The definitive movie list

 If Brad Bourland were a movie character he might be T.E. Lawrence in “Lawrence of Arabia,” embarking on a small project yet ending up on an epic quest; perhaps he’d be Jake Gittes in “Chinatown,” relentlessly digging, following what he finds even if it takes him someplace disagreeable; or maybe Jefferson Smith in “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” an outsider and novice who shows the establishment a thing or two.
       Bourland, of course, is none of these. He’s a produce clerk in an Austin, Texas, grocery. But Bourland, 58, has spent nearly a decade on a monumental task that he hopes will make his a name to remember in the world of movies.
       He has ranked the greatest films of the 20th century. Sure, the American Film Institute and endless others have generated Top 10 or 100 greatest lists. But Bourland goes them — well, one better isn’t even close. He has ranked the 20th century’s 9,200 greatest movies, watching more than 7,000 of them in the process. (He plans to reach 10,000 from readers suggesting titles he has overlooked. The list is at
       “I’m a huge movie lover and began to wonder if people were going to forget all the great old movies,” said Bourland. “I was going to make a list of about 200 old classics, but within six months it evolved into the best of all time.”
       Despite agonizing over the rankings, he emphasizes that the difference between Number 30 and Number 40 is “virtually nil.” “It’s not about the order, it’s about what’s on the list, about celebrating the greatness.”
       He hopes to draw attention to memorable movies from different genres and eras — especially the Top 1,000, be it “Imitation of Life” at Number 321, “Little Big Man” at Number 515 or “What’s Love Got to Do With It” at Number 910. (The bottom 150 are “so bad that they’re fascinating,” culminating with the infamous “Plan 9 From Outer Space.”)
       Growing up, Bourland loved Humphrey Bogart, Bette Davis and John Wayne. That hardly made him an expert, however, so Bourland gave himself a master class, reading thousands of articles and books about every aspect of movies and moviemaking. “I had to learn what makes a great film,” he said, adding that research changed his tastes by helping him understand what he was watching.
       The movies helped too: “Casablanca” sent him to re-view other works by its cinematographer, Arthur Edeson, who shot “All Quiet on the Western Front” (Number 44) and “Mutiny On the Bounty” (Number 81). Still, while he had final say on rank, he strove to be objective, submerging his opinions beneath those of critics, historians, moviemakers and the public. He believes “Being John Malkovich” is a “masterpiece,” he said, but he “ran into enough critics who had some problem with it and people in the industry who didn’t love it,” he added. “I’d have loved to put it in the Top 200, but felt I could not get away with it.” (It ranks 502nd.)
       Synthesizing so many opinions plays to his personality. “I was never into making lists, but I’m good at analysis and a fairly moderate to liberal person,” he said. “I don’t like dogmatism, and I’m tolerant of other viewpoints.”
       Bourland, who is unmarried, credits his sister Amy, with whom he lives, as an inspiration. “When I reached 3,000 films, she said, ‘You just keep assuming this will be dismissed out of hand, but what if it becomes one of the standards?’ ” he recalled. “I said, ‘My God, I have an enormous responsibility on my shoulders.’ “
       The ultimate judgment will be up to others, who will decide whether his list is the film historian’s equivalent of outsider art — a genuine accomplishment with staying power — or simply Bourland’s own private obsession, something the Internet coughs up for us to glance at briefly and forget.
       Bourland gets both the proverbial thumbs-up and the thumbs-down from the professionals. “It’s a phenomenal thing, and my hat is off to him,” said the former Newsweek critic David Ansen, now artistic director of the Los Angeles Film Festival. “It’s amazing how extensive this is, and in that sense it is valuable.”
       Ty Burr, a critic for The Boston Globe (which is owned by The New York Times Company) and the author of “The Best Old Movies for Families,” said, “It’s very interesting to attempt to quantify other people’s opinions, and creating a consensus makes it historically relevant.” However, “in trying for the best of this world he has recreated the entire world,” he said. “I’m glad he kept the list, and it’s worthwhile to raise these movies up, but it all starts to blur together.”
       While the critics acknowledge that mixing commercial and critical acclaim is intriguing — Burr cites “The Sound of Music” (Number 32), beloved by fans but not most list makers — they worry that it skews the rankings. Burr points to “The Wizard of Oz” at Number 4 and “Raging Bull” down at Number 39, near “Oliver!” (Number 45). He adds that some critical opinion has become dated, resulting in older movies ranking too high. Ansen points to “Ben-Hur” (Number 19): “It wasn’t that great to begin with, and it hasn’t held up well.”
       But what Ansen and Burr are most critical of is Bourland’s leaving silent and animated movies on the cutting-room floor. (Bourland also eliminated documentary, made-for-TV and foreign-language films.) But Bourland said he had no choice. “People have said, ‘How can you leave out animated or silent films?’ ” he said. “But I’d be at this for the rest of my life without these parameters.”
       Ansen and Burr said Bourland’s list will last if he does more with it, putting the movies in some kind of context. Bourland actually agrees. “My daydream is to publish a book that could delve into why each movie is ranked where it is,” he said, “which would shed a lot more light on them, and to improve the Web site, so I could tease out movies by genre or director or other topics,” he said. “Of course, it will take a while to get there.”