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What Gives? Village Voice Poll Cineastes Commit Critical Malpractice

Filed under: The Squib Report   Tagged: , , ,

Martin Schneider writes:

The Village Voice has been publishing that year-end film poll combining the assessments of a few dozen critics since 1999. I enjoy it every year, because I'm a dorky cultural maven type, and it pleases me to see these aesthetic preferences totted up in a list for people to argue over. They love Claire Denis, I love Claire Denis, everybody wins.

This year the big winner was The Hurt Locker, which I enjoyed very much but maybe not as much as these critics. That's fine, The Hurt Locker was terrific.

The list that has me steamed is the list of the best movies of the decade. After I had studied the list for a little bit, I couldn't decide whether to conclude that cinema had died during the "Noughts" or that movie critics are stupid—or both.

Here is a list of the top ten finishers:

Mulholland Dr. (10)
In the Mood for Love (5)
The 25th Hour (5)
La Commune (Paris, 1871) (4)
Zodiac (4)
Yi Yi (4)
Dogville (3)
The New World (3)
There Will Be Blood (3)
The Death of Mr. Lazarescu (3)

That's a pretty depressing list, if you ask me, and the other 40 finishers really aren't any better (which makes sense, if you think about it—they did finish lower). Among those 40 movies are Brian De Palma's preposterous Femme Fatale and the third Star Wars movie; I'll let you judge from that how seriously these critics were taking this task.

Let's go through the top ten, quickly. Mulholland Drive is all kinds of awesome, and it's not possible to overpraise it; no problem there. Ditto In the Mood for Love, but even there, it may be a bit too "pat" an arthouse fave—it's great but a little studied. I'll return to the other second-place winner in a moment. Zodiac was a very impressive movie indeed, and I regard myself as its champion to some degree, but, well, it's got some problems. Yi Yi was wonderful. There Will Be Blood is a bit like Zodiac, awfully powerful but with serious flaws. The other four movies I haven't seen, which in itself is fine.

I have to take a moment to address The 25th Hour. That this movie can finish tied for second in a poll of this sort is a terrible condemnation of the current state of film criticism in this country. The 25th Hour came out in 2002, and was directed by Spike Lee. It starred Edward Norton, maybe you remember it. I feel strange directing such ire at the movie, because I really like Spike Lee's movies, I think he's a highly underappreciated presence in our film culture, too often damned or derided as "political" or "tendentious" when he's actually a pretty original and canny director who has few peers.

But The 25th Hour is not very good. It is overlong, overwrought, turgid, and self-important. I'm looking now at Lee's filmography, and I think I would put it about eighth, of his movies. It's not a terrible movie, it's not a mess, it's an honest attempt to make something powerful. But it doesn't work, and has little of the panache, lightness, wit, or visual flair that come to mind when you are considering a list of the ten best movies of the past one year or ten years. Having The 25th Man finish second for the 2000-2009 period is quite a bit like stating that Martin Scorsese's greatest movie is Bringing Out the Dead.

To his credit, J. Hoberman (my favorite film critic of all time), in his introduction to the poll, appears to recognize this ridiculous result when he writes:

The Voice poll, which queries film critics throughout the country, had The Hurt Locker on 54 out of 94 ballots; its margin of victory surpassed the runner-up...by the poll's largest percentage since David Lynch's Mulholland Drive swamped Wong Kar-wai's In the Mood for Love back in 2001. (These two movies get a rematch in our film of the decade category, with Mulholland Drive defeating runner-up In the Mood even more decisively this time around; the big news there is that Spike Lee's The 25th Hour, a weak 25th in the 2002 poll, ties for second place.)

So that's just baffling.

But more to the point, the list, the full list, is just a disgrace. There are certainly some splendid movies in there, but the overall package is lacking in zest. It is a list that confirms the wisdom of my decision to decrease my movie intake during the decade, and what kind of message is that to send?

After stewing about the list for a spell, I spent a quarter-hour brainstorming to create a list of fun, inventive, interesting, amusing, worthwhile movies that did not make the Voice's list at all, and which might—might—elicit a smile from a movie-lover somewhere. I'm not a film critic, I don't do this for a living, and it took me the time to make a plate of grits (hat tip to My Cousin Vinny, 1992) to slap it together. It's amazing to me that the people who do do it for a living, given many weeks to think about their opportunity to spread their delight in the medium they so love, are this unable to produce a list that does anything like that.

What follows is not my top-anything list, it's more like the larval form of one. It is merely a list of movies that would make me want to safeguard the decade's cinematic treasures rather than throw them in the Gowanus Canal, as the Voice's list does. To repeat: not a single one of the poll's critics saw fit to mention any of these movies.

A History of Violence
American Splendor
Beau Travail
Brokeback Mountain
Donnie Darko
Eastern Promises
Ghost World
In Bruges
Inglourious Basterds
Lost in Translation
Monsoon Wedding
No Man's Land
O Brother, Where Art Thou?
Rachel Getting Married
Talk to Her
The Assassination of Jesse James Etc.
The Departed
The Fantastic Mr. Fox
The International
The Motorcycle Diaries
The Prestige
The Queen
The Savages
The Squid and the Whale
The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada
The Triplets of Bellville
The Visitor
This is England
Training Day
Y Tu Mama También

Now that I've gotten that off my chest, I have something queued up to watch on Netflix. Catch you later!


In fairness, a closer inspection of the best-of VV lists demonstrates that the calculation of the 2009 list is considerably more involved that the best-of-the-decade list. The ‘09 bests are clearly realized through some variation on Mr. Hoberman’s beloved “passiondex” (I believe first seeing the light of day here: http://www.villagevoice.com/2002-12-31/home/days-of-heaven/), with weighted votes/mentions factoring into the ultimate list. Whereas it seems as though the 00’s bests were calculated by giving each critic a SINGLE best-of-decade vote, which would account for so, um, refined a list.

Like Martin, I do love this here Time of The List at the end of each decade, and I’m impressed, as we hospice ourselves through the death of Amerindie cinema, serious film criticism, &c., &c. how great a decade for film this has been. That said — Rachel Getting Married? Training Day? The Visitor? You’re listing, alright, never mind towards what…

It’s interesting to compare the Village Voice list with the two New Yorker lists posted on its website, one by David Denby and the other by Richard Brody. “There Will Be Blood” is on both Denby’s and the Voice’s list. Otherwise, the three lists are completely different. I agree with you that the Voice list is rueful. That “Mulholland Drive” is on the list at all, let alone at No.1, is astonishing. This is a movie that Anthony Lane described as an “epic horror-soap.” I watched it again today to see if I could discern the elements of greatness. But fifteen minutes in, the same feeling swept over me that I’d experienced when I first saw it eight years ago, a trance-like feeling I get when I watch bad TV movies, a feeling that I’m wasting my life. This time I switched it off and went outdoors for a walk to clear my head. There’s way too much connoisseurship in that Voice list, and not enough simple pleasure. The same can be said about Brody’s list. Denby’s list isn’t bad. But where is “Lost In Translation” – surely one of the funniest, most sweetly satisfying films of this anxiety-ridden, cynical decade.

James: As to those last three movies, I’d venture that it’s impossible to come up with a list of forty movies in this fashion (in just a few minutes) and overlap with any other single human being’s choices perfectly. I wouldn’t dispute the idea that maybe those three movies belong in the lower half of the group—more I won’t concede! Beyond that, I regard your take on the matter as acute; something about the process (single vote etc.) encouraged perversity and laziness.

driedchar: “There’s way too much connoisseurship in that Voice list, and not enough simple pleasure.” Precisely so!

If you’re wondering what movie I’d name, if I had that single vote, I think I’d lean toward Eastern Promises.

Just want to quickly second (third, sorry) an ambivalence towards Mulholland Dr., which has alot that’s great and more (Robert Forster, for (homonymic) starters) that clearly reveals its origins as an ABC pilot. Silencio on that shit + bravo tougher Lynch work like Inland Empire.

And I need to clarify that I LIKE the VV best-of-the-00’s list, alot, and certainly don’t find it lazy or, all things being equal, terribly perverse. Connoisseurship is not a direct route to pleasure? This IS a blog for the >ahem< culturally literate, no??

I’ve lost count, now—third? Aside from driedchar, who expressed ambivalence? (Aside from the friend who emailed to tell me that Mulholland Drive was “unwatchable.”)

Interesting wrinkle on the other part, James. You’re packing a lot of meaning/assumptions into terms like “all things being equal,” “connoisseurship,” “pleasure,” “culturally literate,” and “um” (first comment).

I respect true connoisseurship, but I find scant evidence of it here. What I see here is connoisseurship as a means of promoting one’s obscure favorite artist (a noble impulse, but leave it at the door) and promoting that movie that says a lot about how smart/discerning you are. Emdashes takes pride in its connoisseurship, too, but not as a hipster weapon for bludgeoning the innocent, naive, or uninformed. If the Voice’s list, which always tends that way, has finally succumbed to that impulse, then boo on them. (As I said in the post, I enjoy the Voice poll usually, but I think they went off the deep end here.)

Point being, nobody suggested that connoisseurship and pleasure are at odds. But if you like the Voice list, hats off to you. I’m glad for the clarification.

Martin — You’re right, I thought you had been as dismissive of Mulholland as I imagined, but you had not. My bad, which two out of three ain’t.

Further hair-splitting, perhaps, but I’d say there’s no small assumption on your own part where you find “scant evidence” of “true connoisseurship”. Apart from responding to a list you find pretty depressing, precisely where’s the rest of your evidence that backs up your assertions that all the VV best-o’-decade-list critics were doing was “promoting one’s obscure favorite artist” and/or “promoting that movie that says a lot about how smart/discerning (they) are”? Perhaps they were, perhaps they were not, but it’s a fair bet that you and I will never know if that’s what they did. Alternatively, is it not entirely beyond the realm of possibility that, given their charge, these critics actually voted for the single film they considered to be the best of the decade? The real perversity here seems to be precisely the reverse of what you suggest, a sort-of hipster contrarian untrue connoisseurship manifested not in the choice of films by Peter Watkins or Apichatpong Weerasethakul but by single votes for so-very-much-not best films of the decade like Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith or Femme Fatale. Most of the rest could be plausibly argued as the finest of the 00’s, with “true” connoisseurship aforethought.

Is all I’m sayin’. That, of course, and: Happy New Year!

James: Same to you!

A few points: the expression of feelings of favor or disfavor over such matters as the ranking of movies in a year-end list, the list of nominated movies for awards, etc., is not exactly a highly “evidentiary” undertaking. And any such “evidence” almost has to exist in the aggregate, right? I’m not dismayed by any one selection but rather the paucity of imagination or judgment as reflected by the entire list (by my lights—of course by my lights).

Imagine a list that would please me far more, a mix of the movies that were on the original list and the movies from my list—and still with that “perverse” (yes, I use the word) Lucas admirer on there. On a better list, the vote would fail to irritate me, I would simply think, “Ah! Critics doing their job well, and a wag.” In other words, the “evidence” doesn’t matter, it is their job to convince me as well as other people, and when they fail to convince, their standing as authentic cultural arbiters drops. When the list is studded with “subpar great movies” (to coin an oxymoron), those Lucas/De Palma votes begin to seem symptomatic. It wouldn’t really bother me that any of the movies on my list didn’t get mentioned; what bothers me is the aggregate part, that all of them didn’t get mentioned. That changes the discussion, subtly, from one about your or my aesthetic preferences to whether critics are behaving in a programmatic manner, for whatever reason, and yes, sans “evidence.”

Also, I don’t want to disparage “connoisseurship” too much, but … I mean, almost any other virtue trumps it. It’s a weak virtue that one uses when one is acutely aware that other virtues are lacking. Screw “connoisseurship,” how about “judgment” or “wisdom” or “insight”? I don’t think Roger Ebert behaves much like a “connoisseur,” and that’s one reason he is so admired. One might say that he is better than a “mere” “connoisseur.” And the same is true of Hoberman, who might otherwise be tarred by the word.

After careful consideration, I have concluded that Ang Lee’s “Brokeback Mountain” (2005) is the best movie of the decade. As the for the most wretched one, I would say it’s a tie between “Mulholland Drive” (2001) and this year’s “Duplicity.”

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