January 3, 2008

The Reeler's Top 10 of Top 10 Lists of 2007, Part II

More hype, casualties and catastrophes on the road to consensus

By S.T. VanAirsdale

The first half of The Reeler's annual Top 10 of Top 10s revealed a taste for both assiduous list revisionism and plenty of new blood for 2007. Numbers one through five are also all newcomers here, and we celebrate their distinguished company posthaste on the traditional scale of 10 (frustrating) to 5 (useless) to 1 (outright insulting). Congratulations to all:

5. Kristopher Tapley, InContention

When best intentions get away from a Top 10er, they generally look like this mess from the otherwise reliable Tapley. Invoking both the formulaic "lists are subjective" introduction and a mind-cramping pairing of "the best films of 2007" and the "top 10 films of 2007" -- without any explanation of the distinction between them -- the veteran awards prognosticator squeezes superlatives in for pretty much every Big Important Title except No Country For Old Men. (To his significant credit, Quiet City[!] fills in the bottom spot of the top 10.)

But beyond the freakish, joined-at-the-head Siamese-twin model of list-making, is there really anything so off-putting about Tapley's list? If you dare, try the mutant offspring inside the mutant offspring, "two films that haven't quite materialized in my mind and will likely take some years to do so. ... They demand to be singled out rather than grouped with in. [sic]"

I'M NOT THERE / ZODIAC Directed by Todd Haynes / David Fincher

Todd Haynes' I'm Not There is a definitive work of art, but it didn't settle with me in a way that fully allowed me to assess what I'd seen. ... I still haven't, and to me, the best of filmmaking does that. I just don't know where I would place such an effort on a list of the year's 10 "best" films.

On the other hand, David Fincher's Zodiac isn't a film at all. It is All the President's Men on steroids. It's one thing happening after another. There is no structure to speak of, no dramatic adherence, which is fine. It was nonetheless a complete and total immersion into a world recreated, a living, breathing study in tension and obsession, and I don't think we've seen anything along those lines in quite some time.

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Now this is a definitive work of art, and perhaps I, too, need more time to assess what I've just seen. Maybe Tapley's list itself is the underdeveloped tissue joining the unapologetic consensus of list snobs everywhere and earnest class striving (Control: "The biopic is treacherous territory for any filmmaker to navigate"; Lake of Fire: "The documentary is a troubling form of filmmaking for me"). Maybe it's its own kind of performance piece, a wet dream of self-serious reflection. Either way, as Tapley might put it, I don't think we've seen anything along these lines in quite some time.

4. Lou Gaul, PhillyBurbs.com

Speaking of revisionists, Lou Gaul's got something staggering going on over at Philly Burbs, sort of a TV Guide-meets-MadLibs Top 10 that makes Tapley's epiphanies look positively spiritual:

Charlie Wilson's War: Mike Nichols (The Graduate) directed the R-rated picture, which is smart, fast and fun. It's also quite sad, even haunting as it tells a story of a politician doing what appears to be the right thing but ultimately gets the wrong results that still haunt our country today.

Gone Baby Gone: Actor-turned-filmmaker Ben Affleck (Casey's older brother) directed the bleak tale, which is based on the novel by Dennis Lehane and ends -- like Charlie Wilson's War -- with a character doing what appears to be the right thing and yet causing lives to be destroyed.

Into The Wild: Sean Penn (The Pledge) directed the visually striking, emotionally compelling R-rated picture, which is based on Jon Krakauer's best-seller about a rebel seeking personal freedom in a cash-driven society that seeks conformity, not free-thinking.

Every writer knows how a deadline can squelch his or her imagination, but Lou, come on. Save the junk food for the city; we need more slow-cooked morsels like your praise for Juno, "a wonderfully offbeat and upbeat PG-13 comedy drama that can best be described as a wholesome movie about a pregnant 16-year-old." This cooking from a box isn't working out so well.

3. Sean Elliott, iF Magazine

Every year there's a Top 10 list that cheats its way toward the front of the line with the equivalent of stolen handicapped plates. Last year it was the madmen at Film Ick, parsing French-language gender neutrality with me between lobotomized riffs on Little Miss Sunshine, Snakes on a Plane and others. This year The Reeler's Unofficial Plastic Helmet Award is transferred to the trophy case at iF Magazine, where Elliott's raves about the social message of Martian Child (No. 4) are mitigated seconds later by the big studio dick in his mouth at No. 5:

I will freely admit that I absolutely adored [Spider-Man 3] when it came out last summer. In fact, I saw it five times in the theatre (not my fault, they kept inviting me to press events). I never got bored with it, and I hadn’t burned myself out on it either. I gave it an A+, which was maybe a little bit too high ... Had [director Sam] Raimi and the producers been given more time, a lot of the minor details that clunk up the plot could've been ironed out and the movie would have been smoother, but it's still one of the year's best.

Whatever, pal -- it's your list. I don't even want to know how Paramount enticed Elliott's hard-on for the bookends Transformers ("I can’t get enough of watching the robots fight and transform") or Sweeney Todd ("The perfect dark depressing musical for those who don’t have as cheery a vision during the holiday season"), but I'm guessing the race for 2008's affections is on behind the scenes; it might take as many as a dozen press invites to climb to No. 1.

2. Aaron Mesh, Willamette Week

In a year when navel contemplation was all the rage among top 10ers, Mesh embarked on a full-scale camping expedition. But not just with an Aristotle quote, the 83rd assessment of the year's moral quandaries and the shopworn Apatow Double-Dip; rather, the critic followed up a couple days later with another Top 10, this time featuring "a few questions that have actually been asked by readers, and several more that I think ought to be asked by somebody." In fairness, he acknowledges the self-indulgence, but it hardly seems to offset the microcosmic annoyance of the passages that follow: "Isn’t There Will Be Blood actually the best movie of 2008?"; "I’m Not There isn’t the best movie of the year? But it’s Todd Haynes! It’s Bob Dylan! It’s Portland!"; "What other movies made your Honorable Mentions list?"; and the inquiry surely on everyone's tongue, "Is There Will Be Blood [No. 1] that much better than No Country for Old Men [No. 2]?"

I won't -- or, more accurately, can't -- excerpt the reply to the latter question; it's too long and involved to risk decontextualization here. Let it suffice to say it is a crystalline example of what makes lists so brutal in the first place: Deconstruction on the basis of rank. These films have nothing in common beyond shooting location, their co-producers and a couple of money-grubbing sociopaths. Mesh prefers Blood's scope and star power to No Country's tight ensemble understatement. Fine. Terrific. Must one negate the other as critics pursue consensus? Must their faint thematic overlaps -- no more or less noteworthy than a couple of strangers both having green eyes -- force some bullshit aesthetic coexistence the way Saving Private Ryan and The Thin Red Line were shamelessly cross-referenced in 1999? I like Blood a lot more than No Country, but is it really better? And are both really better than 50 dozen other films that shared their year of release by little more than coincidence? Is this the best we can do: the same old physics exam, 100 lists at a time, decade after decade? When do we get better?

1. Ben Lyons, E!

Sorry, Ben: The above question does not apply to you and the awe-inspiring best-of slideshow that rips the faded "Idiot Listmaker Savant" sash from Roger Friedman's clammy girth and reapportions it to your tender frame. Perhaps it's in the genes, perhaps it's the institutional mandate; either way, your populist, zipper-busting-cum-discerning young man act is breathtakingly fresh:

Superbad: The funniest film of the year, and not just because I sneaked into the background of the party fight scene!

The 11th Hour: The most important documentary of the year. I implore you to see it, as it will open your eyes to the climate crisis facing our planet and challenge you to take action and make a difference.

Atonement: Director Joe Wright is able to masterfully translate the classic WWII-era novel to the big screen and make it feel modern and relevant. Keira Knightley, if you are reading this, will you marry me?

As with the likes of Friedman, Peter Travers and his own father Jeffrey before him, the Top 10 authority speaks for itself. True genius means never having to say you're sorry -- or anything else, for that matter. Enjoy your reign.

Comments (7)

"'Idiot Listmaker Savant'"

Sigh. One day I'll bring this award home.

But it's good to see the Lyons together again.

And can we nominate "Mike Nichols (The Graduate) directed the R-rated picture, which is smart, fast and fun." for "Best Worst Pullquote Of 2007" ?

Jeffrey will be happy to see this...

I love that Ben Lyons refers to Atonement as a "classic World War II-era novel."

It was published in, what, 2003?

Remember the old joke in Woody Allen's CELEBRITY, about a film critic (veiled reference to Ebert) who liked everything after he married a woman with big boobs? Well, though I can't begrudge a man for looking at life (and the movies)in a new way after beating cancer, Ebert now likes essentially everything. And JUNO - the big problem no one talks about - no friggin' teenager talks like that. None.

No six-year-old talks like Calvin either, but it doesn't stop Calvin & Hobbes from being the best comic strip ever made.

Generally speaking, I enjoy reading lists -- including this one in The Reeler. They can be a good way to discover something new -- and hopefully good. (And of course, "good" is thoroughly subjective.)

Now, I'd say that 10 is a good number because it's manageable. Even if there had been 50 great movies in '07, space (in print outlets) and time (anywhere) would prevent critics from listing every single film and explaining concisely -- but not *too* concisely -- why they liked/loved them.

i don't know how old brian talmadge is, but teenagers talk so much like Juno that when I watched it I figured Diablo Cody was only 19 or so.

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