The Times has gone list-crazy, but at least they know it:
Another film list? The same old Citizen Kane? No — this one’s different, says The Times’s chief film critic James Christopher.
You may be suffering from list exhaustion. There are so many about, and especially on film. But this one is different. Yes, of course we’d say that. But having read endless Top 100 film lists, we felt short-changed. Sure, they’re definitive in their way, but they don’t have many surprises. This one aims to be all-encompassing, certainly, and authoritative. But it is also intended to cause debate and maybe consternation.
None of us — myself, my fellow critics at The Times and my editor Tim Teeman — realised how contentious this list would be to compile. We didn’t want simply to rearrange the furniture as other lists do. Nor to kow-tow to monolithic critical masterpieces routinely crowned year on year.
There are some spectacular casualties. Citizen Kane (1941) failed to cut the mustard. The genius of Orson Welles was not to be denied. But it was felt that his sour and seedy thriller Touch of Evil (1958) was not only equally audacious in terms of pure film-making, but also had greater resonance than Kane.
Some omissions are too painful to talk about: Groundhog Day, The Servant, The Lives of Others, Psycho, The English Patient. (All my choices naturally.) Tastes vary dramatically, and you would be amazed how few critics will fall on their swords when it comes to such a fraught subject. That said, the list looks far fresher and younger than any of us dared hope. The number of recent releases vying for places near the summit is a surprise. I shall be horrified if anyone agrees with every one of our choices. The point of The Times Top 100 Films of All Time is to stimulate argument, and sharpen your own thoughts about the ingredients that make great movies.
Christopher says the list "aims to be all-encompassing, certainly, and authoritative" but while individual Times critics reviewed the individual films, I can't find where it says how they all-encompassingly and authoritatively selected the list. I assume they injected a modicum of thought into the selection process, but Christopher seems to be tip-toeing around the "f" word: favourites.
100 - 91: From dinosaurs to life in a Florida work camp.
90 - 81: Moral corruption from Orson Welles and a wildcard performance by Al Pacino.
80 - 71: Banjos, babies, bodices and bad boys. Plus the first and best of the "spoof" movies.
70 - 61: Racial tension, sexual tension, paranoia and conflicting points of view.
60 - 51: Film plots with a twist - men who live as women and life in a fake alternative reality.
50 - 41: Brilliance from Brando and an ether-inhaling performance from Hopper.
40 - 31Which 70's film won all five, major Oscars? What was so special about Tommy Johnson's Tuba?
30 - 21: Four brothers, a bunch of Gangsters, a school outing that goes wrong and a naughty heiress.
20 - 11: Jungle warfare, jungle capers, red shoes and a shiny red mac.
10 - 4: Hitchcock's finest feature, Gloria Swanson's revival and some classic performances by Jack Nicholson.
3 - ET: The Extra Terrestrial: It happened, according to movie lore, at the first Cannes Film Festival screening of E.T.
2 - There Will Be Blood: Few films in recent years have made such an instant and dramatic impact as this.
1 - Casablanca: Of all the films in all the cinemas in all the world . . . why this?
Christopher concludes that "The point of The Times Top 100 Films of All Time is to stimulate argument, and sharpen your own thoughts about the ingredients that make great movies." Fair enough; it probably does that. It certainly stimulates argument; or what passes for argument on a "your films are crap / my films are better" level. But - and this will seem like Confessions of a Fathead - the more I think about films, about what ingredients make them great, the more confused I get, and the less I seem to like them.
Note: these days I prefer a "good" TV series to a "good" movie. But I suspect that's because I now watch movies on TV instead of the big screen.
If you want another line on what might constitute a good film, you could do worse than check out the following excellent exchange which evolved from a review of The Warriors:
For what it’s worth, I’ve been reviewing movies for a bazillion years, and here’s how I break it down:
- How well does a movie achieve what it’s trying to do? (Obviously including “How well does it work AS A MOVIE.)
- How much worth doing was the thing/s it was ‘trying to do’? (Speaking to the ambitions and limitations of the movie in question, including its generic limitations, how it approached those, and such considerations as the limitations I mentioned in “The Warriors”. ) You could call also this approach: “Was this trip really necessary?”
- Do I think this movie would appeal to sections of the audience, and if so why, and maybe to a lesser extent, who?
- Did I like the movie and WHY? Without the why, it’s just like most comparisons about movies, TV etc in general conversation - which to me breaks down to everyone sitting around and saying, in not so many words, “But my farts don’t smell and yours do” or “Mine goes up to eleven.”
Any reviewer (most of whom erroneously call themselves ‘critics’) who refuses to get down in that bear pit of the mind and grapple full contact with any movie, putting preconceptions to one side - taking on what that movie is trying to be with no consideration for other things you might prefer it to be - is just not fit for the job. To give one example that comes, not so much to mind, but right up the nostril - Marge Pomerantz. By the time Margaret Pomerantz has said “I”, “But IIIII think”, “IIIIIIIIII have to say…”, “IIIII really felt that…” and “It just didn’t grab MEEEE” about 25 times apiece, in her opening 37 seconds of dissertation on some poor megaplex movie, I’ve already flipped the channel, got a sport score, been disappointed by an old Quickdraw McGraw cartoon, discovered a Saturday Night Live episode I realise I’ve already seen, and settled on “Law and Order: Initials in the Title”.
There’s not one thing that coffee-table magazine-headed person has to say about movies that I find convincing. I don’t believe for one second that she has any structure of thought - any consistently applied critical methodology - from which her opinions arise. I don’t care what she likes, nor if she feels that her farts have the aroma of lavender. To me, anyone could do what she’s doing - the corner milk-bar proprietor, the local footy team’s redoubtable half-back flanker, the slack-jawed guy behind the counter at the petrol station - anybody.
Criticism or reviewing is more than about what someone likes.
It’s a bit like the old fallback position in the pub or at a social gathering or whatever when movies or TV or music is being discussed and inevitably some drongo (who might otherwise be a lovely person) comes out with the old jocular brain- killer: “Weeell, it’s all a matter of opinion anyway, isn’t it?”
What any individual likes is a matter of opinion. Actually not even that - it’s mostly a baseline reaction, and not very much more. Did that music bounce off your eardrum in a personally pleasing manner. Did you have a nice night at the movies because everything blew up on screen in the right order and you had a nice night with your pardner away from the kids. Did that TV show provide the perfect time-filling chewing gum for your mind when you came home dog-tired and wanted something to half-watch while you were chowing down on tonight’s improvised ‘pasta a la whatever was left over in the fridge that wasn’t moving’.
All perfectly valid in its way, which is to say emphatically nothing to do with critical thought whatsoever. That’s the “mass-media as lifestyle adjunct”.
I remain unconvinced that “It’s all a matter of opinion.” I think there’s a difference between whether someone likes/enjoys a movie/album/program and whether that item is any good in any objective sense. Good is better than bad. Objectivity is a possibility. A critical hierarchy is possible where there is some sense of a medium’s history, an understanding of critical thought, a degree of intellectual rigour, not to mention the willingness to roll up the mental sleeves, get down in the bear pit and fight the artefact 2/3 brutal falls to a finish on its own terms. All that fun stuff like that there.
Anyway, that’s how I think about movies and reviewing them. I’ve kind of got lost on whether that was anything to do with what we were saying about “The Warriors”, although I think it kind of was.
Sorry, Larry, I just don’t buy all that.
Although your philosphy on the responsibility of criticism is honourable it just isn’t practical. Most people are interested (albeit a little selfishly) in the reviewer and not so much the movie. When viewers tune in to ‘At the Movies’, many do so because they identify with the host(s). They want a recommendation because ‘They like the type of movies I like’ - a kind of referral system. Or they get off on the irrascible David Stratton indignant over the latest movie employing the Dogma technique. Some just like to see them argue. And the same goes for countless other reviewers.
Surely, you must get the sense that people reading your blog reviews are reading it because of the allure of your personality. That is, how you react to a film, how you rationalise those reactions, and your deft comedic flourishes. This is just human behaviour - an entertaining form of quality assurance, if you will. Most movie-goers are simply trying to avoid wasting their time and money. The goal of the filmmaker is the last thing on their minds. It is impractical to expect more from the viewing public and therefore not feasible to expect reviews that practice ‘intellectual rigour’ as you put it. What you are looking for lies in the academic realm and can be found in published film journals, of which I know few. Maybe this is where the Critic/Reviewer distinction can be made.
Your criterion of “How well does a movie achieve what it’s trying to do” is a slippery slope. How do we know what is trying to be achieved? When do we agree it has been met? Must we do homework before seeing the movie? Should the movie improve the more informed we are? How does this function with comedy? Is the movie doubly funny because I laughed and it says ‘Comedy’ on the DVD spine?
Good filmmakers don’t focus on what they are consciously trying to achieve, rather they tap into their subconscious. This is why I find it easy to label directors who prattle on about their “goal” or “vision” as self-important. Even an intellectual director such as Kubrick was renowned for waiting for something “special” to happen on set, something only the subconscious can identify. The Coens’ art lies in their writing from the subconscious, picking up bits and pieces from people they know, movies they’ve seen, books they’ve read. Mike Leigh literally follows his characters around, listening out for the right moment. The planned goal is a moving target and anyone who thinks they can pinpoint it is fighting a losing battle. A filmmaker can ask, ‘Why did I make the character do that?’, but, ultimately, all the talk about themes and inspiration is nothing but retrofitted rationalisations on how important the movie must be. The correct answer is: it felt right and it was interesting for some reason. I find that the moment we consciously understand the filmmaker’s intention is the moment the movie breaks character and reveals itself as a limited construct trying to fool us. Where’s the art in that?
Comparing movie tastes is, like you say, comparing farts. But you are dismissing how interesting this process can be. Many of the movies we like are determined by what we project onto them, not always because of the artistic merit of the filmmaker. Being baffled by the unsavoury choice of another’s favourite movie requires further inquiry about that person. The type of world you are suggesting is one where the movie’s merits can be ‘proven’ and the viewer’s life experiences has no part in the cycle of life immitating art immitating life. I would suggest that you give more credit to the baseline reaction you speak of, because there is a lot more going on there.