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1001 movies you must see before you die

23 February 2004

When I find a list of the greatest works in some medium, my first thought is to count up how many I've seen or read. In the case of 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die, this took quite a while. After a few days of reading and counting, I ascertained that I had seen 401 of these movies. That leaves 600 to go, and I've been checking the actuarial tables to see if I'm likely to live long enough.

1,001 movies, roughly 2,002 hours, eighty-three days without sleep or nourishment – though at the rate people go through video entertainment nowadays, that's just a fraction of the stuff you're likely to see before you go; and since there are probably no multiplexes where you're going, it's nice to know the essentials. If nothing else, you can skip tonight's cable double feature of Xanadu and The Nutty Professor and rent something a bit more crucial to your existence.

Except that The Nutty Professor is one of the 1,001 must-sees chosen by editor Steven Jay Schneider and his team of experts. Not the 1996 remake or the 2000 sequel to the remake, thanks be, but the 1963 original, in which Jerry Lewis presents "his own showbiz dark side, emerging from the cocoon of his sweet ... persona." Fortunately I have already seen this picture, and can die without watching it again.

A "greatest films" list that goes from The Nutty Professor to 8 1/2 within a few pages has something for everybody, and Schneider admits this motive: "Even if your filmgoing preferences lie heavily on the side of acknowledged world classics ... there is sure to come a time when you long to see a movie with a wholly different agenda."

I couldn't agree more, and I'm delighted to find films like Clueless and Groundhog Day – true pop classics – among the 1,001. I could do with fewer of the big soulless Hollywood moneyspinners; one can in fact cheerfully cash in without having seen Return of the Jedi.

And naturally, there will be scores of films that you consider absolutely mandatory but don't appear in this book. Several Marx Brothers pictures make the cut, but not Monkey Business or Horse Feathers. Two Errol Morris films, but not Gates of Heaven, which is still his masterpiece. The original D.O.A. isn't here – odd for a book about things you have to do before dying – nor some wonderful high-Hollywood films like Nothing Sacred and The Great Lie. And though the book makes a strong attempt to balance Hollywood with world cinema, there will be foreign films you'll miss: for me, Zhang Yimou's Huozhe (To Live) and Qiu Ju da guan si (Story of Qiu Ju), Breaker Morant, the Rappeneau/Depardieu Cyrano, Oci ciornie (Dark Eyes). But all this only goes to show that 1,001 is still too small a number for a list of the unmissables.

The short essays – all 1,001 of them – are one of the more entertaining features of the book; it's much more guide than list. The essays are slightly more intriguing when you haven't already seen the movie in question – which is as it should be. After all, with 600 films to go and time's wingéd chariot hurrying near, I need something to spur me on.

Schneider, Steven Jay, ed. 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die. Hauppauge, NY: Barron's, 2003.