The BBC got a whole bunch of film critics from all over to submit their Top Ten lists of the 21st Century and made up a Top 100 list. Here’s their overall Top Ten from the Top Ten lists, with links to what I’ve written about them.
10. No Country for Old Men (Joel and Ethan Coen, 2007)
9. A Separation (Asghar Farhadi, 2011)
8. Yi Yi: A One and a Two (Edward Yang, 2000) — Didn’t see it.
7. The Tree of Life (Terrence Malick, 2011) — I missed the apparently very bad first 15 minutes, by which point the audience that had been there since the beginning was looking close to mutinous. But I liked the rest.
6. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (Michel Gondry, 2004)
5. Boyhood (Richard Linklater, 2014)
4. Spirited Away (Hayao Miyazaki, 2001) — I don’t get Miyazaki.
3. There Will Be Blood (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2007) PT Anderson is likely the greatest artist to ever grow up in my neighborhood, but as wonderful as Daniel Day-Lewis is, this movie vaguely based on the life of sci-fi writer Larry Niven’s grandfather could have been better than Chinatown, it could have been the all-time great Southern California story, if Anderson had researched his topic more, as I explained in my review. It’s an odd situation in which the real life story is much more gaudy — Teapot Dome, the Greystone murder-suicide, and the beginning of Raymond Chandler’s career — than the movie version.
2. In the Mood for Love (Wong Kar-wai, 2000) — I really liked In The Mood for Love’s over-the-top self-indulgent big budget sci-fi sequel 2046, which I reviewed here. The original is far more self-disciplined.
1. Mulholland Drive (David Lynch, 2001)
I was impressed by all nine movies I’ve seen out of the top ten and I liked eight of those nine (Miyazaki’s animated Spirited Away was a little too Japanese for me). But I wouldn’t call many of them flawless: maybe Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and In the Mood for Love are close to perfect, but even No Country for Old Men is dragged down by Tommy Lee Jones mumbling too much.
I think I’ve figured out why the methodology of asking critics to submit their Top Ten of the Century list and then aggregating based on number of mentions on the Top Ten list leads to a lot of movies like David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive and Malick’s The Tree of Life that are part awesome, part dreck.
Tree of Life’s boyhood scenes of growing up in 1950s Waco with Brad Pitt as your dad are as good anything I’ve ever seen, but the dinosaur scenes, the visit to the afterlife, and the whispered questions for God are pretty dire.
Of the 177 critics who submitted top ten lists, 23 placed The Tree of Life in their top ten, which is a lot. On the other hand, some critics might have put The Tree of Life in their bottom ten, but the BBC’s methodology doesn’t record negative or mixed opinions, just ecstatic ones. And there is a lot to be ecstatic about in The Tree of Life, even if it’s not really all that good overall.
Actually, what this list looks like is a list of critics’ favorite movies to argue in favor of.
For example, Scorsese’s The Departed doesn’t make the top 100, while his The Wolf of Wall Street does.
The Departed isn’t really that interesting to argue over because it’s just very good all around and nobody can seriously disagree: the screenplay is tremendous, the endless list of big male stars are terrific. It made a lot of money, it won Best Picture and Scorsese’s first Best Director. The usual critic thing is to say that it’s not as original as Taxi Driver or Raging Bull, which is true, but doesn’t mean it’s not excellent.
In contrast, The Wolf of Wall Street has some obvious flaws: Why is it three hours long? But its evident imperfections mean that it’s fun for critics to mount a rousing defense of it. (Also, The Wolf benefits from having short clips on Youtube. Three hours is too much sociopathy to sit through, but some of its three minute scenes are great, like Jonah Hill explaining to Leonardo DiCaprio that his being married to his cousin is not like you think at all.)
Other tendencies I’ve noticed about the top 100 list:
The BBC’s critic’s list is long on movies by visually distinctive, serious-minded directors (especially ones helped out by great cinematographers, such as Christopher Doyle’s contribution to Wong Kar-wai’s #2 rated In the Mood for Love and Emmanuel Lubezki’s contributions to Terrence Malick’s #7 rated Tree of Life and Alfonso Cuaron’s #13 rated Children of Men).
They don’t go for actors’ movies like David O. Russell’s recent films that get excellent performances out of stars like Christian Bale, Amy Adams, and Jennifer Lawrence.
They don’t go for movie star movies like Iron Man or Pirates of the Caribbean. Part of what the movies exist for is to put stars like Robert Downey Jr. and Johnny Depp in their perfect roles like these do. But you could imagine Iran Man or Pirates of the Caribbean being really good with different directors as long as they had the same stars, and this list director-driven, not star-driven. You could argue that the directors deserve a lot of credit for the brilliant casting of their stars they did, but casting decisions tend to be kind of a black box that serious critics shy away from putting a lot of weight on, even though they are obviously hugely important.
Screenplay-driven movies like Alexander Payne’s (Sideways) or Noah Baumbach’s (T he Squid and the Whale) or Peter Morgan’s (e.g., The Queen) don’t do well on this list. A downright stupid screenplay like Children of Men has isn’t necessarily a fatal flaw — it’s #13 on the list — if you’ve got Lubezki doing amazing ten minute-long shots.
In general, this critics’ list is biased against movies that would also work well as plays.
They don’t like Oscar type movies, even though, say, The King’s Speech is actually quite good.
In general, there’s not much of a conventional left of center political slant to the critics’ choices the way there are to Weinstein-style Oscar movies. Liberal Message movies tend to be put together by producers. These critics, in contrast, are infatuated with strong directors, who tend to not be all that interested in Social Message stuff. Strong directors tend to be strong men who believe in hierarchy (as long as they are on top of the hierarchy).
Indeed, the top ten pictures are pretty reactionary.
(The auteur theory by its roots was pretty right wing. I knew a widow who had lived in Paris in the mid 1950s with her husband who was a US Navy officer on a Fulbright scholarship. They knew Truffaut and Godard, who were then young movie critics trying to get somebody to give them money to direct. They were making up the auteur theory based on watching Hollywood movies every night (she said Truffaut and Godard sat in the front row and chain-smoked). Back then Truffaut and Godard were anti-Communists because the Communist Party controlled a lot of the arts and culture stuff and the older generation like Sartre didn’t have room for young men on the make like themselves. So they loved capitalist American movies. Finally, General De Gaulle took power and hired Andre Malraux to find him some young artists to subsidize to make France cool again and that was the French New Wave.)
Comedies aren’t very welcome unless they are by Pixar. For example, Charlie Kaufman’s screenplays for Eternal Sunshine and Synechdoche, NY, make the top 100, but not his much funnier Adaptation.
Austere movies do better with the critics than entertaining movies. For example, the Coen Brothers get #11 for the anhedonic Inside Llewyn Davis while their immensely entertaining kitchen sink movie O Brother Where Art Thou? doesn’t make the top 100 list.
Spielberg’s near perfect souffle with a young DiCaprio, Catch Me If You Can, is missing too, while Spielberg’s Kubrickian A.I. makes the top 100 list. After all, what is there to argue about over Catch Me If You Can? Spielberg is extremely good at depicting the early 1960s? DiCaprio is a Movie Star? It’s fun to watch an actor play an impostor?
Blockbuster movies, except by Christopher Nolan, don’t get much love. For example, off the top of my head, I’d say the greatest movie of the century was the second installment in The Lord of the Rings, The Two Towers. But everybody knows already that that’s really good.
These movies tend to be smart (Eternal Sunshine) but not too smart (Adaptation), perhaps because a brilliant script tends to get in the way of the director showing off his chops.
So, if you mentally put yourself in the shoes of critics, you can understand the motivations behind their various collective biases, which makes this kind of list more useful. Critics have reasons for their biases, and their reasons are actually pretty reasonable, but it’s best to understand where they are coming from.