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.