There are plenty of ways to construct a list of the greatest films ever made. Too often the decisions are based on box office numbers, when the long-term effects of a movie are what truly set it apart from the thousands of others. Ticket sales are more a result of hype and promotion than staying power and distinction. This is where IMDb’s Top 250 List comes into play.

The list has its flaws, but is also the most comprehensive fan-based voting system determining the best of the best. The big question is whether greatness in film can actually be determined on a mass scale, or if it should only be specific to individual opinion.

Many devoted movie fans have their own rankings of favorite movies – from top 5 to top 25 and even a top one thousand (it exists). However, none are more widely recognized than the Internet Movie Database list. Constantly changing and evolving at the will of the public, movies on the list have been voted on nearly 500,000 times. That number should prove some kind of validity, regardless of a person’s disagreement. And while the top of the list has stayed relatively consistent over time, the “bottom” 50 are constantly in flux.

Graph of IMDb’s list occupants by year

So why do we put so much emphasis on placement? It could be because the IMDb list is one of the only ways for people to influence what is considered a cinematic classic at a time when the Academy Awards have branched into alleged elitism. Of course, that is an argument for another time.

But it is the influence of the people that IMDb has captured so magnificently. The most well-known source for all things movies, the website has become as synonymous with film information as Xerox is with copy machines.

Still, the Top 250 is not perfect. Some films find their way into the list so quickly it is as if a coup was staged to accumulate a mass number of votes and push the movie up the list. Yet, it is clearly stated that only frequent voters are counted. So how can we actually trust the figures? It is important to give a film some time to cool down. Classics do not happen overnight, regardless of what many will argue.

As of right now, Kick-Ass is ranked as an 8.3, which would place it comfortably in the Top 100. The film has not even come out yet stateside, and even amidst fantastic reviews, that number will perhaps diminish over time. By next year, it may not even be in the Top 250 – or it could continue to scale the list. The Dark Knight enjoyed a period sitting as high as #1, and has remained in the Top 5 for quite some time. Now, it rests at the #10 slot.

The ability to hold a place in people’s memories over a long period of time constitutes more than a quick fix of movie awesomeness. The term “instant classic” has become all too commonly used, and frankly, is as meaningless as those one-word blurbs you see in movie in trailers, like “awesome” or “incredible.” So, the instant classic flaw people are so quick to point out seems to work itself out on IMDb‘s list every few weeks, like a moon cycling around.

As efficient as the list has become over time, the one constant that remains is people’s own personal lists – they are what truly define greatness in film. Every human being watches movies in their own way and take something unique from it, regardless of quality. Movie lists like IMDb‘s are simply reminders that something has earned the recognition of many.

It is easily plausible that some true movie fans have none of the top five films listed on IMDb in their own top picks list. That does not make those people wrong, but simply unique in their own appreciation for great filmmaking. Yet, when just under half a million voters bring a film like The Shawshank Redemption to the top billing, it would seem safe to say that the film belongs there.

shawshank redemption Why IMDbs Top 250 Matters...And Why It Doesnt

So that’s what #1 feels like

You can look at the IMDb list in a number of ways, but it doesn’t mean anything in the end. It should serve as a reminder of greatness and a gauge for quality. Other sites, like Rotten Tomatoes, have become more recognized for their ratings of current films, but don’t necessarily have a fitting tribute to the wide span of the industry’s history – not to mention the fact that “critics,” not average viewers, run the rating system over at Rotten Tomatoes.

The IMDb list undoubtedly has influence, and while rankings may not be posted on the covers of DVDs and Blu-rays, they should help guide movie lovers in the direction of significant work. Other than that, it is about as arbitrary as a hose in a rainstorm.

Do you use IMDb’s Top 250? Does it matter in your decision-making to see a film? Is the list wrong in your opinion? Share your thoughts in the comments section.