As a film fan who always tries to push his comfort zone, but must admit he has mainstream tendencies in general, I find few things more frustrating than when a group of critics gets together to coronate a bunch of films I've never heard of.
And so it's natural I'd find myself a little defensive over the Sight & Sound 250, which has a film I've never heard of ranked as high as #12.
Yep, you got me -- I had never heard of Jean Vigo's 1934 film L'Atalante. I am a heathen. I am a philistine. I am a miscreant.
If you don't know what I'm talking about, well, where have you been the last few weeks? The influential British film magazine Sight & Sound has just released the results of its latest poll of international critics and directors on the best films of all time. Each critic/director mentions ten films they believe qualify. This poll happens every ten years on years ending in 2, and it often produces some really curious results. This time curioser than in the past, as the magazine has seen it fit to list the top 250 films that received the most consideration from the 846 critics and 358 directors. (As well as other films that received votes from at least one critic, if you dig deeper -- Hitman, anyone?) After five decades on top of the list, Citizen Kane was unseated by Vertigo, hence the artwork accompanying this post. I'll save my lukewarm feelings on Vertigo for another time.
You could say that no more democratic system exists to determine the experts' definition of greatness in cinema. That doesn't keep it from infuriating me on some level. I contend that because these critics will see each others' votes, they are in a constant race to out-impress each other. None of these critics wants to go on record with more than a token mainstream choice, a Star Wars or a Pulp Fiction. And so it is that a consensus of critics tells us that Chantal Akerman's 1975 film Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles is the 36th greatest film of all time.
I don't know, maybe it is. I chose that one as an example simply because of the long title and because I hadn't heard of it. But the point is, it raises red flags that this list might just be a form of intellectual showboating by those who voted. "I'm deep -- absorb my brilliance."
Hey, I understand the impulse. One of the little games we film fans play with each other is to show each other how fancy our tastes are. Even if you do admit you're a fan of the mainstream, it's a part of yourself you have to shun. And every once in awhile you have to cleanse your palette by subjecting yourself to some exercise in narrative torture, just because it's "important," just to prove to yourself you can.
But let's assume that everyone who voted (over 1,000 people, so that would be quite the conspiracy) was genuine, and let's take their picks at face value. I thought it would be interesting to see how well I've done over the years, keeping up with the movies other people think are great.
So I looked at the list and divided the movies into three categories: Those I'd seen, those I'd heard of but not seen, and those I'd never heard of.
It would be great if the first category ended up being the majority, if I'd seen more of these movies than I hadn't seen. But at least it was the highest total of the three categories. As it came out, I had seen 103 of the 250 movies, heard of another 93 and never heard of the final 54. So that's a little more than 40% of the list I'd seen. Okay, I guess.
If you take just the number of movies I'd never heard of, it's a bit disturbing. It accounts for over 20% of the list. See my previous argument about pretentious assholes trying to make me feel bad.
On the plus side, I'd seen 8 of the top 10, 13 of the top 20, 28 of the top 50 and 52 of the top 100. So I guess I've still got some shreds of my credibility intact.
But enough of my intellectual inferiority complex. I'd like to go through the list and just make a couple random comments about certain films. I'm sure there are a ton of bloggers who have done this kind of thing, but each blogger will find different films comment-worthy. So, here's mine. (Note: There are a lot of ties.)
3) Tokyo Story (1953, Yasujiro Ozu) - When I watched this for a film class in college, initially finding it deathly boring before embracing its themes and writing an A paper, I never could have guessed that it was so prominently respected in the greater film community.
5) Sunrise (1927, F.W. Murnau) - Highest ranked movie I haven't seen. See my earlier comment about being a philistine.
9) The Passion of Joan of Arc (1927, Carl Theodor Dreyer) - Just watched this for the first time earlier this year, and it's as astounding as they say. Each of the three Dreyer movies I watched for Getting Acquainted and some I didn't watch made it into the top 250. They are all great, but it's things like this that make me wonder about that possible conspiracy.
16) Au Hasard Balthazar (1966, Robert Bresson) - When the guys on Filmspotting watched this for a Bresson marathon earlier this year, I had no idea it was about to be considered one of the top 20 movies of all time. I had never even heard of it. In fact, I had not heard of Bresson. PHILISTINE!
24) Rashomon (1950, Akira Kurosawa) - Highest ranked film where I've appeared in a stage version of the story. (The Wizard of Oz doesn't come until later on the list.)
28) Mulholland Dr. (2001, David Lynch) - Pure pretentiousness here.
29) Shoah (1975, Claude Lansmann) - The shortest of four versions of this film is 544 minutes. Could enough people who voted even have seen this film?
33) The Bicycle Thieves (1948, Vittorio di Sica) - It's "thief." THIEF!
43) Close-Up (1990, Abbas Kiarostami) - Nice surprise here. Saw this earlier this year (another Filmspotting marathon) and loved it.
50) La Jetee (1962, Chris Marker) - Short films? (Un Chien Andalou and A Trip to the Moon to follow later.)
59) Barry Lyndon (1975, Stanley Kubrick) - Yes, this appears ahead of A Clockwork Orange, The Shining and Dr. Strangelove. I haven't seen it, but ... isn't it lesser Kubrick?
73) Nashville (1975, Robert Altman) - I never really got the appeal of Nashville. Not when compared to the rest of Altman's films, at least.
84) Fanny and Alexander (1984, Ingmar Bergman) - This list is, not surprisingly, a Bergman love fest, and Fanny and Alexander is very good. But ahead of The Seventh Seal?
93) A One and a Two (1999, Edward Yang) - The way these films are listed really puzzles me. Many of them, especially the French titles, appear in the native language, meaning I had to look some up to be sure I had never heard of them. Yet this film -- which I haven't seen, but I hear is wonderful -- is listed in English, even though most people are familiar with the title as Yi Yi.
102) The Tree of Life (2011, Terrence Malick) - Roger Ebert ultimately decided to include this in his top 10, choosing it over Synecdoche, New York -- even though he had it ranked only third of all the movies he saw last year. Now that's what I call inconsistency.
110) The Lady Eve (1941, Preston Sturges) - When I saw this earlier this year, I saw it as a whimsical throwaway -- charming, but hardly "great."
117) The Red Shoes (1948, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger) - Seen the Korean horror "remake" with the same title, but not the original. This directing duo has a huge number of films on this list, and I have seen none of them. Guess I have to remedy that.
117) Amarcord (1972, Federico Fellini) - Fellini love fest. I did not really care for this film.
127) Do the Right Thing (1989, Spike Lee) - 'Bout time.
127) Pulp Fiction (1994, Quentin Tarantino) - 'Bout time.
154) In a Lonely Place (1950, Nicholas Ray) - I hadn't heard of this film until about a year ago, and now I can't go a month without it coming up in something I read. Guess I better see it.
154) My Neighbor Tortoro (1988, Miyazaki Hayo) - Unless I missed one, this is the highest ranked animated movie of all time. I haven't seen it.
171) Star Wars (1977, George Lucas) - 'Bout time.
183) Paris, Texas (1984, Wim Wenders) - I have been meaning to see this ever since the name caught my attention among my mom's handwritten labels on video tapes of movies she recorded off cable when I was growing up. Didn't realize it was considered to be this great.
183) Faces (1968, John Cassavetes) - Saw this two days ago. Comments to follow in this month's Getting Acquainted.
202) Badlands (1973, Terrence Malick) - Every one of Malick's films made the list except for The New World. Badlands should have been the highest, but it's the lowest.
202) Wall-E (2008, Andrew Stanton) - Highest/only Pixar. That's not the same Pixar filmography I've watched. However, you could say it's the most pretentious Pixar film, so it fits right in.
202) Videodrome (1983, David Cronenberg) - A huge (and pleasant) surprise. Saw this for the first time within the past year as well. Guess I've been picking well lately.
202) Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2010, Apichatpong Weerasethakul) - Weerasethakul love fest. Two of his movies appear on this list. Uncle Boonmee was pretentiousness incarnate, as far as I am concerned.
202) Salo, or The 120 Days of Sodom (1975, Pier Paolo Pasolini) - I hear this is really, really hard to watch. Sounds right up my alley.
235) The Piano (1992, Jane Campion) - Surprising.
235) Melancholia (2011, Lars von Trier) - Most recently released film, I think. Von Trier love fest (Breaking the Waves also appears).
Okay, I'll close with some unexpected titles that got at least one mention. Note: I won't say whether I'm pleasantly surprised or laughing my fool head off at these inclusions. They just struck me as noteworthy, when you consider that at least one of the voters thought these titles belonged among the ten best of all time. Of course, I'm sure there are some really bizarro choices whose titles I am just not familiar with. These are only the ones I'm familiar with. (In the interest of time, I'm omitting years and director names except where the title might refer to multiple films.)
Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy
Anvil! The Story of Anvil
Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Khazakstan
Cosmopolis - note, only just released in the past two weeks
Crash (1996, David Cronenberg)
Dead or Alive 2: Birds (technically not familiar with this title, but it just sounded so random for a list like this)
Eyes Wide Shut
Fast Times at Ridgemont High
Get Carter (1971)
The Girl on the Bridge
The Headless Woman
Hero (2002, Zhang Yimou)
The House of Flying Daggers
Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom
The Kids Are All Right
The King of Comedy
Let's Scare Jessica to Death
The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc
Metallica: Some Kind of Monster
The Nutty Professor (1963)
The Pajama Game
A Perfect World
Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End
Plan 9 From Outer Space
Rise of the Planet of the Apes
The Rocky Horror Picture Show
A Serbian Film
A Serious Man
Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
Thirty-Two Short Films About Glenn Gould
Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me
We Need to Talk About Kevin
The Wicker Man (1973)
William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet
Y Tu Mama Tambien
Okay, so maybe they aren't such a bunch of pretentious snobs after all.