The first time I ever saw 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die sitting on a shelf in a now defunct bookstore, I immediately seized it, plopped down on the the floor and began...counting. Yes, yes, I'm a tad obsessed. Still, to find out that there are so many worthy movies out there waiting to be viewed is so exciting. I saw the mighty tome as a map leading to vast amounts of buried treasure.
The book is a collaboration amongst film historians, writers, professors and critics who have selected movies based on their contributions to the medium.
What I like most about the book is its splendid variety, mixing Hollywood, foreign, blockbuster, experimental, and independent films over the past century. Here you can find Top Gun mingling with The Seventh Seal. One might be intellectually loftier than the other, but they all deserve at least one viewing--be it for their performances, visuals, script, or technological advancements.
I do not necessarily love every film I come across, but I find myself more often delighted than disappointed. Just last week I was pleasantly surprised by Beat the Devil, a 1953 John Huston, Humphrey Bogart flick co-written by Truman Capote. I had never heard of it before finding it in the book. It has a completely arbitrary plot but is inspired in its use of character actors and clever dialogue. Once you are aware that the story is somewhat meaningless, you can let the wonderfully askew performances and witty repartee wash over you.
Some of the films listed are less than ten minutes long while other listings are close to ten hours. We used to have two of the longest, Shoah and The Decalogue, in the collection as VHS tapes. That is how I was lucky enough to see them.
The book is revised every couple of years, which mostly affects the more recent films featured. The first volume has the musical Chicago near the end of the book, but that has fallen by the wayside to make room for movies such as No Country For Old Men.
Deciding what falls into the canon and what is excluded is always a tough call to make. As much as I enjoy 1001 Movies, I know that it is not the final word on great movies. What's more, I believe even those that have been turned away in later editions still offer some merit since they made the list in the first place.
Often these new revisions do get it right. I was delighted to see in the five year anniversary volume of the book that 1994's The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert was now featured. The drag queen cross-country adventure is a tour de force in visual style, high quality acting, and lip syncing to ABBA.
So, how do you track down all 1000-plus of these movies? We live in a convenient world of streaming services like Netflix and Hulu, but it can still be very tricky. Netflix only has a small fraction of these available for streaming. Hulu Plus offers unlimited access to the valuable Criterion Collection, a prestige DVD publisher whose output overlaps greatly with the list. But man cannot live on Criterion alone.
My suggestion is to approach this movie mission from several angles. Our library has more than half of the films listed in our collection. Thanks to our Bibliocommons catalog, we have been able to tag all the films that appear in any of the books. They are mostly DVDs, including many from the Criterion Collection, but we still have a few VHS tapes. So dust off those VCRs!
There is also the great Web site, Open Culture, which lists 600 free movies that you can find online. Sometimes though you want to see something on the big screen, and we have some fantastic resources nearby for that too.
Our library occasionally offers screenings of classic films. I must also strongly recommend that you bookmark the schedule for the Packard Campus Theater, part of the Library of Congress' Audio-Visual Conservation Center in Culpeper. I have added greatly to my personal tally thanks to this free, fairly close resource.
It does not mean much to merely count the number of films you have seen in 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die. Anyone can sit in front of a screen and watch the images flicker past his eyes. The films in this book have the power to affect you, entertain you, and shape your perspective. They could even perhaps make you a better or at least more informed and intellectually curious person. Let them.