Features and Columns

Culture Warrior: Toward An Alternative Top 10 List

By  · Published on January 25th, 2011

This time last month, critics across the web and in print were compiling their mandatory best-of lists. While I often get annoyed when some lists with grander goals are given a degree of resonance they don’t in fact deserve (I’m looking at you, AFI), I do see the fun of the end-of year list ritual and honestly enjoy reading and writing such lists myself.

But the thing is, I’m not primarily a critic for FSR, I’m a columnist. Thus, it’s nowhere near mandatory that I see everything released in a given year. I’ve been generously given the privileged position here of seeing what I want to see and writing about what I find interesting to write about week-in and week-out. While I receive occasional screeners for indie flicks and docs, I no longer live in a town that holds press screenings, so any new releases I choose to write about come into fruition because I, like your average cinephile (take note, Kevin Smith), have paid to see a movie that I think deserves my time, words, and money.

This long digression is to ultimately say that my critical opinion of a given year at the end of that calendar year doesn’t ultimately mean all that much. My annual Top 5 contributions are based on comparatively few films seen by December 31. It’s typically not until sometime in February that I have anything resembling a top 10 list of my own that I can stand by, having finally seen former limited releases which have expanded or been released on DVD. This, of course, doesn’t take into account any “discoveries” I make much later on that I otherwise would have seen initially had I been doing full-time criticism through press screenings and film festivals.

What the heck do I spend all my time doing, then? I’m a self-designated cinephile, don’t I watch every movie that comes my way? I do, in fact.

I’m just not watching all that many new ones.

A few months back, Chris Fujiwara wrote a brilliant piece called “To Have Done with Contemporary Cinema” for n+1 magazine. The article could have alternatively been called, “To Have Done with Contemporary (Cinema) Criticism” as it details the difficulties on speaking about greatness and worth in cinema in a critical landscape that is so focused on the present, often at the expense of the past or at the expense of the critic’s ability to resurrect the past (promoting a lost classic instead of a new blockbuster, for example, if we assume that all criticism and news is “promotion” of one sort or another).

Contemporary criticism is necessary and it is pertinent. But we must remember that criticism never serves only one function: it isn’t just some dude telling you where to spend your money over the weekend or a prolonged intellectual debate between colleagues. It is in this spirit that we must remember that contemporary film criticism isn’t the only option in film criticism.

In some sense, what I’m saying is obvious. This site, for example, has several columns devoted entirely to movies not of the present. One of my favorite film podcasts, Filmspotting, spent this past year looking back at films released in the 90s and 00s and making reflective year-end lists. The result is, at least in theory, a more objective perspective on the recent past, a clearer idea of which works have really come to mean something over time, and a critical gaze free from advertising, hype, and the pressures of critical consensus.

As we all grow as cinephiles, critics and non-critics alike, it’s just as important to take note where we fill our gaps in our knowledge of cinema’s past as it is to engage in cinema’s present. That being said, I’d like to promote a new kind of Top Ten list, one that in some ways suffers from the same limitations of any list but one that also acknowledges other notable responsibilities of the film critic: namely reflection, not only on film history but on oneself in relation to our continued consumption of past cinema and the shaping of our respective tastes.

This is what such a list might look like:

Landon’s Top 10 Films He Saw in 2010 That Weren’t Released in 2010

10. Everlasting Moments (Sweden, 2008) – Jan Troell’s quiet, methodically paced film about a woman who seeks temporary escape through photography in an abusive household in early 20th century Sweden is about as subtle, heartbreaking, and ultimately touching as films can be. Troell immerses you in the spatiotemporal world of the film’s setting and its markedly different pace of living, telling a film about beautiful images with (you guessed it) stunning imagery.

9. My Winnipeg (Canada, 2007) – Guy Maddin’s semi-autobiographical “documentary” is both a curious love/hate-letter to his home of origin and an oddball coming-of-age story that exists miles away from the clichéd implications of that term. Bizarrely funny and inventively stylized (as always with Maddin), this film finds the director simultaneously at his most accessible and his most eccentric.

8. Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence (UK, 1983) – Nagisa Oshima’s late-career masterpiece crosses boundaries of nation as it does of genre. A prisoner-of-war film like you’ve never seen, the film explores themes of loyalty, compassion, human cruelty, and sexual obsession with incredible insight and an often-surprising story structure.

7. Les Carabiniers (France, 1963) – To the surprise of nobody and to the annoyance of several, I’ve been on a Godard kick this past year, filling in personal gaps I have in seeing the filmmaker’s prolific output. The biggest surprise was this film, a no-holds-barred indictment on all things military-industrial imperialism that predicated Dr. Strangelove, worldwide anti-Vietnam protests, and the more political phase of the director’s career.

6. Holiday (USA, 1938) – I actually prefer this film to George Cukor’s other, better-known Cary Grant/Katherine Hepburn screwball romantic comedy The Philadelphia Story. While both are brilliant, I found Holiday more organically funny, more profoundly touching, and more insightful with its unexpected class criticisms that comment on both the genre it utilizes as well as 1930s America at large.

5. Performance (UK, 1970) – Having been a big fan of the raw inventiveness of Nicholas Roeg’s 1970s work, I expected his first feature film to be one of his most accessible. What I got instead was a psychedelic head trip of a film that’s bombastically effective in form, deeply critical of the failures of UK’s 60s counterculture, wonderful in its employment of first-time actor Mick Jagger, and overall an astoundingly impressive first film.

4. Bigger Than Life (USA, 1956) – In trying to explain to friends Nicholas Ray’s underrated masterpiece of melodrama, my words never do the film justice. Let’s just say it’s as brilliant in what it does intentionally as it is in what it seems to do unintentionally.

3. Syndromes and a Century (Thailand, 2007) – Apichatpong Weerasethakul clearly became a big deal in the arthouse world recently for a reason. His immersion into aesthetic purity is just as hypnotic as it is playful, and his restructuring of narrative cinema altogether is as minimalist as it is radical. This is truly cinema as art.

2. Gimme Shelter (USA, 1970) – Another Mick Jagger film on the list from 1970, this long celebrated documentary (which I’ve only seen recently for no good reason) is a perfect and uncanny summary of the tensions that simultaneously enabled and destroyed the American counterculture. It’s not a rockumentary: it’s the capturing of the death of an era.

1. Red Desert (Italy, 1964) – Michelangelo Antonioni’s very best film. That’s all that can really be said.

In summary, we’re always seeing films that are new to us. They just might not be “new.”

What were your discoveries this past year?

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