“Greatest” Sure Ain’t What It Used to Be

By now, if you’re anything resembling a fan of cinema you have more than likely seen the BBC’s so-called “21st Century’s 100 Greatest Films” list. (If not, you’re welcome and I’m sorry.) You may notice, as you scroll past its unnecessary introduction, that the BBC has helpfully linked to an adjacent article defending the list’s top entry. I did not read “What makes Mulholland Drive so good?” but I presume the article doesn’t begin and end with “It isn’t.” Pity.

I could probably devote an entire essay solely to the rebuttal of naming Lynch’s failed-television-pilot-cum-Frankenstein’s-monstrosity-of-a-movie the crowning achievement of global cinema in the last sixteen years, but I’m sure someone else more irate (and, preferably, better cited) will handle that self-evident chore soon enough. So rather than discuss why I think the list and its leader are rubbish, I just wanted to take note of a few no-shows I think deserve distinction.

First, for the sake of full disclosure, the movies on the list I’ve seen are:

96. Finding Nemo

95. Moonrise Kingdom

94. Let the Right One In

93. Ratatouille

88. Spotlight

87. Amélie

84. Her

78. The Wolf of Wall Street

68. The Royal Tenenbaums

67. The Hurt Locker

62. Inglourious Basterds

57. Zero Dark Thirty

53. Moulin Rouge!

51. Inception

44. 12 Years a Slave

41. Inside Out

36. Timbuktu

33. The Dark Knight

29. WALL-E

27. The Social Network

25. Memento

22. Lost in Translation

21. The Grand Budapest Hotel

19. Mad Max: Fury Road

17. Pan’s Labyrinth

13. Children of Men

10. No Country for Old Men

7. The Tree of Life

6. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

5. Boyhood

4. Spirited Away

3. There Will Be Blood

1. Mulholland Drive

That makes 33/100. My first observation is that the makers of this list and I are apparently both fond of Wes Anderson and Pixar, though the fact that The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou didn’t make the cut while Budapest did is disconcerting. My second observation is that I’ve just opened the door for the sort of mouth-agape horror that always befalls film fans upon hearing that no, I have not in fact (yet?) seen, among many others: Requiem for a Dream; The Pianist; A.I.; any of the Linklater trilogy; Brokeback Mountain; City of God; Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon; either Oldboy; Zodiac; or Spring Breakers.

Spring Breakers? Really? Okay.

Having missed 2/3 of the movies, I can’t really speak to the quality of what is there (Mulholland notwithstanding). The majority of the ones which I have seen, I’ve deeply respected (if not always enjoyed). But browsing through the DVDs and Blu-ray discs in my collection, I found a handful that matched or exceeded the way I’ve felt about that 1/3, and their absence ranges from disappointing to intolerable.

The Fall. This is, bar none, the film whose absence I find most egregious. I suppose I oughtn’t be surprised, as both Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic depict massive disparity between how critics and audiences have historically responded to Tarsem Singh’s absolutely stunning fable. I don’t want to flood this post with media, but I’ll make exception for this one trailer:

Persepolis; The Artist; Birdman. Three of the very few films I’ve made a point of buying in recent years; I’m not sure whether any of them is more deserving of a spot on the list than the films that are there, but I think they are all at least as deserving. Persepolis is gorgeous and moving animated memoir of war, prejudice, and coming of age; The Artist is mastercraft filmmaking and ancestral homage; Birdman is breathtaking editing and provocative contemplation of the theatrical vis-à-vis the cinematic.

Offside. Kiarostami rightly gets a few nods on the list, but his countryman Jafar Panahi’s story of Iranian girls trying everything they can to see a soccer game has just as much heart and daring as any movie here. That, plus the funniest use of an athlete’s poster you will ever see in a film.

The Big Short. It may not have had the moral clout of Spotlight, but last year’s story of the greedy mortgage serpent that ate its own tail was arguably the better film. Perhaps critics felt that Wolf of Wall Street scratched that particular itch in their nominations, but when it comes to over-the-top tellings of Wall Street avarice featuring Margot Robbie, my money’s on the one that didn’t make me feel like I needed to watch a porno to get clean again after.

Hot Fuzz, or really anything from Edgar Wright this side of Spaced. Hot Fuzz in particular is a brilliant demonstration of narrative cohesion, genre mastery and subversion, and just overall craft.

Little Miss Sunshine. I’ll never understand why anyone tried to reboot the Vacation series when this rollicking (yet also painfully poignant) family trip already hit all the Griswold beats (dead grandparents and all) in a perfectly modern way.

I think it is worth noting two caveats to what I have said here. The first is that, by the very virtue of my not being a critic by trade (or even, really, by hobby) I should be expected to have a less developed (and thus, if not less valid, at least more flawed) sense of what does or does not deserve exceptional merit or recognition. I have studied film cursorily, and while my tastes have occasionally ventured into deep cuts territory I am still more dilettante than connoisseur. Do I think critics have a tendency to sleight popular taste on one side and embrace controversial taste on the other more in the name of staying avant-garde than anything else? Absolutely. But bias doesn’t guarantee error; it merely increases error’s likelihood.

The second, and arguably far less frivolous of my concerns, is that my exposure to films outside mainstream American cinema has been very limited over these sixteen years, and while I’ve made efforts in recent years to rectify this slightly there remains not a likelihood but a certainty that I’ve missed many worthy and outstanding cinematic contributions in the twenty-first century, and this not only from foreign filmmakers but from non-mainstream domestic filmmakers too. One friend referred to the list as very white and very male, and for the most part my suggestions here do not change that composition. I am left with two different, and likely complementary, implications: first, that I have neglected to see (and thus consider) many excellent films made by nonwhites, women, or anyone else outside the prevalent social hierarchy; second, that lack of resources and support have hindered these alternative voices from achieving their full cinematic potential (which is to say, if the movies aren’t good enough to be the greatest, that’s on us, not them).

With that in mind, I’ve enjoyed thinking back over so many great films, and I look forward to using this list for about the only two things an amalgamation of other peoples’ tastes is ever really good for: First, seeking stories I might not otherwise have discovered; and second, starting conversations (and, given Mulholland, probably arguments) with fellow lovers of story.

Straight Outta Ignorance

As four Torrance Police officers towered over the prone members of N.W.A., I bristled with rage in my seat. Jerry Heller was saying all the right things — you can’t come down here and arrest people just because of what they look like! — but that somehow made it worse. His nigh impotence in the moment simply underscored how much worse things would have gotten for the young black men had a wealthy white man not been around to intervene.

In that moment, my anger transcended both the specific officers in the scene and the institution of law enforcement generally, and for the first time in my life I understood how inequality can breed resentment of allies. Jerry Heller was the hero of this scene, and that was precisely why I despised him: not because he had helped, but because his help had been required. The whiteness that made him powerful in that one moment was the same whiteness that made these kids powerless in every moment.

When, back in the studio, Ice Cube subsequently exploded into the opening verse of “Fuck tha Police,” every fiber of my being was behind him. Yet this was the second time I’d heard the track that day. In preparation for the film, I’d opted to spend the afternoon streaming the entire Straight Outta Compton album, and my first listen had elicited a markedly different reaction. Couched in the comfortable safety of my suburban home, Compton made me uncomfortable.

Where hip-hop is concerned, I’m not so much moist behind the ears as dripping. Yesterday wasn’t only my first time listening to N.W.A., it was also my first time listening to real, historic rap. My typical listening choices tend towards overproduction and sanitization, and even my “edgier” modern choices eschew the kind of raw brutality with which Straight Outta Compton bursts. If N.W.A. was born from dissatisfaction with candy-coated popular music, it’s safe to say that the sugary veneer is as fertile for shattering now as it was in 1988.

Of course the reality depicted in Compton is not my reality, and therein lies the discomfort. Part of it stems from the alien nature of a life foregrounded by drugs, sex, and violence; the discomfort of the foreign and unknown from out here in middle class suburbia. But the simple fact of ignorance breeds its own discomfort: the nagging sense that my isolation from this reality is part of the problem, the idea that the othering and subsequent quarantining of terrible conditions is the reason those conditions exist. A major contributor to the situation Black Americans find themselves in is that White Americans view it as a Black problem — and thus not a White responsibility.

Perhaps the greatest horror of Straight Outta Compton is that by the end of the movie I was exhausted, exasperated by the fact that Rodney King, unpunished police brutality, calls for minority censorship under guise of peacekeeping, and finger-pointing at minority art as responsible for the violence it reflects — all featured heavily in the film — could so effortlessly be replaced with this year’s YouTube or CNN footage. In so many ways, Selma is Compton is Detroit is Ferguson is Baltimore, and the only thing worse than how long this has gone on is how easy it would be for me to shrug it off and go back to living like it doesn’t affect me.

In the wake of over a year’s worth of racial tension, I frequently see the expression “Stay Woke.” White America’s ability to fall back asleep — an unexamined luxury — and its well-documented tendency to do precisely that are what make the simultaneous dependence on White action so frustrating. I’ve spent years not understanding that simple truth, rubbing my eyes and whining, “just five more minutes.”

Straight Outta Compton is one hell of an alarm clock. It’s on audience members to stop hitting snooze.

It says “Title…

It says “Title (optional)” and that seems as good as anything I’d have put there (perhaps you’ll get a random string of numbers again?) because there’s no narrative thread to be found here. If you don’t personally know or care about me, may as well stop reading now (that’s not snark, by the way, I’m actually serious).

Anyhow, I just wanted to throw out there that I know that I suck for not continuing with the 15 Day Challenge (challenge failed?). Normally I wouldn’t bother apologizing but it seems (based on hit counts) that a few of you actually were following along and enjoying those tidbits. I have not given up on doing the remaining days; I’ve just been extremely busy lately.

Over the last few days I’ve primarily been wearing the “photographer” hat, chief capturer (haha, that’s not a word) of our church’s Vacation Bible School as well as (and this only became apparent after VBS began) the guy responsible for getting an individual portrait of all 180+ kids (and then editing, cropping, printing, and distributing said portraits). Toss in a seemingly impromptu day trip to Manhattan and, most recently, a possible (finally!) job in Boston, and the week has taken a decent psychological (and physical) toll on me. I’m happy — happier than usual — but I’m tired and I know I’ve been shirking writing and social responsibilities since this weekend so I just wanted to let y’all know why.

Given all the huge question marks looming over the horizon (not least of which being whether I’ll be living in a different state two weeks from now) I’m also officially giving warning that regularity as regards this and other blogs will likely not resume in the near future, though where I find the time and energy I’ll certainly be writing.

Hope you’re doing well!

Untitled 1

This is the first of what may be quite a few blog titles that aren’t
really anything more than experiments and journal entries. Nothing
particularly important will show up in an Untitled blog. Read it or
don’t. I won’t be offended ^_^

The past few days have been a bit like that old story of the frog at
the bottom of the bucket or hole trying to get out; two inches forward,
one inch back. It’s progress, but the slow and arduous kind. It’s
what I’m making. Slipping up doesn’t begin to cover how close I
always seem to be to regressing, to going right back to the state of
mind I was in before I was rudely awoken by that play and my overall
trip to Grove City.

At first, I wasn’t sure I actually had a resistance to applying for
jobs. I thought (in earnest) that the reason I had not been applying
was a general absence of opportunity. I thought also that I’d kinda
gotten burned out by the searching and coming up empty-handed. Sure,
I’d failed to apply for jobs for which I was unqualified, but those
jobs weren’t even necessarily chances anyway (considering the lack
of qualification). But a genuine desire not to work? Was that

Evidently, yes.

I didn’t really get that until this morning, when amongst all the new
motivation to do, to be, I realized I was avoiding the folder
of job links I’d bookmarked last night during a casual perusal of
Monster copywriting listings. Jobs I had personally recommended to
myself. . .and here I was, ignoring them. Fighting them.

It’s frightening, really. And I don’t know whether it’s come about
because of months. . .no, as of yesterday, one year of not having
work, or because it’s some innate slothfulness within me. But either
way it’s there, I’ve found it, and now the question is how to kill it.

While I work on that, I have been killing a few other things in my life.
Figuratively speaking. This morning I walked for almost two miles, and
I realized that for all the complaining I’ve done about how boring
going for a run in Pawling would be it’s really rather idyllic. Sure,
my heart may change a bit as real New York summer comes into swing —
I’ve always hated the heat — but by then the pool will be welcoming
and the routine will (hopefully? no, let’s own this, definitely) be
established and I may even gasp! be jogging. Also, Joshua
will be home and as he’s already taken to running at school, I’m
looking forward to a bit of accountability in that department. In
all departments, really.

The other thing I’m happy about is this, this right here. Not just the
writing — though that too — but the fact that yesterday I began the
far-too-long-in-the-making task of teaching myself HTML (and, in time,
CSS and Java). This entire blog is written in a blank text document
and being formatted entirely with html tags. It’s not much — only
a couple hours of rudimentary skeleton for starters — but it’s more
than I could have done two days ago, and I’m grateful for that.

Anyhow, I’ve rambled enough for now, but I just wanted to throw out a
little update for the few who care.