Most of us nerds make lists; few of our lists will actually have some measurable form of cultural impact. Roger Ebert has submitted his list for the 2012 Sight & Sound critics poll. As most of you probably know, this poll is conducted every ten years. Prestigious filmmakers and critics around the world each submit their top ten films of all time; the results are tallied, and the results are published in as close to a “definitive” generational top ten as you’re likely to get. His blog post, in which he ruminates on listmaking and his decision process is therefore of some interest to those of us who a.) like making lists and b.) are interested in the thought processes of people who make lists that matter.
The big shake-up this year is that Ebert has replaced Kieslowski’s Dekalog with Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life. He writes:
Apart from any other motive for putting a movie title on a list like this, there is always the motive of propaganda: Critics add a title hoping to draw attention to it, and encourage others to see it. For 2012, I suppose this is my propaganda title. I believe it’s an important film, and will only increase in stature over the years.
He may or may not be correct in regards to that last remark. I’m sure that, if anything, academics and cinephiles may come to accept The Tree of Life as part of what is contentiously considered to be “canon.” Beyond that, though, I don’t see it racking up the wider cultural cachet of of Citizen Kane, Vertigo, or 2001: A Space Odyssey. Not that the likelihood of broader cachet should be a consideration; I’m just not as confident as Ebert that The Tree of Life will have that kind of impact or staying power. Critics flipped out over The New World back in 2006, and apart from Malick nuts and a handful of cinephiles, nobody has given it a second thought.
The more interesting aspect to Ebert’s post was his designation of that tenth slot as his “propaganda title,” mostly because the also-ran for that space in his top ten was Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York. I don’t begrudge Ebert opting for the Malick film on the grounds that he sees it as more hopeful and optimistic; Lord knows that those are worthy reasons for holding something in regard. There are two reasons that I wish might have convinced Ebert to go with Synecdoche, NY instead, though.
One, I like it better. I don’t mean that Ebert’s entire aesthetic philosophy should be guided by my personal taste, but rather, I do genuinely think Kaufman’s to be the superior film. Formally, it’s a lot tighter, the performances are more focused, and the ending has a tragic pull that feels like the logical extension of everything that has come before it; by contrast, the ending to The Tree of Life is… well, basically, a bunch of New Agey hash. How many times did Jessica Chastain lift her hands up to the light in that sequence? Ninety-five? It’s so hard to remember. By contrast, I can still recall the lump in my chest when Phil Hoffman, having wandered through his constructed life’s work, finally sits down on that old couch and dies. It’s such a mundane, earthy moment in a film that’s laden with absurdist twists, fully emblematic of Kaufman’s commitment to the humanity of his characters… as opposed to the artificiality of Tree of Life’s last act, which is so contrived that it virtually reduces its characters to treacly constructs, just like that damn door in the desert. Again, my reaction is fully subjective, but I think Kaufman’s technique was simply more controlled and elegant, even though his film is almost as much of an idiosyncratic mess as Malick’s. So I guess my first reason isn’t really a rational argument, per se, so much as a beef.
Two, Synecdoche, New York is in more need of critical rescue than The Tree of Life. Ebert’s post is the first time I’ve read about Synecdoche, NY in more than a year. It was not a box office hit, and my impression is that it was much more divisive amongst its much smaller audience than The Tree of Life. As skeptical as I am that The Tree of Life is likely to grow in stature, I’m even more skeptical that Synecdoche, NY will survive as anything more than that one film the writer of Adaptation and Being John Malkovich cashed in his chips to direct. It’s all but forgotten now. A top ten plug from a man of Ebert’s rep might have reinvigorated interest. Maybe the blog mention will be enough to get that ball rolling.
The other thing that struck me about this top ten — and something Ebert doesn’t mention in his post — is that this might be the last list he submits to S&S. His health has not been great the last several years. God willing, he has another decade left in him. We can pray for it. But even if Ebert isn’t planning to shuffle off anytime soon, I would think that mortality and the eternal questions have been on his mind lately. I hesitate to armchair psychoanalyze, but it seems to me he has to be cognizant of this top ten being one of his last significant critical gestures. If he’s going to leave behind a definitive top ten, this might be it.
Of course, in his post and in some of his responses to the comments, he emphasizes just how arbitrary lists are, so I’m sure he’d be the first to pooh-pooh the notion that this is The List He’ll Be Remembered For… but maybe not. Even if he doesn’t mean it that way, it may end up being exactly that. Which is why, even though I think Synecdoche, New York would have been the better choice (if it must be one or the other), it makes sense that he’d opt for the much more metaphysical, affirmative film — especially one that is so much more messy and recent. Besides endorsing the film’s essential outlook, selecting a very contemporary film plugs Ebert into the present and the more immediate future, as opposed to the long-established past. To me, it signals a critic who is still looking forward to the things cinema has in store, even if he might not live to see it. Rather than enshrine the past, he’s still actively trying to shape the future, and in a way that upholds what he might perceive as more positive values. It’s the kind of choice that confirms Ebert as a man of faith: faith in the medium to which he devoted his life, faith in humanity, and faith in the possibility that there is so much more to this universe than any one film or life — or top ten list — could possibly encompass. ☕