Thursday, August 25, 2016

Are films "great" any more?



What is it about films and lists? No two people agree on films, and so a list will be sure to generate controversy, hence traffic and ad revenue. So it is not surprising that BBC has already, a mere 16 years in, decided to list "The 21st Century's 100 Greatest Films". You should read the article before continuing.

The conceit of the article is that "the death of cinema" has been greatly exaggerated and that there are still great films being made today. "Perhaps the fault lies not in our movie stars, but in ourselves. If you can't find masterpieces amid the blockbuster flotsam, you simply aren't looking hard enough" writes the (uncredited) author.

But this is a weak claim. Certainly there are still "good" films still being made. No-one would actually deny that. The question is, are these as good as or better than those made in the past? Do these live up to our criteria for "greatness"? The list provided is supposed to answer in the affirmative but does just the opposite.

At the outset I admit that I have not seen all 100 films, not even some in the top ten. However, my own preferences are my own, and at least I can justify them. It is very hard to justify some of the films in this list as being "great". For that term implies to me pushing the barriers of what is possible, presenting something never before seen on screen, adding to the cinematic vocabulary. It is not simply about entertainment or competency.

How can it be justified to include "Finding Nemo" and "Ratatouille" in a list of "great" films? Especially in an article that uses "superhero spectacles" as an example of what is wrong with film. I would put "Avengers Assemble" up against those two films as an excellent example of ensemble casting, humour, special-effects integration, and plotting. It's not a great film, but then neither are "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly", "The Hurt Locker", or even "Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter... and Spring".

So, let's admit it. What we have here are simply reviewers' favourites. Of course editors prefer hyperbole, so they tack on the term "great".

But even if we accept that these are the best examples this century has to offer, most of the choices pale in comparison with what was released previously. The most obvious example is the number one choice. "Mulholland Drive" is a popular film because it is intriguing, stylish, provocative, and, y'know, has lesbians in it. It's not even Lynch's most adventurous film this century, for that would be "Inland Empire". It's not his best film on this particular theme of doubling and involution, for that is "Lost Highway". And it also has a hard time competing with "Eraserhead", "Blue Velvet", "Fire Walk With Me", and even "The Straight Story".

The fascination for the turgid and entirely conventional "In the Mood for Love" is lost on me. I could barely sit through the damned thing. Wong Kar-wai made an excellent film in "Chungking Express" (1994), which I urge you to check out. It's light and fun and exemplary film-making without all the heavy-handed mannerism.

"Boyhood" is dull and unengaging, full of the most horrendous dialogue and film clich├ęs. Somehow the central gimmick ensured success, but that's because viewers never watched Michael Apted's "Up" series, an astounding achievement... of the twentieth century. I say this not because I have anything against Richard Linklater. He introduced a new and wonderful approach to film in 1991 with "Slacker". "Before Sunrise" (1995) was lovely, as was "Before Sunset" (2004), so I have no objection to its inclusion further down the list... as a good film. But it can't be "great" when the director has already done better with the exact same theme and content.

The less said about "The Tree of Life" the better. Terrence Malick has morphed from a challenging and subtle film-maker into a moralistic preacher. "Badlands" (1973) and "The Thin Red Line" (1998) are two of my favourite films. Watching "The Tree of Life" in the theatre was likely the biggest cinematic disappointment of my life.

This same pattern repeats with other directors. Lars von Trier has made astounding and controversial work previously, but "Melancholia" is worth watching only for the first five minutes, after which you should simply leave. "The Grand Budapest Hotel" was an entertaining bit of fluff, but do we have to have every Wes Anderson film in the list? The same could be said of Paul Thomas Anderson and Christopher Nolan. They certainly make films you'd recommend, but to have each entry on the list of "greatest"?

OK, enough kvetching. Here's the bottom line: film is a twentieth century medium. It has now largely been surpassed in the popular imagination by gaming. This happened sometime in the first decade of this century, depending on whose statistics you want to believe. "Call of Duty: Black Ops 3" made $550 million in three days, compared with the best-grossing film ever... "Jurassic World" (yeah, I know) at $208 million. Games sell more than music, books, and films combined. And if you look outside the mainstream, games offer an incredible variety of experiences. As a still new medium, it is developing and surprising audiences in exactly the same manner film once did.

Even though the BBC writer does not say as much, I think it is largely in reaction to this reality that the article was written. The tone is certainly defensive, without being specific as to exactly why. But the evidence of the assembled list back-fires spectacularly.

This is not to say that wonderful films won't still be made. As a cinephile, I certainly hope they will! But maybe it's time we stopped trying to pretend "greatness" for "WALL-E" or "Brokeback Mountain". Maybe it's time we stopped worrying about greatness altogether, as though some sort of canonical list of what everyone must appreciate matters at all.

So, naturally, I will present my own list in the next article. Ha!

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