Roger Ebert vs. Roger Ebert.
Roger Ebert is a man who does not makes movie lists: “No, I won’t be making out my list of the 10 Best Films for Halloween this year.” (Yesterday’s Wall Street Journal.)
Roger Ebert is a man who does make movie lists: “Ten great films about horror.” (Rogert Ebert’s Journal, a few days earlier.)
Granted, the list at his Journal has some films that are traditional Halloween fare (Frankenstein, Nosferatu) and some that are not (The Third Man, Detour). (Check out his site not just for the list but for each movie in its entirety along with links to Ebert’s reviews.) But it seems that Ebert is of two minds when it comes to lists.
I don’t blame him. He’s been doing it longer than just about anybody, and I imagine every critic doesn’t at some point gets sick of making lists. Lists at best are a snapshot in time, subject to change, and from another angle are reflections as much about the people making the lists as the films themselves. The usefulness of movie lists is inversely proportionate to their number, and that’s part of the problem today. Movies lists are out of control. Their count has metastasized beyond what anyone would consider a healthy number useful for intelligent discourse about movies. In fact, I’d say they’ve contributed to a lot of lazy thinking about film.
I had done a post on movie lists a few months ago, contrasting the lists at two popular sites. It’s mind-boggling. I am a fan of They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They? (and their approach with the TSPDT list of 1,000 Greatest Films). On the other hand, the IMDb 250 list is pretty silly. (IMDb pretends to be democratic but the cross-section of voters must not be like any cross-section of moviegoers that I know, and the results are highly skewed. The same could be said for our so-called political democracy.)
Here’s Ebert on the IMDb list:
“Citizen Kane” is only No. 37, and some critics suspect that’s because some online fanboys won’t watch black-and-white movies. (Anyone who will not watch black and white should be locked in a closet with mice, but that’s another subject.)
(Ebert also gets in a much-deserved dig at websites that require ten clicks to view their lists of ten movies. I thought the idea of the web was to make it easier for people to get information. Some sites must have missed the memo.)
One old item about movie lists that I had intended to write some time ago: the big one. As movie lists have proliferated, the lists have grown longer and longer. Top Ten lists don’t seem adequate, even for end-of-year recaps (again, see Ebert). Lists of a hundred or a thousand movies are not uncommon. How about a list of 10,000 movies?
That’s been the quest of a modern-day Quixote named Brad Bourland. This June the indefatigable Mr. Bourland topped the 10,000 mark on his ultimate ranking of films. He calls it “THE MOVIE LIST—THE FINAL CUT: The 10,000 Best, Most Beloved and the Most Important English Language Films of the 20th Century, In Order.” You can get all 219 pages of it at his site, themovielistonline.com. (A New York Times profile of Bourland is here.)
I wouldn’t normally quibble with a monumental effort like that, but he’s got Patch Adams (1998) at #5681, several spots ahead of Slaughter on Tenth Avenue (1957), at #5695. What the hell was Bourland thinking?
It’s the first weekend of October, and with The Social Network opening in theaters, I’d say the fall is here. Before we head into the new season, let’s take a look at the year so far.
You can’t judge a year by the first nine months, and for 2010, that’s probably a good thing. From what I’ve seen, there’s been nothing great. But there have been some good films and good performances, making for some enjoyable trips to the theater. Here are a few worth noting (films that opened this year, in order of release, in L.A.).
The Ghost Writer — Set in the U.S., filmed mostly in Germany, Roman Polanski’s political thriller starring a very good Pierce Brosnan as Adam Lang, a Tony Blair-like former British p.m./possible war criminal, with Ewan McGregor as the hired hand who writes Lang’s memoirs and uncovers dark secrets from the past. Plenty of intrigue, very effective, with more of a European sensibility than American, and good performances. (Available on DVD & Blu-ray.)
A Prophet — The French crime film from director Jacques Audiard, set mostly in prison, where the inmates run the show. An Oscar nominee for last year’s best foreign-language film, which it probably should have won. (Available on DVD & Blu-ray.)
The Secret in Their Eyes — The Argentine film that did win the Oscar for last year. A retired criminal investigator haunted by a brutal rape and murder from years ago writes a book about the case. A very well-constructed tale, with an effective and memorable ending. For film buffs: one great long take (actually eight shots, as I recall, seamlessly edited together) starting with an aerial view above a football field leading to a chase within the bowels of the stadium. (Available on DVD & Blu-ray.)
Solitary Man — Michael Douglas in a fine performance (warming up for his reprise of the Gordon Gekko role, perhaps) as a crooked car dealer just out of prison and looking for a new start. He a charmer and a cheat, and he just can’t help himself.
Toy Story 3 — A solid addition to the Pixar oeuvre, with Woody, Buzz, and friends one last time (this feels like a good end, so let’s hope there is not a “4” in their future). This one, like last year’s Up, pulls on the heartstrings. If you want evidence for the case against 3-D, though, this is it. Just not necessary.
The Kids Are All Right — Perhaps the highlight of the year to date, a new twist on the family unit, with drama and comedy to spare. As the title implies, the kids are all right, the parents are not. Smartly written, with a terrific cast, including Annette Bening as the breadwinner doc, Julianne Moore as her not-quite-equal partner, and Mark Ruffalo as the interloping commitment-phobe who has second thoughts about his life choices.
Inception — Christopher Nolan is a dazzling filmmaker, if not the cinematic genius many claim (for that you need more than skill, you need soul, which is not to be found here). The film has a clever conceit, but as a puzzle within a puzzle within a puzzle (puzzles all the way down), it’s more frustrating than fun. Yet, put aside the pretensions, and it’s a film worth a look.
Mesrine — A two-parter. I enjoyed the first segment, Killer Instinct, but the second, Public Enemy #1, skipped town before I had a chance to catch up with it. I look forward to the DVD. A fast-moving and entertaining film based on the true story of French criminal Jacques Mesrine, who I must admit, I had little knowledge of going in. If half of what we see is true, I can understand why he become a legend. A very alive look at the life of crime, the glamor and the brutality, with a fine starring performance from Vincent Cassell.
The American — George Clooney in the kind of movie we’re more likely to see with subtitles, a European thriller with more suspense than action, and perhaps more meditation than either. Like the lead character, director Anton Corbijn is fond of his craft and he does it well.
Machete — Audacious, violent, hilarious. What did you expect from Robert Rodriguez? A heat-seeking missile aimed at the political debate over immigration, with Danny Trejo as a Latino action hero like none before.
The Town — Ben Affleck may have a great film in him. This is not it, but it’s got many wonderful moments, and it’s done with enough craft that its shortcomings almost slide by without detection. The film takes the road of genre conventionality rather than originality, and at the end the tone feels not entirely earned. But the movie is a cut above the average bank heist thriller, and some of the performances—particularly Jeremy Renner and Blake Lively—are terrific.
Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps — The sequel, a couple of decades later, with a new look at one of the great villains of the ’80s, Gordon Gekko, older and grayer, if not entirely wiser. Many reviewers have taken Oliver Stone to task for not making the movie they wish he’d made, but that angry, scathing takedown that Wall Street deserves will need to be made by somebody else. Stone’s film, meanwhile, is looser, mellower, more wistful, and yet for what it is, not bad.
The trouble with making movie lists is knowing where to draw the line. On another day, you’d get a different list, but for now those twelve films seem to be the most memorable and worthwhile. I should add, the time when I’d see more than a hundred films a year at the theater is somewhere in the past, and several noted films of 2010 I have not yet seen (e.g., Winter’s Bone, Restrepo, The Tillman Story, Never Let Me Go). Still time to catch those (and plenty of others) before the end of the year.
I don’t know when our fascination with movie lists began, but I am pretty sure there will be no end. There was a proliferation of lists about fifteen years ago, coinciding with the 100th anniversary of the birth of movies, and with the rise of popularity of the internet. Prior to then, a list may have had 10 movies. Movie lists today are super-sized. Anything less than 100 seems rather meager, and lists of 1,000 are not uncommon. I’ve seen some lists approaching 10,000. That’s a rather big menu if you’re just looking for a movie to watch on Saturday night.
The value of movie lists is questionable. Movies are not made to be judged and ranked; they are made to be watched and experienced. When watching a movie, it’s best not to give a damn what anyone else thinks. Experience the film for yourself (and that experience changes from one viewing to the next). It’s immaterial whether a movie is on a list or not. Movie lists are really beside the point, and that’s a point that seems to get lost sometimes with our obsession about lists.
Yet lists can be useful. How do you know what movies are worth seeing? There are many thousands of choices out there, and word-of-mouth only goes so far. It’s worth having an established canon of films that movie-literate people can agree are (for lack of a better word) “essential,” i.e., films that rise above the rest in terms of artistic merit, and are important in knowing for understanding the art of movies.
No list is definitive. Lists are judgment calls made by people. Different lists have different movies, reflecting the different tastes of the people that made them.
There are lots of lists out there, and during the month ahead I plan to take a look a some of them. For starters, here are a couple of lists of top movies that could not be more different.
They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They? is an internet site launched in 2002 that’s designed primarily to highlight the work of top directors. The TSPDT list of 1,000 Greatest Films is really a list of lists, a compilation of opinion from a wide range of critics, filmmakers, and other leading voices. It’s about as close as you’ll get to the consensus judgment of elite thinking about movies. (Don’t be fooled by the picture above.)
Here’s a look at the top 10 movies currently on the TSPDT list:
1. Citizen Kane (1941); Orson Welles; U.S.
2. Vertigo (1958); Alfred Hitchcock; U.S.
3. The Rules of the Game (1939); France
4. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968); Stanley Kubrick; U.K.
5. 8½ (1963); Federico Fellini; Italy
6. The Godfather (1972); Francis Ford Coppola; U.S.
7. The Searchers (1956); John Ford; U.S.
8. Seven Samurai (1954); Akira Kurosawa; Japan
9. Singin’ in the Rain (1952); Stanley Donen, Gene Kelly; U.S.
10. Battleship Potemkin (1925); Sergei Eisenstein; Russia
The IMDb launched in 1990, and it’s been the site for movie information for as long as I’ve been on the internet. Registered users at the site can rate movies on a scale of 1 to 10. The weighted ratings are used to rank movies from top to bottom. The key point: it’s “democratic”—the voting is open to everybody. The top film has about half a million votes.
Here’s a look at the top 10 movies currently on the IMDb 250 list:
1. The Shawshank Redemption (1994); Frank Darabont; U.S.
2. The Godfather (1972); Francis Ford Coppola; U.S.
3. The Godfather Part II (1974); Francis Ford Coppola; U.S.
4. The Good, The Bad and the Ugly (1966); Sergio Leone; Italy
5. Pulp Fiction (1994); Quentin Tarantino; U.S.
6. Schindler’s List (1993); Steven Spielberg; U.S.
7. 12 Angry Men (1957); Sidney Lumet; U.S.
8. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975); Milos Forman; U.S.
9. Star Wars: Episode V—The Empire Strikes Back (1980); Irvin Kershner; U.S.
10. The Dark Knight (2008); Christopher Nolan; U.S.
Wow. At least everybody likes The Godfather. No other movie, though, made each of the top 10’s.
The big difference is generational. On the IMDb list, movies since 1990 place 4 times in the top 10, and 15 times in the top 30. On the TSPDT list, the top movie made since 1990 is GoodFellas—placing at #96! I find each of those points remarkable.
Are we so blessed that half of the greatest movies made in the 115-year history of movies were made in the past 20 years? I don’t think so.
Has it been so bad lately that just one of best 100+ movies of all time was made since 1990? Not the case either.
The bottom line is that the movies closest to our time are the hardest to judge. It does take the passage of time before any real assessment can be made on the lasting value on any movie. In the case of the TSPDT list, the critics and filmmakers are much too conservative about recent films. In the case of the IMDb list, people are way too easy on the new stuff.
Overall, I still give the TSPDT list high marks. The list is as close to an unofficial canon of films you’re likely to find anywhere.
The IMDb list, on the other hand, has some big problems. The Shawshank Redemption is a fine film, one that I like, but with some flaws, and it is simply not the greatest movie of all time. That’s not even debatable. Putting it at the top of the list is not an honor to the film. It is an advertisement to anyone reading the list that says “do not take these rankings seriously.” I’d guess there is a strong demographic bias to the IMDb list (as with any list, but it much more noticeable here). Also, a lack of critical thinking, and a bad case of cultural amnesia. It seems either younger people don’t like to watch older movies, or don’t know how to appreciate them. Either way, that’s too bad.
On the first day of the year—also the first day of this blog—I said not to expect a list of my Top 10 Movies of 2009. I’m not one to go back on my word, but in the interest of looking one more time at films from last year—and today is a good day for that—I’ve put together a list of the five films of 2009 that I found to be the most enjoyable.
I’d be a fan of any site that lists top films of the 21st century and includes movies from 2000. (Don’t give in to the pedants, I say.) But They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They? has many reasons to commend it. TSPDT offers not just a list, but a list of lists—dozens of the critics and sites that matter (the single exception being this one—must have been an oversight) with their choices for best movies of the decade.
There’s a newly updated list of the 21st Century’s 250 Most Acclaimed Films, with 34 additions this time around. What the TSPDT lists might not possess are the quirky selections you’ll find in many individual lists, but they offer a great view into the changing consensus about top films over time. Among big movers up the list are There Will Be Blood (14 to 7), Pan’s Labyrinth (58 to 21), Elephant (90 to 51), and The Lives of Others (127 to 66). Films slipping down the rankings include Far From Heaven (6 to 14), You Can Count on Me (27 to 53), and The Aviator (64 to 99).
Here’s a look at the latest Top 10:
I look forward to seeing how these picks look at the end of the century (or millennium).
With the Best of the Decade theme running on the front page this week—not my list, but the critics’—I would be remiss if I didn’t post my selections too (though I must admit that part of me resists the whole idea). The movies below are ones that had a deep impact on me at the time and have stayed with me. That is to say, it’s a subjective list. But I think I could objectively argue as well that these movies are very good, at least, and in many cases, great.
All movie lists must have a Top 10. I’m not sure why that has to be, but that was in the contract they made me sign when I opened this site, so I’ll abide. On the other hand, ten is not enough for one whole decade, so I’ve added another couple of lists with more selections. So sue me.
The Top 10
Five Ties for #11
Films That on Another Day Would Make the Top 11