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The Greatest Movie of All Time? Citizen Kane vs. The Shawshank Redemption

Updated on May 31, 2012
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Leah is a science geek who writes mostly about health and biology. She also enjoys writing about pop culture, cooking, and DIY projects.

Orson Welles as Charles Foster Kane in Citizen Kane. Source: Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain.
Orson Welles as Charles Foster Kane in Citizen Kane. Source: Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain.


Citizen Kane is, for the most part, regarded as the number one movie of all time. Being lauded as the best movie is a tough reputation because a new viewer can go in with pretty high expectations. I really enjoyed it when I saw it for the first time a few years ago. Sometimes just living up to the hype is hard enough. As mentioned in a previous article of mine, I knew the identity of Rosebud before I saw the movie. Knowing the key to the central mystery took a little away from it but watching a movie of its kind, you tend to go back and watch a second time after the mystery has been revealed. I felt like my first viewing was that second viewing, knowing throughout the whole movie what Rosebud was made me watch with a more critical eye. What I took away from it was despite all the relationships and career accomplishments throughout Kane’s life, on his deathbed the thing he thought about was a simple childhood event. It puts a question mark on everything since then, all his life he was searching for joy and love and in the end the one truly happy moment was at the beginning of his life. Nothing else after it, in his full life, could top that.

Here’s my issue with Citizen Kane being heralded as the number one movie- it was made in 1941. Have there been no amazing movies in the past 70 years to dethrone it from the number one spot? I think there have. In fact I think the list needs to be seriously amended; it seems AFI is hesitant to replace some of the films on the original list. This lead to my idea- I think a person’s favorite movie list is somewhat dependent on their age. I have enjoyed going back and seeing some classics and most are better than 90% of the movies being made today. My argument is the 10% that the classics don’t beat are just as good and deserves their place on the list. Movies like The Dark Knight, The Departed, Good Will Hunting, and The Matrix. These movies are classics to me and many others in my age-bracket.

My major beef, though, is The Shawshank Redemption (1994) is listed as number 72 out of 100 on AFI’s list. This is ridiculous in my opinion, it deserves to be in the top ten and it rivals Citizen Kane for number one as far as I am concerned. Here’s a link to the list, which was just recently updated, in 2007, and now includes several more current movies including Saving Private Ryan and Titanic but it is not enough. I am not totally alone in this theory, the Internet Movie Database (IMDB) has its list of the 250 top movies as voted by their readers and Shawshank is listed as number one, ahead of The Godfather (which is the only film to appear in the top ten on both lists). To note, the AFI list is compiled by critics, artists, and historians. Citizen Kane ranks all the way down at #38 on IMDB's list. Here is the link To me these two lists represent the generation gap, most of the movies on the IMDB list are current and almost none of the movies on the AFI list are past 1995. There needs to be a happy medium between these two lists, respecting the classics but at the same time appreciating the new instant classics.

The Shawshank Redemption is a masterpiece, the story of a wrongfully convicted banker as a fish-out-of-water in prison spanning two decades. There are so many different layers to this movie, Andy (Tim Robbins) struggles to maintain his integrity while inside, his hope for freedom is the major storyline. But there is so much more, the story of corruption in the prison and the people who become Andy’s friends while inside- Red, Brooks, and Tommy (played by Morgan Freeman, James Whitmore, and Gil Bellows). Each has his own story within the main plot. Every time I re-watch it I focus on a different aspect of the plot. Like Andy’s stunts- getting the prisoners on the roof crew two beers apiece in exchange for giving the prison guard banking advice or when he locks himself in the Warden’s office and plays an opera over the loudspeaker of the prison. And the ending is classic, the look on the Warden’s face when he throws Andy’s chess piece at the Raquel Welch poster in Andy’s cell only for it to go right through it-priceless. I am completely baffled and outraged by AFI’s ranking of it so low in the top 100.

Is it possible AFI needs movies to stand the test of time before ranking them higher? But hasn’t 18 years been enough for Shawshank to prove its worth? Am I biased because of my generation? Is it natural for me, based on my age, to appreciate movies made in my lifetime more so than ones that were not? Another difference in my viewing of classics compared to newer films is how many times I have seen them. I have only seen classic movies once whereas I tend to see a newer film I really enjoy more times. Does re-watch-ability factor in? I have seen The Shawshank Redemption at least ten times and I enjoy it more each time. I have only seen Citizen Kane once. Would I have a higher opinion of it if I re-watched it again and again?

Marlon Brando as 'The Godfather'. Source: labnol, Flickr creative commons, CC BY 2.0.
Marlon Brando as 'The Godfather'. Source: labnol, Flickr creative commons, CC BY 2.0.

My working hypothesis is a person’s top movie list is dependent on their generation, ultimately their age. Certainly there are young people who shun new movies and are experts on old black and whites. Likewise there are older people who, maybe never watched movies early in their life, and now only see newer fare. But overall I think age factors in, and I think it explains the discrepancy between the AFI list and the IMDB list. Like I said I think there has to be a happy medium, Citizen Kane and Gone with the Wind stand the test of time, the middle-aged Godfather deserves its spot in the top as well. But new additions, like Shawshank need to be further up on the list. There are several ‘classic’ movies that I have seen that I don’t think deserve to be ranked as high as they are on AFI’s list. Casablanca for example is a good movie but really overrated and although a previous hub shows I’m a big fan of Hitchcock’s work I think some of his movies are ranked too high. Interestingly 12 Angry Men is one of the highest classics to rate in IMBD’s list, as #6, while it is 87 on AFI’s list. I liked it but again I think it’s a little overrated. This seems to indicate the voters on the IMDB list are not watching many classic movies. Of course everyone’s opinions are different- there probably isn’t a person out there that will 100% agree with either list. Also interest level factors in, there are some movies, on both lists, that I accept as being great but since they don't interest me I have never seen them. I'm sure this applies to others as well. Critics watch movies regardless while fans watch more so based on interest- which might factor into the differences between the two lists. Overall the huge disparities between them, to me, indicate a generation-dependent system.

Do you think a person's age influences their choices for top movies?

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