Monday, June 15, 2009

Have You Seen..., by David Thomson

There are quite a number of books that people buy, I think, mainly for the lists at the back. 1001 Places to Go Before You Die doesn't sound like much of a travel guide, and I don't really care too much what the guy who recommends 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die thinks about the novels he includes: he included them, so you'd think he'd like them. What else did you want?

David Thomson's book is closer to these books than it is to a Harold Bloom or Jonathan Rosenbaum canon—both Bloom and Rosenbaum choose their items out of a quasi-metaphysical devotion to the idea that a certain set of works must, at all costs, be preserved. Thomson's 1000 film list isn't about preservation so much as conversation: as he says, people tend to ask critics what they should watch. This is his response. He doesn't like all of them, but someone interested in film will probably find all of them worthwhile in some capacity, and a casual movie-watcher will probably enjoy most.

Thomson's had great practice at writing short, dynamic, fearlessly opinionated entries about film while composing and compiling his Biographical Dictionary of Film (and its revision/expansion). This book is no different, although a little more relaxed.

Thomson organizes the entries alphabetically, but the list at the back is ordered chronologically. His taste grows a little less canonical almost with each year that passes, so that there were actually more films I hadn't heard of from the 90s and 2000s than there were in the 40s and 50s. Which is not to say that he ignores the films that are legitimate and kind of inarguable masterpieces from the past decade or so, but that he adds in some truly obscure (mostly British) work. Here's the films from 2006 and 2007, the last years of the book:
  • The Lives of Others
  • Longford
  • The Queen
  • Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky
  • The Diving Bell and the Butterfly
  • 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days
  • Eastern Promises
  • No Country for Old Men
  • Sweeney Todd
  • There Will Be Blood
  • You, the Living
Well, Sweeney Todd's a surprising choice, and I hate The Lives of Others, but pulling out the ones I hadn't heard of (Longford; 20,000; You, the Living), that's not a bad list, I guess. No Country's one of the weakest films the Coens have made, but whatever.

Thomson's Wikipedia page also gives the Top Ten he submitted to the Sight and Sound poll, which is conducted every decade and will be done again in 2012. I don't think Thomson is likely to insert any of the films of the past six/seven years (i.e. since 2002, the last Sight and Sound poll) into his top ten, but his lists got me thinking about which possibly could, at least for me.

The Italian miniseries The Best of Youth (La Meglio Gioventù) is certainly a contender, as are There Will Be Blood and Children of Men. I really liked Syndromes and a Century, by the Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul; The New World, I'm Not There, and Hirokazu Kore-eda's Nobody Knows would all be in the back of my mind.

What about you—what films released since 2002 should or could end up on a critic's all-time top ten list? If anyone says Dark Knight, I'm banning them from ever commenting again.


Nick said...

The New World? Really? I remember that I saw it. But I can't remember feeling anything from it. All those trees left no impression at all. What did it do for you?

I second your vote for Children of Men. Spirited Away and The Fog of War still make me weak in the knees. I feel like documentary & animation have both gone to a lot of great places in the past 20 years, so it'd be nice to see that reflected. But to be realistic, I doubt any movie from the past 7 years will even make Sight & Sound's top 50.

Like you, I find these "Top N Movies" books kind of bleh anyway. They tend to treat movies as self-actualized little islands to visit, instead of as part of the ebb and flow of genres and reflections of other movies.

Richard said...

No Country is one of the Coens' weakest films? Wow. I love the Coens (I think they've only made one bad movie--Intolerable Cruelty--though admittedly I skipped Ladykillers), and No Country, it seems to me, is clearly among their best. Up there with Fargo and The Big Lebowski.

In general, though, I'd agree with your nominations, The New World, There Will Be Blood, and Children of Men especially. I'd throw in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.

Andrew Seal said...

Oh yeah, The New World. Besides Malick being a god, Lubezki's cinematography is the best I've ever seen at de-alienating nature from humanity. Comparing Lubezki's photography to that of something like March of the Penguins or Planet Earth shows how much we're *not* doing to depict humanity as part of a natural world.

Why did you have to remind me that they made The Ladykillers?! Nooo! Yeah, they've had some stinkers. I just repress the memory of them.

No Country is a good--maybe sort of great film. Just not a good Coen Bros. film. It would be a great film if someone else had directed it, or if I could imagine someone else had directed it. But putting it up against something like Blood Simple, all I can think of is how much they were repressing their weird talents to make what is essentially a latter-day Robert Mitchum flick. And I like Out of the Past, don't get me wrong, but really, I want something different from the Coen Brothers when I see one of their movies.

Brendon Bouzard said...

besides some of the ones you mentioned, a few to consider:

Le Pont Des Arts
Regular Lovers
Still Life
The Man Without a Past
The Death of Mr. Lazarescu
Helen (Desperate Optimists, not Sandra Nettelbeck)

Also,if we're including made-for-television productions, The Power of Nightmares bears a certain amount of consideration.

Also: Mad Men.

Andrew Seal said...

I still need to see Pont des Arts, dammit.

Is Up the best Pixar, then?

Richard said...

I hear what you're saying, but I think that perhaps you're overplaying the weirdness factor in the Coens' oeuvre. I think No Country is Coen through and through. (Have you seen any of the analyses noting the similarities between it and Raising Arizona? I'll see if I can find one...)

I need to see it again, I've just convinced myself.

Nick said...

Aha, I forgot you were a Lubezki nut. Makes sense now.

I also forgot about Brendon's ability to spin lists of great movies that people don't talk about enough. Good show.

Andrew Seal said...

Strange to me that no one has said anything about Lost in Translation. I feel like 2 or 3 years ago it would have been one of the first films to come to mind.

Richard said...

I'll say it, Andrew! I love Lost in Translation, it just didn't come to mind...

Anonymous said...

Perhaps not in the top ten, but last year's Be Kind Rewind certainly deserves further critical attention and respect. Has there been, recently, a more radically prescriptive commentary on American racial historiography and the mainstream culture's hand in facilitating racism?

JMW said...

I hated Sweeney Todd, so I think it's important to point out that Thomson doesn't rave about it. (The weirdest thing about his book is that it's not strictly recommendations.)

I strongly second Happy-Go-Lucky as one of the best since '02. And The Best of Youth as well. I just saw (and enjoyed) Up, but I think Ratatouille was more impressive start to finish. (My problem with both Up and Wall-E is that their strong and innovative first acts inevitably lead to some level of disappointment when things get more conventional.

Spirited Away. Yes.

Anonymous, you may be correct about the insights of Be Kind Rewind, but that ignores the fact that it was a sloppy, pretty bad movie, whatever its value as a sociological text.

Andrew Seal said...

JMW, I guess what I didn't get about Sweeney Todd being in there was that Thomson (or anyone else) would bother treating it as something worth writing about. Most of the other films he didn't entirely endorse at least had interesting things you could say about them--I'm drawing a blank on some examples, but I remember reading a few entries where he was like, "This and this didn't work, but this other part is worth discussing."

Anonymous said...

Before you add new films to his list, I suggest THOMSON see the 1,000 movies he has the nerve to make up entries for without watching! Have YOU seen them David?