So the BBC has put out a list of the 100 greatest films of the 21st century. Such lists are, if taken literally, an inane exercise, the most extreme version of a tendency already mocked 80 years ago by Auden’s Letter to Lord Byron:
Joyces are firm and there there’s nothing new.
Eliots have hardened just a point or two.
Hopkins are brisk, thanks to some recent boosts.
There’s been some further weakening in Prousts.
Still, contra Auden, I’d suggest that such lists do serve several legitimate purposes; among them: helping those who require initiation in the tradition (students) to educate their palate; helping those already initiated (critics) to step back and notice trends and tendencies that may require correction; and helping those who would understand Culture as a system (economists) to peer into its workings.
So, without further ado, I’ll be engaging in scholarship, criticism, and econometry, in that order.
Scholarship: Almost two thirds of these movies I haven’t seen; of those 66, there are only a handful (bolded) that I have any particular desire to see (though others might make the cut if I knew more about them, and the position of some of them on this list might induce me to seek them out):
100. Toni Erdmann (Maren Ade, 2016)
100. Requiem for a Dream (Darren Aronofsky, 2000)
100. Carlos (Olivier Assayas, 2010)
99. The Gleaners and I (Agnès Varda, 2000)
98. Ten (Abbas Kiarostami, 2002)
97. White Material (Claire Denis, 2009)
93. Ratatouille (Brad Bird, 2007)
92. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (Andrew Dominik, 2007)
91. The Secret in Their Eyes (Juan José Campanella, 2009)
89. The Headless Woman (Lucrecia Martel, 2008)
88. Spotlight (Tom McCarthy, 2015)
86. Far From Heaven (Todd Haynes, 2002)
85. A Prophet (Jacques Audiard, 2009)
83. A.I. Artificial Intelligence (Steven Spielberg, 2001)
81. Shame (Steve McQueen, 2011)
80. The Return (Andrey Zvyagintsev, 2003)
79. Almost Famous (Cameron Crowe, 2000)
77. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (Julian Schnabel, 2007)
76. Dogville (Lars von Trier, 2003)
75. Inherent Vice (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2014)
73. Before Sunset (Richard Linklater, 2004)
72. Only Lovers Left Alive (Jim Jarmusch, 2013)
71. Tabu (Miguel Gomes, 2012)
70. Stories We Tell (Sarah Polley, 2012)
69. Carol (Todd Haynes, 2015)
67. The Hurt Locker (Kathryn Bigelow, 2008)
66. Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter…and Spring (Kim Ki-duk, 2003)
65. Fish Tank (Andrea Arnold, 2009)
63. The Turin Horse (Béla Tarr and Ágnes Hranitzky, 2011)
61. Under the Skin (Jonathan Glazer, 2013)
60. Syndromes and a Century (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 2006)
58. Moolaadé (Ousmane Sembène, 2004)
57. Zero Dark Thirty (Kathryn Bigelow, 2012)
56. Werckmeister Harmonies (Béla Tarr, director; Ágnes Hranitzky, co-director, 2000)
55. Ida (Paweł Pawlikowski, 2013)
54. Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (Nuri Bilge Ceylan, 2011)
53. Moulin Rouge! (Baz Luhrmann, 2001)
52. Tropical Malady (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 2004)
50. The Assassin (Hou Hsiao-hsien, 2015)
49. Goodbye to Language (Jean-Luc Godard, 2014)
48. Brooklyn (John Crowley, 2015)
46. Certified Copy (Abbas Kiarostami, 2010)
45. Blue Is the Warmest Color (Abdellatif Kechiche, 2013)
42. Amour (Michael Haneke, 2012)
41. Inside Out (Pete Docter, 2015)
40. Brokeback Mountain (Ang Lee, 2005)
39. The New World (Terrence Malick, 2005)
37. Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 2010)
36. Timbuktu (Abderrahmane Sissako, 2014)
34. Son of Saul (László Nemes, 2015)
31. Margaret (Kenneth Lonergan, 2011)
30. Oldboy (Park Chan-wook, 2003)
29. WALL-E (Andrew Stanton, 2008)
28. Talk to Her (Pedro Almodóvar, 2002)
26. 25th Hour (Spike Lee, 2002)
23. Caché (Michael Haneke, 2005)
22. Lost in Translation (Sofia Coppola, 2003)
18. The White Ribbon (Michael Haneke, 2009)
16. Holy Motors (Leos Carax, 2012)
15. 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (Cristian Mungiu, 2007)
12. Zodiac (David Fincher, 2007)
11. Inside Llewyn Davis (Joel and Ethan Coen, 2013)
9. A Separation (Asghar Farhadi, 2011)
8. Yi Yi: A One and a Two (Edward Yang, 2000)
5. Boyhood (Richard Linklater, 2014)
2. In the Mood for Love (Wong Kar-wai, 2000)
Second, criticism: the other 36 I have seen; there are 27 which I agree should have made the cut (though I’d probably shuffle the ordering)—I don’t necessarily like all of them, but those I don’t like I have no strong feelings about and can recognize their artistry. Whereas there are 9 of whose presence I actively disapprove, thinking them overrated; I’ve bolded and reddened the ones I dislike.
96. Finding Nemo (Andrew Stanton, 2003)
95. Moonrise Kingdom (Wes Anderson, 2012)
94. Let the Right One In (Tomas Alfredson, 2008)
90. The Pianist (Roman Polanski, 2002)
87. Amélie (Jean-Pierre Jeunet, 2001)
84. Her (Spike Jonze, 2013)
82. A Serious Man (Joel and Ethan Coen, 2009)
78. The Wolf of Wall Street (Martin Scorsese, 2013)
74. Spring Breakers (Harmony Korine, 2012)
68. The Royal Tenenbaums (Wes Anderson, 2001)
64. The Great Beauty (Paolo Sorrentino, 2013)
62. Inglourious Basterds (Quentin Tarantino, 2009)
59. A History of Violence (David Cronenberg, 2005)
51. Inception (Christopher Nolan, 2010)
47. Leviathan (Andrey Zvyagintsev, 2014)
44. 12 Years a Slave (Steve McQueen, 2013)
43. Melancholia (Lars von Trier, 2011)
38. City of God (Fernando Meirelles and Kátia Lund, 2002)
35. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (Ang Lee, 2000)
33. The Dark Knight (Christopher Nolan, 2008)
32. The Lives of Others (Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, 2006)
27. The Social Network (David Fincher, 2010)
25. Memento (Christopher Nolan, 2000)
24. The Master (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2012)
21. The Grand Budapest Hotel (Wes Anderson, 2014)
20. Synecdoche, New York (Charlie Kaufman, 2008)
19. Mad Max: Fury Road (George Miller, 2015)
17. Pan’s Labyrinth (Guillermo Del Toro, 2006)
14. The Act of Killing (Joshua Oppenheimer, 2012)
13. Children of Men (Alfonso Cuarón, 2006)
10. No Country for Old Men (Joel and Ethan Coen, 2007)
7. The Tree of Life (Terrence Malick, 2011)
6. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (Michel Gondry, 2004)
4. Spirited Away (Hayao Miyazaki, 2001)
3. There Will Be Blood (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2007)
1. Mulholland Drive (David Lynch, 2001)
Curiously, two of the nine movies of whose presence I disapproved were by Christopher Nolan, which might suggest I have a particular dislike for him—but, in fact, I like many of his movies, and think merely that these two movies in particular are quite overrated. In fact, in my suggested replacements for these nine movies, I include one Nolan film that did not make the original list:
Moonrise Kingdom (Wes Anderson, 2012) –> In Bruges (Martin McDonagh, 2008)
The Pianist (Roman Polanski, 2002) –> Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (Tomas Alfredson, 2011)
Amélie (Jean-Pierre Jeunet, 2001) –> Silver Linings Playbook (David O. Russell, 2012)
Her (Spike Jonze, 2013) –> Ex Machina (Alex Garland, 2015)
The Wolf of Wall Street (Martin Scorsese, 2013) –> The Big Short (Adam McKay, 2015)
Inception (Christopher Nolan, 2010) –> The Prestige (Christopher Nolan, 2005)
Memento (Christopher Nolan, 2000) –> Primer (Shane Carruth, 2004)
The Master (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2012) –> Birdman (Alejandro J. Iñárritu, 2014)
Pan’s Labyrinth (Guillermo Del Toro, 2006) –> Hero (Zhang Yimou, 2002)
Note that this is not an attempt to construct my own list of “36 greatest films of the 2000s”; there may be films I’m forgetting that did not make the original list but which I prefer to films on that list. Rather, it aims to replace inferior movies with other movies both similar and superior. This list thus constitutes a critical assertion: watch this, not that! But it’s also fodder for critical reflection. What makes me prefer the movies on the right to those on the left, apparently contrary to the critical consensus?
Some tentative inferences: first of all, my rejection of The Pianist, The Wolf of Wall Street, and The Master might suggest that I’m not a big fan of what’s usually called the “character study”—I prefer films with plots; and my dislike of the last one, in particular, might suggest that I have an aversion to slow-paced movies focused on what are often called “powerful” performances, in favor of the frenetic. And I admit—I agree with Kurosawa that the human body in action does a better job revealing character than lingering shots of contorted faces. Second, my dislike of Moonrise Kingdom, Amélie, Her, and Pan’s Labyrinth might suggest that I have an aversion to a certain kind of whimsy, and my like of In Bruges, Ex Machina, and Hero, a preference for fantastical themes played straight. I suppose this is right, though it requires more thought—some whimsy, after all, I do appreciate; but perhaps I prefer my whimsy to be social rather than metaphysical. Finally, my replacement of Inception and Memento with The Prestige and Primer derives, I think, from my like for but also extreme severity regarding what are often called “puzzle” movies. I dislike the former two movies because their puzzles seem to me simplistic and insignificant; it seems as if many people just say “Oh! Puzzle! That must have taken skill to work out!”, and leave it at that.
56% of the films I disliked were in the bottom 25% of the original list, and the bottom 22% of the list of those I’ve seen, which isn’t too surprising; you’d expect the movies nearer the cutoff point to be less obviously “great.”
More surprisingly, 33% of those I disliked were in the top 25% of the original list (though only the top 39% of those I’ve seen–again, it’s unsurprising that I’ve seen more films at the top of the list than at the bottom, since we tend to seek out movies that have a high reputation), and only 11% were in the middle quartiles. This suggests that movies considered “the best” will often be more controversial than those considered merely “good”.
To round it off, some fun with dates: their century includes both 2000 and 2016, and they have three #100s (I guess there was a tie?), which means their list includes an average of exactly six movies per year. Most years are pretty much average, having between 5 and 7 movies on the list. 2004 and 2006 are low, with only 4 each; 2012 and 2013 are high, with 9. 2016 only has 1, but the year isn’t up yet and so this number can’t be taken entirely seriously. Personally, apart from the inconsequential ’16 (I haven’t seen the one movie from this year), I’ve seen the most films (4) from ’01, ’12, and ’13, and the fewest (1) in ’04, ’05, ’06, and ’15; all other years I’ve seen 2 or 3. This tracks pretty well with the distribution on the list as a whole, except for my having seen 4 of the 6 movies from 2001; I attribute this, I suppose, to my usually watching “great” movies gradually over time, not when they come out, and so I’ve had more time to see the movies that have been around the longest, although it may be just a meaningless outlier.
Today being the Feast of St. Augustine, I call to your attention the last lines of “The Fire Sermon,” part iii of T. S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land”:
To Carthage then I came
Burning burning burning burning
O Lord Thou pluckest me out
O Lord Thou pluckest
In a way these lines, which allude (among other things) to Augustine’s Confessions, seem to demonstrate the opposite of the ethic of reading Augustine suggests in Confessions book IV, wherein the worst thing you can do is interrupt someone reading out loud because you want to linger on the sound of one particular word, at the expense of the sense of the entire sentence; I suggested in that post that Ambrose’s silent reading affects Augustine so powerfully because it suggests to him the possibility of uninterrupted sense-making.
The distinction I would draw here is perhaps over-subtle, but I think Eliot’s lines actually enact for us the opposite of the privileging of sound over sense that Augustine decries. Rather, by forcing us to read the repetition of the word “Burning,” it becomes not an aestheticized interruption, but an ascetic meditation. And by moving from the whole sentence “O Lord Thou pluckest me out” to the truncated repetition of “O Lord Thou pluckest,” Eliot anticipates the “backlooping” which we silent readers would have done anyway (“backlooping” being Walter J. Ong’s term for “glancing back over the text selectively,” an action possible only with the written word). The difference between backlooping and interrupted oral recitation is like that between memory and nostalgia. The former takes place as necessary for comprehension, the latter merely on a whim.
[First post of two, and a sequel of sorts to last year’s meditations on modern marriage. I might want to add some George Eliot (perhaps Silas Marner and Middlemarch?) to the syllabus offered in the last of those posts.]
In chapter 6 of George Eliot’s Silas Marner, a conversation in the tavern takes a strange turn, and one not particularly relevant to the plot, though of great thematic significance:
Here Mr. Macey paused; he always gave his narrative in instalments, expecting to be questioned according to precedent.
“Aye, and a partic’lar thing happened, didn’t it, Mr. Macey, so as you were likely to remember that marriage?” said the landlord, in a congratulatory tone.
“I should think there did—a very partic’lar thing,” said Mr. Macey, nodding sideways. “For Mr. Drumlow—poor old gentleman, I was fond on him, though he’d got a bit confused in his head, what wi’ age and wi’ taking a drop o’ summat warm when the service come of a cold morning. And young Mr. Lammeter, he’d have no way but he must be married in Janiwary, which, to be sure, ‘s a unreasonable time to be married in, for it isn’t like a christening or a burying, as you can’t help; and so Mr. Drumlow—poor old gentleman, I was fond on him—but when he come to put the questions, he put ’em by the rule o’ contrairy, like, and he says, “Wilt thou have this man to thy wedded wife?” says he, and then he says, “Wilt thou have this woman to thy wedded husband?” says he. But the partic’larest thing of all is, as nobody took any notice on it but me, and they answered straight off “yes”, like as if it had been me saying “Amen” i’ the right place, without listening to what went before.”
“But you knew what was going on well enough, didn’t you, Mr. Macey? You were live enough, eh?” said the butcher.
“Lor bless you!” said Mr. Macey, pausing, and smiling in pity at the impotence of his hearer’s imagination—”why, I was all of a tremble: it was as if I’d been a coat pulled by the two tails, like; for I couldn’t stop the parson, I couldn’t take upon me to do that; and yet I said to myself, I says, “Suppose they shouldn’t be fast married, ’cause the words are contrairy?” and my head went working like a mill, for I was allays uncommon for turning things over and seeing all round ’em; and I says to myself, “Is’t the meanin’ or the words as makes folks fast i’ wedlock?” For the parson meant right, and the bride and bridegroom meant right. But then, when I come to think on it, meanin’ goes but a little way i’ most things, for you may mean to stick things together and your glue may be bad, and then where are you? And so I says to mysen, “It isn’t the meanin’, it’s the glue.” And I was worreted as if I’d got three bells to pull at once, when we went into the vestry, and they begun to sign their names. But where’s the use o’ talking?—you can’t think what goes on in a ‘cute man’s inside.”
“But you held in for all that, didn’t you, Mr. Macey?” said the landlord.
“Aye, I held in tight till I was by mysen wi’ Mr. Drumlow, and then I out wi’ everything, but respectful, as I allays did. And he made light on it, and he says, “Pooh, pooh, Macey, make yourself easy,” he says; “it’s neither the meaning nor the words—it’s the regester does it—that’s the glue.” So you see he settled it easy; for parsons and doctors know everything by heart, like, so as they aren’t worreted wi’ thinking what’s the rights and wrongs o’ things, as I’n been many and many’s the time. And sure enough the wedding turned out all right, on’y poor Mrs. Lammeter—that’s Miss Osgood as was—died afore the lasses was growed up; but for prosperity and everything respectable, there’s no family more looked on.”
Every one of Mr. Macey’s audience had heard this story many times, but it was listened to as if it had been a favourite tune, and at certain points the puffing of the pipes was momentarily suspended, that the listeners might give their whole minds to the expected words.
If Macey’s story raises questions about the efficacy of the sacraments, the gentle irony with which Eliot describes his telling of it expands the scope of the problem. What guarantees the validity of any significant action, given that there’s always a threat that it might not have been really meant—it might have been performed, as it were, by rote?
The “learned” solution, that any question of validity can be settled by the written record, is obviously no solution at all. The expanded scope makes that perfectly obvious: no record is kept of the occasions on which Mr. Macey and his audience enact the ritual of storytelling, but that does not mean the ritual did not take place. Moreover, even for significant actions of which there usually is a record, the absence or presence of a record guarantees nothing. Records can be erased, or lost, or forged, or misinterpreted. An appeal to the written record turns out to be no different, metaphysically speaking, than any other appeal to physical evidence. Just like the spoken word, the written word can be lost to the ravages of time, and it does not interpret itself. Who can now say whether Mr. Macey heard the erroneous vows correctly? And who can say whether vows being spoken wrong really makes a difference to what their vowing them accomplished?
But Mr. Macey is also right to reject the appeal to “the meanin’.” Not only is it the case, as he points out, that intentions do not always hit their mark, but—as philosophers like J.L. Austin and G.E.M. Anscombe would argue a century later—there’s no such thing as an “intention” floating free of the physical world. It would be, not just baseless, but nonsensical, to say that someone “intended” to be φ‘ing when they were neither φ‘ing nor doing something that could be described as failing to φ (whether due to accident, or mistake, or whatever). Knowledge of the couple’s intentions at the time of the wedding might help us determine whether they indeed wedded, but it cannot resolve the question entirely, and in any case such knowledge will just be a summary description of what the couple actually did, which is what we wanted to know in the first place.
Though George Eliot doesn’t suggest a plausible solution in the immediate vicinity of the story, I think Silas Marner as a whole does offer us a way out. At the climax of the book, one character pronounces, just prior to confessing their greatest sin, a hope basic to philosophy: “Everything comes to light, [Wife], sooner or later. When God Almighty wills it, our secrets are found out.” Instead of the passage of time obscuring the meaning of one’s actions, it reveals it. The “meaning” is indeed what matters, but this isn’t something that can be accessed through any inspection of the physical action itself, even if that action was the writing on a piece of paper of words whose meaning we think we know. Rather, the meaning is determined by the context, and the context cannot be limited in advance; it will become apparent either sooner, or later.
For example, much of the drama of Silas Marner revolves around another marriage than that Mr. Macey describes—in fact, one involving the daughter of that marriage—and the question of its validity. The presence or absence of a child is central to our judgment on that question, in complex ways I won’t go into here. And this is entirely appropriate. Whether a union is fruitful is the kind of evidence that by definition cannot be present at the time of marriage, but which can be crucial to determining whether the union was ever open to fecundity. Which matters, of course, because a marriage not open to life—for an Anglican, I think, as much as a Catholic—is no marriage at all.