IMDB’s “Top 15 Movies This Millenium”

Harnessing the power of the omnimind (and perhaps a little groupthink), the Internet Movie Database compiled ratings on films made this century. Since their userbase is far more massive than the sample size used in most polls (and contains entirely self-selected film lovers), I do in fact give more weight to their choices than I would a poll produced using the usual methods, so I was happy to see it.

On the whole, I think the results are really quite strong. There is still a bias here, in that American users of IMDB outweigh users from other countries, so naturally the results favour US or English speaking movies, but apart from that inherent problem, I think you’ve got a good guide — broadly speaking — to some of the best films anyone’s actually heard of in the last nine years. Certainly this is a list of films I can recommend most people try and see. The only film on the list I myself haven’t seen is The Departed, since that genre’s not really my cuppa, but I’m willing to take the word of the assembly that it’s a winner.

But, inasmuch as I’m a critic, I have to pedantically point out that IMDB have made a dreadful error which I simply must correct; two of the entries are from the year 2000, and as such don’t qualify to be in a list of Best Films of the New Millenium, since as every calendar geek knows, the new millenium didn’t start until 2001. To be sure, Memento and Requiem for a Dream are very fine films indeed, but I’m nonetheless going to use their rightful omission as an occasion to throw in two films I think should be on the list, because they were made in this new century of ours.

Before we get to that, however, let’s look at what is properly on the list, and also what’s noticeable by its absence. For example, all three Lord of the Rings films made the cut, but not a single Harry Potter movie. Half the films Pixar has put out this decade are mentioned, but not a single Dreamwerks or non-Pixar Disney movie (no surprise to me, but might come as a shock to some). Some are on the list not because they’re great (though they are) so much as because they are recent (Wall•E is better than The Incredibles or Finding Nemo? The Departed is better than Gangs of New York or No Direction Home? The Dark Knight is better than everything else on the list? Sorry, don’t think so).

Kudos to the userbase, however, for the remarkable scope of the films they’ve picked. Light-hearted entertainment and big epics always do well in these sorts of round-ups (as evidenced by Pixar and LOTR, as well as The Dark Knight in the #1 slot — to be fair, Heath Ledger’s reinvention of the Joker turned out to be culture-changing moment, not just a great performance), but they went beyond that and chose some excellent foreign-language films like the intense drama The Lives of Others, the visual feast that is Amelie, and the Japanese anime film Spirited Away, none of which fit the mould of a Hollywood blockbuster. There’s also nods given to The Pianist and City of God, both high-quality films that didn’t get a huge audience during their theatrical run. And downright quirky but effective films were also given a shot; in addition to the aforementioned Amelie, we have The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, which somehow did score significant box-office largely on the strength of word-of-mouth, the only way you can really explain a film like that to enough people to have it be a hit.

I certainly would have ranked these films in a different order, and changed a number of the choices to suit my own tastes, but I see no need to reinvent the wheel when a list comes out that actually gets it mostly right. My only real qualm is the complete lack of documentaries on the list, though admittedly a few of the films (The Lives of Others, City of God and The Pianist) kind of fulfill that role.

So, my first nomination to fill the two “holes” in the list is Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004), the top-grossing documentary of all time, first to win a non-specialty Oscar, first to win the Palm D’Or and so on and so forth. Building on the strength of the revolutionary Bowling for Columbine, Moore continues his exposé of the marriage of the corporate media and power politics, though I think most of the people who dismissed it thought it was just a personal vendetta against George W. Bush, the unelected president. But it wasn’t — Bush (being an idiot) merely tore down the curtain and revealed the ugly elitism behind it — that America (or at least the Republican part) had long ago given up fighting for a better tomorrow and had instead decided that raw, naked capitalism was the new science, sure to solve every problem with “truthiness” and that the public were just a herd to be managed, set against one another for the pleasures of the rich. Fiddles, Rome, you get the idea.

Moore’s documentaries are a call for the public to wake up and take (metaphorical) arms against leaders who no longer care about them, and yes he’s ultimately tilting at windmills — but like Quixote before him, Moore is at least engaged in a noble if ultimately futile battle. The film got the powerful (and their enablers) a little hot under the collar for a while, and while it’s about all Moore is able to accomplish, it was enough. He didn’t get Bush thrown out of office (Diebold saw to that), but he punctured the balloon of the administration’s infallibility myth and slowly let the air out, slowing (perhaps) America’s determined march to obsolescence and irrelevance. He woke a lot of people up.

Filling the first “gap” was easy, but filling the second one is difficult. Trying to pick just one film of the many, many (too many) I’ve seen over the past few years, even among the dozen or so I would call “the absolute best” of their years of release, you feel like you’re insulting the ones that you leave out.

So finally I came to the conclusion that the last spot should be filled with with a movie that gave me utter and absolute joy to be watching it. One such movie, Pixar’s Up (2009), is already on the list, and I thought long and hard about giving that spot to In America (2002), a completely moving and amazing take on the struggles of the immigrant that almost nobody reading this has seen. I thought about giving it to Monster (2003), a film who’s Florida-set tale is as unnerving as Charlize Theron’s performance, or to The Dreamers (2003), a fabulous erotic adventure that never dips into porn, never falls short of exquisite, and never fails to impress.

But, oh we really should give that spot to another documentary as they’re so criminally neglected amongst IMDB voters. What about Spellbound (2002), the utterly charming story of the drama within the National Spelling Bee (and which kicked off a whole wave of like-minded docs about our love affair with language)? Or perhaps An Inconvenient Truth (2006), the ultimate slideshow lecture that reinvented Al Gore and brought climate change to the mainstream? What about 49 Up (2005), the seventh entry in a series of documentaries chronicling the lives of a handful of British kids every seven years, presumably until death? It’s one of the greatest ideas for a film series ever, and it’s proven amazingly illuminating and … well, human as it’s gone along. What originally started as an experiment to see how soci-economic class influences your life has turned into a diary of change and growth, and a mirror of ourselves.

Finally, inspiration. I would give the sole remaining slot to a documentary, yes, but one that made me squeal with delight the whole time I was watching it. I was a young man in the late 1970s, and that was a good time to be such if I do say so myself. So when The King of Kong (2007) came out, the number of buttons in the pleasure centre of my brain that it pushed can only be surpassed by certain kinds of orgasms.

This incredible documentary, which detailed the life-or-death struggle of two arcade-game champions to be the biggest fish in an incredibly small and nerdy pond, was a vision of pitch-perfect fantasy made reality. The people involved — “new kid in town” Steve Wiebe (a dork name if ever there was one), “the champ who refuses to let go” and comically arch-villainish Billy Mitchell, plus the über-dork who built his own fantasy empire (and then proceeded to turn it into a tawdry soap opera) Walter Day are just too perfect to be real, but there they are. If there’s such a thing as the ultimate documentary, this might be it (at least for me). I’ll admit that I saw this on a triple-bill with Air Guitar Nation and If It Ain’t Stiff (about Stiff Records), so that was one of the greatest evenings of my life (while sitting down, anyway), but the fact that King of Kong went on to win actual honest-to-gosh mainstream distribution, cult status and became one of the few documentaries to make any money at the box office says that others of my generation saw it like I did.

Really, this exercise could have waited another year or so and become “Best Films of the Decade,” but I guess IMDB were eager to play with their new-found data-mining toy. But we’re just seeing the tip of the iceberg — again it should be stressed that ultimately the greatest purpose of the internet will be to redefine polling forever, giving us new and much more accurate insights about ourselves through the power of enormous sample sizes. Well, that and making porn ubiquitous, but you already knew about that part.

It’s undeniably fun to be at the beginning of a new century, though, if for no other reason than list-makers like IMDB and myself get to say that this or that thing is “the (blank) of the century!”, at least for a while. As far as you know, it’ll be true forever. 🙂

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A Remarkable Bit of History

A hat tip to Roger Ebert, who pointed me to this delicious find on YouTube: a 10-minute colour (sort of) film of London from 1927, yes, 1927. They didn’t have sound, but at least one man had invented a process called BioColour (straining B&W film through red and green filters) to produce a painted colour look.

You might wish to pair this with some music (some have suggested that Stephen Baystead’s “The Long Road” repeated to fill the full time works well), but if you’ve ever been to London you will be surprised at how little the city really has changed:

Monty Python: Almost the Truth(The Lawyer’s Theatrical Cut-Down Version) (2009)

Running Time: 107 min.
Directors: Bill Jones, Ben Timlett, Alan Parker
Stars: Cleese, Idle, Palin, Gilliam, Jones and Chapman (in absentia)

Most people will see this ambitious documentary in its DVD or television formats, but in addition to that it was also offered as a two-hour “special event” beamed into cinemas around the world shortly after the New York premiere. I watched this version, then the six-hour (with commercials) television version as it aired on Bravo a week later.

The “theatrical” version, even as cut-down as it was and preceded by mostly-useless additional footage of the surviving Pythons (and friends etc) being interviewed on their way into the NYC premiere, was well worth the money. Most of the Pythons were good sports about being asked really quite insipid questions in the hubbub outside the NYC theatre (where they were also to receive a BAFTA award for their contribution to comedy), but occasionally the weariness of the promotional “circus” (sorry) they’d been on in the weeks leading up to the NYC event was discernible in their answers. As a comic person myself, it’s quite difficult to be funny “on demand,” which is of course what interviewers always want. Nobody ever asks a ballerina being interviewed to answer the questions while doing a perfect pas de deux, do they? No, they do not.

But on to the documentary itself: as a lifelong student of the Pythons, I found the most interesting parts were the bits I was less familiar with — their lives growing up and their work prior to joining together to form the Circus. The use of clips to illustrate their stories was handled with more aplomb than we have seen in the previous documentaries, and you got more info about their interpersonal relationships. I was particularly pleased to see more footage of their Canadian tour featured, as that was quite a pivotal event in the group’s history on a variety of levels but has until now been little more than a footnote.

But, even after watching the “almost full Monty” as it were (the six-hour version shown on Bravo here), I’m left quite dissatisfied. With all that time, you’d think we’d get a bit more insight into each members’ own creative process, ie exactly where many of their brilliant inventions came from, or how things went from basic idea to polished script. I was surprised that other successful troupe comedians clearly influenced by Python, such as the SCTV crew or the Kids in the Hall, were not involved in this, instead featuring a run of current-crop British comedians (not nearly enough Eddie Izzard, a spiritual Python if ever there was one, and way too much drugged-up Russell Brand, sounding more than a little like the UK’s Sarah Palin).

I was also annoyed that only very selective attention was paid to the post-Python careers of the members, given that having been in Python played a huge role in much of what they did after that. No mention at all of “Out of the Trees” (with Douglas Adams, no less!), “Rutland Weekend Television,” “Ripping Yarns,” Dr. Fegg’s Nasty Book for Boys and Girls, The Odd Job Man, Video Arts, A Liar’s Autobiography, Starship Titanic, Labyrinth, Erik the Viking and a dozen other pre-and-post-Python ventures that played a role in making these men who they are today.

Even more surprising was that there was barely any mention of “Fawlty Towers,” Michael’s travel programmes, or the many films released under the Handmade Films banner, most of which featured at least two Pythons if not more (I still can’t believe there was no mention of Jabberwocky, the film that launched Gilliam as a serious film director!). Nothing about Yellowbeard either, which is a shame since Graham is (naturally) underrepresented. They didn’t even use that famous “final shot” of him in the closet with the rest of the Pythons at the end of the Showtime documentary Parrot Sketch Not Included, though I must give the makers (and broadcasters) credit for including the full-frontal nude shot he did for Life of Brian.

Overall, this is an excellent addition to the considerable amount of documentary work done on Python, but still unsatisfyingly short on minutia and cannot be considered the definitive Python documentary — a real shame, since this is likely to be the last one they ever do. Perhaps “the full Monty” (ie the DVD release) will cover these topics in further detail, but I don’t hold much hope on that score.

Still, as Monty Python are considerably full of awesome, there is plenty to enjoy here, both the classic clips as well as the interviews, which are naturally charming and funny as well. The clips actually work even better viewed in isolation sometimes, especially for younger people who grew up in a post-surrealist society and don’t fully understand the cultural impact Python made on nearly every aspect of the world they now live in. In the theatre I still found myself laughing, even at stuff I’ve seen a thousand times (literally) — there’s not a lot of things in the world you can say that about. Monty Python changed the world far more than I think even they know, and I’m so glad to have been around for the original impact they made on life, the universe, and everything.