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The Reeler Blog

"Treasure the Crackpots": Makor Critics Panel Explores the Future of Lists

Thrilled to have sprung from "last resort" to "plan R" in the hierarchy of New York film event ringleaders, I dropped by Makor Wednesday night to moderate a terrific panel discussion on the best and worst films of 2006. Joined by critics David Edelstein (New York Magazine), Owen Gleiberman (Entertainment Weekly) and Stephanie Zacharek (Salon), we never really digressed to chatter quite that elemental, but some pretty bad films (Tideland, Lady in the Water, The Good German) came up in addition to rhapsodic praise of favorites like The Queen, Sherrybaby and, in an unusual display of contrarian solidarity, the mostly derided OutKast musical Idlewild.


Screening room: (L-R) Reeler editor S.T. VanAirsdale and Salon critic Stephanie Zacharek split off from fellow panelists David Edelstein and Owen Gleiberman Wednesday night at Makor

Later in the conversation, after one audience member demanded more recognition for Lajos Koltai's brilliant yet largely (and sadly) forgotten Fateless and yet another sought a positive balance for the beatdown that greeted Darren Aronofsky's The Fountain, an attendee in the back of the theater asked the panelists probably the most important question of the night:

"I was wondering how far the three of you would be willing to go to help very small movies -- and I mean really small," he said. "Like if somebody put the best movie you've ever seen on YouTube -- would you put it on your Top 10 list?"

Follow the jump for the panelists' response, the publication of which may be slightly self-serving but which comprises a number of exceedingly important points about list madness.

"It's funny," Gleiberman said. "I've never been asked that. It's a question I think we're going to have to confront. I mean, Entertainment Weekly is a mass-market magazine, yet we cover some very, very tiny movies in terms of distribution. But we've never done one that's just on the Web. I think the answer is that the technology will force us to confront it. Hopefully, if there's really something of quality there, we will cover it. When you're drawn to something good -- no matter what the context... If I saw a great movie on YouTube, I know I'd be dying to write about it. I'd be fighting with my editors to try to write about it."

Edelstein agreed. "I would put it on my Top 10 list in a heartbeat -- in the flicker of an eyelash," he said. "And I also think that when one of us sees that movie on YouTube and does that, it's also going to get a lot of attention; people are going to say that we've hit this crossover now where, you know, works of art can actually reach everybody at the same time -- on demand, on the Web."

"I think it's a really good question and it raises a lot of questions about what a critic's 10-best list is," Zacharek replied. "At the end of the year, if you look over all the different ones, there's kind of a sameness to a lot of them, and if somebody has weird choices, 'Oh, they're idiosyncratic.' You know? So I think a lot of critics, especially for the major papers -- I know The New York Times, the L.A. Times -- I think they kind of struggle with this. Maybe they don't even acknowledge it, but you feel like you can't pick your own little quirky personal favorites; you have to pick movies that sort of represent some mythical standard of quality. I think a lot of critics feel that way."

"That's why I love Owen," Edelstein said. "He has no shame. He put Bad Boys on the top of his Top 10 list! The one with Sean Penn, not the other one."

"Maybe it should have been that one," Gleiberman said. "But you know something? He's right: I don't have any shame." He turned and gestured to Zacharek. "And actually, what Stephanie says shocks me in that, if what you're saying is right, why even be a critic unless you're willing to go with your individual choices?"

"I wasn't slamming the Times critics or anything like that," Zacharek said.

"Oh, no," Gleiberman shrugged. "We wouldn't mention them."

"No, no, no," Zacharek protested. "I just mean that I think there is some sort of unspoken sort of pressure. Like, 'If I put something really weird on there, people are just going to think I'm cracked.' "

I couldn't control myself. "Exactly!" I said. "So how long before we admit that Top 10s are completely intellectually bankrupt exercises?"

"I think what Stephanie has captured, though -- if what (she's) saying is true -- is that these lists have become very political," Gleiberman said. "But in a strange way; not in the way of people putting on these big commercial movies so they please their editors and to show that they're on the side of the people. But even in picking idiosyncratic films, it's films that all the critics kind of collude on deciding are good; therefore, maybe they can get away with putting those films on their list in terms of their editors. But the point is that they're not reflecting 100 percent themselves. And I don't get the idea of any critic who reflects anything other than himself. What's the point of going into this profession? It's not really that important anyway. I mean, it's all about your own reaction. I think if you take that out of it, you've lost the reason for doing it."

"That's why you should all treasure the crackpots," Edelstein told the crowd. "You know? Don't look for the people who are just going to rubber-stamp the Oscar-winning movies. Seek out minority points of view -- even insane points of view -- that maybe will help you do some fresh thinking, because it's amazing how easily we settle into this conventional wisdom. Even critics, in our splendid arrogance, I mean... I can't tell you how lazy my thinking is and how often, and how I need great critics to shake me up. Like, you know, the people on this panel."

Amen, and no doubt to be continued next year.

Posted at January 11, 2007 9:58 AM

Comments (5)

"Corner-Dweller" for your consideration...

A bit surprised you didn't have someone from the blogosphere on the panel. With all the flack we take from the print folks, it would have made for an interesting debate, particularly around the subject of top ten lists. With no editors to please, there is a greater sense of purity (100% ourselves), and no fear of appearing cracked (to quote Stephanie.)

I think the critics pack do tend to follow patterns when it comes to Top Ten lists.

If you want to see the ultimate Top Ten film site, this one is pretty good.

http://www.thescreendirectory.com/cat4/topten.php

It's all subjective in the end

I thought this was a great event--good work moderating, and for bringing the blogosphere into print criticism to an extent!

that's why the british critic Mark Kermode is the best.

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