Iremember being infuriated by a teacher in film school who used to say that she only liked “independent and foreign films.” To which I always felt like responding, “Even the lousy ones?” It’s the same gut reaction I feel to this day when someone asks me if I ever watch a movie “just for enjoyment,” or when I receive an angry e-mail from a low-budget indie filmmaker about a negative review, as if to suggest that limited means are an excuse for incompetence. There have, after all, been great movies made for $3,700 and $37 million — terrible ones too. There are good foreign films and bad foreign films. And I know of nobody — film critics included — who goes to the movies hoping for anything less than an enjoyable experience, though there are an infinite number of ways to define what that means.
I say that to preface the following disclosure: Of the more than 500 new feature-length motion pictures released in Los Angeles (and reviewed in these pages) over the past 12 months, among the very best of them — at least according to this paper’s two house critics and the results of the L.A. Weekly’s First Annual Film Poll — were a 37-year-old French wartime drama (Army of Shadows) never before distributed in the U.S. and a three-hour-long Romanian gallows comedy (The Death of Mr. Lazarescu) that grossed all of $80,000 during its North American theatrical run. Such statistics will, I fear, do little to disabuse people of the idea that movie critics are elitist scum fatally out of touch with the concerns of the general moviegoing public. But remember that these same critics have rallied en masse behind Martin Scorsese’s The Departed and a little comedy called Borat — both of which rank among the most commercially successful studio releases of the year. And, if you peruse the full results of the Film Poll (available on our Web site), you’ll find strong support for other popular favorites (including Casino Royale, Little Miss Sunshine and, yes, even, Jackass Number Two) mixed in with lots of movies that the casual filmgoer won’t have heard of. Actually, we’re living in such dire times for the commercial viability of foreign and truly independent American films at the nation’s art-house theaters that even the serious cinephile can easily miss out on a masterpiece if he happens to be otherwise engaged for the one night (or, if you’re lucky, one full week) that it plays at a local venue. Sure, there’s always DVD, but theatrical distribution remains the best way to raise awareness of a given movie’s existence. Which is another way of asking: Would you rush to pop The Death of Mr. Lazarescu into your Netflix queue if you handn’t ever heard of it in the first place?
That, I would argue, is where critics come into play. As the great critic Manny Farber once said: “The last thing I want to know is whether you like it or not . . . I don’t think it has any importance; it’s one of those derelict appendages of criticism. Criticism has nothing to do with hierarchies.” And while that probably means that Farber (still alive and kicking at 90, God bless him) would take little interest in the ranked lists that follow, it’s a reminder that the true function of criticism, at least as this critic sees it, is less to pass irrefutable judgment on a given movie’s worth or lack thereof, but to say to the reader, “Here’s what this movie was trying to do and here’s how I think it did or didn’t succeed at it, and maybe if that sounds interesting to you, you should check it out.” You, the reader, may not always agree with us, but it seems to me that a film review is where the discussion about a movie should begin rather than end. I would further propose that it is the critic’s job to be omnivorous in his or her appetite, to not rule anything out on principle, and to be as willing to exult in the pleasure of Helen Mirren’s command performance as HM QEII as in the sight of tap-dancing penguins filling the Panavision frame or of Will Ferrell stripping off his racing suit, begging the spirit of Tom Cruise to extinguish the imaginary fire engulfing his body.
And so to the poll: While only I can take credit for the Top 10 list — well, make that 16, with an eye towards future DVD double features — that follows, the Film Poll (see sidebar) represents the cumulative opinion of 72 film critics (including all regular Village Voice Media contributors) who span the spectrum of print, broadcast and online journalism. In compiling the invite list, I was driven by an admittedly selfish goal — to poll those writers who strike me as having the most open-minded approach to their work, regardless of the size or importance of their venue or what they think of me personally. (One participant, the critic N.P. Thompson, is on record as calling yours truly one of “our cultural mafia’s current ruling elite.”) The most notable thing about their consensus is the absolute lack of one, suggesting that if 2006 was a good vintage for movies, few can agree as to why. Nearly 150 separate films were mentioned in the Best Film category alone, with the winning film (Army of Shadows) listed on just 33 of the 72 ballots. Meanwhile, only Mirren’s performance in The Queen was cited by more than half of those surveyed. Some performers (including Robert Downey Jr., Meryl Streep and Ray Winstone) did so much good work in the past year that they found themselves competing against . . . themselves. Others, like An Inconvenient Truth’s Al Gore and United 93’s Ben Sliney, received votes for playing themselves. Still others were mentioned in both lead and supporting categories for the same performance, suggesting that the importance of a given role is very much in the eye of the beholder (and not the Oscar campaign strategists). It seems fitting that our list of the year’s best unreleased films is bookended by the two latest films from Chinese director Jia Zhangke — Still Life and Dong — which are as interconnected in their way as Clint Eastwood’s dueling Iwo Jima movies, and it should be seen as a challenge to our local festivals and cinematheque venues that only four of the top ten vote getters on that list have to date had so much as a single Los Angeles screening. Finally, it’s worth noting that, of the 41 films that received votes for Worst Film of 2006, more than half also received votes for best film or performance. Proof that when it comes to the past year in movies, one man’s junk truly was another’s treasure.
Scores provided by Rotten Tomatoes