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Greatness, History, and Numbered Forms
It’s easy to be angry these days. Not necessarily productive, but easy.
There’s a Russian invasion of its neighbors with genocidal ambitions. Could be mad about that. There’s actual genocide in China. That could be worth a little anger. And of course, millions of infants are murdered in the US every few years. That’s something to be a bit peevish account.
I suppose, then, it reflects poorly on me that the thing that got me angriest recently was the Sight and Sound top 100 for 2022.
Some of it goes back to my childhood. I’ve always been interested in top 100 lists. Finding ‘the greatest’ books, seeing ‘the greatest’ movies, playing ‘the greatest’ games, all had an elemental appeal. Either I hadn’t seen them, giving me something to look for and think about, or I had, and I could compare my views with those of the writers involved. When I was younger, I devoured Dante’s Inferno and tried reading Moby Dick much too early to appreciate it, in addition to seeing Lawrence of Arabia on the biggest screen available. As time went on, I continued to go after the greats. I watched more films, read a little Tolstoy, some Dostoyevsky, and all of Shakespeare, finally caught up with “Breaking Bad.”
More recently, reading Joyce’s Ulysses broke the habit for me to an extent (I recommend against reading Ulysses), but I still look them up from time to time, still compare them to my experiences, still try to poke at the classics.
In theory, the Sight and Sound list should just be more of that. It’s unusually prestigious, sure. Being the list for a collection of top critics rather than just one guy with a couple hours to kill will do that. But it shouldn’t matter that much. What’s more, the majority of the list is films that were on the list in 2012, when I’d just look at things with a firm commitment to get around to watching more of the films listed. (As of the 2022 list, I’ve only seen a shameful 18 of the top 100. Then again, I’m sure I’ve caught more Pokemon than most of the people making the lists, and isn’t that what matters in the end? No.) But this year, Jeanne Dielman was on top of the list. And that made me look a little more, and lead to all the trouble.
It’s not that Jean Dielman is a bad film. I’ve never seen it, as three-hour examinations of domestic ennui aren’t my usual first pick for entertainment, but it’s the kind of film that, traditionally, I do get interested in. When someone does something unique well, it means you get something valuable out of it that you can’t get from any other movie. The thing was that I’d barely heard of it, and, as mentioned, I’ve read a lot of top 100s. A film I didn’t know in the 30s, or even the 10s, that’s one thing. It means I’ve got horizons to expand. But a film coming out of nowhere to take the top spot? That’s odd. And the more I looked, the less honest it felt.
The history I had with old film criticism meant knowing the patterns for where I disagreed. For example, I’m not nearly as big on Chaplin as most critics. I like films where someone gets exploded more than usual for these things. And works such as Ulysses that are obvious critic bait leave me cold. Not saying that it’s good or bad, but it’s something I know.
This was different. And the more I looked, both at the list and the methodology, the more obvious the new patterns were.
It wasn’t about picking the best films. Jean Dielman wasn’t on top because it was the greatest film in the eyes of the voters. It was chosen because it was the film by a woman with the best shot at taking the top spot. And that’s really bad for everyone.
Take, for example much lower on the list, Get Out. Now, Get Out is a really good movie. It’s tense when it needs to be tense, funny when it wants to be funny, and it plays with its themes in a way that gets its message across without undermining the actual film, which is all the more impressive in this day and age. If someone says that Get Out is a personal favorite, then I won’t blink. But to be on this list, a film has to be a critic’s choice for one of the ten best films of all time, and Get Out is a film that has serious competition for a spot on the top ten movies of 2017. (I think it gets there, don’t get me wrong. Just saying it’s not head and shoulders above the competition, not with films like Dunkirk, Logan, and Shape of Water around.) The only way Get Out makes sense as one of your top ten movies of all time is if you haven’t seen enough movies… or if you’re pushing an agenda.
Sight and Sound’s critic list was approximately doubled in voter count, with the intent of having more diverse voices. And in turn, those critics seemed to care more about having the list look the way they wanted, rather than picking films on the basis of quality. So Get Out, as a popular film that these new critics had seen by an African-American director, got a push, just so it would be on the list.
Get Out, under those conditions, isn’t a film. It’s a talking point, a symbol, a way for voters to scramble for moral superiority. And in the process, it denigrates everyone involved. Films like Parasite that might be on the list on their own merits in time are instead shoved into the spotlight as symbols of critical virtue, their rankings forever saddled with an asterisk. Lists like Sight and Sound lose their prestige because readers know that they were consciously chosen on something other than merit, just another culture war talking point instead of a common heritage. And the critics, in their dishonesty, make themselves a little worse as people, trading a little more of their integrity for the advancement of some wider cause that will, given current trends, be seen as appallingly backward in a decade or less. (The modern tendency towards moral causes whose intensity is inversely proportional to their grounding is a whole other can of worms, for another day.)
We’re at a time when it feels like every cultural institution is tearing itself down, trying to prostrate itself for the latest (usually liberal) cause, even at the expense of losing everything that once gave them value. And this is just another example, one that comes at the cost of something I once loved.
And the real shame of it is, the cause they claim here is, in some ways, a good one. Having more diverse films represented would make for stronger lists. There’s a massive world of cinema, after all. Let’s have Bollywood enthusiasts find the best Indian films, and let’s explore the Spanish-speaking world for examinations of their cultural cinematic ideals, and let’s have some real anime wonks dive in and show films like Grave of the Fireflies and Jin Roh that do things differently than the mainstream audience has seen before. The point of greater diversity should be finding more works that can compete with Shakespeare and Dickens, Hitchcock and Kurosawa, on an even field, making our lives richer.
But instead, we just get tokenism, decent films pushed to the top because it’s easier to just say that diverse works are as good as the classics and leave than it is to actually search out things like Royal Space Force and evaluate them on their merits. Let’s just say that My Neighbor Totoro is the best Ghibli film without considering the others first, because it’s the one you’ve seen and there should be more non-European films anyway. Let’s be lazy and quick, putting films into the classics pile when they’re only a couple years old, because it’s more important to say things about now than to try to say something that’ll matter once (God speed the day) Twitter is dead.
We’re losing our institutions for cheap virtue points. And I have a hard time seeing how we’ll get them back.
And maybe I was angry because it was still better than just being tired.
(Hey, first time posting here. Hope everything’s in order, and that this is a satisfying enough introduction.)Published in Entertainment
A Canon will, by nature, be hidebound. Without effort it will end up being the Greatest Hits of the Golden Age as that golden age becomes farther and farther in the past.
The antidote to this is reevaluation and a considered dose of iconoclasm.
Not participation trophies.
For Christmas I got a copy of the 2017 edition of 1001 Movies To See Before You Die.
You’d think with a list that large that I wouldn’t find anything about their choices to disagree with, and yet there are quite a few that I wouldn’t personally call “must see movies”.
These lists are a mug’s game.
Hail and well met, Bret! It is a fine post.
I end up grading the list as I read it.
“The Third Man no higher than 42? Stuff and nonsense! The zither music alone puts it in the top 30.”
Whoever they are, they’ve got a major thing for David Lynch.
Good to see you, Bret! Invite some friends to join too!
Nice first post! I share your pique about “cheap virtue points”. Like you, I have seen very few and, in fact, have not even heard of most of them. But I seem not to care.
But a list of movies selected by critics impresses me not a whit. Critics are fairly bad at recognizing classics, I think, when they come out. They didn’t like “It’s a Wonderful Life” when it came out but now it makes the list?
From the NY Times Review:
“Indeed, the weakness of this picture, from this reviewer’s point of view, is the sentimentality of it — its illusory concept of life. Mr. Capra’s nice people are charming, his small town is a quite beguiling place and his pattern for solving problems is most optimistic and facile. But somehow they all resemble theatrical attitudes rather than average realities. And Mr. Capra’s “turkey dinners” philosophy, while emotionally gratifying, doesn’t fill the hungry paunch.”
I think it was Paula Poundstone who observed, “What if it turns out Rambo 3 was really good? And they start showing it every year at Thanksgiving?”
Good first post, and welcome.
I especially liked this bit:
That’s what diversity actually means, not a bunch of multi-hued persons who all think alike.
My main problem with top-whatever lists (other than wokeness inevitably creeping in, because it always seems to) is that they (the lists) usually end up suffering either from recency bias or “golden age” bias (as @robtgilsdorf mentions in #1) or both.
There is also the “I paid my film school tuition” bias, where they include the film no one has ever heard of outside of film school.
Well done. And the list: Three David Lynch films, two of them Twin Peaks films? No. And two David Cronenberg? He’s fun but…no. One at most for each.
By the way, Ulysses is great if you use Joseph Campbell as a guide.
Mythic Worlds, Modern Words: Joseph Campbell on the Art of James Joyce
Great post. I am reminded that film critics are often terrible at recommending movies. Many, many years ago my wife taught night school and I was at loose ends when I got finished until she got home about five to six hours later. The local radio station had a film critic named Bob Polunsky who was entertaining to listen to, but didn’t lime anything that was popular. This was late 90s so no MCU, but if it was anything SciFi or Action he didn’t like it. One week he was being especially upset with the crop of popcorn fare and the anchor asked him if he had seen any good movies and he waxed on about a movie entitled Female Peversion starring Tilda Swinton. It was playing at the Art House Cinema near my work so I went to see it.
Bad isn’t the term I’d use for it, it wasn’t bad. It wasn’t good either. It was…weird. The basic story was decent and interesting and Swinton portrayed it well, but it also had sections where the director wanted to show conflict and turmoil with silly film school techniques as opposed to showing it through acting and observation (like Swinton trying to walk a tightrope while blindfolded and arms reach up from the darkness beneath to try and pull her down). You know that sounds better than it looked.
So, the point is that critics are so steeped in their view of movies that they often don’t like what a regular person likes. They see a ton of movies that are rotten and become quite cynical and thus should be taken with a grain of salt the size of Gibraltar.
Also, there are movies out there that are just bad, but critics adore them. Tár and Triangle of Sadness in the Best Picture category are examples from this year. Blonde as well. Some people must love these films, but I didn’t. I watch as many Oscar nominated films as possible because we often see a gem (Whale is my gem for this year), but this year there have been more bad ones that good ones (not counting the ones we had already seen).
Lastly, lists are designed to create controversy and get clicks as much as anything so they always out in things that are just that.
Smokey And The Bandit
That seems like quite an exaggeration. It seems to me that it was a mistake to introduce the whole concept.
I suppose that I understand the objection to wiping out an entire people and culture, though most cultures are wicked. But then, as with most such rhetorical devices, it starts getting watered down, so that killing anybody becomes “genocide.”
The goal seems to be the creation of a category of behavior whereby we can demonize our opponents as irredeemably evil, while retaining the ability to do much the same thing that they do without such condemnation. The sorts of things that we do that are the same as what the Russians are doing include invading countries and killing civilians, including by bombing.
This is far from the only area in which I observe this rhetorical progression. A touch over clothing or an unwanted kiss becomes “sexual assault,” treated almost like rape. Heck, even silence becomes “violence.”
I know that this was only the intro to the post.
Nice first post. Whenever I see lists like this, I tell myself “this list exists solely so that we have something to argue over.”
Keep in mind, of course, that it’s the British Film Institute, so even though we’re both Western English-speaking countries, it’s still a different cultural view.
It’s a strange list, and it almost feels like they were trying too hard for the diversity attaboys with so many films being from somewhere other than Britain or the U.S. And . . . what’s the argument for “Twin Peaks: The Return”? As mentioned above, someone in that group really loves David Lynch.
I love the “I suppose” here.
Well, at least one critic agrees with you. Drive-in connoisseur Joe Bob Briggs calls S&tB the greatest film ever made.
Sheriff Buford T Justice is the greatest movie character ever created by Man in all of human history.
There’s no way, no way, that you came from my loins. Soon as I get home, first thing I’m gonna do is punch yo’ momma in da mouth!
The got damn Germans got nothing to do with it!
You should look up the YT video of “Sheriff Buford T Justice” crashing Burt Reynolds’ birthday (I think it was) party.
No, thanks. I can’t stand Jackie Gleason.
It’s not Jackie Gleason, it’s Sheriff Buford T. Justice!
I finally got around to seeing C.H.U.D. this weekend. It’s really good! Good acting (John Heard, Daniel Stern, many others), smart characters, and disgusting monsters living under lower Manhattan! Heroic action and adventure!
Well, nobody gets everything wrong. But they left out Lost Highway.
That always only ever makes me think of “C.H.U.D. II: Bud the C.H.U.D.”
I’ve been leading a variety of Bible studies in the Old Testament. It’s not clear that it’s always a bad thing to wipe out an evil group of people, or to try to. It happens repeatedly. It comes across as quite brutal, but in several instances, it does appear that God approved of this.
I find this troubling, but I’m not sure what to conclude.
My wife and I actually watched Jeanne Dielman a few months before that Sight & Sound list came out. Neither of us expected it, but we both found it fascinating and talked about it for a few hours over the next couple of days. By that metric, it was one of the better films I’d seen. (Slight disclaimer: we didn’t watch it in one sitting, and I have no idea how I’d view it had I viewed it in one sitting in a movie theater. But the film does reel you in, or did me, at least.)
I agree that it’s an odd choice for #1, and that “they” seem averse to putting a popular film at the top. Why not, for example, The Godfather? It’s a great film by any measure and was a big, popular hit. But remember, the film it replaced was Citizen Kane, a movie far more talked about than actually seen. I’ve seen it twice now, and I have to say it’s pretty boring much of the time. It was surely innovative when it came out, and deserves all of the plaudits it’s received for that, but since all of those innovations have been subsumed by the industry since it came out, it doesn’t have the same impact now as it once did.
The other point I’d make is that everyone is acting like the “Sight & Sound” poll is some sort of canonical thing. Maybe it is, but isn’t it way too soon to tell? Will it exist in another 10 years? Who does it represent? I’d barely heard of it before last year. AFAICT, it’s a subjective list made by a bunch of film devotees, who probably over the years have chosen a lot of the films on the list for non-artistic, non-aesthetic reasons. It’s hard for me to get het up that this particular poll represents some sort of cultural nadir. I’m not an expert, nor do I work in the industry, though.