December 28, 2006

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

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

By S.T. VanAirsdale

Originally, after its debut's turbulent reception in 2005, I had a difficult time deciding whether or not this year I should continue the fledgling Reeler tradition of a Top 10 of Top 10 Lists. I recalled bloggy peers criticizing me for lacking a sense of humor or for being "unsporting" while commenters sniffled over my perceived pettiness. A hate-mailer called me a parasite. What a drag, I thought; why endure scores of self-aware, anti-reader, generally anti-cinema 10-best lists just to go through all of that again?

Naturally, for the same reason garbage men drive huge trucks: Someone has to clean up everybody else's mess.

As noted in last year's introduction (I'll avoid the storied Andrew Sarris shortcut of plagiarizing myself by the column-inch, but please forgive a paraphrase or two), Top 10 lists have always been somewhat exempt from quality control. They're undertaken in the name of "fun" or in the service of the "cultural conversation," a convenient means of winding down the year while upholding the illusion of constructive work. Yet like so many aged, diseased trees falling in so many distant forests, they make a sound among few inhabitants besides an unwitting editorial wildlife burdened by proximity -- and among other critics, of course, ecstatic with clubby, bladder-emptying chatter in back woods where readers fear to tread. (Don't fret though, ladies -- you, too, performed admirably in this year's pissing contest.)

And with their scepter-swinging nominations of the same 20-25 titles to the year's hyperbole canon, Top 10 lists reward a backloaded release calendar that all but buries dozens of worthy films that preceded their selections earlier in the year (many of which, it should be added, the most influential list-fetishists have not even seen). That it all amounts to so much hogcalling makes it even worse: Choose an authentically singular classic like Awesome; I Fuckin' Shot That! and you're a contrarian; rub one out in the brimming gallon jug marked L'Enfant and maybe that first freelance gig will arrive before April next year.

Not that that has anything to do with you, dear reader. You and I are in this together; not as dogmatic anti-intellectuals, obviously, but rather as defenders of intellectual honesty in criticism and advocates for excellent cinema of all budgets, languages, genres and distribution levels. And while we're essentially powerless to disrupt the circle-jerk cycle, we can always embrace its banality and salvage tiny psychic victories from the horror. I'm not talking about excess (e.g. CHUD.com's Devin Faraci missed the cut only because he compiled a Top 15 anchored in minutiae that probably deserve their own post) or good intentions gone tragically awry (e.g. Brian Brooks' Volver praise on indieWIRE: "Windy days in La Mancha, family antagonisms rising to the surface, and a mother ghost. Pefecto! [sic]"). I'm talking about the writers who languish on The Reeler's Top 10 of Top 10 Lists scale of 10 (frustrating) to 5 (useless) to 1 (outright insulting).

Or, more specifically, the following:

10. Joe Morgenstern, The Wall Street Journal

Though Morgenstern's prose hardly evinces a lower intestine as full of self-love as that of some of his colleagues, he provides a convenient entry point to this year's Top 10 Top 10 with this not-so-earnest bit of protest:

Nine of my favorite films opened after the halfway mark in 2006, seven of those opened during the past four months, and one doesn't open until next week. ... Since most ... pre-Oscar awards are bestowed in December or early January, presumably by people lacking long-term memory, most movies deemed Oscar-worthy are now released in the fall or early winter, leaving the rest of the year as a wasteland for grown-up movie lovers, though a playground for movie-consuming teens. Ten-best lists are part of the problem, of course, but I've never claimed to be part of the solution, so here goes, in alphabetical order.

Sound familiar? Except that even the studios don't approach their late-year condescension with this kind of complacency, offering interchangeable Mad Libs-style "praise" like "(I)t's remarkable that Clint Eastwood was able to sell his vision of an epic war film told from both sides of a specific battle, let alone that he was able to make it so magnificently well" (regarding Letters From Iwo Jima) directly following "I'm talking, of course, about Forest Whitaker's magisterial performance, the likes of which I've never seen on stage, let alone on screen" (regarding The Last King of Scotland). I'm just disappointed that the generally useful Morgenstern would so conspicuously call it in at the end of the year, let alone with such tired insincerity. If you really think everything is so slow in March, Joe, maybe you should take your vacation then.

9. Lisa Schwarzbaum, Entertainment Weekly

I often prefer Schwarzbaum to her EW colleague Owen Gleiberman if only because she just reads like she enjoys her job more than he does. The downside is that her annual 10-best list all but shrieks across the page; I can't help but envision her in her office, crossing off calendar days one at a time as Top 10 time draws near, later summoning actual phrases like "recuperative whiff of hope" (re The Death of Mr. Lazarescu) in any elevator, cab and washroom that inspires her sweet critic daydreams. The saccharine cutesiness of Schwarzbaum's praise for The Queen -- "The populace well knows that, by royal decree, Helen Mirren is this year's queen of queens: Her Elizabeth II invites closer, fairer access to a modern monarch than any performance in memory, and Mirren deserves each and every honor bestowed upon her by the rulers of Hollywood." -- is the stuff of diabetic comas.

8. Sledge, Film Ick

One of the things people proclaim to love most about Top 10 lists is their leveling dynamic: Anybody can make one, the logic goes, and thus the cultural conversation is equalized. I wish this was true. Alas, we have Film Ick's barely sentient Sledge, a Welshman wielding one Blogspot account (and perhaps one chromosome) too many. Heavy on the sic:

#1: Little Miss Sunshine: This is a lovely off-beat film which took me by surprise as I didn't know what to expect as I sat in my cinema seat.
#3: Children of Men: People are on about Alfonso Cuarón being the next Kubrick. I dunno about that, but film [sic] is very, very good indeed.
#9: A Cock And Bull Story: I'm a huge fan of both Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon, so I was very excited in seeing this. A Cock And Bull Story is an adaptation of a book which is unadaptable. It's very funny to see both the leads fighting each other for attention.

You might think it's petty to pick on poor Sledge, but who's picking on him? After some consideration, it occurs to me that his logic, ambition and unabashed clowniness (#5: Snakes on a Plane) defy otherwise facile trends of the season like, say, snob pretense or literacy. It's a shame I couldn't rank him higher. But that would mean displacing...

7. Nick Schager and Ed Gonzalez, Slant Magazine

2006 was a year of pairs for many critics (see deposed Top 10er Kenneth Turan, for especially overblown example) and observers. And among the most notable listmakers, no tandem so rigorously adhered to the impenetrability standard adopted by Slant's Schager and Gonzalez -- particularly the latter critic, whose show-stopping Inland Empire rhapsody runs 93 words over two sentences.

Even with that in mind, can you match the appropriate Slant critic to his respective IE handjob?

SAMPLE A) "Lynch, pace Björk, leaves logic and reason to the arms of unconsciousness, but he never abandons compassion, because every corridor of this serpentine hall of mirrors is alive with a bug-eyed exaltation for the in-too-deep thesping that obsesses Laura Dern's actress as she pushes and bleeds her way through a grungy view-askew of the Dream Factory."
SAMPLE B) "Shot on gorgeously composed grainy DV that corresponds with the action's skuzzy, hazy nature, the film is a work of dark enchantment, Lynch craftily combining and reconfiguring aesthetic and narrative components until what remains—aside from Laura Dern's brilliant, wide-ranging lead performance—is a through-the-rabbit-hole mystery saturated with endless interpretive possibilities."

Yikes! Maybe I shouldn't have judged an improvement over last year's impressive year-end showing, but the pair earns bonus points for reasonably unconventional selections like Romantico, Neil Young: Heart of Gold and the masterful Russian entry 4. Overall, like a lurching, asthmatic figure-skating duo, Gonzschager's prowess is a gift to behold -- one that I expect will establish them here for a loooooong time to come.

6. Ryan Stewart, Cinematical

After 11 months of sandbagging, the gang at Cinematical proves its site is not all Transformers updates and class-A junketeering. Just check out the spectacular 10-Best grand finale anchored by last year's 10th place finisher (with Karina Longworth), Ryan Stewart. This was hardly an easy choice: Top 10 Top 10 '05 alum Jeffrey M. Anderson contributed this year's ill-advised list under the Cinematical aegis; editor James Rocchi reheated his old hyperbole in tinfoil trays; and Kim Voynar nearly dethroned Stewart with a relentless, bloody coup of cliches (did she really just describe Children of Men as "a perilous journey on which the entire future of humankind rides"?). Stewart, however, outmaneuvers all of them in his introduction with this airless bit of critical calisthenics:

There is evidence in the list, however, of my lingering preference for visual poetry over verbal Jujitsu. I will always side with the cold, Calvinist aesthetics of someone in the tradition of Godard over a cast-of-thousands verbiage feast offered by someone like the late Robert Altman.

Fine, Ryan, fine -- just do it in private next year.

Click here for the top five, including a new listmaking champion for 2006!

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Comments (8)

I am Brendon Connelly. Sledge is not me - he is, however a contributor to film ick, my film blog. His top ten was his own - and who would I be to censor him? Let him have his views, as you have yours.

My top ten - VERY different to Sledge's - will be published on film ick before the 1st.

And née is the female form of the word, for the record. I believe né is the word the writer was looking for here - even though, of course, the comment they are trying to make has no basis in fact.

I'm not sure I understand the author's point. Is he suggesting that critics should make a concerted effort to choose films that were released early in the year or received little attention just for the sake of being different? If someone genuinely believes that ROMANTICO is a better film than CHILDREN OF MEN and can coherently argue their point, fine. To pick it just because nobody else has is retarded.

Thanks for the note, Brendon. I've made the appropriate correction and regret the error.

And "née" is gender neutral. For the record.


Wouldn't you believe it - Sledge isn't English. He's Welsh. Ooops.

And all of the French folk I know maintain that nee is not gender neutral. Maybe they're wrong.

The French "folk" aren't necessarily wrong; they just overlook a secondary, gender-neutral usage that translates to "formerly known as." This is in pretty much any English dictionary, particularly the comprehensive Webster's Third New International, which is my final reference.

But Sledge's Welsh origins have been noted, and I regret the error.


Dear Stu:

No, I did not call "Children of Men" -- the film as such -- "a perilous journey on which the entire future of humankind rides."

What I did say, in context (you might try familiarizing yourself with that term) was:

"Cuaron keeps his lens wide and follows along as both characters and environment lead us on a perilous journey on which the entire future of humankind rides."

I was referring to the storyline, Stu. Maybe you haven't seen the film, but that's pretty much what it's about.

But of course, it's easier to be a computer-chair playground bully and pick apart other writers' work that to write anything of actual substance yourself, eh?

Myself, I enjoy (most of the time) reading other critics' top ten lists, because it gives me a window into their take on film overall. I don't always agree with everything they say, but that's okay -- diversity of opinion -- and respect for the same -- is what it's all about, right?

"Probably deserve their own post"? Don't tease me like that.

But of course, it's easier to be a computer-chair playground bully and pick apart other writers' work that to write anything of actual substance yourself, eh?

Can't you answer that question for yourself? One would expect a critic to know...

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