In Which /Film Disappoints Roger Ebert

A couple of years ago, I wrote a lengthy reflection asking readers of /Film why they read "Top 10" lists at the end of each year. Here's what I wrote back then:

We read these lists because we have strong feelings about films and as social creatures, we like to see our opinions validated. When allegedly respectable people disagree with us, we label their views as inferior. We express mock outrage because it’s fun to rip apart a writer on a message board or comments section. But ultimately, I think all of that misses the point. Lists, reviews, even news items: We should all read these things to be informed, not only about objective reality but also about subjective opinions. How else can our own opinions be refined and improved except in the presence of those that are opposed to ours? As the old adage goes, “Variety is the spice of life.” How boring, monotonous, and oppressive would it be if everyone just had the same opinion on every single film out there?

I still agree with this sentiment completely. Perhaps when I was younger and more foolish, I read lists to make sure that critics agreed with my own picks. But these days, I celebrate the fact that people have different choices. Maybe they'll give me an idea for a movie to check out on the festival circuit, or maybe I'll have more fodder to add to my ever-lengthening Netflix queue. Whatever the case, diversity in film opinion should be celebrated, not quashed. And when someone picks a film that you hate on their "Top 10" list, that should be more motivation to read their reasoning. Considering opposing opinions sharpens the mind, rather than dulling it.

I thought about that piece recently when I learned that legendary film critic Roger Ebert had commented on an article over at /Film. Ebert set the film blogosphere on fire when he tapped 24-year old writer/blogger Ignatiy Vishnevetsky to appear in his new At The Movies television show. Scrutiny of Vishnevetsky escalated shortly thereafter, a phenomenon exemplified by the comments in our piece listing his Indiewire ballot best films of 2010. Vishnevetsky's choices were certainly unorthodox, but as I've already tried to explain, one's justifications, reasoning, and criticism are more important than some arbitrary numerical ranking of favorite films.

Here's what Ebert had to say about Vishnevetsky's list:

I think it's a good list. "World on a Wire" is a rediscovered Fassbinder. "The Father of my Children," "Vincere" and "White Material" are on my Best Foreign Films List. I gave "Vengeance" 3.5 stars. Loved Jane Birkin in "Around a Small Mountain." Didn't see "Eccentricities," but it was good enough for the official selection at Cannes. Do these posters know who its director is? I wager not.

The Romero I didn't see. Every critic is allowed one weirdo title out of 10. It's a tradition. All depends on *what he said about it.*

Bear in mind Ignatiy wasn't seeing all the mainstream movies last year. Not his job. He went voluntarily to movies he wanted to see. This list suggests the extent of his knowledge and curiosity.

Some of these Slashfilm readers disappoint me. They criticize this list for (1) not rubber-stamping other lists, and (2) for, gasp, including films they haven't seen! Typical of that conformist group I call the List Police.

I read the list and rejoiced that we had Ignatiy on the show.

Roger Ebert

Some of them disappoint me too, Roger. Some of them disappoint me too.

I'm obviously crestfallen that commenters displaying the intellect, manners, and capacity of middle schoolers are allowed to hijack such a conversation on our site (and that, on one of the few days of the year that Ebert ventures over to visit us, that's what he has to see). But there are several factors that counteract my desire to throw my hands up in the air and just give up hope. Because, you see, I know that there are great deal of intelligent people reading our site, people who've written me e-mails containing thoughtful, lengthy discourses on the nature of John Woo's violence, and on the merits of Martin Scorsese, and on the prevalence of chauvinism or masochism or hedonism in this film or that film. Their encouragement has been immeasurable to me.

I also know that we, as writers, can only do our best. And while some of the readers we are attracting may not leave the most respectful comments, we can all aspire to be better than we would otherwise be. It's also possible, too, that one day our commenters will grow up and realize that there's a great, big, beautiful world out there, full of people who hold different opinions than they do. Hopefully, we'll reach that day soon.

[P.S. Mr. Ebert: If you ever get around to reading this, you should really check out The Tobolowsky Files. I think it'd be right up your alley.]

13 comments :: In Which /Film Disappoints Roger Ebert

  1. I don't comment on /film, so I don't know how it works, but have you guys thought of having a queue for the comments? It'll help filter out the stuff that's asinine.

  2. This is just another symptom of the greater issues on the internet. It's full of groupthink. Only one opinion is allowed. If I were to say The Social Network wasn't my favorite flick of the year or Inception didn't make my top ten, I'd get torn apart. It continuously makes me sad to see intelligent discussion get overrun by groupthink. That's why I either only discuss things critically with people I know or ignore all the people out there that just insult you without any reasoning to back it up. Keep it up Dave. The silent majority out there reads things just as you do. It's just the idiots are more vocal.

  3. Thanks for bringing this to my attention Dave. I only briefly skimmed the comments of that story when it ran, and never saw any of I.V.'s comments, or Ebert's.

    The comment quality on /film has been steadily declining for some time (a price all sites pay for popularity, just look at youtube...), and I was quite surprised to see all the deplorable, hate filled comments from regulars that I had come to respect and enjoy discussing film with. A shame.

  4. I just try to make funny comments there. 0.0

  5. Not to worry, David. I get wonderful comments over at my blog, but every time I post a list, the anal retentives turn out in force. Why did I place #6 above #8, etc. It's only a list. It contains some movies the author admired. End of discussion, right?

  6. Woo! David got a comment from Ebert!

  7. Here are my only two lists this year.

    Best movies this year unratable per Roger Ebert:

    The Human Centipede

    Worst movies this year unratable per Roger Ebert:

    The Human Centipede

  8. I'm really happy you posted this, David. It should really go without saying, yet it doesn't. I've discovered many, many films through people's "Top 10" lists at the end of every year. When I say "discovered", I mean films I haven't seen or most likely wouldn't have heard of otherwise. Like "My Dog Tulip", for example. It's getting zero awards attention, and I barely hear anyone talking about it (especially with the rush to deem "Toy Story 3" the new Holy Grail of animation), and yet it's one of the most charming, original, and poignant films I've seen in years. Or even looking back on Top 10 lists from noted critics like Roger Ebert. I found numerous films I wouldn't otherwise have, like "Night Moves", one of Gene Hackman's best films.

    It goes without saying that things like "Inception" and "The Social Network" are going to be on a great many lists. But I heard about those through the giant advertising campaigns from their respective studios, or through the box office success they enjoyed. Or now the awards attention they're garnering. I read "Top 10" lists not to find the films that agree with my views, or confirm my beliefs, but to introduce me to films I wouldn't otherwise be introduced to.

  9. Good stuff, Dave, as usual. I've always laughed heartily at readers who slam regular, learned, passionate writers who offer a list like Mr. Vishnevetsky's, accusing them of being deliberately snobbish or obscure. Ridiculous.

    As you said, you like what you like, and everyone perceives a movie (or any art) differently. It's one of the most beautiful things about film.

    As long as opinions are sincere, and lack any secondary motives, then they're all worthy. Let the complaining semi-anonymous masses whine themselves silly.

  10. Very well said. I am curious about your true Top 10. If you didn't specifically try to feature films that many have not seen, how different would your list be? What were your true "favorite" films of 2010, regardless of their popularity?

  11. Excellent take on the ridiculous rage that surrounds lists. I put this at No. 7 on my Best Blog Posts of the Day rankings, although some readers think it should be no lower than fifth while others believe it has no business being on there and they'll say the same to my mother when they see her tonight.

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  13. You know, I feel like film critics have plenty of opportunity to define the terms in which they discuss film. Clearly everyone has a method in determining why a film is good or bad. Critics define this method themselves and I think most people respect that (yes, including /Film readers, who may occasionally become belligerent over certain types of films but are mostly accepting of different tastes).

    The problem with the argument that it's annoying for people to criticize a critic's list is that the critic has chosen to box themselves in. If you place the #6 film above the #8 film, are you not deciding which one you think is better? And if that's not the case, then why number your list? Like I mentioned before, critics are allowed a wide range of criteria for determining why they like a film; so what is the point of taking this diverse set of criteria and trying to cram it into an arbitrary 10 item list? Critics don't even assign value to each spot on the list so that you at least know how much of a difference there is between #9 and #10. Your favorite film from one year may be worlds beyond your #2 film, so why not just SAY that and remove the numbers?

    Film critics buy into this system of listing by number and then get upset when their list is not accepted by many people. If Ignatiy Vishnevetsky was truly trying to put up a list of his favorite films for the year, he would have put The Social Network (a film he gave 5 stars) on a larger list, and simply forgone the useless format of a top 10 list. The problem: he didn't. He went along with the meaningless top 10 list format, inevitably leaving out or including films that do or do not belong. Personally, I no longer see enough films in the year they were made to make any kind of comprehensive list, but right now I couldn't find 10 films to put on a top 10 list even if someone asked me to. I'd be putting Tron: Legacy and Get Him to the Greek in there.

    The question I'd like to ask anyone decrying top 10 list complaints is this: what are the benefits of numbering your list and obeying a top 5 or top 10 or top 20 structure? Really, I'd like to know.

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