

Doing that rough count made me see the value in this list:

1) It made me notice the gaps in my movie-watching that I’d like to rectify.  As many movies from the top 200 that I’ve seen, there are still many, many, many classics that I’ve missed.  How is it that I’ve never seen The Sting?

2) Going back and seeing the names of movies that I haven’t seen or even thought of in many years was in a way a trip through my personal memories.  Movies aren’t just entertainment, but also a road map of the memorable (or unmemorable) moments of our lives.  I remember the first movie I ever saw, and I remember the first movie I ever took a girl to.  I remember the movies that scared the hell out of me, and the movies that made me laugh so hard I couldn’t breathe.  I remember the movies I watched over and over with my best friends, and I remember the movies I might have seen only once, with people who never quite became best friends.  I remember which movies I saw at which theater in what state, and I remember some of the big dramas or small crazy moments that were going on at the time.  Seeing all of this in once place brought all of it back – it was exactly like my life flashing before my eyes.