It’s that old question isn’t it? The one that always comes up at parties from well-meaning new acquaintances when your love of film is revealed: “what’s your favourite film?” – I hate it, mostly because I know it’s a question to which I can never honestly provide an answer, even to myself.
We are living in an age in which cinema has been around for well over a century and in which access to the latest releases from Mexico, Iran or South Korea has never been easier thanks to the proliferation of DVD releases and the rise of digital distribution. When Sight and Sound posted the results of its now venerable Greatest Films of All Time poll in 1952, Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane did not even appear on the list despite being over a decade old at the time. The reason? Many European critics had not yet seen the film due to the Second World War. Ten years later, after the critics had caught up, Kane took the number one spot and stayed there for the next fifty years, cementing its reputation as one of the finest films ever made.
Nowadays, news of great films spread around the internet like wildfire and if a film as good as Welles’ debut comes along, you can be assured that it will not take a decade to be appreciated (or at least seen) around the world. At the same time, older masterpieces are continually being rediscovered, restored, digitised and distributed to new generations of viewers. This helps to explain the meteoric rise through the S&S poll of eighty year old silent classics such as Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera and F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise. As the glories produced by cinematic pioneers for over a hundred years are rediscovered, the list of “must see” films for the avid film fan just keeps growing. As a result, the thought of singling out my favourite film strikes me not simply as daunting, but as downright impossible.
Furthermore, what is it that we mean when we say “favourite”? Is our favourite film simply the one we enjoy most? Or the one we rate most highly as a piece of cinematic art? And even if, for argument’s sake, we settle on the assertion that our favourite film is the one we have enjoyed most, I would still find the question impossible to answer. Just because I have seen Wong Kar Wai’s Chungking Express dozens more times than La Haine, does that necessarily mean that Wong’s film has a more valid claim to be my favourite?
Of course not. The reason I have seen Chungking Express so often is because it is one of my personal feel-good films; a flurry of image and sound that never fails to improve my mood. On the other hand Mathieu Kassovitz’s La Haine is an entirely different beast; a grim portrayal of contemporary French society teetering on the edge of the abyss as a result of the country’s socio-economic inequality. That said, it is a tale that is that is hugely enjoyable to watch; a fascinating, biting social commentary built around a core of terrific performances that never descends into preachy soap-box tactics. These two superb films are poles apart in terms of their content, but they help to illustrate the fact that just because I don’t watch a film frequently, that doesn’t necessarily mean I enjoy it any less than those I do.
In short, I would argue that there are many types of cinematic enjoyment, ranging from the instant gratification of a splendid action or comedy film, to an excitement stemming from a film’s technical innovation to a pleasure derived from an appreciation of the filmmaker’s precision in camerawork or visual storytelling. The ways in which we enjoy films are as numerous as the types of films there are.