Filthy Secrets of the 10-Best Movies List

A critic comes clean about his Declaration of Principles... he means Prejudices... he means Pleasures. Which must explain why Fast Five is on the list.

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From Left: Indomina Releasing; Everett; Paramount

6. Listmaking is the organizing principle of a sloppy mind. My movie listmaking goes way back; I can recall the kid version of me compiling a 1959 top-five of The Seventh Seal, Some Like It Hot, North by Northwest, Anatomy of a Murder and Imitation of Life. (It was a great year, back then; and I had a great eye for movies, back then.) My published lists started at National Review, for which I wrote movie reviews in the late ’60s. The 1969 Top 10 includes Midnight CowboyMy Night at Maud’s, Orson Welles’ The Immortal Story and R.L. Frost’s sexploitation Western Hot Spur. (My tastes were nothing if not catholic.) The following year National Review printed my 10 Best of the decade, which included Russ Meyer’s Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, scripted by Roger Ebert. (Roger has wondered about that choice ever since.) Some lovely person with too much spare time tracked down lists of mine appearing in National ReviewFilm Comment and TIME. The curious can find them here.

Back when Richard Schickel and I shared the TIME movie reviewing job, each of us got five slots on the 10 Best list; so one year his favorites would be Nos. 1, 3, 5, 7 and 9, the next year mine. In 2001, when became an unignorable force, we compiled our own lists of 10 Bests, plus a Worst. (One of my Bests, Moulin Rouge!, was Schickel’s Worst. We were such a cute couple.) And for perhaps a decade, I assembled a slightly different list for TIME’s International editions, comprising films that I had seen at various festivals or in movie houses in New York’s Chinatown. That’s where I first caught the Int. 10 Bests Jackie Chan’s Drunken Master 2 and Peter Chan’s Comrades: Almost a Love Story. So hail and farewell to the Music Palace Theater on the Bowery. It closed in 2000, by which time everyone in the neighborhood was watching movies on video.

7. The when of movies. A movie critic who goes to the big festivals — Cannes, Venice, Toronto, Sundance — will see many pictures far ahead of their U.S. release dates. I saw The Hurt Locker in Sep. 2008, in Venice; the film opened in Jun. 2009 and appeared on my 10 Best list in Dec. of that year; it won the Best Picture Oscar in Mar. 2010. Each year there are some films a critic will wait to review until they get U.S. distribution.

I can tell you right now the names of two films that will almost certainly appear on the 10 Best of 2012: Todd Solondz’s Dark Horse (which I saw at this year’s Venice Film Festival) and Terence Davies’ The Deep Blue Sea (which I saw at Toronto). The directors’ names wouldn’t surprise anyone keeping tabs of my lists, since Solondz’s Happiness and its quasi-sequel Life During Wartime were choices in 1998 and 2010. Davies’ Distant Voices, Still Lives and its sequel, The Long Day Closes, graced the 1989 and 1993 lists; and his Liverpool love essay Of Time and the City was there in 2009. I’m not a doctrinaire auteurist, and I was not expecting to be swept away by either of these directors’ new films, but I was. So unless 2012 is the greatest year for films since 1959 (see item 6), the Solondz and Davies will be on next year’s 10 Best.

Some films made my TIME or Film Comment lists decades after they were first shown: Abel Gance’s Napoleon (in the Kevin Brownlow restoration), Louis Feuillade’s Les Vampires (belatedly available on DVD), Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep (resurrected by Milestone Films four years ago). It’s never too late to pay tribute.

(FIND: Killer of Sheep on the Top 10 Movies of 2007)

8. The what of movies. Critics typically limit their lists to films that played in a commercial movie house in that calendar year. But that’s not nearly the totality of moving images. In 1988, some critics persuaded Fabiano Canosa to play Dennis Potter’s BBC miniseries The Singing Detective as part of the Public Theater film series, precisely so we could include this magnificent, filmed program on our 10 Best lists. My Film Comment selections ranged even wider: for five consecutive years in the ’90s, The Simpsons (animation) was cited as a 10 Best; episodes of Mystery Science Theater 3000 (cheesy old movies) made the list in 1994 and 1995. On his own Film Comment list one year, my esteemed friend David Thomson included a basketball game: could it have been Game Six of the Lakers-Celtics in 1987? David argued that that game had a kinetic power most movies lacked.
In 1989, for TIME’s Best Films of the 1980s, I proposed Emil Radok’s Universe of Energy pre-show at Walt Disney World. (A primitive version of the film can be found here.) An eight-min. documentary presented on 100 revolving cubes, this “Kinetic Mosaic” brilliantly indicated where movies might go. The Arts section’s top editor thought that selection should go in the wastebasket, so we chose something else. But now TIME has Top 10, or 10 Best, lists for all forms of visual communication: TV ads, sports moments, creative videos, viral videos — and action movies like Fast Five.
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