December 29, 2006

The Top 10 of Top 10 Lists of 2006, Part II

Selecting the best of this year's hype, hypocrisy and general self-importance

By S.T. VanAirsdale

As you'll read momentarily, The Reeler's Top 10 of Top 10 Lists cites an all-new group of critics among its top five for 2006; last year's honorees like Kenneth Turan, Richard Schickel and Richard Corliss today are far likelier to bore than outrage, and I'm still awaiting a list, a cave-painting photo -- anything, really -- from defending champ Roger Friedman. But as I've suggested for critics' Top 10 lists, change is good and ultimately essential. At any rate, no matter their rankings, it's essential to remember that everyone here is a winner.

To recap: The scale rolls from frustrating (10) to useless (5) to outright insulting (1). Feel free to review selections six through 10 here, and I encourage your own Top 10 Top 10s and any other comments at the bottom of the page. Thanks again!


5. Matt Dentler, indieWIRE

There were several short listers drawn from the dozens of Top 10 contributors at indieWIRE, where a fairly liberal submission policy (Christ almighty, they even invited me) resulted in a scorched earth of superlatives. And while Anthony Kaufman did his typically stagy, sperm-donor best in the name of L'Enfant (actual praise: "The brothers Dardenne have once again created a masterpiece of moral struggle, under-class [?] woe and sublime redemption. No other movie this year made me physically shudder."), he had nothing left for the home stretch.

That's where South by Southwest Film Festival director and IW blogger Matt Dentler -- clearly having conditioned all year for this very moment -- passed him with a swift move to the inside. Way inside:

6. A Scanner Darkly ("Isn't it great when friends end up making a movie you truly love? In this case, it's a science-fiction crime film that's as airtight as its mind-being [sic] animation.")

Golly -- namedropping and nonsense. To paraphrase Kaufman, no other Top 10 list this year made me physically shudder.

4. Joshua Michael Rowin, The L Magazine

Like Nick Schager and Ed Gonzalez, those Top 10 Top 10 list perennials from Slant Magazine, Rowin and listmate Jason Bogdaneris achieve an over-the-top synergy of abstraction that defies me to select just one. But Rowin's hype overcomes in the end, throttling his reader like a Hitchcock blond: "There's never been a more realistic, artful action film in Hollywood history than Children of Men," he writes of Alfonso Cuaron's "allegorical and visceral phantasmagoria" one sentence after calling The Black Dahlia "more movie than almost anything that offered itself up as such in '06."

Bonus points for invoking "the nether regions of a debauched Russia of the mind" in reference to Ilya Khrjanovsky's brilliant 4, a nifty one-two punch of anthropomorphizing cliches that lift Rowin cleanly into the Top 5.

3. Lou Lumenick and Kyle Smith, the New York Post

Don't get me wrong -- this is hardly pairing for pairing's sake. History has shown that Smith would dismantle his senior colleague 100 out of 100 times in any Top 10 Wank-Off, and perhaps for that reason, they "recently took a few hours" for a more conversational run through their respective year-end lists. As usual, Smith's ideology boner has an eagle perched on it; "Every American should see [United 93]," he writes. "It was one of the most moving experiences I’ve ever had in a theater, and it’s a lasting monument to American courage." His straight-faced, instant-classic criticism of Borat insists that the film "just proved that Americans are exceptionally tolerant of people from different cultures."

It doesn't really get good until the end, though, after the pair hates on easy targets like Big Momma's House 2 and Lumenick nudges the little guy's elbow as the stage director reaches for the hook:

Lou: Actually, Kyle, I hear Sharon Stone is thinking of having more work done so she can star in a movie version of your new book, A Christmas Caroline.
Kyle: As Chuck Heston would say, she can have it when she pries it out of my cold, dead hands.

Wow -- tasteless plugs for the book and the NRA. In a Top 10 list! Talk about overachieving. Not that they had anything else of value to write about movies anyway.

2. Peter Travers, Rolling Stone

After his surprising early exit from last year's stench brackets, this year the easy-to-please vet Travers dramatically limps through the film-critic equivalent of The Death of Mr. Lazarescu:

--Slumping into a chair relatively healthy, yet sensing trouble (The Departed, Dreamgirls);

--Throwing up on his slippers ("[As Babel] builds to a shattering climax, you'll be in an emotional grip that won't let go.");

--Meandering through the same overtaxed clinical outposts as the rest of his infirm countrymen (United 93, The Queen, Borat, Little Miss Sunshine);

--And giving out with a faux-elegiac stumble into black (A Prairie Home Companion, the blurb of which concludes, "Godspeed, maestro.").

Such a shame. Now if only Jann Wenner would pay to bury him.

1. Kathleen Murphy, MSN Movies

You had to know it would take one hell of an effort to dethrone Roger Friedman, whose #1 Top 10 List of 2005 so outpaced its competition that compiling a 2006 ranking seemed like a rigged game. Alas, by sheer will (and, I suppose, by Friedman's disqualifying failure to submit a 2006 list by my deadline), Murphy shocks the world with a list blending the best of everything: a modifier-to-noun ratio of about 6:1; an obligatory Hieronymous Bosch reference (the L's Rowin had one as well); banal statements of the obvious ("True-blue tensions and connections spark among [Half Nelson's] three-dimensional characters, playing out scenes that often go somewhere smart and unexpected."); and generally predictable selections that reflect the smug entitlement of the critical establishment.

But one can't just win first place on the basis of uninspired writing alone. Murphy genuinely shifts a Top 10 paradigm with a footnote simultaneously including and excluding The Departed from her list. Watch and learn, rookies:

As an exercise in brilliant filmmaking and tour-de-force acting, Martin Scorsese's The Departed would grace any 2006 10 Best List. Still, the movie felt hermetic and calculated to me, as though I was being galvanized by superb, heartless mechanics. Other, less perfectly crafted movies took firmer root in my memory because they reached hard for something new, surprising, transforming.

Indeed. Imploded rationale, circular logic, hypocrisy and overall disingenuousness: That's the stuff of champions. And it all starts again Monday -- get training now if you think you have what it takes to win in 2007.

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Comments (3)

Although I'm glad to see another funny attack on the end of year space fillers, I didn't enjoy this article as much as last year's. In your 2005 post you were more specific in your comments, and overall had a more clear focus on writing that was just plain bad. This time around you seem to be making fun of some critics for being passionate and/or intellectual. I like brevity too, but it's not as if those INLAND EMPIRE reviews you quote are incomprehensible or inaccurate. And why shouldn't Dentler call L'Enfant a masterpiece if that's what he thinks? And what's different about you calling Awesome: I Fuckin' Shot That "an authentically singular classic"?

It's unfortunate to see this list used as an opportunity pick on Kathleen Murphy, whose writings always evidences a personal approach to film. Especially formative for me were her work on filmmakers such as John Boorman, Neil Jordan, Jean-Pierre Jeunet, Robert Altman, even filmmakers I don't care for such as Sam Mendes and Jane Campition. I may disagree (even be confounded) by her choices. I may cringe at her borrowing of Roger Ebert's "fairy tale for adults" line. Of any critic EVER, Kathleen Murphy should know all worthy fairy tales are for adults -- so I take that as a joke of some sort. But of all such articles I've read this year, it's actually by far the most interesting. I'm glad these nuggets providing examples of her singular approach are available.

dude, i totally understand yr criticism, but keep in mind that 1) i have been public about my complete dislike for lists and the whole "best of the year" ritual and still have nothing but antipathy toward them, and 2) due to the pressure i feel from taking part in this annoying process, and making some sort of important "statement" about the cinema that "mattered" in a calendar year, i unfortunately fail to measure my opinion and words in the same manner i normally do when given ample space (not just fifty or so words) to consider a film or films. check out my longer, more sensible reviews and i think you'll agree -- the "best of the year" nonsense, i'll readily admit, is not my forte (even though i still stand what i wrote). i liked that my prose finally got likened to a "hitchcockian blond," though: i've been waiting my whole career for that.

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