1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die. 1000 films to see before you die. 100 Movies You Need to See Before You Die. 50 Films to See Before You Die. On and on. I haven’t even gotten to the genre breakdowns, either: action, sci-fi, horror, cult. They pile up like dunes, each film a single grain, and it’s maddening to think of them all heaped there, waiting to be watched, pressing upon you, that mountain of things you absolutely positively must do before your body gives out.
For the past few years, I’ve kept track of how many movies I’ve watched each year. I don’t count films I’ve seen before, or those I didn’t watch all the way through, but if it’s new to me, it goes in the books. In 2011, that added up to 79 movies, with another 68 in 2012. Sometime during 2013, though, I arbitrarily decided to see if I could make it to 100, and thanks to the end-of-year rush, I actually went just past that mark, winding up at 104. Every year, I’ve enjoyed tallying the films I’ve seen, but over the past couple weeks, I’ve felt a little bloated from the way I gorged myself on movies in November and December. Sometimes I was excited to see a movie, and sometimes I was screening something in a professional capacity. But other times I was just plowing through available titles, figuring each time that I had a couple hours to kill and I might as well add something else to the list so I could be sure to crack triple digits by New Year’s. I was a man working at a task, as if I were laying brick or doing homework, anything but sitting back to watch a movie. I loved so many of the movies I saw last year — I was finally able, for instance, to catch up with classics like The Lady Vanishes and Rebecca — but something about the way I was consuming them as I came in sight of the finish line has me uneasy. Hell, the idea of a finish line in general can’t be good. I haven’t watched any movies in a couple weeks. Aside from TV shows on Netflix and Hulu, I haven’t watched much of anything.
What started as a fun way to remember the movies I watched each year started to turn — if just a little — into a contest of consumption for its own sake. Instead of seeking out something I’d always meant to see, I was approaching the task with a self-created and self-directed pressure, not unlike the breathless, commanding tone behind a list of movies you “must see before you die.” Because what else is such a command but a threat? It says that your own taste and motivation aren’t enough, and that time’s been running out since before you knew there was a clock. You must see these things. You must. You just have to.
But we can’t. We can never see it all. Even the kindest of actuarial tables will have us all passing away long before we can hope to see every movie that’s thrust into our hands. There’s a century of history to draw from, domestically and internationally, with more coming every day. And what about other art forms? The books we “must” read, the music we “must” hear? Those titles are out there, but it’s a fool’s dream to think we can experience them all. There’s no hope of spending time with a work, of sitting with it and growing with it and figuring out how it moves with you, if the goal is simply abstract collection. There’s too much. I pray to the God I believe in that I had decades left ahead of me, and even as I think of what those years might bring, I know that there will be movies and stories and songs I’ll miss. I won’t want to, but I also won’t have a choice.
Books and lists like that invoke death in their titles, but they’re actually our way of denying death. By pretending that we can somehow see everything we “must” see, we tell ourselves that we can live lives that can be considered complete, full, as packed with the human experience as possible. We turn engagement with art into a series of boxes to be checked and medals to be awarded to ourselves, forgetting again that aesthetic experiences are autobiographical. Watching movies, reading books, etc. — we all come to different works at different ages, and the order and manner in which we find those works is part of what makes us who we are. There’s no such thing as “late to the party,” or “How come you haven’t seen that movie yet?” or anything else. There’s only the openness, the willingness, to try something new. By embracing an ideology that assumes we can somehow complete that quest, we get to ignore the uncomfortable fact that, yes, we will die, and on those deathbeds we might have regrets. And not just about the movies we never made time for, or the books we never put on our shelves. There could very well be a whole host of things we miss.
I don’t want my love of movies and desire to discover them to metastasize into a compulsion that can never make a forest from the trees, nor that makes me think I can somehow, some day, finally see it all. I want to keep exploring genres and eras and nationalities because I love the promise of film, and I think the medium’s power as an art form for showing us who we are and who we wish we were is limitless. But I, myself, have limits. No matter how hard I try, masterpieces will slip by me. And rather than mourn the ones I missed — or tell myself I failed by missing them — I’d like to try and take comfort in those I found.