Weekly Little Big Planet: along came a straw man

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Black and white. I’ve mentioned before that there’s something about a black and white level that speaks to me. Even when it’s a bit awkward to play, as Along Came a Spider can be, I’ll treat it to multiple plays because I like the feel. Classic. Almost cinematic.

Speaking of cinematic…

After the jump, if I only had a brain

A Bad Year for Movies

Every year around this time I run an Oscar contest of sorts. I send out ballots to my friends and family who tolerate such nonsense on my part, and most of them dutifully return their ballots to be scored. Some profess that this yearly ritual makes the Oscars for them. The reason I use the term “of sorts” in that first sentence is because while my little bogus academy of friends and family do try to predict who will win in each of twenty-one categories, and while I do score the ballots and award a prize to the person who guesses the most winners correctly, I really couldn’t care less about predicting said winners myself, and I really couldn’t care less which of my contestants gets the highest score. I started this exercise out of frustration many years ago. I think it was Driving Miss Daisy winning Best Picture, when Crimes and Misdemeanors and Henry V were not even nominated (to say nothing of The Little Mermaid), that set my discontent in motion. I have been a fan of the Oscars for as long as I can remember, but at some point in my development as a fan of movies I realized the most important award in that world had very little to do with what I thought was great about movies. I started wondering what the people I knew who were also movie fans would choose, if the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences were made up of them instead of thousands of old retired white guys. So after many months of stewing I created my own dopey little academy and sent out my own snarky little ballots. With this year’s contest I reach twenty years of doing this, without interruption. Twenty years. What a psycho.

As I said, though, the “contest” part of the exercise isn’t what drives me to do it year after year. That’s just an incentive to get folks to participate. I genuinely want to see what my friends and family would choose as winners, so in addition to their predictions of what will win on Oscar night, I have them vote for what they want to win, and encourage them to include write-in votes. This is my favorite part. I just received my first return ballot this morning, and as silly as this sounds, seeing it in my inbox filled me with a warm glow. It actually made me look forward to the Oscar telecast, which is nice. I thought Billy Crystal and the list of Best Picture nominees had annihilated all my enthusiasm for the event. Apparently not.

This glow persisted until I actually read the body of my friend’s email, which included this statement:

Frankly, I must agree with those who feel it was pretty much a down year for films…

Mother-effer. Et tu, Brute?

I am so incredibly tired of hearing that 2011 was a bad year for movies it makes me want to spit. Now my friend follows up that quote with the confession that he mainly feels this way because the movies he wanted to be nominated weren’t considered, which is all well and good except that it makes no sense. If that were the case he would have complained that it was a down year for the Academy, but that’s not what he said. He said it was a down year for movies–excuse me, films. And I know why he said this. Because everybody is saying it. From fellow writers who make up Top Ten lists with only eight slots filled, to panels on movie podcasts who say they won’t even bother to make up such a list because 2011 was a bad year for movies, to friends who beg-off from naming their top movies because they did not see enough “obscure” movies in 2011.

I don’t know what any of these people are talking about, and yet this idea that last year sucked for movies continues to persist. Well, even if I’m the lone voice shouting in the wilderness, I aim to put a stop to it. I’m not calling out my friend who emailed me, or waggling a finger at the writer who only chose eight–okay, I am sort of doing that–rather what I am doing here is taking the movie-lover meme-ocracy to task for buying into this idea that 2011 was a bad year for movies, and doing so with such catatonic acceptance. This is becoming accepted as fact, and if we’re not careful we’ll end up five years from now at a party and somebody will say, “Man 2011 sucked for movies” and everybody will nod dumbly and I refuse to let that happen. I love the movies of this year too much. Somebody has to put the brakes on.

Might as well be me.

Since I’ve started this by calling people out, anonymously and generally, I suppose I should lay my cards on the table and provide my Top Ten list for the 2011 movie year. Quick note: the lists I provide here will be from one-to-ten. This isn’t a reveal. I love reveals and love the way writers structure their end-of-the-year lists. That isn’t the purpose of this piece, however. If you want that, and you have three hours to spare, you can listen to the Qt3 Movie Podcast of the best of 2011. We (Tom Chick, Kelly Wand, and I) do our lists countdown style there, more or less. For this piece I’m just trying to break down lists. So going one-to-ten is best. My favorite movies of 2011, then:

1. Take Shelter
2. A Separation
3. Meek’s Cutoff
4. Drive
5. Hanna
6. Tree of Life
7. Rubber
8. Trollhunter
9. Margin Call
10. Win Win

Here are five more–presented in no particular order–that could have made the list. A couple of these were probably on the list at some point during the year, but eventually got bumped. We’ll call them alternates: Super, Martha Marcy May Marlene, Bridesmaids, Phase 7, Midnight in Paris.

Now let’s take a look at my lists from the previous two years:

2010 list:

1. Winter’s Bone
2. Fish Tank
3. Animal Kingdom
4. Blue Valentine
5. 44 Inch Chest
6. True Grit
7. Biutiful
8. Greenberg
9. The Killer Inside Me
10. The Ghost Writer

2010 alternates: The King’s Speech, The Kids Are All Right, Don McKay, How to Train Your Dragon, Tangled

2009 list:

1. Moon
2. The Hurt Locker
3. District 9
4. A Single Man
5. Paranormal Activity
6. Up
7. A Serious Man
8. Five Minutes of Heaven
9. Vinyan
10. Gigantic

2009 alternates: Carriers, Sin Nombre, The Fantastic Mr. Fox, I Love You Man, Inglourious Basterds

Please keep in mind that when I create a top ten list for any particular year, I’m careful to explain that that list represents my favorite films of the year. Even when I use the word ‘best’ in describing or labeling this list, the word is entirely subjective. I realize this is obvious, that top ten lists are subjective. But given that the conventional wisdom is shaping up to frame 2011 as a bad year for movies, and this is to be taken as a fact, I felt the need to put it out there.

Look I’ll freely admit that making lists of best works of art is a silly thing. I’ll even go beyond the word silly and admit it’s profane. But we love it! We as humans crave this kind of thing, need the order such lists provide. How else to explain the popularity of Intelligent Design, or the fact that we have not A Mess of Commandments, but Ten?

How do we arrive at a sense for what is or is not a good year for movies? We can start by taking a look at the top ten lists of various critics. Let’s take a moment and do that. Since Metacritic puts together a list of the top ten movies of the year based on what movies were mentioned most on critics’ lists, we can start there.

The Metacritic list, based on scoring 3 points for each 1st place ranking, 2 points for each 2nd place ranking, and 1 point for being ranked 3rd through 10th:

1. The Tree of Life
2. The Artist
3. Melancholia
4. Drive
5. The Descendants
6. Hugo
7. A Separation
8. Certified Copy
9. Take Shelter
10. Moneyball

The next five, just for grins: Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Martha Marcy May Marlene, Shame, Beginners, Bridesmaids

While I don’t like a couple of the movies on that list, I can hardly argue that it makes for a lousy year at the movies. The Tree of Life is number one? What? Wow. Good on ya, list-makers. I wouldn’t put it there, but hey, at least The Help isn’t on there. Or that awful 9/11 movie. Also, Certified Copy? What in the world is that? It sounds like a romcom about clones staring Katherine Heigl and Gerard Butler. Why have I never heard of that? I demand an explanation at once!

Also, while I love the title Martha Marcy May Marlene–and once you see it you will too–I have to say that in fairness both it and Tinker Tailor are going to have to return at least two words in their titles. Each. It’s too much. You can’t just use a string of nouns, even if they are proper nouns. Cut it out.

Let me take a slight pause here, one I should have taken earlier. A sidebar, if you will. I will stipulate that 2011 was a lousy year at the box office. It was well below the previous year, and by “well below” I’m talking almost a billion dollars. That year, 2010, was millions below the year before it as well. But I think going forward the idea of “box office receipts” as a metric of how the movie business is doing in a particular year is going to become increasingly obsolete. I’ll touch on this a bit when I get around to the word “obscure” but for now suffice to say that when the folks I’m complaining about bemoan 2011 as a bad year for movies, by and large they aren’t talking about box office, they are talking about quality. In that vein, then, once we’ve talked about critics’ lists and reviews, where else can we turn to determine what is a good or bad year for movies?

We can look at awards. Awards. Uh-oh. He’s not going to bring up the Academy Awards again, is he? Yep. He is. For this reason. While the end-of-the-year lists that critics, myself included, create are inherently subjective, as I stated obviously above, whether they call them “best” or “favorite” or “top” or whatever, the movies recognized by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences are generally thought to be more “best” than “favorite.” That is to say, the nominee list for the Oscar for Best Picture of any particular year is something arrived at by consensus. Whether we agree with the quality of that consensus is another matter; it is a consensus. A group of people decided what would be on a list, so we can label that as “best” in a manner of speaking. Now I may not agree with that group’s idea of what is best, in fact I rarely do, but it’s closer to an idea of what is the best than is my list of favorites. I’m not saying it is any more valid, I’m just saying it is more democratic and therefore might lay claim to the word “best” more than, say, Roger Ebert, or Peter Travers, or, what the hell, Quentin Tarantino, who are all providing lists of favorites as individuals, as I have, and calling them whatever they call them. Why am I bothering to draw these distinctions-without-differences? Because of this:

Nominees for the Oscar for Best Picture of 2011:

    The Artist
    The Descendants
    Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close
    The Help
    Midnight in Paris
    The Tree of Life
    War Horse

Those are the best this year has to offer, according to those who work in (or previously worked in) the movie industry. Why am I bothering to include this list? Because it is another nail being driven into the coffin of 2011, a bad year for movies.

That’s a terrible list.

In that list of the nine–yes nine–best movies of the year, we have one movie on my own list, one movie I’d consider an alternate, one movie I really like, two movies I feel pretty good about, three movies I dislike, and one movie I despise. Once again, then, why am I bothering to talk about this flawed, to put it charitably, list of best movies of 2011 if I find it so worthy of derision? Because this list of movies is so weak that it is being used by folks again and again as exhibit number one in labeling 2011 as a bad year for movies. Look at that list again. The movie that is going to win, The Artist, is fine. There is absolutely nothing offensive about it; it is fine movie making. Its repetitive soundtrack is a killer and on the whole I’d rather watch Singin’ in the Rain if I want to see a comment on the transition to talkies, but it’s not a bad movie. It’s a sweet movie that has been overrated, as people will increasingly say in the years to come. You can disagree with me if you like, but I’ve got three words for you: Shakespeare in Love.

I fully realize that breaking down the Top Nine of the Academy is a fool’s errand. I could do it, though. I could go through every movie on that list and explain why it shouldn’t be considered for the Best Picture Oscar, including the one movie on there that appears on my own list. That movie doesn’t deserve a slot either. But I’m not going to do that, and not just because it’s like shooting fish. I’m not going to do it because doing so makes it seem like I’m trying to make this into a purely empirical exercise, when the opposite is true, and that very fact is at the core of my rejection of the idea that 2011 is a bad year for movies. Remember, I’ve heard multiple people claim that it was so bad that they could not imagine filling a top ten. I reject that. How? Bear with me as I share a couple more lists.

My 2008 list of favorite movies, from one to ten: Let the Right One In, Wall-E, In Bruges, Boy A, Four Months, Three Weeks, Two Days; Pineapple Express, The Visitor, Doubt, Towelhead, Frost/Nixon

My 2007 list: No Country for Old Men, There Will Be Blood, Once, Rocket Science, The Darjeeling Limited, Juno, 28 Weeks Later, Breach, Longford, Before the Devil knows You’re Dead

So here we have my favorite movies over the last five years. I could go ten, but I’ll spare you. I’ll also spare you my thought processes in coming up with a comprehensive top ten list for those five years and just provide you with the list.

My Top Ten movies of the last five years:

1. Let the Right One In
2. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
3. Take Shelter
4. Moon
5. Winter’s Bone
6. A Separation
7. Fish Tank
8. Animal Kingdom
9. Blue Valentine
10. A Serious Man
11. The Visitor
12. Once
13. Meek’s Cutoff
14. There Will Be Blood
15. Margin Call

Okay, that’s fifteen. Let’s just imagine I included my alternates. Also, while I’ve ranked them here, I could easily see myself ranking them differently next week. Or even tomorrow. The point is that 2011 landed four movies on that list. Four taken out of a pool of fifty, or 75 if we include alternates. Actually, to be totally honest, 76, since the number two movie on that five year list didn’t appear at all on my top movies of 2007 because I didn’t see it in time. I saw it after making my list and it was immediately obvious to me that it was my favorite film of that year, by which time it was too late. It happens.

Which is to my point. 2011 got four movies on that list. 2010 also got four. Yet the top two slots were from 2007 and 2008. With 2011, a bad year for movies, coming in third. But wait. How can I possibly list Take Shelter ahead of Moon and Winter’s Bone? The answer is…I don’t know. It’s the middle of the week and I’m feeling hungry as I’ve been craving pho lately because there’s a new Vietnamese place I want to try for lunch and my phone just distracted me with a notification that I’ve got an invite for a new game of Ascension. Yesterday my cd of the Take Shelter soundtrack arrived from Amazon and I’ve been grooving to that nonstop. To say nothing of the fact that A Separation has worked its way into movie conversations the last three weeks running in exceedingly significant ways. The movies I love from 2011 are on my mind. Because I saw them last year, and they mean something to me. As I’m sure they will for others, once they get around to seeing them.

This is not a knock. I see far more movies than anyone else I know, save one person. But not seeing movies is no excuse for labeling an entire year a bad year for movies. In fact, it’s a terrible excuse. Again, I’m not specifically calling my friend out here; he did, after all, admit that the movies he liked did not get nominated, except for one (Hugo). Other friends have qualified this point by saying they did not see enough “obscure”–there’s that word again–movies and that the mainstream offerings were just underwhelming. A glance at the nine Best Picture nominees bolsters this point. Until you look at my lists for the last five years, or even my comprehensive list I made up just now. You wouldn’t consider anything in that list of fifteen movies to be conventionally mainstream, and yet there’s plenty of great movies on that list. What difference does that make? A great movie is a great movie. How available it is has nothing to do with it.

What people are saying when they say 2011 was a bad year for movies is that they just didn’t see good movies in 2011. I have friends who admit that every year they participate in my contest, but the people who parrot that 2011 was a bad year for movies often state so categorically, without such a caveat. As if the good movies simply didn’t exist last year. When the truth is, they just didn’t see them. And why is that? Let’s look, real quick, at the list of nominees for Best Picture for 2010:

    The King’s Speech
    127 Hours
    Black Swan
    The Fighter
    The Kids Are All Right
    The Social Network
    Toy Story 3
    True Grit
    Winter’s Bone

Now I can state, without reservation, that this list is head and shoulders above the nominee list the Academy dumped on us for 2011. That’s not even a contest. And a glance at my own 2010 list makes me think that it was indeed a better year for movies than 2011. That may be. Or I may just be suddenly remembering how awesome Jennifer Lawrence was in my favorite movie of that year. In a couple of minutes I’ll remember how much I love Michael Shannon and Jessica Chastain and I’ll flip-flop on that too. I can feel it happening right now. Even as you read this. That Michael Shannon was not nominated for Take Shelter makes me want to go to a fish fry and turn over some tables, and that Jessica Chastain was overlooked as well in favor of her performance in–

Deep breath. Give me a minute…

I have no idea why the Academy nominated a mostly solid slate of movies a year ago, and this year totally crapped the bed. I cannot explain it. Did they, as a group, see fewer movies this year than last year? I saw just as many quality movies in 2011 as I did in 2010, and I had just as hard a time narrowing my list to ten. How is it that Winter’s Bone winds up on the Best Picture list last year and Take Shelter doesn’t this year? Is the latter more obscure than the former? As I recall, when I needed to see Winter’s Bone I had one choice of theater, a cool place near UCLA called The Majestic Crest. Finding it was a great experience because it’s a cool-ass theater, but schlepping down there to see the movie was a chore nonetheless. I had a couple choices when I went to see Take Shelter, this year’s number one. So theater choice when it comes to those two movies is a wash.

When it comes to the rest of my list, however, it is not. A Separation is a foreign movie, so while we could remove it from this discussion of obscurity because of that, it was nominated by the Academy in Foreign Language and Original Screenplay categories. This indicates to me that people bothered to see it. Meek’s Cutoff was hard to find in theaters, but was on Instant Watch on Netflix well before the end of the year. If you want to nominate a Michelle Williams performance, that’s the one to nominate, and seeing it was easy (even if watching it might be hard). Drive and Hanna were both released widely enough that many people saw them and put them on lists. Trollhunter is a weird pick, and I wouldn’t expect most folks to put it on lists, but it’s also on Instant. Rubber and Super (one of my alternates) were both available On Demand months before the end of 2011. Bridesmaids was a hit and Margin Call was easy enough to find in theaters. I saw showtimes for the latter on the marquee at my favorite theater for a few weeks when I was going to see other things. It was just ignored. And that word, finally, is the crux.

Ignorance is not an excuse. You may be able to argue any of the movies on my 2011 list off my list. You may hate the whole list. That’s okay. I tend to doubt that would be the case, but it is possible. What I doubt you can do, and what I doubt any person who has slagged this year in movies can do, is look at my list of fifteen movies for this year (including alternates, of course) and claim they are fifteen bad movies. Not only because they aren’t, but because I doubt you’ve seen them all. And given that that is probably the case, calling 2011 a bad year for movies is ridiculous.

It was not. Perhaps it wasn’t as good as 2010. Or 2007. But I bet I could give you a run for your money on sizing it up against 2009 and ’08.

How about this? Before saying it was a bad year for movies, how about seeing the damn movies? They are more available than ever before, and I can only imagine this will increasingly be the case going forward. It is 2012. We have escaped the barrenness that is the January release slate intact. More than intact, I’ll say, since I actually loved a January release this year and really liked another. Going forward I’ll bet that if you want you’ll be able to see more 2012 movie releases in your home, during 2012, than was ever possible in any previous year. Especially so-called obscure movies. Filmmakers like James Gunn and Quentin Dupieux were hip to that last year, and I’ll wager that is only going to continue. But seeing the movies these bold filmmakers are putting out is going to require will. Don’t expect the Oscars to clue you in as to whether 2011, or 2012 for that matter, is a bad year for movies. And don’t expect the mass of conventional wisdom to do so either.

See them.

Now if you’ll excuse me I have to go check my inbox for more ballots.