Last week the BBC released a survey of 117 film critics worldwide to find out the top one hundred films of the 21st century.
Since then there’s been a lot of discussion – well “a lot” by the standards of film discussion, which means roughly 1/100th of the real-world discussion about that old guy who got kicked off Australian Survivor – about the various merits (or lack thereof).
Is David Lynch’s Mulholland Dr. really the best movie of the century, as this list claims? If it is, what does it say about film in the 21st century that the best film started out as a pilot for a television show? Who selected the critics? And where are the [insert a very long list of marginalised nations and genres] films? All of which is playing exactly into the hands of the people who put together this list.
It’s not that these kind of lists – and there’s constantly turning up covering all kinds of activity, from music to sports people – are completely without merit. But their merit lies solely in the kind of discussions they start, not the discussions they finish.
Having a bunch of people submit their lists of their favourite films is only interesting when you actually know the people involved (even if it’s only through their reviewing) – discovering that a reviewer you don’t like rates some of your favourite films highly might make you reconsider their opinions, while learning that someone you like has nothing in common with you might do the same. Or it might encourage you to reconsider your own tastes and try something different.
But when these lists are touted as some kind of be-all and end-all of discussion – “Mulholland Dr. is the best movie of the 21st century say critics” – that it’s no wonder most people think very little of most critics. Because obviously Mulholland Dr. isn’t the best movie of the 21st century; it’s clearly one of the favourite movies of some people (including me), but even its biggest fans (ie, me) would tell you there’s a whole bunch of times where you want to watch a really good movie and yet Mulholland Dr. just isn’t what you feel like watching.
No movie can possibly be “the best”, and list-making itself is a pretty dubious pastime when you think about the way our tastes shift and change with our moods. For example: more than one commentator has pointed out that this list is surprisingly short on comedies. Does that mean, as numerous award festivals would have you believe, that comedy is somehow inferior to drama? Or is this just a list put together by a bunch of people who take their opinions on film seriously and want to announce to the world that they are serious people?
Because a list that says going to the movies should be a serious, sombre affair is a list that doesn’t really have much to do with how most of us actually engage with the movies. And a list of films that doesn’t connect with the people who watch them is really only good for a discussion about how that list, no matter what the hype behind it, doesn’t really measure up.
Written by Anthony Morris