Monday, December 24, 2012

Readers who can see the future

One of my favorite late-December occurrences is when my Best/Worst of the Year issue of Entertainment Weekly arrives in the mail. This year that day was this past Friday.

I've been reading EW film critics Owen Gleiberman and Lisa Schwartzbaum for something like 15 years, or however long they've been entrenched at the magazine -- it's possible they were even the magazine's original two film critics. As with any critics, I've agreed and disagreed with both of them over the years. But since I think they both write very well, they're two of my favorite critics to read, regardless of whether our opinions line up. (Since you're never going to agree with everything a critic has to say, the most important thing is that you like how he/she writes -- it's our ability to write that earned most of us our jobs as critics, not our exquisite taste in movies.)

So I practically get heart palpitations when the year-end double issue arrives. I'm just that excited to see which movies they've each named their top ten of the year, not to mention their bottom five.

But as excited as I am, I don't tear right into it. I enjoy the experience of reading these lists so much, I don't want to just ruin it with a quick perusal. I want to have a moment to myself without any interruptions, to take in everything they have to say. Sometimes I even try to cover the opposite side of the page with my hand, so I don't accidentally read the other movies in their top ten (there's a 150-word writeup on each) before it's time to do so naturally.

Anyway, I got that private moment in our hammock yesterday afternoon while my son was taking a nap. (Yep, it was hammock weather where I am -- suck it.) And this year's reading of the lists was as good as ever. I'm expecting to have a lot of crossover with their top tens.

There's plenty of enjoyment to be had in the margins of this spread (which takes up five or six pages) as well -- humorous little asides and other "awards" given out by the two critics. (One example this year: "The Saw VI Enough Already Award," awarded to the Paranormal Activity series.)

This year, they also reserved one whole margin for the readers' picks for the top 10 movies of the year, which are about what you would expect -- with one notable exception. Here, let's see if you can figure out the exception:

1. The Dark Knight Rises
2. The Avengers
3. Argo
4. Skyfall
5. Silver Linings Playbook
6. Lincoln
7. The Hunger Games
8. The Perks of Being a Wallflower
9. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
10. Les Miserables

No cheating by looking at the poster art from this post.

It's strange enough that enough readers were able to vote The Hobbit into the top ten in only a few days between the film's release and the deadline (let's say it was Wednesday) for this issue. Especially since some of those who saw it must have disliked either the story itself or the 48 fps projection, reducing some of its likelihood of making the top ten.

Far stranger: That enough readers voted Les Miserables into the top ten when it hasn't even come out yet.


Yeah, maybe anywhere from a couple hundred to a thousand of the magazine's readers were lucky enough to attend some special advanced screening in their city. But the number of these advanced screenings would be very small, and again, it would require almost universal acclaim from those readers to even get into the top 20, one would think, let alone the top 10.

Yet I don't think Entertainment Weekly is making these numbers up. Why would they? There would be too great a risk of discovery. It's not like this is the same as Stephen Glass fabricating entire stories in The New Republic, but any journalistic outlet of any repute would want to avoid even a minor scandal along these lines. And say what you will about Entertainment Weekly, but it's one of the most reputable of the magazines that are devoted to the arts and celebrity culture (outside of the terminally high-brow ones, I should say).

If they did fudge the numbers, though, I'd have to think it would be due to the regrettable problem we critics face this time of year: the fact that the calendar says it's time for us to finalze our lists, but we still haven't seen all the movies we think we must see before we can. To address this very problem, I don't finalize my list until the morning the Oscar nominations come out. In the past, that allowed me until late January or even early February to continue watching and fine-tuning. As I've written about numerous times, I have until only January 10th this time around.

It stands to reason that Entertainment Weekly didn't want a definitive list of the readers' choices for best movies of 2012 if three likely favorites -- Django Unchained, Zero Dark Thirty and the aforementioned Les Miserables -- hadn't even come out yet. There's a decent chance the actual best picture winner will come from this group (ZDT and Les Mis are considered front-runners), so years from now it may look strange if the readers snubbed the eventual winner -- even when you do consider practical realities like publication deadlines. I guess it really depends on how much EW cares about this kind of thing. Realistically, not much.

My wife floated a different idea last night, that readers were voting based on what they expected themselves to like the most. Maybe the readers were doing the work that EW couldn't ethically do, predicting their own tendencies based only on things like trailers and the already-existing buzz. However, that would seem unusually organized on their part -- especially as a strategy that had to be undertaken by multiple voters.

It's also possible EW set up this poll in a fashion they knew was dubious without actually crossing over into unethical. I never saw this online poll, so I have no idea if it was "fill in your own answer" or "select from this list of choices." If the latter, they could have provided Les Mis as an option (even knowing that the movie hadn't been released) in order to get a bunch of yahoos who were excited about it to choose that answer as a gauge of their own excitement. I'd have to think this is most likely the thing that actually happened. But if so, that's problematic in a whole bunch of other ways -- it means that just for the sake of sheer manageability, they would have had to eliminate a number of marginal contenders and necessarily pre-set the parameters for what the final readers' choice list might look like. And besides, if this is what they did, wouldn't they have presented at least Django as an option also? Perhaps theater lovers make up a bigger portion of their readership than those who fetishize violence.

Of course, in an online poll, readers can vote anywhere -- from other parts of the world as well, where the magazine is probably also circulated. But as far as I can tell, unlike with some other prominent recent releases, this movie hasn't opened elsewhere around the world yet. And again, even so, we'd be talking about a very small percentage. 

I suppose what I should really hope is that Les Mis is just so damn great that even the small group of people who have seen it are vocal enough in their support to earn it a legitimate spot on a list like this. I'm enough of a sucker for the theater that I've had my arms wide open to embrace another movie musical ever since Chicago swept me off my feet. However, its 58 Metascore tells me that's probably not the case.

At least I'll definitely see it in time to consider it for my own top 10. The only other time I saw Les Mis was as a 12-year-old child on a family trip to England, where we got tickets in the last row of the theater where it was playing in London's West End. I loved it then when the characters were just specks, so I have to imagine that some of these much talked-about emotions will be stirred up again when Fantine and Cosette are practically in my lap. (I've heard the film features a lot of extreme close-ups.)

Looking forward to making an assessment of its quality that isn't based on crystal balls or time machines.


Travis McClain said...

From 2001 through 2008, I organized a year-end retrospective playlist of songs that meant something to my friends and me. Each of us voted and the top vote-getters made the playlist, which I then sequenced. Songs didn't have to be new releases; they could be old songs that connected directly with an event or moment from the year at hand.

Anyway, what I discovered was that democracy is a nightmare.

Of the new release songs, anything current at the time of voting always had the edge over new release songs that had come and gone by the end of summer. Some songs were so ubiquitous that they seemed mandatory inclusions, but then there'd be a voter or two who refused to cast their ballot on the basis of burnout, rather than voting for historical accuracy of the year. (If you've heard a song so much you're sick of it, doesn't that seem relevant to the purpose of such a playlist?)

I once even had a friend vote for one song because she wanted to hear it.

Not because she wanted to hear it again. She had never heard the song, and if it made the year-end retrospective playlist, she'd hear it then.

I think that's what this Les Miserables bit is about. As you say, without knowing how the reader results were collected or what directions were given to voters, it's difficult to comment specifically on the flaws in their system that allowed something this egregious but it's pretty clear that the underlying issue is that democracy is a nightmare.

P.S. I hope you fall out of your hammock.

Vancetastic said...


Thanks for the response! Wondering if you may have already told me this in response to a similar post I'd made about some democratic process gone awry. Which just proves that what I've always assumed about the blogosphere is in fact true: It's just a bunch of people (myself including) hitting the same themes that interest them over and over again.

In case you think I'm dissing us too overly, I'll add this: This is the same thing great directors do as well.

I haven't fallen out of the hammock ... yet. :-)

Travis McClain said...

I do bring out that microcosm periodically, though whether it was in response to one of your posts or a discussion we've had elsewhere online, I couldn't rightly say offhand.

There ought to be an app that tracks which anecdotes we share with which people, or at least on which site, so that if we go to repeat ourselves, the app stops us and shows us a direct link to the last time we told the same thing.

Vancetastic said...

That would be a great app.

Also, points to you for not reminding that I've told you multiple times my story of seeing Elf right after I'd ended a long-term relationship. At least if I told that story now, it would be seasonally appropriate.