Thursday, January 7, 2010
Really putting yourself out there
Late December and early January are that time of year when film enthusiasts consume massive quantities of top ten lists. For me, they are like Lay's potato chips -- I can't eat just one. Once I've read one critic's top ten list, I want to find all the others in existence.
Usually, this is an exercise in trying to have my own viewpoints endorsed. As I have been compiling my own list throughout the year, I am eager to see how well I've done, as it were. I've talked about this at length previously. As much as many film critics like to be iconoclasts, we also want others to agree with us. It reminds us that we are actually qualified to do this job.
But I'm also looking for the weird exceptions -- the films that no one else liked that make it onto these lists. In a way, this also validates us, because every film critic I know has championed a film that no one else liked. It's a relief when you see other people making bold choices that could bring scorn heaping down upon them.
I still remember the guts it took in 2001, when I ranked Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within and Rush Hour 2 in my top ten. Even copping to this fact now puts my reputation in harm's way. But I knew full well what I was doing, knew that these choices might make me the object of great derision. I still say that Final Fantasy was a lush, technologically advanced and sometimes moving animated sci-fi epic, and though I haven't sat down for Rush Hour 2 a second time, I remember considering it one of the most enjoyable buddy action comedies I'd ever seen. I'm a firm believer that any film that's the best version of what it's trying to be might qualify for my top ten. Those spots are not reserved for the arthouse only.
Around this time, I also took a great interest in this website that had hundreds of critics' top ten lists compiled in one place. I submitted my own list in 2001. When it never appeared on the site, I couldn't help blaming my inclusion of Final Fantasy and Rush Hour 2 as the reason for its denial. Even though my top three were pretty conventional choices -- Gosford Park, Memento and Amelie -- and even though I also had some smartly unconventional choices -- Waking Life, The Anniversary Party and Amores Perros -- it was those two unusual picks that seemed to doom me. (Full disclosure: Now that I look at the list, I see that the Mark Wahlberg hair band movie Rock Star was also on there -- another film that I still champion to this day. And since I've now named the other nine in my top ten, I'll say that my #4 was Vanilla Sky, which I now like better than any of them, but which was probably also an unpopular decision. And in case you're wondering about an obvious omission, I didn't see my favorite film of 2001 -- Donnie Darko -- until 2003.)
There are, however, limits to this championing of unpopular movies. Including on your list movies that most people probably sort of liked, but certainly not as high as their top ten, is one thing. But putting a movie that almost everyone hated as high as #2 on your list, and then comparing that movie to one of the greatest horror-thrillers of all time, is quite another.
That's what Stephen King did in his top ten list, printed in this week's Entertainment Weekly.
Now, King is not a film critic, but he is one in the sense that everyone else is: All film fans know what they like and what they don't, and some non-critics take the time to make their own top ten lists. As they should. Even if I get sacked tomorrow, I will probably still make a top ten list every year until I die. And King does have a bully pulpit, as a columnist who appears in the News & Notes section about once a month (as does Juno scribe Diablo Cody).
King loves ranking things, be it books (which he did recently), music (which he seems to do several times a year) or TV. This may be the first movie list of his I've seen, but then again, he probably published one last year as well. I just may not remember it as well, because it was not nearly so outrageous as this year, when the remake of The Last House on the Left was his second-favorite film of the year.
Not only that, but he went on to call it "on par with Silence of the Lambs."
I'll let that sink in a moment.
Now, I haven't seen The Last House on the Left. Nor have I seen The Taking of Pelham 123 (another remake) or Law Abiding Citizen, two other films King at least had the decency to leave in the bottom half of his top ten. But what I heard about Last House on the Left was that it was not only torturous in subject matter -- the story is quite literally about the sadistic torture of two teenage girls -- but torturous in quality as well. In fact, EW critic Owen Gleiberman must have bristled when he read King's list. The Men Who Stare at Goats wasn't the only F grade Gleiberman gave out last year -- he also gave one to this movie.
And The Last House on the Left has an additional significance to me, in the following sense: Before the film was offered to some director I've never heard of named Dennis Iliadis, it was offered to the one feature film director I know personally. In fact, when I saw him last September, we were thanking his lucky stars that he didn't take the project. Maybe he would have felt differently if he knew the world's most famous horror novelist was going to heap it with praise.
The point is not whether or not Stephen King is an idiot. He's not only the world's biggest purveyor of horror, he might also be its biggest fan. This can make a person either hypercritical of horror films, or much more accepting, and King seems to have chosen the latter route.
The point really is -- wow. That's really putting yourself out there. That's really bucking the trend.
And for me, it seems like in order to do something like this, you need to have accumulated years of cultural cachet and have plenty of tenure. Having Stephen King as a columnist is a boon to Entertainment Weekly, no matter what he says. It increases the magazine's profile, even if it does not in itself sell more copies. And I'm sure EW considers King to be kind of an Andy Rooney-type curmudgeon, a sixtysomething who can say whatever he wants because he's earned it. He'd have to do a lot worse than champion a universally reviled film to be kicked out of EW's pages.
But comparing it to Silence of the Lambs? Whaaa ...?
It again raises that issue of whether there is, or should be, a litmus test for a person to prove he/she has the ability to speak authoritatively about movies. King gets a pass, of course, specifically because he is not a critic. What's more, it's kind of understood that Stephen King did not see 150 movies last year. He's choosing his top ten from the 40 or 50 he did see.
But what if it were Gleiberman who decided to make Last House on the Left his #2 movie, and compare it to Silence of the Lambs? What then?
I'm just glad it wasn't me. I'm still trying to live down that whole Rush Hour 2 debacle.