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David Poland

By David Poland poland@moviecitynews.com

The Reeler's Top 10 of Top 10 Lists of 2005


I know I promised this a lot earlier in the day, but selecting a Top 10 of Top 10 Film Lists from around the country is anything but easy. You get to a short list, and then you get to a point where you can no longer remember who exactly called Brokeback Mountain a “wrenching, tragic love story between two cowboys” and who called it a “tragic, wrenching story of two cowboys in love.” You lose track of the hype, you nod off at the 133rd French kiss on David Cronenberg’s ring and generally tend to get frustrated and need a coffee break.
But really, this year’s Top 10 lists are no different than last year’s or the years before, dating back to whenever it was film writers got all territorial about their love for a film. When I say “territorial,” I mean that no critic ever pisses quite far and wide enough to stake a perfect intellectual claim to a film. The critic measures his or her review against that of a colleague or a competitor, and realizing that the other has pissed a little longer, straighter and sweeter, he or she must go back and really tighten that affection into about 100-150 words of the most fulsome, poetic praise the critic can summon. This is essentially why Top 10 lists comprise the same 20 or so films among them: Richard Schickel cannot outwank Roger Ebert on Crash or Munich unless they go head on. To flog another analogy, it is sort of like a month-long binge of critic porn; like Oscar hype, if readers read it at all, it is because they really have no choice. It is all that is out there.

So let us just say I am stating the obvious. “Everybody knows this,” you say. “It is all in fun.” Sure, it IS all in fun–the critic’s fun. What about your fun? How much fucking fun are you having while 200 austere, antisocial cinephiles fight to outmaneuver each others’ most clever turns of phrase summarizing the triumphs of Wong Kar-Wai and Steven Spielberg? This is not work in your service; at best, it is a massive critical circle jerk (which can at least be entertaining to watch), and at worst, it is work that demotes critics from parasites feeding off filmmakers to parasites feeding off each other.
A few outlets do it almost despite themselves, and that subdued quality can actually help in getting it right. The Onion’s AV Club, for example, gives critics a few extra comments about the films they either did not review in the first place or have something genuinely new to bring to the table. Then there are the Roger Friedmans of the world–myopic lobotomites whose stabs at critical glory leave anyone within 15 feet mortally wounded (just ask “Miranda Joy,” but more on that tomorrow). Everyone inbetween–from the good-hearted film lovers at Cinematical to the Los Angeles Times’s despotic Kenneth Turan–gives this a shot at their own peril.
While considering whether to assemble a Top 10 myself, I could not conceive a single reason you would care about one more list of movies. It DID occur to me, however, that I could pinpoint the 10 Top 10 lists I came across that reaffirmed to me how lousy an idea these things are in the first place. So here is The Reeler’s first Top 10 List of Top 10 Lists–five today, five tomorrow, ranked from frustrating (10) to useless (5) to outright insulting (1):


10. Karina Longworth and Ryan Stewart, Cinematical
As everyone knows, we always hurt the ones we love. And wincing at Cinematical’s Top 10 was as devastating a reaction as I faced throughout this whole process. For example, Karina Longworth’s entry in this year’s One-Line Terrence Malick Hagiography Sweepstakes seems a little too easy: “(Some viewers) will stare slack-jawed at Q’orianka Kilcher, as she and (Colin) Farrell and Malick recast the silliest of American myths as a swirling tale of obsession and longing on the order of Lolita.” That sounds curiously reductive and unappealing; after all, hasn’t Lolita itself entropied into one of America’s silliest myths–a tautology running the gamut from politics to pornography? Stirring as they are, Nabokov’s ideas, like Malick’s, are virtually irrelevant in 2005.
Meanwhile, in praising Werner Herzog’s Grizzly Man, Ryan Stewart succumbs to the egregious pun Little Dieter Wants to Die and coronates the “best non-fiction film of the year” without really saying a single word about what makes it so. Stewart earns bonus negative points for pulling punches: “It seems cruel to call Herzog’s film a portrait of awesome stupidity, but that’s the way some will see it.” Is Stewart referring to Treadwell’s stupidity or that of Herzog himself, who actively encourages Treadwell’s ex to destroy the audio recording of the naturalist being eaten by a bear? Yes, indeed–trash the historical record. Best non-fiction film of the year, right there.

9. Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times
This is another painful call, because I know Ebert’s a genuinely down-to-earth guy who tends to avoid swinging his knowledge and influence around his writing like a mace. However, Ebert is also probably one of the few (if not the only) critics on Earth of whom readers might actually demand one of these lists, and he seems to go at it half-heartedly at best. Take this obtuse praise for Syriana: “Stephen Gaghan’s film doesn’t reveal the plot, but surrounds us with it. Interlocking stories again: There is less oil than the world requires, and that will make some rich and others dead, unless we all die first.” Or Ebert’s nod to Me and You and Everyone We Know: “(W)hen have you seen a woman seduce a man not with sex but with unbridled and passionate whimsy?” Did I miss the whimsy in Miranda July’s Christine stalking her object of desire, clinging to her phone and morosely begging him to “fucking call”?
Then Ebert tosses in virtually every other halfway decent film released this year under the “Special Jury Awards” subheading, also adding his choices for the year’s best documentaries, best animated films and best overlooked films. It is just kind of a marathon of critical overindulgence that seems beneath him, you know? Then again, you could (and probably will) say the same about this list, so whatever. You go, Rog.
8. Matt Singer, IFC News
I cannot tell you how much I appreciate Singer’s disclaimer preceding a Top 10 that obviously stretched him farther than he had ever stretched before:

Do not mistake this top ten list as some sort of authoritative list of the “best” films of 2005. … Rather, these are my personal favorites from the past twelve months, and the list is still evolving; a few days ago King Kong knocked Brokeback Mountain off the list before The White Diamond knocked it out of the top ten. As I catch the remaining contenders (Munich, Crash, Sympathy For Mr. Vengeance and others) this list will likely continue to change well into 2006. It’s already changed once, to reflect the addition of Michael Haneke’s superb vid-thriller Caché.

Wow. Well, now that you have the URL, you can satisfy that certain, unshakeable brain-stem ping impelling you to check back to see if maybe Match Point might knock off The Weather Man. But remember, whatever you do: Do not mistake Singer’s list as authoritative! Write that down and refer to it while reading, if you must.
7. Jeffrey M. Anderson, Combustible Celluloid
This is a prime example of the pissing contest participant I was telling you about; probably one heck of a nice guy, but so stubbornly proud that he thinks he must have a hyperbolic Top 10 list to be taken seriously at the end of the year. This is outright brainwashing, and I am here to tell people like Anderson that hey–it is OK sometimes to just take a year off, or at least do a couple of extra drafts to make sure you are saying something A) original and B) rational.
In David Cronenberg’s A History of Violence, for example, Viggo Mortensen’s Tom Stall is “struggling with Cronenbergian inner conflicts.” Seventh-place finisher Good Night, and Good Luck is “the most exciting journalism movie since All the President’s Men,” while No. 8 Capote is “one of the most perceptive portraits of the writing process ever filmed.” Ingmar Bergman’s execrable Saraband “was as good as his best, and very possibly his last.” Nothing personal, Jeff, but we really need to talk before you fire one of these off in 2006.

6. A.O. Scott, Manohla Dargis and Stephen Holden, The New York Times
Poor Manohla Dargis–guilty by association. Scott is Scott, actually writing things likeThe Squid and the Whale hit me where I live, and not only because it was filmed a few blocks from where I really do live” (a little bourgeoisie hand lotion never hurt an intellectual masturbator, I guess–he even repeats the factoid on the outrageous audio slideshow version of his best-of), and Holden runs down his own list with a kind of clinical, “I-live-for-this” rigor.
But Dargis–the only Times critic whom you sense might genuinely enjoy cinema–tries her damnedest to save the day with a free-ranging meditation on everything that made 2005 a great year for movies. “In the movie theater of my dreams,” she writes, “I would put two of the gutsiest films of the year, Michael Haneke’s Caché and Steven Spielberg’s Munich, on a double bill. (In this same dream theater, you could also buy a bottle of beer, which you would really need while watching these two.)” She also eschews her contemporaries’ grave hyperbole over A History of Violence, instead explaining why she laughed at the film (even as she loved it) on her first viewing.
And check out what she writes about Brokeback Mountain:

I don’t know a single straight woman who hasn’t been involved with a man as emotionally thwarted as Ennis, the man who can’t tell you how he feels because he may not honestly know. And because the film is, in many respects, about how difficult it is to live in a culture that punishes men who give the appearance of being too soft, too weak and too feminine, I imagine that a lot of men, gay and straight, recognize Ennis, too. Unlike Ennis, Jake Gyllenhaal’s doe-eyed Jack Twist wears desire as openly as pain. Without his sensitive performance, without his ache and yearning, Brokeback Mountain wouldn’t work half as well as it does.

This is one of those examples of more being more, because it erases the abstract pissing-contest praise shoveled out by less conscientious critics like Newsday’s Jan Stuart (who simply wrote about Brokeback‘s central relationship: “The implosive heat of Heath Ledger and playful energy of Jake Gyllenhaal were the personification of yin and yang,” see tomorrow’s five). As usual Dargis tends to reward her readers for their time, but is rewarded herself by getting sandwiched between two writers whose inconsistencies–at their worst–lapse into insufferable autoerotic impulse. But hey–that is what Top 10’s are for, I suppose. Yank away, boys, and keep a safe distance, Manohla.
Tomorrow, a visit with the heavyweights from New York to Los Angeles, and film criticism so bad you have to read it in stages. Drop by in the morning… (Read Part II here)

4 Responses to “The Reeler's Top 10 of Top 10 Lists of 2005”

  1. Out of Focus says:

    GENIUS, PURE GENIUS: THE ONLY TOP 10 YOU PROBABLY NEED (NO, IT’S STILL NOT MINE)

    My good friend The Reeler (how’s that for hyperbole? I believe we’ve met thrice, but isn’t that how one’s supposed to mention such a blogleague?) has posted the first half of his inaugural entry in a year-end Top 10 list of Top 10 lists, and so far it’…

  2. Marco Guiterrez says:

    You know, the introductory paragraph of this post is some kind of genius. I think you pretty much nail what’s so frustrating and tiresome about these Top 10 lists. It’s amazing you even read half the stuff the critics write. I don’t. I just see what they picked and move along, thus sparing myself the agony. As for the rest, I’m kind of disturbed a bit by this bullying you’re engaging in. I know this is a blog and these critics aren’t your colleagues exactly, but there’s a certain nastiness to this that’s surprising coming from you. It strikes me as very Armond White-ish. 😉

  3. JTE says:

    Everyone’s a critic. Even critics have critics.

  4. Jeremny says:

    thanks for this site, it has been a really big help with an assignment with a school project. you are a real help to me and my fellow classmates.
    -the student-

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“The thought is interrupted by an odd interlude. We are speaking in the side room of Casita, a swish and fairly busy Italian bistro in Aoyama – a district of Tokyo usually so replete with celebrities that they spark minimal fuss. Kojima’s fame, however, exceeds normal limits and adoring staff have worked out who their guest is. He stops mid-sentence and points up towards the speakers, delighted. The soft jazz that had been playing discreetly across the restaurant’s dark, hardwood interior has suddenly been replaced with the theme music from some of Kojima’s hit games. Harry Gregson-Williams’ music is sublime in its context but ‘Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots’ is not, Kojima acknowledges, terribly restauranty. He pauses, adjusting a pair of large, blue-framed glasses of his own design, and returns to the way in which games have not only influenced films, but have also changed the way in which people watch them. “There are stories being told [in cinema] that my generation may find surprising but which the gamer generation doesn’t find weird at all,” he says.
~ Hideo Kojima

“They’re still talking about the ‘cathedral of cinema,’ the ‘communal experience,’ blah blah. The experiences I’ve had recently in the theatre have not been good. There’s commercials, noise, cellphones. I was watching Colette at the Varsity, and halfway through red flashes came up at the bottom of the frame. A woman came out and said, ‘We’re going to have to reboot, so take fifteen minutes and come back.’ Then they rebooted it from the beginning, and she had to ask the audience to tell her how far to go. You tell me, is that a great experience? I generally don’t watch movies in a cinema at all. Netflix is the future. It’s the present. But the whole paradigm of a series, binge-watching, it’s quite different. My first reaction is that it’s more novelistic, because if you have an eight-hour season, you can get into complex, intricate things. You can let it breathe and the audience expectations are such that they will let you, where before they wouldn’t have the patience. I think only the surface has been touched with experimenting with that.”
~ David Cronenberg