Thursday, January 14, 2010

Analyzing the Top Tens

Every New Year, as we transition from the furious movie-going end of one year and the cold, silent Dump Season that takes place at the beginning of the new year, the cascade of Top Ten lists from all across the country begin to make their appearances. And it is useful to look at several random and not-so-random samples, as well as take a look at the big picture to see the trends and dead ends.

Movie City News is invaluable for such an endeavor. Its giant chart of top tens now features 200 critics and more than 220 movies, proving that the love was spread all over the place in 2009. Film criticism, lest we forget, is uniquely subjective at its core, in spite of the pack mentality that sometimes forms as a result of drinking the kool-aid.

Looking at the range of 200 lists from critics across the country, Kathryn Bigelow's The Hurt Locker sits atop the list, with a staggering 143 mentions out of 221 lists (quick hint: it may add a couple more list mentions to its tally once Cinema Squared unveils its lists). The film skewing closest to the Locker is Jason Reitman's Up in the Air, which is featured on 91 lists. Somewhat surprisingly from my viewpoint is that Tarantino's kitshy fun Inglourious Basterds actually appears on more lists at 98, but the overall higher placement of Air on most lists ranks it a notch above those crazy Basterds. The broad success of Tarantino's spaghetti-war saga proves what kind of year it has been: finally, in a year devoid of many successful serious films, a film like Basterds can rise to prominence and once again give Tarantino big recognition that he deserves, even if I still wish he would go back to making films like Jackie Brown.

All three movies atop the critical consensus are sure bets for Best Picture nominations in this year's expanded Oscar shortlist, and they would likely all be nominated even if the list was limited to the traditional five. Looking down the line of projected BP candidates typically reveals a slight disparity between the Oscar race and the critical darlings, but the gap is not as glaring as it has been in years past, given the category's expansion. A Serious Man and Up fill the 4 and 5 slots on the list of Top Tens, and both are in the Oscar hunt...though Up is the surest bet between the two. Number 6 on the list, with 78 list mentions, is Wes Anderson's wonderful Fantastic Mr. Fox, a movie that literally has no chance of getting a BP nomination, having to settle for Best Animated Feature. Following at 7 and 8 are Precious, a guaranteed BP nominee, and An Education, a glorious movie that will also get a nod, but solely thanks to the category's widening. Filling out the top ten of Top Tens are District 9, which could be a spoiler nominee, and Avatar, which is one of the top three contenders for a Best Picture win -- with, conveniently enough, the top two films of the critical year, The Hurt Locker and Up in the Air.

So what does this all mean? Well, not much, at the end of the day, except it gives us a clear idea of what films mean the most to the critical community. As a member of said community, I can say that a lot of these films are indeed worthy of such a strong reception, though there are glaring exclusions. Precious doesn't deserve to be placed so high, nor does District 9 or even Avatar, although I am fully aware of and reverent to its rightful place in history as a groundbreaking phenomenon. I am kinda shocked by how high Inglourious Basterds placed among the critics, since it seems like an extension of the half-empty kitsch-fun of the Kill Bill movies, neither of which placed as high...but the film does feature some of Tarantino's best work just includes a bunch of other stuff, too. The Messenger ranks 24th on the list of Top Tens, and it deserves to be WAY higher, as it is just as powerful, in its way, as The Hurt Locker, and in fact I view the two films as companion pieces. Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans ranks 22nd, also too low, although I am glad such an edgy, oddball picture has received any recognition at all, let alone this much. Duncan Jones' Moon places just outside the top 30, with a mere 12 list mentions. That is most likely because the film is very small and was released over 6 months ago, and in a now-unheard-of extension of the theatrical-to-DVD window, is only arriving on DVD and Blu-Ray this week. Unfortunate, because the film is a riveting thrill, with a spectacular lead performance from Sam Rockwell. And most glaring is the overlooked masterpiece, Erick Zonca's Julia, which with the right release plan and marketing strategy could be a contender for Tilda Swinton's performance and for a BP slot in the expanded category.

Better than in the past, analyzing the spectrum of films included on most Top Ten lists also gives some great perspective on the Oscar race, since the Best Picture category has now become a Top Ten list itself. They have opened up double the usual number of slots, and in so doing they will open the category for good -- such as the inclusion of a lovely, deserving film like An Education -- and the bad -- like an obligatory bone thrown to Eastwood's heinous Invictus or potential slots for popcorn epics like District 9 or, much worse, Star Trek. What do I think about the move to 10 nominees? It's dumb, it opens the door for pap to slip in under the radar, and it's all about a desperate ratings ploy. But that, make no mistake, is exactly why the Academy decided to go through with it.

But nonetheless, the top of the list is pretty accurate -- you are not likely not find many better films than The Hurt Locker and especially Up in the Air.

Onward....our lists will enter the fray very soon...

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