What the BBC’s list of the top 100 films of the 21st century means about movies

08.23.16 6 months ago

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When I was approached about contributing to the BBC”s list of the top hundred films of the 21st century, I was excited to participate precisely because I have such conflicting feelings about lists in general.

Personal lists make sense to me. If I”m making a list of my ten favorite films of last year or my twenty favorite films of all time or the best movies of the 2000s or, if I ever felt really ambitious, my 1000 favorite films ever made, that makes sense because it”s a personal point of view. Ranking films side by side is, when you really look at it, a crazy endeavor. How can you compare two things as profoundly different in intent, execution, and voice as Enter The Void and The Incredibles or Mulholland Drive and Bridesmaids or whatever head-to-head you want to name, and honestly say that one is “better” than the other in some sort of declarative, official sense?

I have more trouble with group lists, because I don”t think they are as personal. A list like the BBC”s isn”t meant to be personal, though. The precise point of it is that they”ve reached out to 177 film critics to ask them what they think the best movies of the century so far have been, and in doing so, I think they”re starting a tradition that I hope they stick with, a new ongoing master list of the films that matter most to the people who spend all of their time thinking and writing about movies.

Why does that matter?

Despite what the Internet has told you, not everyone is a film critic. There are certainly plenty of opinions about film, and that”s perfectly valid. Anyone who watches a movie will no doubt have an opinion about it, and the Internet has made it clear that people are happy to share that opinion. In fact, they are driven to share it, and the sheer volume of all of that sharing often drowns out informed opinion, which is a totally different thing.

That doesn”t mean I”m saying critics are right and fans are wrong, of course, because that implies there is a “right” or “wrong” when you”re talking about reactions to art, and that”s crazy. But an informed opinion is informed precisely because the person who holds it has dedicated a certain amount of time and energy to the topic they”re discussing. I am not an expert on many things, but when it comes to filmmaking craft and the business behind it, I”ve spent the majority of my 46 years alive laser-focused on the subject. For the last twenty years, I”ve been writing about film online, and I”ve reviewed thousands of movies at this point. I see upwards of 300-plus new films every year, and since the year 2000, that”s easily been the case. Let”s say each year, it”s 300 new films. Nice round number. That would be 4800 films by the end of this year. Have you seen 4800 films in that same amount of time? I would wager that most working film critics have seen the same amount or more, and that means we”ve waded through enough films to be able to say that the ten films that mean the most to us from that period of time are not just drawn from the mainstream, not just the films that were in the Oscar race, and not just the biggest things at the box-office. That is what it means to have an informed opinion. We”ve put in the time to be able to say, “Yes, I”ve sampled a huge percentage of what was released, and when I say these films stand out, that”s because I”ve dug as deep as I can.” If someone sees a total of 20 or 30 movies in a year, they”re certainly allowed to have their own favorites, but I”m willing to bet that list is going to be drawn from a fairly shallow pool of possibilities, and that shouldn”t be the point of a list like this one.

If you”re curious how the voting worked, the BBC published every critic”s full list. You can find mine there, or I”ll just repost them for you here:

1. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (Michel Gondry, 2004)
2. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (Ang Lee, 2000)
3. Holy Motors (Leos Carax, 2012)
4. City of God (Fernando Meirelles and Kátia Lund, 2002)
5. Enter the Void (Gaspar Noé, 2009)
6. Hedwig and the Angry Inch (John Cameron Mitchell, 2001)
7. Melancholia (Lars von Trier, 2011)
8. Mad Max: Fury Road (George Miller, 2015)
9. The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (Peter Jackson, 2001)
10. Grizzly Man (Werner Herzog, 2005)

That”s a tremendous list of experiences. They”re more than films. They”re films that rocked me and affected me and drove me mad, films that got under my skin and that are still there. I presume that”s how everyone on that list of 177 critics voted. That”s why they”re critics. They”ve got that same mania, that same relationship with art, that same constant itch to find something new and great.

The thing I think is most significant about this list is that it makes a strong case for the current health of cinema overall, something which does worry me. I look at how many people are embracing the opportunities afforded by television, both creatively and commercially, and it scares me because I can imagine a world where the studios have chased off anyone interested in anything challenging, anything daring.

That list, though, the full list of the top 100 films that were picked by consensus, gives me hope. How can any industry that gives us films as diverse as Requiem For A Dream, Ratatouille, Let The Right One In, Her, Fish tank, Inglorious Basterds, Under The Skin, Moulin Rouge and The Dark Knight be dying? It”s easy to feel like the sky is falling, but it”s harder to have faith, and as I”ve said, movies are my church. This list restores my faith, and every title that I love that”s missing from the master list only reinforces that. Someone pointed out that Master and Commander isn”t on the list, and instead of being angry about that, it just highlights how many other good movies there are beyond what”s here on the list. If we all agreed completely, that would worry me. If there were only 100 great films released in the last 16 years, it would be depressing.

So I”m hoping this is something the BBC continues to do every so often, like the Sight & Sound poll that happens once a decade. And I”m hoping that if they do decide to do it again, I”m still around, and they ask me to contribute again. I”ll be curious to see how different my list is, and how different the main list is. The only thing I know for sure is that both lists will change and evolve, and that”s the real value in something like this. It gives you a sense of how we”re feeling, collectively, about this thing we all share, the movies, and whether you agree with the list or hate every choice on it, there”s value in that conversation.

So you tell me… what did you think of the master list or my list, and what”s your own personal list?

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