Interlude 2: Adjustment Bureaus.

21 Oct

(In which the author continues to sift  through best-of lists)

The odd thing about the Entertainment Weekly best movie list is that in 1999, the publication put out a much better, more intriguing list. See the link here.

An EW adjustment bureau has, more than once, altered their pre-millennial list. But the editorial staff hasn’t adjusted for new great films—such as Army of Shadows, In the Mood for Love, There Will Be Blood—instead they’ve shifted things around with no apparent rhyme or logic.

The original list was pretty great, mixing the predictable—Citizen Kane, Godfather—with superb b-movies, like Touch of Evil, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and Pickup on South Street[1]. Stills accompany each entry, plus intriguing explanations as to their positioning and importance. (The list isn’t without its weird choices; they have Aliens at number 42, which is insanity; The Piano instead of L’Avventura or The 400 Blows; and Apocalypse Now isn’t even on the list.)

The new list makes bizarre alterations. Mean Streets, a great movie, has been moved to the number 7 of-all-time slot. (I love it, and watch it perennially, but that’s just way too high.) Bonnie and Clyde has been moved to number 4. To put this in perspective, that’s in front of Seven Samurai, La Dolce Vita, Treasure of the Sierra Madre, and Goodfellas. Annie Hall, another one of my favorites, now sits at an astonishing number 13. In front of Vertigo (maybe), Chinatown, Blue Velvet, Dog Day Afternoon, 8 1/2, All About Eve and The Seventh Seal[2].

But it’s the new additions to the list that are strange. Goldfinger—which isn’t even the best James Bond movie[3]Titanic, The Hurt Locker, Cabaret (nope, nada, never), and Brokeback Mountain all make the new list. Good films, all, with the possible exception of Cabaret, which hasn’t aged well and has creaky acting, but they don’t belong on the best-of-all time.

But the big error on the list is the inclusion of Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight.

2.

The Dark Knight is an impressive spectacle. I enjoyed watching it. But it’s also morally flawed and deeply troubling. And not in a good way.

Let’s start with the Joker. A great performance, with fascinating perverse sexual undercurrents—and I’ve always seen the Joker as less a clown than a psychopathic, knife-wielding dandy—but also a lie. He isn’t anarchy, as the movie argues over and over. He’s death, destruction and murder. He’s falsehood and lies. He’s Satan in a permanent clown mask.

Which would be fine, interesting even, except he’s put up as the mirror opposite of Batman. (He even says, near the end of the movie, “You complete me!”)

Not one of the best movies of all time. Nope.

Not one of the best movies of all time. Nope.

This is where the film gets into trouble. Batman is portrayed as a controlling, fascistic moralist, who wants to compile and track everyone in the city to prevent crimes. He is Orwell’s big brother, only in the early stages. He uses his vast wealth not to feed the hungry, or build affordable housing for the city’s poor, or create drug treatment clinics, or soup kitchens, etcetera, but to create a security state apparatus designed to crush criminals of all stripes.

Here’s where the film’s themes run aground. Of course, Batman’s totalitarian impulses are preferable to the Joker’s vicious unpredictability. But it’s a false dichotomy. The opposite of totalitarianism isn’t murder, and the cost of freedom isn’t wanton and reckless murder. There’s a middle ground—we call this society, civilization—and the film obfuscates this essential fact. Worse, Batman is portrayed as a fundamental part of the problem, which negates the very heroics the film is trying to highlight and, in a sense, celebrate. This isn’t sophisticated writing, it’s simplistic sophistry. And bad storytelling.

The Dark Knight has other issues—how could Batman taking the blame for Harvey Dent’s murders be the best possible solution to a simple problem?—that dilute it’s visceral power. But in the end, it’s confused political, moral, and philosophical message leaves it somewhere near evil and far from good.

Lists matter. They embody values, both aesthetic and otherwise. The Dark Knight’s critical and popular cache is troubling indeed.

3.

The logical thing would have been to bump some of the films from the original list to make room for movies that have been released since. EW didn’t do that. So I will. If I could only add ten (I’ve picked 18) movies from the oughts to the best-ever list, I would pick:

The White Ribbon

In the Mood for Love

The Lives of Others

There Will Be Blood

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

Zodiac

The Beat that My Heart Skipped

Mulholland Drive

Memories of Murder

City of God

Wall-E

Werckmeister Harmonies

Volver/Talk To Her

Tristram Shandy/In the Loop

Kung Fu Hustle

Army of Shadows

With Junebug, A Tale of Two Sisters, Cache, The Social Network and Revanche all close behind. I’d be happy to hear parallel lists. Zip them to me and I’ll put them on the blog.


[1] I would pick one or two from The Warriors, Class of 1984, These Are the Damned, The Thing.

[2] A devoted cinephile, Allen would be appalled by this.

[3] That would be From Russia with Love, then Dr. No, then Goldeneye, then On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, then You Only Live Twice and then probably Live and Let Die. Then Goldfinger.

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