One year ago, in these very pages, Bruce Reid (probably the greatest film critic this town has ever seen, now lamentably retired) wrote an artful evisceration of the list-making ritual, likening its practitioners to "six-year-olds who enjoy playing with their favorite dolls... rather less than they do organizing and categorizing them, endlessly rearranging them on the bedspread in order of preference."
I would add to Reid's disdainful disquisition the following aspersions: Top 10s are arbitrary on every level. They are reductive and self-important. They are dumber than the Oscars (which isn't easy). They are also de rigueur, and therefore both tacky and ubiquitous. Above all, however, they are essentially inaccurate, not only as encapsulations of any given year in film, but as indicators of anything like real worth.
The annual flowering of this demon seed of movie marketing and misdirected standards gives critics an opportunity to pretend to put their asses on the line and predict which of the year's films will thrive in cinematic posterity. But it's a false standard; the "test of time" (as it's always called) is both more arduous and more nebulous than these lists care to admit.
Movies, like pop music, are irretrievably tied to the era in which they're made. What seem like progressive notions--about story, behavior, or even hairstyles--can be laughably outmoded in a matter of months. I challenge anyone to watch such critical and popular favorites of the '90s as Forrest Gump, JFK, Thelma and Louise, or Dances with Wolves today without gagging on their inconceivable quaintness.
The films that truly endure defy their times, rather than define them: It's arrogant or asinine (or both) to presume to forecast such durability. I reckon it takes about 20 years to know with any certainty whether a film has truly begun to stand up to history. Until then, it's just a lot of hot air and pre-nostalgia.
With all this in mind, I have prepared a year-end Top 10 list anyway. This list adheres to the standards outlined above and has been compiled because, in spite of all this talk, these lists are fun and people like them. We don't usually cotton to 10 Bests in The Stranger. Clearly, we've got some catching up to do.
Top 10 Films of 1981, Now
[See Film Shorts on pg. 61 for the Top 10 films of 1981 if you'd asked me then, at age 8.]
My Dinner with Andre (dir. Louis Malle)--Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory share quail, booze, and the most fascinating conversation about the difference between art and life ever filmed. Alternately mocked and revered, this treasure set the standard for cinematic minimalism. I watch it once a month.
Time Bandits (dir. Terry Gilliam)--The ultimate fairy tale adventure, complete with unhappy ending, Gilliam's first classic film (Brazil was still four years away) holds up astoundingly well with its potent combination of crackpot history, Pythonesque humor, and cockney midgets. The actors--including John Cleese, Michael Palin, Ian Holm, Sir Ralph Richardson, and especially David Warner--are perfection.
Gallipoli (dir. Peter Weir)--The last classic modernist war film, a human epic that's far more Wilfred Owen than Private Ryan.
Reds (dir. Warren Beatty)--Say what you will about Beatty before or since, this is a three-hour paean to the Socialist impulse that admits not only the romance of early 20th-century New York bohemian Bolshevism, but the price of commitment and the crushing untenability of Soviet Communism. Though it's fudgy with facts and moist with liberal dew, Reds spills over with infectious respect for the morality of good ideas. Plus, Jerzy Kosinski is in it.
Modern Romance (dir. Albert Brooks)--Brooks' apotheosis, as well as his funniest work, this film employs a hypodermic sensitivity to romantic neurosis. The best jokes in the film are the extra-long takes in which Brooks, stoned out of his mind on Quaaludes and jealousy, lets his character's slow-burning self-indictment play out with exquisite patience.
Raiders of the Lost Ark (dir. Steven Spielberg)--To be against this film, if I may paraphrase Martin Amis, is to be against life. Watching Spielberg's second greatest film (behind Jaws) is like taking a hit of Ecstasy: All you want to do is praise.
Arthur (dir. Steve Gordon)--The lovable alcoholic is a faded archetype, which may be a good thing, especially when you consider the unhappy demise of writer/director Gordon. But Arthur remains a joy due to Dudley Moore's classic performance, featuring the best laugh in screen history. Yes, the film is thick with sentimentality, yes, the music is bad, and yes, that is Liza Minnelli. But goddamn, it's also Sir John Gielgud as Hobson, giving as good as he gets.
Mephisto (dir. István Szabó)--While there is no shortage of films about fascism, there are precious few that dare to examine its insidious allure. Szabó allows his protagonist, a German actor played marvelously by Klaus Maria Brandauer, to feel the pain of conflict when the Nazis embrace his performance in Faust. But when he eventually caves (on an ego level) to their conceits, the world inverts. The climactic scene, in which the actor faces what feels like God's own spotlight, is indelible.
Decline of Western Civilization (dir. Penelope Spheeris)--Unlike the classic camp of its heavy-metal sequel, this documentary is served by a respectful interest in the then-insurgent (now detergent) L.A. punk scene, which was full of assholes and icons. Featuring killer performances by the Germs and X.
Pennies from Heaven (dir. Herbert Ross)--The most dolorous musical of all time. The numbers in this Dennis Potter (R.I.P.) masterpiece of pop melancholia are big and glamorous, but tinged with shadows of nightmares. With show-stoppers like Vernel Bagneris' ghoulish performance of the title song and Christopher Walken's hellified stomp, the songs reach down into the characters' psyches and wrench all hope away. It remains hard to believe that this gloriously depressing film was ever made.