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Reel page turners: 'The A List' of movies

Two new books offer recommendations for essential films

"Citizen Kane," Orson Welles' 1941 film debut, made "The A List," a new book compilation of 100 essential films.  

By Todd Leopold

(CNN) -- When it comes to picking the great movies of all time, you have your choice of lists.

Looking back at best picture Oscar winners, you often have to suffer through a handful of interminable epics and occasional second-rate flicks. The Academy Awards chose to ignore classics such as "Citizen Kane," "Raging Bull" or any movie by Alfred Hitchcock save "Rebecca" (1940's best picture winner).

Or there's the American Film Institute list of 100 best, which naturally leaves out many worthy foreign-language movies.

Or you can turn to the compilation Sight and Sound magazine puts out every few years, but that list is skewed toward cinema historians, not people looking to rent a movie on a Saturday night so they don't have to watch the umpteenth rerun of "Road House" on cable.

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It's exactly that predicament that Boston Globe film critic Jay Carr thinks of when he suggests a reason for "The A List" (Da Capo), a look at 100 essential films put together by the National Society of Film Critics.

Knowledge of the landmarks of movie history is wanting -- and not just by the average moviegoer, Carr says. When the critics' society was deciding on a theme for a new anthology, some films came up that were unknown to several critics.

"I thought these films were common knowledge, but the younger critics hadn't seen some of them," he said in a phone interview from Boston. "So I said, suppose we go back to basics. ... Let's point to films that, if you care about movies, you should know."

Carr and more than 40 other film critics, including luminaries such as Andrew Sarris, Roger Ebert, David Denby, and Kenneth Turan, compiled a broad catalog of titles that range from obvious classics ("2001: A Space Odyssey," "Battleship Potemkin") to relative unknowns (Charles Burnett's "Killer of Sheep," Kenzi Mizoguchi's "Ugetsu Monogatari") to a variety of works in between.

There weren't many easy choices. "There have been more than 30,000 films made, at least," Carr said. "To extract 100 was difficult."

Celluloid of contention

Naturally, given that critics can be an ornery lot, putting together "The A List" was a contentious process.

Even critics get a scream out of "Psycho," the 1960 Alfred Hitchcock thriller with Janet Leigh and another "A List" flick.  

Carr and his colleagues set up a few guidelines: A film could come from anywhere in the world, but a director could only be represented once. No documentaries or animated films were allowed. These suggestions made some people unhappy.

"A few critics said, 'I want to write on such and such,' " Carr said. When their choices were disallowed, they walked.

Then Carr and his colleagues hashed out the many suggestions. About half the films were obvious picks, he said. But the others invited heated discussion.

"There's always something arbitrary when you limit a list to a fixed number," said Peter Rainer, the New York magazine film critic who chairs the society. "There easily could be 100 for another book."

Nevertheless, the 100 that made it -- actually 107, given the handful of trilogies and sequels that form single entries -- provide a sturdy cross-section of movie history.

Several best picture Oscar winners made the list, including "Gone With the Wind," "Casablanca," "All About Eve" and "On the Waterfront," and many Oscar nominees are also in the book, such as "The Graduate" and "Nashville."

But "The A List" also shines a projector light into darker corners of filmdom, highlighting lesser known works such as "The Gospel According to St. Matthew," an early work by Italian director Pier Paolo Pasolini, and "Dance, Girl, Dance," a 1940 Lucille Ball-Maureen O'Hara film directed by Dorothy Arzner, the only major female director during the studio system years.

And, when the purpose suited the work, the critics dropped their guidelines. There are two entries apiece for Alfred Hitchcock and Billy Wilder, Carr said, because each film represented something different.

"L.A. Confidential," the 1997 film noir with Kim Basinger and Russell Crowe, is among the more recent movies to make the list.  

But limiting the list to about 100 films prevented quite a number of terrific movies from making the cut -- particularly comedies, he observed.

"Comedy is always slighted," Carr said, noting that the list's reliance on major figures and certain genres ruled out many works.

Mel Brooks, for example, was one director who missed out. " 'Young Frankenstein' came close," said Carr, "but we ended up with old 'Frankenstein.' "

'A very eccentric list'

"The A List" is one of two books about essential movies to be released recently. The other, Roger Ebert's "The Great Movies" (Broadway), offers another "100 classics" compilation, based on Ebert's biweekly column on the subject that appears on the Chicago Sun-Times' Web site.

The two books diverge in several places: Ebert's book contains "Network," "The Third Man" and "The Apartment," while "The A List" trumpets "Annie Hall," "Faces" and "Diner."

(Not that "The A List" wanted to slight some of the films that made Ebert's list: "[The vote] was very close," said Carr, who admits that "the buck stopped with me.")

Carr said he is pleased that the Chicago critic contributed to "The A List" and said he doesn't see the two volumes as direct competitors.

"Pulp Fiction," the 1994 Quentin Tarantino film with Uma Thurman, also is on the list.  

"Some films are in ['The A List'] because they're pop cultural landmarks," Carr said, pointing to "Jailhouse Rock" (Elvis Presley at his peak) and "Enter the Dragon" (the breakthrough Bruce Lee martial arts film). "Someone said it was a very eccentric list, and that made me feel good."

In fact, he added, the group deliberately stayed away from the word "best."

"This is a grid. It's a map that captures the landscape of film," Carr said. "If you think, 'This book is all over the place,' that's the intention."

Rainer said the book shouldn't be regarded as definitive. "It's not the list, but a list," he said.

The role of the critic, Rainer added, is to guide the viewer, "but it's more about the journey than the destination."

And, as such, a good way to start -- so the next time you're in a video store, you won't be tapping Jay Carr on the shoulder.

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