People are always writing to ask me my opinion of the latest blockbuster movie release. I’ll save you the trouble: I probably haven’t seen it and might not for some time. Sometimes, that’s because nothing I know about the film attracts me to it. Sometimes, I’m just busy and going to see a movie is one of the few things I can postpone for a long time and then experience.
A big reason for this is an aspect of modern movie-watching he expands on. If I want to watch a movie, there is rarely a need to see it right now except for the worry of spoilers. For example, we planned to see Avengers: Endgame shortly after it opened. However, Kenneth Branagh’s take on Murder on the Orient Express? It was a couple years before we checked that out.
With so many events and activities having little-to-no flexibility, this relatively newfound flexibility in film-watching has been welcome… even though I adore seeing a film in a theater (it is, after all, how I grew up and how I came to love movies so much). It also cuts down on how many new films get folded into my Favorite Film rankings.
In the meantime however, I am seeing a lot of films (and a whole lot more TV) on streaming services. And I’ve got a big backlog. I mean, I haven’t even finished Breaking Bad yet! So when I say “I haven’t seen [film],” know that there’s a queue.
I appreciate him taking the time to explain his viewpoint. He’s eloquent, passionate, and has an absolute love of film. If you’ve seen him in interviews and especially from some of his segments on Turner Classic Movies, this man loves cinema — all types of cinema — and I don’t think it’s at all controversial to opine that he’s contributed greatly to cinema through his films.
But while I agree with many of his observations, I don’t agree with the breadth of his conclusions.
Films are made more by committee these days. They are tested and –more likely than not– drained of anything that might be “controversial” as the studios continue to be risk averse in a way that really doesn’t avoid risk (see the box office disappointment of the latest Terminator film). Filmmakers who want to find a voice, tell a singular story, or otherwise be unexpected do find an uphill battle in the face of the studios near monolithic insistence on their vision. And I don’t doubt that the majority of filmmakers would love to make films for the sizable silver screen versus streaming.
But I feel Scorsese is conflating this studio stubbornness and corporate zeal to eliminate “art as risk” with its current method of promoting this blandness: superhero movies.
And there’s a lot of nuance in here, because he clearly understands and loves all sorts of movies. He identifies Hitchcock films as the thrill rides of his day, but I think he discounts the character, craft, and sheer enjoyment one finds in superhero movies. He’s entirely fine to say, as he does, that superhero movies are not to his taste — I just don’t think it’s fair to say superhero movies are in poor taste.
To give an example using the rough equivalent of the “superhero” film of his time growing up: imagine if Studios not only favored Westerns, but they insisted on franchises of Westerns and any new idea was met with, “But can it be a Western?” I can’t imagine Scorsese would enjoy this state of affairs any more than the state of affairs with superhero films — and he’d probably say some of the same things.
And you know what? He’d be right that the studios are too dismissive of anything done for art’s sake. He’d be right that many a Western is weighed down with hoary tropes and is more of a thrill ride that a film that engages you on all levels, but he would not be right that westerns are second-class films as a genre or type by virtue of being Westerns. Amid the slickly produced, forgettable ones, there’s early classics like “Stagecoach” and more meditative affairs like “High Noon,” character-driven action like “Winchester ’73,” and operatic takes like “Once Upon a Time in the West.”
Likewise, he’s missing all the character and nuance that you find in films like “Captain America: Winter Soldier” and “Black Panther.” Action sequences don’t take away from the tale of a man who dedicated his life to serve finding the institution he served has been betrayed from within. CGI armored rhinos don’t negate the nuance of a son coming to terms with things his father never told him as he tries to find a way to lead his people. I get that superhero films are thrill rides –the comics they’re based on have fight scenes and action sequences more often than not– but just like the Hitchcock films and Westerns of old, they’re not uniformly disposable trifles.
I suspect it’s hard not to conflate studio attitudes with superhero films because Scorsese is such a phenomenal, singular filmmaker. The studios are playing their superhero-franchise-over-everything-else card and that’s an impediment to precisely what Scorsese longs to do, (and what he’s done very well doing). He wants to make art. He understands that it’s show business, but he’s knows there’s art in the show and he’s presented with a bunch of drudges who feel showing art is bad.
And I bet if he was able to make all the films he pleased, he’d still be sad on behalf of the next generation of filmmakers.
For anyone who dreams of making movies or who is just starting out, the situation at this moment is brutal and inhospitable to art. And the act of simply writing those words fills me with terrible sadness.
Like I said above, this guy loves art. Think of his appearance as Van Gogh in Dreams: he’s a painter who wants you to paint. He implores you to paint for the sheer joy of painting. I think he’s just forgetting there’s other paintings that are artful, even when they’re paintings the studios are trying to mass produce.
What with Marvel movies on the mind of late, just in case you didn’t see this make the rounds this past week, Chris Evans, aka the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s Captain America, does some amazing stuff off-camera.
Sigh. Much like Bugs Bunny, superhero films might not be considered “high art,” but they’re not going away anytime soon. Besides which, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar already covered this: he’s not wrong, but he’s not right.
Toxic fans and risk-averse studios seem much better targets for umbrage — and finding ways to fund the types of films Coppola and Scorsese make without relying on the hell-bent-for-content motivation Netflix has? That just might be more worthwhile.
Now, in the face of a more meditative and gritty look at the origins of Joker –with more than a few homages to Martin Scorsese’s films– Scorsese himself felt the need to denigrate the Marvel film juggernaut as not “cinema.”
Now, on the one hand, that assertion is silly. It’s like saying a hamburger isn’t food because its preparation and presumed nutritional value isn’t on par with the fare from a three-star Michelin restaurant (and yes, you won’t surprise me if you produce examples of people asserting just that).
It feels like it’s been too long, but really, it’s only been two years since my last 50 Favorite Films. This is my biennial tradition that, honestly, I’ve been doing offline for about 30 years, but now is available for online navel gazing. You can check out the 2012, 2014, and 2016 editions should you care to. For those who are interesting in how I sort films based on criteria of quality, watchability, and personal resonance, I have a post about that too.
This year I went through over 570 films in the sort, though importantly, I did not bother to do a detailed sort of all of the films, just what turned out to be about the top 100 or so. That saved tremendous time.
Boy howdy was there a sea change in the ranking versus 2016. No less than 19 films in the Favorite 50 were not in the 2016 edition. Pretty much all of the “new” arrivals have been in the sort before and many have been in the top 50 before… and then there was the shakeup to the top 10 itself.
Hush! I don’t want any spoilers. I do, however, have some ground rules:
These must be feature films (narrative or documentary). Short films aren’t included.
Film series or franchises do not count as one entry. Each must fend for itself.
TV movies can be included (I don’t think any are in the top 50)
TV mini-series are not included.
Regular TV series are right out.
These are my favorite films, not a “best of.” If anyone else entirely agrees with my list, one of the two of us is an evil doppelganger/replicant/host.
There is no rule # 7.
Not stated in the ground rules is the obvious note that this list, like all subjective lists, is incredibly well-reasoned. So, without further ado, counting down from 50:
Basic Stats (note: genres overlap, based on IMDb genres)
Total Comedies: 7
Total Dramas: 23
Total Action-Adventure Films: 23
Total Sci-Fi/Fantasy Films: 18
Total Westerns: 2
Total War Movies: 17
Total Musicals: 2
Total Animated Films: 1
Total films with Liam Neeson: 2
Mean average year of the 50 films (rounded up): 1986
Decade with the most favorites: 1980s (15 films), followed closely by the 2000s (13 films)
The film at #51 which at least one reader will insist should rank higher: Edge of Tomorrow
Viscerally, it feels like a huge shake-up — and seeing it laid out makes me realize a few things…
It’s an altogether grimmer list There are less comedies, less animated films, and less musicals. Yes, those last two categories aren’t always lighter fare, but the musicals and animated films that left the list definitely were. There’s more war films on the list — I even have two military courtroom dramas for crying out loud! (That’s A Few Good Men & Breaker Morant, for those keeping score at home.) Just about every film in the top 10 either has war either overtly throughout or peeking obtrusively around the corner. Well, except for…
Singin’ in the Rain My #1 film since at least 2008. It had a good run. Maybe it’ll return, but when we got to that part of the sort, I just knew it wasn’t going to claim the top spot this year. Instead, that distinction went to a film that hasn’t claimed that spot since it was first in theaters in 1981.
An Adventure for the Ages I mean, Raiders has been a favorite since ’81 (along with many other great films from the year. Seriously, check out some of the top-grossing ones that were in theaters in 1981). It was a good year. It could be that I’m busy writing adventure stories myself and it could be it scratches that itch many of us are feeling of late to see Nazis punched, but regardless, it’s a rattlin’ good yarn.
I noted a few other trends or tendencies. While the top 50 remained at the average year of 1986, the top 100 averages to 1989. I’m pretty sure my favorites are getting newer overall.
I’m thinking that many a film is played out for me. This isn’t unprecedented as I noticed that with music ages ago. Some films may still be just as objectively good, but I’m not getting as much as I once did on repeated viewings. It’s also the best reason I have for Rogue One thundering in ahead of the original Star Wars. (The next highest film new to the sort was Spotlight, which came in at #55). Franchise films also did not fare as dismally as they did in 2016, though I noted the Marvel films did not do well (Guardians of the Galaxy did the best at #61).
So, there it is. A fun list… that hopefully has a couple titles you’ll want to watch or re-watch. For 2020, I’m probably going to see which of IMDb’s “top 250” I haven’t seen or haven’t rewatched in a while as well as whatever else filmmaker friends recommend. Happy Boxing Day! Hope you’re spending some of the next week in a cinema watching a damn fine film or two.
It has come to my attention that some people out there on the Interwebs still cling to the notion that Die Hard, the celebrated action film starring Bruce Willis, is not a Christmas movie.
Look, Gremlins counts as a Christmas movie, Edward Scissorhands counts as a Christmas movie, and –Lord help us all– Santa Claus Conquers the Martians counts as a Christmas movie. So yes, “the Christmas episode” of action movies does indeed count as a Christmas movie.
Consider the following:
The protagonist is there because he’s trying to re-unite with his estranged wife at Christmastime.
The antagonists are specifically there at the Christmas party because the Christmas party helps their plans.
“A Visit from St. Nicholas” (aka “Twas the Night Before Christmas”) is recited with alternate verses.
Halls, people, and pretty much everything gets decked.
Santa hats are used for great comedic effect.
The end of the film reunites the protagonist with his family, whom he now values more than ever, and they spend Christmas together.
Friends, there are many pressing questions about the holiday season from what the deal is with the Feast of Seven Fishes to the order to light Advent candles. Die Hard‘s place in the Christmas movie canon should not be one of them. Watch it with Yuletide joy… perhaps after the younger ones are in bed (there are some violent bits, after all). Twinkies are appropriate.
Ideally, I’d see all the “must-see” films of a given year that year. By “must-see,” I’d include the blockbusters and awards bait films that capture some pop culture consciousness — along with my personal druthers (I generally catch most sci-fi flicks and anything with a submarine, because come on! Submarines!).
Unlike one of my brothers, who is a fellow cinemaniac, I am not able to catch every film out in the theater — or even when it’s first out on video (e.g. DVD, BluRay, streaming). So that means I may go a couple years before seeing all of the a “year’s best.”
Some of these films will, under no circumstances, crack my top 50. They are Gallipoli-like machine-gun fodder for the sort.
But, he said we were going over the top into the sort…
It’s about as cruel to abstract concepts as you can be, but if you think this ain’t fair, you should see some of the films. All get their chance, but some are going to fall to the bottom. As you may recall, to save time on the sort, I don’t actually sort all the films in the bottom half because after 150 or so, the rankings really lose all meaning unless I were to include every film I’ve ever seen –or at at least a disproportionate number of them. For both my and my family’s sanity, that won’t happen. Still, adding new films with every sort, including films I know I don’t love, helps get the sort going as they contrast well with films I do love.
Here are the films that came out or I’m just first watching or I’m first adding to the sorting list:
The Adjustment Bureau
Alice in Wonderland (2010)
An American Werewolf in London
Avengers: Infinity War
Beauty and the Beast (2017)
Bend it Like Beckham
Big Hero 6
Blade Runner 2049
Bridge of Spies
Captain America: Civil War
Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie
Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them
Fiddler on the Roof
The Finest Hours
Ghost in the Shell (2017)
The Girl on the Train
Godzilla: Planet of the Monsters
The Good Dinosaur
Guardians of the Galaxy, Volume 2
Ip Man 2: Sadly Not Wing Chun Boogaloo
John Wick: Chapter Two
Kung Fu Panda 3
The LEGO Batman Movie
The LEGO Ninjago Movie (can you tell I have kids?)
London Has Fallen
Looney Tunes: Back in Action
Meet the Robinsons
The Monuments Men
Murder on the Orient Express (2017)
Northern Limit Line
Pete’s Dragon (2016)
Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
The Siege of Jadotsville
Solo: A Star Wars Story
Star Trek Beyond
Star Wars: The Last Jedi
Teen Titans Go! To the Movies
Train to Busan
Tucker and Dale vs. Evil
Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets
Zorba the Greek
You can safely assume some of these are the aforementioned canon fodder films. They’re never going to be my favorite films, but can serve as a comparison for how much I like a particular film. For example, I have seen every cut there is to see of Apocalypse Now, usually in theaters with nice prints. It’s critically acclaimed and technically masterful in many respects.
It’s never going to be one of my favorite films.
So if I don’t like a film better than Apocalypse Now, how much do I like it, really?
On that note, and as I mentioned for the 2016 list, I’m dropping some films from the sort because they’re just not going to rank highly. That includes The Exorcist.
So are there some films I absolutely, positively must fit into the next two weeks? Let me know in the comments.