January 2, 2008

The Reeler's Top 10 of Top 10 Lists of 2007

The Reeler's third annual look back at the misconceived hype that mattered

By S.T. VanAirsdale

As you might expect in a year credited with one of the best cinematic vintages in a decade, 2007 was also a time of unparalleled hype, complacency and obsequiousness among scores of list-making film critics. But it was also a time of reinvention, with many critics adapting their rituals to evolving pressures and preconceptions. In a media era when seemingly everyone has a voice, it's not how one contributes to the discussion but rather how one permutes one's rave for No Country For Old Men that really sets him or her apart.

As such, The Reeler's third annual Top 10 of Top 10s was a grueling undertaking, responsible for parsing more than 150 lists that ranged from your basic 10-best to 10-best-plus-15 to 40- or 50-best with four-way ties for 22nd place to... you get the picture. As usual, a roughly 20-film consensus including mass-marketed, late-season runaways like No Country, There Will Be Blood, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, Juno, Once and Ratatouille emerged within a few mouse clicks. More surprisingly, however, never in my experience has such revisionism overtaken the list-making process. What happened to the amped-up orgies of 2005 and 2006, when critics could frig and foam indiscriminately without all the self-serious precaution and technological aid? To wit, a few of the trends that gripped critics and tormented readers in 2007:

--The Top (Insert Arbitrary Number Here): If, as I've insisted here previously, Top 10s are the predictable, elitist suffocation of a democratic cinema culture populated by more than 600 releases each year, then an expansion to 15 or maybe 20, even 50 films is a constructive development, right? Sure -- if it's not just to have another excuse to outgush a colleague down the road (a la A.O. Scott or Wesley Morris) or get profound with ties for abortion-themed movies acclaimed everywhere else (Scott Foundas) or just subdivide film to within an inch of its life (Roger Ebert). I know discipline is the opposite of what Top 10s are about, but come on, gang. This is a circle jerk, not a bukkake flick.

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--The Apologia: Manohla Dargis's top whatever list in The New York Times featured an extended introduction alternately explaining and defending lists' purpose: "More than anything they are a public ritual, which is their most valuable function. I tell you what I liked, and you either agree with my list (which flatters us both) or denounce it (which flatters you). It’s a perfect circle." She does expresses her interest in exposing readers to films they may have missed otherwise, getting only to Colossal Youth and Reprise before veering back to the year's pregnancy and war themes. Meanwhile, at The Cinematic Art, Ted Pigeon denounces lists before channeling Neville Chamberlain: "(S)ince listmaking is here to stay, perhaps the best way to participate in it is to think about why we attach ourselves to such reductive models of evaluating films and their 'quality.' " But that's easy: because ego overmatches imagination in the work of the vast majority of critics, bloggers and editors.

--The Slideshow: Bored with all those words? Check out Premiere Magazine, Entertainment Weekly, E! Online and Time Magazine's big Dick and little Dick for illustrated assemblies of superlatives, one tiny dose at a time.

In the end at The Reeler, of course, it all comes down to a pure 10 -- no extras, no ties, no honorable mentions. Classified as usual from 10 (frustrating) to 5 (useless) to 1 (outright insulting), behold the best of 2007, part one (click here for part two):

10. Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times

After debuting at No. 9 on my inaugural list and narrowly missing the cut for 2006, Ebert is back. I guess I should admire anyone who writes that his "heart told [him] he had to be honest" about naming Juno the best film of the year despite the "great" dramas that circled it, and I do, but not to the extent that his list as a whole lacks any imagination, specificity or selectivity.

As with 2005, when Ebert selected Crash as the year's best before rambling into substrata of praise for about 50 or 60 other films released that year, his criteria for inclusion seem relaxed at best and fluid at worst. He doesn't craft Top 10 lists as much as set up kids' tables like "Tie For 11th Place" and "Best Documentaries" for his underdeveloped stepchildren, reflexively begging their pardon: "In a way, it’s silly to rank films in numerical order. I do a Top 10 because tradition requires it. But here are 10 more films for which I have equal affection." I'm sure they're as touched as the rest of us. Memo to Ebert: You are the most influential living film critic. You've never been complacent, and "tradition" is no reason to start now. I challenge you and your meritocratizing little heart to forgo this silliness in 2008.

9. Mark Harris, Vancouver Free Press

There are critics like Lisa Schwarzbaum, who never met an overwrought year-end generalization she couldn't bludgeon into submission, and there are critics like Nick Schager and Ed Gonzalez, who annually distill their otherwise engaging work at Slant Magazine down to a pure, potent double shot of modifiers. Then there is Harris, who, like a parody of each, indulges his fancy for abstraction with a few of the year's most surreal one-liners:

Black Book: The best-crafted and most subtly nuanced analysis of the thin line between collaboration and resistance in Nazi-occupied Europe since Louis Malle's Lacombe Lucien.

No Country for Old Men: Here the Coen brothers do for the dialogue of Cormac McCarthy what filmmakers have failed to do for the words of William Faulkner for the past 70 years.

Elizabeth: The Golden Age: Pakistani-born filmmaker Shekhar Kapur's account of the events surrounding the defeat of the Spanish Armada is his most successful attempt at beating the English at their own game, turning an ultra-patriotic swashbuckler into both a Tudor tragedy and an Anglican apotheosis.

At its sharpest, Harris's aphoristic acuity may not match that of, say, the peerless Stephen Holden ("Nearly 30 years after [Sweeney Todd] arrived on Broadway the show now looks like the ultimate revenge tragedy for the age of Al Qaeda"). But for his instinct and perseverance in the highest altitudes of hype, I salute Harris with few reservations.

8. Gary Outhier, East Valley Tribune

Outhier's list isn't the misbegotten mess many for which so many of his peers are responsible this time of year. But when it comes to purposeless preening, few do it better. Take his No. 4 selection, the (admittedly) terrific Golden Door:

It’s true: movie critics secretly enjoy sprinkling their Top 10 lists with obscure offerings that most mainstream audiences have never seen. Call it affectation, but know that our intentions are good. After all, I’d be thrilled if this Emanuele Crialese-directed immigrant drama ... became a huge hit on video -- subtitles, unknown cast and all. Beauty this surreal and strange only comes along so often.

I wouldn't say "affectation" as much as "arbitrariness"; if he'll pick one, why not two? Why not five, or a whole list of Golden Doors and other foreign-language, independent and early-year releases that don't have the marketing muscle and theatrical staying power of boilerplate awards-season titles like There Will Be Blood, Sweeney Todd or Into the Wild? Outhier gets even more adventurous by placing thematic tandems like Beowulf and 300 and Knocked Up and Superbad in ties for eighth and ninth, respectively, a common cop-out for critics who secretly enjoy sprinkling their Top 10 lists with trendspotting bullshit that has nothing to do with movies themselves. They're not as clever as they think.

7. Gabriel Wardell, Gabe's Declaration of Principles

A Top 10 list of Top 10 lists? That's original. An indieWIRE blogger since 2006, Wardell stays loyal to the home team with his numbers two ("Love reading the critical tastes of all our favorite IndieWIRE writers, editors, columnists, et al. AND LOVE how the readers piped right in with 'reactions' of their own.") and three ("Lots of sub-categories, including the invaluable 'Best Undistributed Film' list. Note: Killer of Sheep #9 on Best Film of 2007 Told ya so." ) while also rewarding putative tastemakers at the liberally inclusive Paste Magazine and terminally exclusive AFI. He saves the bulk of his love for Dargis, whose own Top 10 list, as noted above, begins more defensively than critically, but he should consider doing a background check before riding the EW twins' jocks:

I love Owen Gleiberman's yin to Lisa Schwartsman's [sic] yang. She's a little bit country. He's a little bit rock n roll. Ironic that the epitome of pop culture has critics going the distance and lobbying hard for esoteric films and box office dwarfs [sic] like Jack Smith and the Destruction of Atlantis, 4 months..., The Assassination of Jesse James, Perisopolis [sic], No End In Sight (X2!), Lady Chatterly [sic], Zodiac (X2!), I'm Not There (X2!). Who do they think they're writing for, the New York Observer? (A cursory glance shows NYO backing Atonement, Kite Runner, Black Book, and The Brave One. Chalk one up for EW...go figure)

I couldn't agree more about Jack Smith and the Destruction of Atlantis, but what's so esoteric about three Oscar front-runners, two studio black sheep (always critics' darlings on principle alone) and a Todd Haynes film that, according to the insanely comprehensive tally at Movie City News, has made at least 43 other Top 10 lists beyond EW's? It's the same club as the rest -- part of the problem, not the solution. Way to go out on a limb with Killer of Sheep, too, Gabe; you beat the world on that one.

6. Gary Mairs, The High Hat

After the zero-gravity spooge of Mairs's High Hat colleague Phil Nugent, who's all over Knocked Up for "more quotable, genuinely funny lines and inspired, perfectly shaped jokes per square inch than in any movie since the last time somebody produced a script by -- hell, I don’t know, John Guare, maybe? Alan Bennett? Ben Hecht!?", Mairs's list wields a refreshing, even charming contrariness. Then you re-read it. And re-read it. And kind of feel like setting the phone down while your undergrad film studies major cousin calls to wish you Happy New Year in his own special way:

Ou git votre sourire enfoui? and Histoire(s) du Cinema: All due respect to Thom Andersen’s magnificent Los Angeles Plays Itself and Eadweard Muybridge, Zoopraxographer (not to mention Martin Scorsese’s My Voyage to Italy and Hartmut Bitomsky’s Das Kino und der Tod), these are the two best documentaries about cinema I know.

Killer of Sheep: Burnett is often described as a sort of American urban neo-realist, but that’s misleading: Killer of Sheep is an extended, unstable metaphor that is as funny as it is horrible, and which builds slowly to an oblique climax of awesome, offhand emotional power.

Love Me Tonight: Any movie that opens with a musique concrète fanfare that evolves into Maurice Chevalier randily singing his way to work and then ten minutes later uses Rodgers and Hart’s “Isn’t it Romantic?” as the occasion for the most crazily ingenious (not too mention hilarious) production number this side of The Bandwagon deserves a full-blown theatrical revival.

Really, though, who am I to judge? We all know what I did over my winter vacation. That said, I'm particularly fond of Mairs's "appreciation" of Colossal Youth, continuing last year's great Kathleen Murphy tradition of highbrow equivocation ("Its length is punishing, and I dozed off at least twice. And yet, and yet ... His compositions are endlessly surprising and energetic, so that meandering dialogues shot in static long takes grow more fascinating as they drag on") into 2007. And lest your mainstream tastes blanch from all the Benning, Fenster and Godard, No Country for Old Men is perfunctorily tacked to the end with -- wait for it -- Ratatouille. Viva populism.

Click here for the second half of The Reeler's Top 10 of Top 10s, where we crown a new champion for 2007!

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