Thursday, January 26, 2012

This Critic Was Wrong: Mistakes from 15 Years of Ranking Movies

This January marks 15 years since I started ranking all the movies I've seen in the previous year, from first to worst. I started the practice in January of 1997, and here it is, January of 2012. (Technically, that's 16 lists, because there are two lists bookending that 15-year period. But it's still 15 years. If you are for some reason coming to my blog for the first time during this very post, my 16th list went up yesterday.)

So to celebrate this milestone -- because you know how I love burdening you with my milestones -- I thought I would take a look back at where I've been and how far I've come.

But I'm not going to do something boring like give you a list of my favorite movies from those 15 years. Especially since there were plenty of great movies I saw during that period that I didn't see within their release year, meaning they never appeared on any year-end list, meaning talking about them here would be a strange way to mark the occasion. (No movie I see after the morning of the Oscar nominations is eligible for ranking.)

Instead, I'm going to look at what I got wrong. Those rankings are and will always be part of the "official record," but clearly my feelings about the movies I ranked have changed over the years. Some, I like a lot more than I did when I first saw them; others, a lot less. And so I thought I'd give you a list of the top ten movies I misranked when they came out, at least, relative to how I feel about them today. And in some cases, as you'll see, I even wonder what the hell I could have been thinking at the time.

But before we get into that, I want to lay the groundwork, to give you some idea about my tastes over the years. For each year from 1996 to 2010 (see yesterday's post for 2011), I want to tell you three things: 1) how many movies I ranked by my deadline, 2) the movie I ranked #1, and 3) the movie I ranked last.

Here they are:

1996 - 43 movies. #1 - Looking for Richard (Al Pacino), #43 - Before and After (Barbet Schroeder)
1997 - 39 movies. #1 - Titanic (James Cameron), #39 - Speed 2: Cruise Control (Jan de Bont)
1998 - 58 movies. #1 - Happiness (Todd Solondz), #58 - Almost Heroes (Christopher Guest)
1999 - 57 movies. #1 - Run Lola Run (Tom Tykwer), #57 - Wild Wild West (Barry Sonnenfeld)
2000 - 58 movies. #1 - Hamlet (Michael Almereyda), #58 - The 6th Day (Roger Spotiswoode)
2001 - 73 movies. #1 - Gosford Park (Robert Altman), #73 - The Musketeer (Peter Hyams)
2002 - 80 movies. #1 - Adaptation (Spike Jonze), #80 - Bad Company (Joel Schumacher)
2003 - 58 movies. #1 - Lost in Translation (Sofia Coppola), #58 - Dreamcatcher (Lawrence Kasdan)
2004 - 59 movies. #1 - Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (Michel Gondry), #59 - Troy (Wolfgang Petersen)
2005 - 73 movies. #1 - Hustle & Flow (Craig Brewer), #73 - Saw II (Darren Lynn Bousman)
2006 - 77 movies. #1 - Children of Men (Alfonso Cuaron), #77 - Lady in the Water (M. Night Shyamalan)
2007 - 82 movies. #1 - There Will Be Blood (Paul Thomas Anderson), #82 - Captivity (Roland Joffe)
2008 - 87 movies. #1 - The Wrestler (Darren Aronofsky), #87 - An American Carol (David Zucker)
2009 - 113 movies. #1 - Moon (Duncan Jones), #113 - The Final Destination (David R. Ellis)
2010 - 109 movies. #1 - 127 Hours (Danny Boyle), #109 - Furry Vengeance (Roger Kumble)

Come to think of it, I don't know what this actually tells you. One thing of interest to me, though, is that never have I awarded the same director top honors twice, nor have I hung the dunce cap on any director more than once. (Though I think M. Night Shyamalan came close, and Joel Schumacher came very close yesterday when I ranked Trepass second lowest of 2011.) However, Charlie Kaufman did write two of my #1s, those being Adaptation and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.

Okay, enough preamble. I found 25 contenders for my biggest mistakes and pared them down to ten. I've also given you their ranking, and some better films they finished ahead of or worse films they finished behind. In reverse order of their severity ...

10. Napoleon Dynamite (2004, Jared Hess)
Ranked: Too low, 27th out of 59
Below such films as: Fahrenheit 9/11, The Forgotten
Explanation: This must be a case of the film not having achieved its eventual beloved status until well after it was released. (In fact, the movie is apparently so beloved that Fox decided to revive it this year as an animated show.) One of the other contenders for this list was Office Space, which I had ranked fairly low at the time it came out, but has since become a common reference point for numerous film fans by playing regularly on cable. The same could be said for Napoleon. Still, I knew that I liked it at the time and I also knew that Michael Moore's 9/11 polemic annoyed me, so how did I get this wrong?

9. High Fidelity (2000, Stephen Frears)
Ranked: Too low, 37th out of 58
Below such films as: Red Planet, Mission to Mars, The Perfect Storm
Explanation: I wouldn't say I was a huge fan of Frears' movie, prefering Nick Hornby's book (as people who have read the book first are wont to do). But I must have really thought it trod wrong if I ranked both of the Mars movies, neither of which was very good, ahead of it, not to mention The Perfect Storm, which I found even more problematic than the Mars movies. Or perhaps it's just that over the years I have conflated the film with the book, and just see them as a single entity that I love.

8. Star Wars, Episode II: Attack of the Clones (2002, George Lucas)
Ranked: Too high, 14th out of 80
Above such films as: About a Boy (speaking of Nick Horby), Blue Crush, Signs
Explanation: Yes, I loved seeing Yoda bust out that lightsaber. And yes, I saw it twice in the theater. (An honor the inferior Phantom Menace can also claim.) But I think I must have had a case of serious Star Wars blindness, or perhaps just relief to move on from the narrative inertness of Episode I, in order to rank it ahead of the movies listed above. I know Signs has its detractors and Blue Crush may just be a guilty pleasure, but Crush is a guilty pleasure I felt fervently about at the time. Then again, none of us could know the extent to which the prequels would backlash on George Lucas until they had all been released and they were all sub-par.

7. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004, Alfonso Cuaron)
Ranked: Too low, 24th out of 59
Below such films as: The Manchurian Candidate, Before Sunset, Million Dollar Baby
Explanation: Although I was enchanted enough by the Harry Potter movies at the time -- I'd legitimately liked two of the three -- it wouldn't yet have been possible to know that this movie would become the crown jewel of the series, looking better and better as each new movie disappointed me (until the final one, that is). It certainly helps my current appreciation of Azkaban that Children of Men would elevate Cuaron to the status of a god in my mind two years later. Still, I knew I really enjoyed this at the time, so I don't know how I would have ranked it behind a serviceable if unspectacular remake, a somewhat frustrating sequel (that's beloved by some) and a best picture winner I didn't find worthy of that honor, even if I couldn't have known it would win best picture at the time.

6. Wag the Dog (1997, Barry Levinson)
Ranked: Too high, 18th out of 39
Above such films as: Air Force One, Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery
Explanation: Even at the time, I'm pretty sure I found this an overly smug satire that didn't make me laugh the way it considered itself so clever for doing. I actually remember resenting the critical praise directed at this movie. Yet as I looked back at my lists, I found it in the top half of the films I saw that year. I blame that decision on the fact that I had not yet honed my current sense of independence from what others think. I must have thought I "should" like this more than I did, and elevated it accordingly. Granted, the original Austin Powers is also a movie that's become significantly more beloved (by me, and in general) as the years have passed.

5. The Matrix (1999, Larry and Andy Wachowski)
Ranked: Too low, 22nd out of 57
Below such films as: Magnolia, Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, Dogma, Sleepy Hollow
Explanation: Oh, the perils of being a movie made in 1999. As I looked back on these lists, I found that 1999 had far and away the greatest concentration of excellent movies. In fact, all the movies I've listed above are movies I either like a little or like a lot. So the inclusion of The Matrix on this list, in this spot on the list, says more about just how much of a cultural institution that film has become in the intervening years -- even though it got plenty of attention as the surprise hit of the year it was released. And the funny thing is, I remember how much of a good time my friend and I had when we first saw it, coming in with no expectations. So it shouldn't have even needed that second viewing to help elevate it toward how I currently think of it, as probably one of my favorite 200 films of all time.

4. Disney's The Kid (2000, Jon Turteltaub)
Ranked: Too high, 12th out of 58
Above such films as: The Cell, American Psycho, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon
Explanation: Rule of thumb when it comes to movies: Always watch the ending. I watched The Kid on a plane ride to Los Angeles (I lived in New York at the time), and it charmed the damn pants off me. But it was the second film they showed on the flight, and the pilot had to shut it off before the actual ending in order to land. I thought we were close, so I counted it and ranked it and moved on. I mean, how much can really go wrong in the last 10 or 15 minutes of a movie? (Ha.) Well, I finally watched the end in 2010, and, well ... you can read about it here. (And for the record, it was more like 25 minutes that I missed back in 2000.)

3. War of the Worlds (2005, Steven Spielberg)
Ranked: Too low, 30th out of 73
Below such films as: Diary of a Mad Black Woman, Cache, Aeon Flux
Explanation: Sometimes you just never know which films will take hold and become favorites. I own War of the Worlds and have seen it probably four times now. No other film from that year have I seen more than twice, yet I ranked 29 films ahead of it. I don't know what I saw in my second viewing of War of the Worlds that catapulted it so far forward, but that's where it is, and it certainly should have been ranked higher. Darn, now I kind of want to see it a fifth time. (I know, I know, you don't like the ending. Get over it.) For the record, that doesn't mean it's now my favorite film from 2005 -- just that you never know why you'll want to repeatedly watch certain movies, even if they are not "better" than other movies that you don't care to watch repeatedly.

2. Forgetting Sarah Marshall (2008, Nicholas Stoller)
Ranked: Too low, 18th out of 87
Below such films as: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Taxi to the Dark Side
Explanation: Okay now, you might be saying "What?" It's safely in the top 25% of a year in which I saw 87 movies, and besides, both of the movies I listed above are pretty good. No, this one is again to show you how much this movie jumped up after two more viewings. When I ranked my top movies of the decade a mere year after publishing these rankings, I'd become so smitten with this film that I ranked it 18th again -- out of the whole decade. Granted, I may have been under the undue influence of an extremely heightened sense of appreciation for this film, one that probably doesn't translate to reality. (On a movie podcast last year, I actually said I preferred this movie to Jaws. Why those two movies were being compared, I won't get into right now.) But the fact remains that there's no movie I've seen more than this since I first saw it in November of 2008, having just watched it for the fourth time on New Year's Day.

1. Scary Movie 2 (2001, Keenen Ivory Wayans)
Ranked: Too high, 39th out of 73
Above such films as: The Princess Diaries, Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, Blow, The Fast and the Furious
Explanation: Did I have a brain embolism when I was making out my 2001 rankings? Or have I just completely forgotten the things about this movie I might have once found funny? The reason this movie is my #1 ranking mistake is because I currently think of it as so loathsome, so puerile, and so inept, that I have it ranked #3289 on my Flickchart -- out of only 3329 films total. That means that according to my current understanding of Scary Movie 2, there are only 40 movies that I've ever seen that I hate more. Yet in the year 2001, I thought it was better than nearly half of the movies I saw -- 34 movies in that year alone. What's the real truth? And could I possibly be so intrigued by this odd disconnect that I would actually watch it again? Eh, probably not.

Was this exercise interesting to anyone but me?

Eh, probably not.


Nick Prigge said...

Ah man, you didn't like "Wag the Dog"? (Or at least not like it now as much as you did then.)

I love that movie, and my appreciation of it actually gains with each viewing.

Vancetastic said...

I guess exaggeration is one of the key ingredients in satire, but for me this just felt too exaggerated. I also thought it felt very self-congratulatory, like the writers were begging us to tell them how clever they were. I think of this in a similar way to how I think of David Mamet's State and Main, though I've always hated that one and apparently at least once thought that Wag the Dog was pretty good. (I'd say I'd give it another chance, but I'm really not motivated to prioritize a second viewing.)

Nick Prigge said...

I actually love "State & Main" too. I have it right next to "Wag the Dog" on my DVD shelf on account of the Mamet factor. But you're right. Mamet can be kind of self-congratulatory. I mean, the hero of "State & Main", as you know, is the freaking screenwriter!

I really do love Mametspeak, though (for the most part). I cannot tell a lie.

Vancetastic said...

Heh -- when I made that comparison, I hadn't directly realized/remembered that Mamet wrote Wag the Dog also. Explains a lot.

You know, I have a very funny relationship with Mamet. Glengarry Glen Ross is literally (people say this all the time, hence the term "literally") one of my favorite movies of all time -- I have it ranked 11th on the Flickchart website, on which you can rank all the films you've ever seen. However, it drops off precipitously from there. I like The Winslow Boy (of all films -- it's about the least Mamet Mamet film) and I have a decent appreciation for some others (House of Games), but I am generally nonplussed by The Spanish Prisoner and I really don't like either Heist or Oleanna. I'm sure I've seen other Mamet films, but I'm doing this from memory.

But hey, I get points for Glengarry, right? The fact that it wasn't directed by Mamet could make the difference ... though he didn't direct Wag the Dog either.

Okay, now I'm curious about all this. Maybe I WILL watch Wag the Dog again.

Don Handsome said...

Very cool exercise.

I feel like I’m constantly reassessing films and their place in my heart (and in my overall film continuum) is fairly fluid, and thus my year end rankings are generally just a snap shot in time that rarely gets revisited. But this exercise would certainly be a worthwhile one for all of us to engage in, to look at how we’ve changed as viewers over time and to look at where we are now. Nice job.

The Matrix would be a tough one for me to look at now. I can’t remember where I had it in 1999, but it probably was pretty high…and now, since the other 2 matrices have come and left their stain on my memory, I would bet I’d lower it significantly. I think The Matrix is terrific, mind you, and think it stands (by itself) very well. I’ve seen it recently and have liked it recently, but I’ve also seen Magnolia recently (and LOVED it recently) and I just think that its star has faded just a bit over time. Maybe the middle of the list (where you had it) is unfair, but I think its also unfair to place it near the top of that cream-filled 1999.

I definitely agree with your High Fidelity assessment. It was also a grower with me. I liked it reasonably well when it came out, but have found myself exposed and rexposed to it over the years and have come to count it as one of my favorite Cusak and Frears films. It is also among my favorite Chicago films (and its in good company there). By the way, its still not as good as the book…

And...Ugh. Enough with the Napoleon Dynamite already. I'm in agreement with you that you made a mistake with it, but that mistake was having it too high...should have been near the bottom of your list. What an obnoxious film! Thud.

Vancetastic said...


You make a fair point about Napoleon Dynamite. I own the DVD (got it as a present) but haven't watched it since I got it, which was maybe four or five years ago. Maybe it's not really worthy of our affections. However, I do think it was a skewed vision I hadn't quite seen before, and I'd be lying if I didn't admit that my co-workers and I used to quote it all the time. Quotability = goodness, to some degree. (Unless you are quoting movies because they are bad, like The Wicker Man.)

As for The Matrix, I think I can separate it pretty well from the sequels. I haven't seen it in maybe eight years or more, but I have this massive respect for it because of its influence on how almost every action movie is made today. You gotta give props for something like that.

Incidentally, Magnolia has gone up in my estimation as the years have passed since I saw it. I haven't seen it again, but the wife and I have been toying with another viewing (if we can find the three hours) for a couple months now. I guess I'm saying I'm shocked that I ranked The Matrix below it at the time, because I really liked The Matrix and found myself quite frustrated by Magnolia (which I considered to be a ripoff of an Altman movie, specifically Short Cuts).

Mike Lippert said...

David Mamet is one of the best living playwrites and screenwriters working, he can be smug if he wants to. Have you read his books? He's probably smarter than all of us combined.

What I find ironic with the Wag the Dog comment you say you have since been able to break away and are not afraif to just agree with the majority and yet the majority are what you use to claim you now like The Matrix and ND more now. Colour me confused.

Vancetastic said...

But Mike, how many great talents are there out there who don't need to be smug? Plus, I think it's one thing if your smugness comes out in interviews, etc. It's quite another if your movies seem smug. I find that to be one of the most off-putting characteristics a movie can have.

You make a good point vis-a-vis Wag the Dog, The Matrix and Napoleon Dynamite. However, I think for me it's the difference between the short view and the long view. I meant that I am no longer as influenced by the short view, by the immediate excited chatter of critics who are heaping praise on a movie. I do think that if a movie endures, and is revisited, and is still discussed years later, that can't help but influence you. Those movies start to play a role in the very fabric of cinematic history, and their greatness is further revealed to you as a result of seeing their influence on other films. (I'd say this is the case with The Matrix but not Napoleon Dynamite.) Also I genuinely like both The Matrix and Napoleon Dynamite. I'd say that the enduring praise did its job by getting me to revisit them more quickly than I might have otherwise, and getting me better in touch with why I liked them so much.

I hope that makes more sense.