I love making end-of-the-year lists. They force me to take stock of the year in movies, what I’ve loved as opposed to merely liked or even just tolerated, but as I mentioned in a previous post on the pleasures and pitfalls of listmaking, it’s also like opening a can of worms. Lists are supposed to be a “statement” of some kind, but that immediately triggers my vanity and insecurities. Whenenever I begin to assemble a list, I have to grapple with issues of representativity and “balance”, and whether a wish to highlight an underseen gem or to strike a balance between, say, serious drama and the uproariously funny dopamine injection, on some level contradicts the main criteria: That these movie are supposed to be my definitive favorites of any given year.
I continually have to remind myself that these lists are, by their very nature, works in progress. Previously unseen movies that didn’t make the fundamentally arbitrary year-end deadline will eventually shake things up. Some of the movies could be elevated upon rewatching, or they’ll turn out to have been pleasurable one-offs that don’t hold up to further scrutiny. Looking back at earlier favorites-of-the-year lists, I found several examples of both: In retrospect, putting Zombieland at #3 on my 2009 list seems a bit high. It’s certainly entertaining, but having rewatched it once since then, I don’t think I ever need to see it again. Likewise, if I was to revise the 2012 list, I probably would’ve taken off the Swedish sociological drama Play and promoted the Norwegian comedy/drama I Belong. On the surface the former, which is still a very good movie, might have more obvious “heft” as a statement on the way we live now, but a couple of years on, it’s I Belong that’s really stayed with me. On one level, it’s of course silly to move titles up and down like this, instead of simply saying that they’re both great movies worthy of the extra attention. But if you’ve succumbed to the logic of the ranking as I have, this actually makes some sense. In the end, though, the larger point stands: These lists are snapshots of a point in time, and should be treated as such.
The favorites-of-the-year lists are one thing. “Favorites of the decade” is an altogether different beast. The dilemmas are the same, but it’s much more difficult to strike the right balance when you’re trying to cover ten years instead of one. I was reminded of the fun and frustration of this exercise when the Norwegian film site Montages recently started a project trying to name the 100 best movies of the 1990s. I was tempted to take another look at my list of 50 favorite movies of the 2000s, and I recognized a lot of the same tensions that the staff has touched upon in the first two of four podcast episodes. To be sure, my aim differed from theirs in more than the decade in question. Their list has been put together through a thorough process with a jury having the final say, while my 2000s list was made by and for me individually, and over a period of maybe six weeks, as opposed to the Montages list’s near 18 month gestation period. That approach, and the fact that the 1990s are a longer time off in 2014 than the 2000s combined where when I made my list in December 2009, also means that their lists can make greater claim to being “definitive”. But I still found factors to think about in their discussions of what the making of a list like this is actually about.
If I were to make the list over again today, it would look a lot different than what it did at the close of the decade. I actually put a lot of work into it at the time, particularly when it came to rewatching movies I considered for inclusion, but in the intervening five years, I’ve had time to see many more eligible movies, rewatch others, and my view of the balance between what we might call “personal favorites” and “important movies” has probably shifted slightly. To take one example: Todd Haynes’ domestic melodrama Far From Heaven (2003) came in at #4 on my list back in 2009. While I still think it’s a fantastic movie that would defintely still merit inclusion in the Top 50, #4 seems much too high. Thinking back to how I thought at the time, I cannot help but suspect that I pushed it up the list because it was an “important” yet also stylish and emotionally resonant period drama that had gotten a lot of love from professional critics who put together similar lists at the same time. But my deep admiration for Far From Heaven still hasn’t risen quite to the level of “love”, which should be a prerequisite for a top ten spot on a list of favorites. I can unequivocally say that I love Hedwig and the Angry Inch (2001) or Into The Wild (2007). Emotionally, my relationship with Far From Heaven is not on that level.
I also think time played a significant role in how my list eventually came together. I’d worked on the list for a few months and rewatched a fair amount, but when drawing conclusions on ten years worth of superb filmmaking, there obviously was an embarrassing amount of great movies worthy of consideration I hadn’t been able to see yet. In addition, there was the practical matter of having the time reflect on the choices I had to make, the movies I had just rewatched or even watched for the first time, and how they all fit together both in my personal journey through the cinema of the aughts and film culture at large. Maybe now, near the middle of 2010s, would’ve been a more appropriate time for putting together a list of my 2000s favorites. The benefit of hindsight and rewatching has given me a clearer perspective on some of the movies I felt most strongly about as the deadline approached, and more important, I’ve had more time to fill re-evaluate others and fill in some of the most embarrassing blind spots.
Perhaps the clearest example of the former is Steven Spielberg’s A.I.: Artificial Intelligence (2001), which I watched when it came out and sort of waved off as unnecessarily saccarine at the time. I bought it in late 2009 with the intention of giving it another chance, but it’s only over the last couple of years that it’s grown to become one of all my all-time favorite movies, with its sterile, horror movie elements in the first half, the middle section of flamboyant sci-fi adventure, one of the most epic and tragic could-have-been endings in cinema, and the heartwarming epilogue. The absence of A.I. from what’s supposed to be a list of my favorite movies of the aughts that I’ve considered taking down the entire list, or at least issue an appendix.
When I constructed the list, there was another category of movies I deliberated quite a bit about whether I could include: One-offs and festival favorites I’d probably never get the chance to rewatch. Four movies in particular stood out in this way: Suite Habana, a lyrical verite-style Cuban drama; the Jordanian drama Captain Abu Raed; the emotionally wrenching A Family from South Korea; and Three Blind Mice, a day-in-the-life drama/comedy from Australia. I decided to honor the intention of the word “favorite” and include them all, even though I had no idea how they’d hold up over time, or in direct comparison to some of the movies they kept off the list. I still haven’t rewatched any of them, and in a way I like it that way. I remember them as complete surprises that floored me emotionally each in their own way, and a part of me don’t want to tamper with that. That said, I’d probably happily jump at a chance to revisit the sight of the titular captain retelling the story of how he got his hat, or the emotional climax of A Family. Whenever possible, I try to rewatch festival favorites before included them on these lists. There are so many factors that play into how you judge a movie during a festival, and I attempt to be aware of that even when it has played to be movie’s advantage. In the case of these four titles, though, it would be foolish of me to deny that at least part of the reason why they ended up on the list was to make it stand out in some way. I’m pretty sure they didn’t make many other favorites-of-the-decade lists, and if just one person was inspired to seek them out, that’d make me happy.
I mentioned A.I. earlier as an example of a movie I’d changed my mind about for the better, but I also looked through the 2000s list for movies I no longer consider worthy. Two stood out to me: First, I hereby retract the “honorable mention” I gave Agent Cody Banks (2003), although I actually liked it at the time. When it came out it struck me as a slight but fun action/comedy for kids, and the first couple of (!) revisits bore that assessment out. Somewhere along the way I soured on it, however (probably something to do with Arnold Vooslo’s character), and now I now realized the error of my flippant ways.
Second, I’m afraid I gave the well-intentioned Transamerica a little too much of a pass. I’m glad it exists and it’s an OK movie, but I can no longer count it among my favorites. I rewatched it for a piece about the movie hustler and was struck by the condescension in how the heartland was presented, which I found to be an intellectual short-cut. Felicity Huffman was great in it and it put Kevin Zegers on my radar, but in compared to many of the movies which were left off, it doesn’t hold up well enough.
Five years on, this isn’t to say that I was wrong back in 2009. The list reflected what I thought at the time. But if criticism is autobiography, this post could tell you (and me) something about who I was then and who I am now. That’s what I love about listmaking, most of all: If making these lists is important in some way, it’s because it forces me to think about how my tastes and priorities have changed, in movies and in life, based on the person I was and the person I have become.