Beware end of the year lists! And, um, Cinetology’s end of the year list.
Another year ends, another tsunami of best of lists floods the net. There are a couple of rarely uttered truths associated with this process that readers ought to be aware of, so consider this, if you like, a kind of public service announcement. If that’s too much of a stretch, consider it a longwinded rant and get back to nursing your over-stuffed festive season belly.
Firstly, as I briefly explained in the Crikey newsletter last week, reviewers simply cannot see everything and it is unrealistic to expect one to have watched every film theatrically released over a calendar year. The vast majority of us are not employed full time to watch and write about films. A lot of us get paid comparatively little; some of us get paid nothing. So the idea that we’re all going to sit through each and every Matthew McConaughey/Tim Allen cringe-fest in order to make ourselves impervious to the criticism that we haven’t watched everything is, well, not entirely fair.
The bald truth is that many critics who have compiled their best of 2009 lists did not venture out to see Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel (for the record, I did) or other head-banging-against-the-wall low brow fare – movies like Did You Hear About the Morgans?, Pink Panther 2 or Lesbian Vampire Killers come to mind (for what it’s worth, I courageously saw them too…so you wouldn’t have to).
It almost goes without saying, however, that it’s crucial for any reviewer confident enough to compile a best of the year list to have sat through a butt numbing number of films, including the vast majority of those that have even a vague shot at getting in a best of the year list. This is why film writers such as myself spend much of December catching up on titles we’ve missed (on top of what is already the busiest season for cinema-going).
But what I want to discuss here is another truth rarely uttered by film writers. Put this down, perhaps, to denial, ignorance, indifference or – god forbid – an opinion different to mine, but the truth of it is simple: the process of ranking best films from 1 to 10 is pure, 100% balderdash. Many end of the year lists are not only a compilation of x number of “best” films (ten is the conventional figure) but a list ranked in order of preference: number one is the very best film, number two the second…you know how it works.
This blog post may well come back to haunt me, given reviewers have limited editorial control and it would take an extremely well-off or hubris-filed writer to knock back work on the grounds that they don’t like ranking their favourites from one to ten, so maybe one day I’ll join the dark side once again. But beware of any critic who does so. Why? Let me answer that by firing a couple of questions right back atcha: what separates a number three film from a number four film? A number eight from a number nine? All films offer vastly different experiences. Reviewers understand more than the average multiplex mofo that films are layered not just in the broad language of cinema but in the smaller contexts of genres, styles of dialogue, performance methods, colour schemes, visual structures etcetera etcetera.
If pushed (and I have been – but from friends and colleagues, not from Crikey) I’d say the best film theatrically released in Australia in 2009 is Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler. Watching it is like being smashed on the head with a broken heart. But I would struggle to compare it numerically to any other film on my best of the year list, which are all excellent in their own way.
Naturally I like some of them a little more than others. But this is where “favourite” films come into play, as opposed to “best” films. Over the years The Breakfast Club has been a sentimental favourite of mine (albeit a little less as I grow older) but I’ve always acknowledged that the ending is shithouse: saccharine and unbelievably cheesy. Is it a better film than, say, Samson & Delilah? Probably not. But I’ve watched it a heck of a lot more than I’d ever be prepared to sit through S & D. A lot of numerically ranked best of lists get coloured in this mode of thinking – a critic gives preference to something they may consider a favourite rather than something that could stake a claim at being a better film. The two do not necessarily go hand in hand.
Ultimately all this feeds back to a simple truth: that numbers and evaluation of art do not make natural bedfellows. What’s the point in saying one film is one digit better than another? It’s a meaningless, fart in the wind sort of statement; any hack could do it, just as any hack could slap a star rating on a movie they saw rather than do something crazy – like articulate why they liked it, or why they didn’t, or what makes the movie unique, interesting, expendable…
I’m not a fan of star ratings and I give them very little weight. Five stars? No stars? Big deal. Tell me what you think and shaddap with the numbers. I understand however that readers like them an awful lot, mostly because they act as a kind of shorthand (why read all those words when you can just look at the stars?). Cinetology’s traffic light system was intentionally implemented as a kind of comprise – those who want a simple rating can get it but the rating is so broad one is (hopefully) encouraged to read the text. Where the Wild Things Are is a good movie; The Wrestler is a masterpiece. But they both get the same score. You’re supposed to read the review to find out to what extent I liked or disliked each film.
Star ratings are infinitely more tolerable, however, than a numerically ranked best of list, the difference being that star ratings are linked to a legend, or they should be – i.e. five stars equals a masterpiece, zero stars equals as good as a poke in the eye with a sharp stick. There is never a legend in a ranked top ten list. It’s just one number versus another. And you can best bet that no matter how good the written description of the film is, it ain’t gonna articulate the difference between a number two and a number three, or a five and a six, or a seven and a nine. Why? Because this is basic numeracy, stoopid. Actually not even: it’s just plucking numbers out of thin air. It’s lazy and pointless and has nothing to do with film analysis. But admittedly, from a writer’s POV, it can be a fun exercise. It’s in this spirit that readers should approach ranked best of the year lists – viewing them with a grain of salt, as something light hearted and frivolous.
On the off-chance you happen to be a film reviewer and, having ranked your best of lists for many moons now, you’re not convinced, here’s a simple exercise you can do to test the veracity of my ranking films = balderdash theory. Look back on a list you wrote a few years ago. Can you honestly say that you stand by each ranking 100%? That you wouldn’t be tempted to regig the order, even slightly, or bump one or two films off the list and replace them with others? If you answered “yes” and “no” chances are you’re a liar or you’re ignoring the truth. As they say: denial is not just a river in Egypt.
So, after all this, wanna know what my top ten films of 2009 are? Want me to rank them in order of preference? In the interests of not looking like a wild, yabbering hypocrite I’ll take you up on the first offer and respectfully decline the second.
Cinetology’s top ten films from 2009
Drag Me to Hell
With tongue firmly in cheek Sam Raimi stuffs this schlocky classic full of gnarly visual inventions and serves up one devilishly sadistic horror comedy – rarely has the gruesome torture and eternal damnation of an essentially decent protagonist been so much fun.
Samson & Delilah
Beautiful, heartbreaking and technically proficient, Samson & Delilah is the cinematic event many Australians have waited decades to see: an extraordinarily powerful picture that frames the debate about Aboriginal living standards in an intensely personal context, without loading up on cheap shocks or political didacticism.
South African director Neill Blomkamp does something radically different in the well-worn ETs-on-earth genre by turning aliens into vehicles for allegories about refugees, asylum seekers and, more directly, the Apartheid. Infusing monster movies with ripe social commentary is nothing new – George Romero has been doing it in zombie movies for decades – but here it comes together dazzlingly well.
A Film With Me In It
In a tightly delineated and completely outrageous model of cause and effect screenwriter/actor Mark Doherty builds an all-hell-breaking-loose chain of events without his protagonist (played by himself) even having to leave his apartment. A Film With Me In It plays like an episode of Seinfeld gone horribly, horribly wrong, with George and Jerry yapping uncontrollably about what to do with Kramer’s dead body.
“I’m a broken down piece of meat and I’m all alone,” says Mickey Rourke’s Randy “The Ram” Robinson, without the faintest trace of cheese or overwrought sentiment. I predicted along with a lot of other people that the rugged brick shit house-built star would pocket a Best Lead Actor Oscar in recognition of an emotionally pulverising performance. It is a travesty that my prediction turned out wrong (and not just because it makes me look bad).
Mary and Max
Stop motion artist Adam Elliot’s gloriously textured feature debut is a film of plasticine-powered profundity, with Elliot’s characteristically wobbly colour-muted European look matched by a screenplay that seamlessly segues between gags as crass as poo jokes to dramatic moments that explore concepts as deep as mental illness and suicidology.
The acting here is something else. The toxic chemistry between Meryl Streep and Phillip Seymour Hoffman as a Catholic school principal and a parish priest respectively is gobsmacking and the supporting cast are pitch-perfect. A small performance from Viola Davis as the altar boy’s mother will hit you for six.
Sam Rockwell contributes a career high tour de force performance as an astronaut afflicted by a severe case of space cabin fever. This is one helluva career kick-start for director Duncan Jones – FYI, he’s David Bowie’s son – and in the barrel of noodle-scratching space psychological dramas Moon is an instant classic.
Director Robert Connolly advances his oeuvre from corporate thriller (The Bank) and down-and-out drama (Three Dollars) to the realm of electrifying political sizzlers with this tight-as-a-snare-drum wartime exposé destined to shock, shame and compel Australian audiences.
Synecdoche New York
The kooky intellect of screenwriter Charlie Kaufman has provided an unerring source of off the wall mind matter and his debut as a writer/director is a fabulously strange, beautiful and tremendously sad picture about a miserable theatre director (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) who purchases a run-down city block and fills it with actors who live constructed lives 24/7.
Cinetology’s worst five films from 2009
Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen
Bombastic blockbuster director Michael Bay unleashes another biblical-plague-proportioned round of bathtub toys gone bad in the devastatingly onerous Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, which like its predecessor is an assault on the senses of hitherto unprecedented magnitude. Spanning 143 brain bleeding minutes, this migraine-maker is embarrassingly hammy, relentlessly dull, shamelessly dumb and absolutely unrelenting.
The Pink Panther 2
Blake Edwards’s patchy but intermittently enjoyable Pink Panther movies from the 70s and early 80s oozed – despite their obvious inadequacies – a goofy, effortless charm that Steve Martin’s remakes utterly fail to replicate. Pink Panther 2 is a disjointed pastiche of well-worn physical gags that feel very, very forced. You don’t have to look closely to see the lines of desperation streaking across Martin’s forehead.
Lesbian Vampire Killers
Any movie with a title like this shouldn’t be attempted in half measures. The only irredeemable flaws are vices like ‘boring’ and ‘dull.’ This one is both.
The Twilight Saga: New Moon
Bella and Edward’s second cinematic venture plays like soft, soft, soft porn – a pubescent Mills and Boon stomach-turner jazzed up by a half-assed supernatural twist. Watch the cast sleep walk.
The Time Traveller’s Wife
Director Robert Schwentke’s adaptation of Audrey Niffenegger’s bestselling novel is a mawkishly sentimental and hopelessly inept romance-drama stuffed to the gills with bad performances, stilted dialogue and preposterous contrivances.