In Defense Of A Big, Flawed, Best-Of List


Lionsgate, Paramount,

A few months back, I received an email asking me to participate in a critics’ poll conducted by the BBC, an attempt to determine the greatest films of the 21st century. Of course, I responded, I’d be honored. Then the agonizing kicked in. I’d spent those years working as a writer and editor covering all sorts of pop culture. But I’d also worked, and still work, as a film critic. And now I had to pick the best films from that period? That wouldn’t be easy.

It was pretty easy. I looked at the top 10 lists I’d made during those years, but ultimately I felt the truest list would be the one I didn’t think about that much. So I came up with 15 movies, made five painful cuts, submitted my list, and waited for the big list to appear. When it did, a couple of nights ago, I read the list with great interest, saw a lot of films I loved on it, made a note of a few I still need to see, sent out an approving tweet, and moved on. Then the firestorm began. It wasn’t directed at me, thankfully; I was just one of 177 participants. But the list got beaten up a lot over the next few days.

The complaints took several forms. Inevitably, a list of “How did this get left off?” complaints cropped up. At Vanity Fair, Richard Lawson noted that not a single Steven Soderbergh film made the list. Other notable exclusions: Adaptation, Bridesmaids, and Best in Show.

These last two point to a bigger issue others have raised with the list. After tweeting “I can’t get wound up about this 100-best-films-of-the-century list. An orthodoxy of critical taste & indifference exists; this reflects it,” film journalist Mark Harris (Pictures at the Revolution, Five Came Back) proceeded to get wound up about it. A later tweet notes “You have have to scroll pretty far down before hitting a comedy that isn’t mostly melancholy.”

Looking at the list again, I’m not sure there’s any film that matches that description. Even getting to WALL-E, an animated film set after the devastation of the Earth, at #29 requires getting past such chucklefests as The Act of Killing, Zodiac and The White Ribbon. Getting to Inside Out, a film in part about the necessity of melancholy, at #41, means taking a trip through territory defined by Oldboy, The Dark Knight, and the grueling Holocaust drama Son of Saul. After that, good luck finding much joy at all. Without Pixar, it would mostly be a collection of the bleak, the punishing, and the wryly bittersweet.

So what’s the problem? Vulture‘s Kyle Buchanan offered a theory on Twitter, stating that he was no longer interested in “a canonized list of ‘best movies’ until women comprise half the voters” and continuing that, “Some of these BBC top 10 lists are so self-consciously masc and serious… Movies can be light, frivolous, and still worthy.”

Leaving aside the issue of whether the inclusion of more women would necessarily lead to lighter choices, Buchanan makes a few good points: It’s a dour, heavy list dominated by the work of dramatically inclined, mostly male directors. (My own ballot is no exception.) And it’s one that’s mostly been determined by men.

The indispensable Twitter account @FemaleFilmCritics has been running the stats:

• Only 11 of the 100 films were directed or co-directed by women
• Of the 177 critics polled, 55 were women, meaning women made up 31% of the respondents
80% of those 55 ballots included films directed by women
50% of the ballots from male critics included films by female directors

The problems with the list don’t end there. Yet, I still stand by my first reaction: This is a pretty great list with a lot of fine films on it. Anyone looking for a great place to start considering the best films this century has produced should find it valuable. And I’ll go further: Its problems are part of what makes it valuable.

Rather than treat lists like this as a canon handed down from above, but as a snapshot of a current moment’s critical tastes, flaws and all. And it’s important, maybe even productive, to talk about those flaws. The absence of comedies is a problem. Critics like to write about how comedy is undervalued, but when the moment comes to hold up a comedy as a great film to stand beside the dark meditations on the abyss that dominate the list — I exaggerate, sort of — we seem to have a problem getting behind them. (And let’s not even talk about the shortage of genre films on the list. Whither The Babadook?)

The shortage of films by women and female critics voting on those films is a problem too. Is this a problem with the list? Maybe in part. But it reflects a troubling larger issue both in the film industry — where female filmmakers have roadblocks that male directors don’t — and in the business of writing about movies. These remain issues worth talking about, and the flaws of the list serve as another reminder of that.

Yet take another look at that list: Doesn’t it make you want to rewatch a lot of those films right now? How recently have you seen Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind? Probably not recently enough. It’s even better than you remember. Doesn’t it make you curious about the films you haven’t seen? Why not take the rest of the day off and watch Once Upon a Time in Anatolia? It’s stunning. Or Under the Skin. Did you catch that one? It’s really like nothing else.

Looking at it, I can’t help but think how much I would have loved having a list like this as a young cinephile, something to work through and learn from. If I didn’t have lists like this back when I was learning about movies, I might never have found Jim Jarmusch or Spike Lee or Hal Hartley or Jane Campion or Wong Kar-Wai. It’s a valuable roadmap.

But here’s the other thing about roadmaps: At some point you have to throw them away or you won’t discover anything new. It’s great to have this distillation of the (melancholy, male-dominated) critical consensus as it exists in 2016. But mistaking it as a definitive list of what’s truly great in the world of film in this still-young century would be silly. It’s a valuable reminder that, just 16 years into a century that seems eager to write the form off as dead and buried, movies still matter. If they didn’t, why would be arguing so much?