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Watch this not that

September 19, 2016

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.


Finally, econometry:

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.

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