OK, this is where it really gets interesting. Forget the consensus Top 50 Greatest Movies of All Time; let's get personal. Sight & Sound has now published the top 250 titles in its 2012 international critics poll, the full list of more than 2,000 movies mentioned, and all the individual lists of the 845 participating critics, academics, archivists and programmers, along with any accompanying remarks they submitted. I find this to be the most captivating aspect of the survey, because it reminds us of so many terrific movies we may have forgotten about, or never even heard of. If you want to seek out surprising, rewarding movies, this is a terrific place to start looking. For the past few days I've been taking various slices at the "data" trying to find statistical patterns, and to glean from the wealth of titles some treasures I'd like to heartily recommend -- and either re-watch or catch up with myself.
I know we're supposed to consider the S&S poll a feature film "canon" -- a historically influential decennial event since 1952, but just one of many. I don't disagree with Greg Ferrara at TCM's Movie Morlocks ("Ranking the Greats: Please Make it Stop") when he says that limiting ballots to ten all-time "best" (or "favorite," "significant," "influential" titles is incredibly limiting. That's why I think perusing at the critics' personal lists, the Top 250 (cited by seven critics or more) and the full list of 2,045 films mentioned is more enjoyable pastime.
It's wise to remember that, although the top of the poll may at first glance look relatively conservative or traditional, there's a tremendous diversity in the individual lists. Even the top vote-getter, "Vertigo," was chosen by less than one quarter of the participants.
Marie writes: Once upon a time, a long time ago and in a childhood far, far away, kids used to be able to buy a special treat called a Frosted Malt. Then, with the arrival of progress and the subsequent destruction of all that is noble and pure, the world found itself reduced to settling for a frosty at Wendy's, at least where I live. Unable to support a "second rate" frosted malt for a second longer, I decided to do something about it!
Andrew Sarris, who loved movies, is dead at 83. He was the most influential American film critic of his time, and one of the jolliest. More than anyone else, he was responsible for introducing Americans to the Auteur Theory, the belief that the true author of a film is its director. Largely because of him, many moviegoers today think of films in terms of their directors.
How did Charles Chaplin get his start on the screen? In 1913 the English comic was on a U.S. tour with a vaudeville troupe when the Keystone Film Company offered him $150 per week. Chaplin signed a contract and took the train to Los Angeles. He acted on camera for the first time in "Making a Living." A critic at The Moving Picture World gushed that the newcomer was "a comedian of the first water, who acts like one of Nature's own naturals."
Andrew Sarris -- dean of American film critics, leading proponent of the auteur theory in America, author of the essential The American Cinema: Directors and Directions, 1929-1968 (and equally praiseworthy review and essay collections such as Confessions of a Cultist: On the Cinema, 1955-1969, Politics and Cinema and The Primal Screen), senior critic of the Village Voice for decades, co-founder of the National Society of Film Critics -- has reportedly been let go by cut from the staff of The New York Observer.
UPDATE: Dave Kehr has a clarification from Sarris's wife, critic Molly Haskell: "Andrew, along with a dozen other writers at the rapidly sinking weekly, was taken off staff on Monday, but he will continue to write on a freelance basis, exactly as Rex Reed does currently. Not great news, but -- particularly in the current context -- not a catastrophe. Andrew's day job, teaching at Columbia University, is not in danger."
Sarris, who turned 80 last October, was along with Pauline Kael the most influential film critic of the 1960s and 1970s. He was also the titular target of Kael's infamous attack on auteurism, "Circles and Squares: Joys and Sarris" (1963) -- ironic, since Kael was patently an auteurist through-and-through, even if she failed to recognize herself as such. No one has done more than Sarris to make the case that "Hollywood movies" were worthy of serious critical attention, every bit as much as "art films," no matter where they're made.
If you do not have a copy of The American Cinema -- from which, coincidentally, I just quoted a few indelible paragraphs a couple days ago -- do yourself a favor and buy it now. It's the best guide to approaching American movies that there is, beginning with Sarris's celebrated "pantheon" directors (some of whom were not, strictly speaking, "American" -- though they all worked in the US at some point): Charles Chaplin, Robert Flaherty, John Ford, D. W. Griffith, Howard Hawks, Alfred Hitchcock, Buster Keaton, Fritz Lang, Ernst Lubitsch, F.W. Murnau, Max Ophuls, Josef von Sternberg, Jean Renoir and Orson Welles. (Later he added Billy Wilder to the pantheon.)
Glenn Kenny simply quoted Jean-Luc Godard on Orson Welles: "All of us will always owe him everything."
Here is Borat ridiculing people who are not in on the joke so that you can feel socially superior, according to Christopher Hitchens and David Brooks.
British crank Christopher Hitchens has been writing about Borat's Kazakhstan for years, only he calls it "Iraq." Still, it's an imaginary place in Hitchens' brain, like Kazakhstan in Borat's or Nicole Kidman in David Thomson's.
I do not read Hitchens much at all anymore because he's stuck in 2002 and can't get out. But Hitchens has a perspective on "Borat" that's worth mentioning. First, he quotes a dim-witted passage from a review in "London's leftist weekly," the New Statesman, in which the writer professes that "it's shocking to witness the tacit acceptance with which Borat's ghoulish requests are greeted. Trying to find the ideal car for mowing down gypsies, or seeking the best gun for killing Jews, he encounters only compliance among America's salespeople."
To which Hitchens replies: Oh, come on. Among the "cultural learnings of America for make benefit glorious nation of Kazakhstan" is the discovery that Americans are almost pedantic in their hospitality and politesse. At a formal dinner in Birmingham, Ala., the guests discuss Borat while he's out of the room—filling a bag with ordure in order to bring it back to the table, as it happens—and agree what a nice young American he might make. And this is after he has called one guest a retard and grossly insulted the wife of another (and remember, it's "Americana" that is "crass"). The tony hostess even takes him and his bag of s__t upstairs and demonstrates the uses not just of the water closet but also of the toilet paper. The arrival of a mountainous black hooker does admittedly put an end to the evening, but if a swarthy stranger had pulled any of the foregoing at a liberal dinner party in England, I wouldn't give much for his chances....
Is it too literal-minded to point out what any viewer of the movie can see for himself—that the crowd at the rodeo stops cheering quite fast when it realizes that something is amiss; that the car salesman is extremely patient about everything from demands for p___y magnets to confessions of bankruptcy; and that the man in the gun shop won't sell the Kazakh a weapon? This is "compliance"? I have to say, I didn't like the look of the elderly couple running the Confederate-memorabilia store, but considering that Borat smashes hundreds of dollars worth of their stock, they bear up pretty well—icily correct even when declining to be paid with locks of pubic hair. The only people who are flat-out rude and patronizing to our curious foreigner are the stone-faced liberal Amazons of the Veteran Feminists of America—surely natural readers of the New Statesman. I'll stop there for now. Hitchens' point is that "Borat" is something of a comedy of manners, and that what many are seeing as "shocking compliance" is simply politeness and an aversion to confrontation (particularly when there's a camera staring at you). On this isolated point, I think Hitchens is generally correct and the heinous, America-hating leftist is generally wrong. But I wonder if Hitchens (or the other guy) can see that one accurate observation does not make all others invalid. Hitchens' mistake -- a fallacy he indulges endlessly in his writing -- is in thinking the one thing he deigns to mention is all that's going on.
"Awake in the Dark: The Best of Roger Ebert," just published by the University of Chicago Press, achieves a first. Though the Sun-Times film critic remains the dean of American cineastes, his essential writings have never been collected in a single volume until now. "Awake in the Dark" surveys his 40-year catalog, including reviews, essays and interviews. The following is an excerpt from the book's introduction, and for the next five weeks we'll publish excerpts here from the collection's highlights in each decade, from the '60s to the '00s.
EXCERPT FROM INTRO: This isn't like Roger Ebert's "Great Movies" series. It's not my idea of The Best Movies Ever Made (that would be a different list, though there's some overlap here), or limited to my personal favorites or my estimation of the most important or influential films. These are the movies I just kind of figure everybody ought to have seen in order to have any sort of informed discussion about movies. They're the common cultural currency of our time, the basic cinematic texts that everyone should know, at minimum, to be somewhat "movie-literate." I hope these movies are experiences we can all assume we share.
Q. I saw "Starship Troopers" last week and I was wondering: If the humans have guns and the aliens have no projectiles, why do the humans run up to the beasts to get slashed up? Are they too dumb to keep a safe distance? (Peter Krouzelka, Vancouver, BC)
Let me tell you two stories about Charles Chaplin, who died on Christmas Day. Both stories take place in Venice, where every one of Chaplin's dozens of films was shown during a tribute at the 1972 Venice Film Festival. Day after day, for two weeks, Chaplin's movies were shown at the Palace of Cinema, and day after day the parents of Venice brought their kids to the free screenings, and the kids laughed with delight at these moments that were filmed fifty years before they were born.