In 2010 I saw 100 different movies in 100 different theaters. Here are the details.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Top 10 Movies We'll Still Watch in 50 Years

Top Ten Tuesday

This year's Oscar nominees have been announced, and as usual I've seen few of the films nominated for best picture (just three of the expanded field of ten). The Academy comprises thousands of members (mostly actors, I believe). I see a negative correlation between box office success and being nominated for an award, even with the expansion. The Academy selects films that are interesting to them, and somehow their tastes are different from everyone else's, at least in terms of what is entertaining. Is it that the voting members relate to some aspect of the film that a lay person can't appreciate? ("Wow, that performance must have been really hard to do, and I would know, because I'm an actor.")

I'm fairly confident that the list of nominees, had it been limited to five, would have included Avatar, The Blind Side, The Hurt Locker, Inglourious Basterds, and Up in the Air, so I expect the winner to be among those five, and consider the other five lucky to have been included (District 9, An Education, Precious..., A Serious Man, and Up). This NPR article, among many others, thinks Precious would have gotten a spot over The Blind Side, based on the Best Director nominations. I think it's more likely that academy members saw The Blind Side.

Though the expanded field is intended to garner more interest in the broadcast of the awards, I think it might have the opposite effect. More movies in the running means less chance that a person could realistically see them all (in years past I was at most five films behind; now I'm seven). I have often heard people say that they intend to see all the nominated movies before the ceremony. With so many films nominated, these people might not even bother trying. And being nominated in one of the new slots doesn't really make a film a contender, unless there's some strange split-the-vote result that will only make the outcome dissatisfying.

It's too bad that this experiment coincides with Avatar's inclusion, which, because of its success, will no doubt bring extra viewership all by itself (the last time I watched the ceremony was because I wanted to see Return of the King get its due). These two destabilizing factors will make it difficult to isolate which is responsible for what changes in interest and viewership. I suspect that neither Avatar nor James Cameron will win. Cameron, with Titanic as his last major film, is a bit like the guy who sits down to play poker, cleans everyone out, then leaves without giving anyone a chance to win back their money. Nobody likes that guy.

(The Avatar bashers are now coming out in full force. They would be content to simply ignore the film, but for its success, and it being constantly thrown in their face, touted as the greatest thing ever. In reading today many criticisms that Avatar has no plot, just repeating what we we've seen in other movies before—Dances with Wolves, Pocahontas—I initially agreed. The movie is a visual pleaser; its strength is not in surprise, but in wonder. But I've just had the realization that, in fact, the movie has a great plot. Just as people accuse, the plot is recycled; that might lessen the impact the story has on us, but it does not devalue the story. For many, Avatar will be the first they see of this story. And what a way to see it!)

So, on with my list. In justification of the Academy's choices I began to consider which movies, having won best picture, are still with us today. Some are almost entirely forgotten—I'd never heard of Gentleman's Agreement (1947) until now—but others, like Gone with the Wind (1939), Casablanca (1942), and The Godfather (1972), are enduring fixtures of American film culture.

The question I really wanted to answer was this: which best picture winners (more than ten years old) were watched by the most people last year? But how does one answer that question? We must consider all the places a person might see a movie. A theater admission is our cleanest indication of a person's immediate consumption of a film. A rental is a bit murky, because we aren't guaranteed the person actually watched the movie, and we don't know how many people watched it; for simplicity we might assume that 1.5 people watch the average rental before returning it. But these two markets, our strongest statistical reporters, favor new releases. Anything more than two years old will be absent from theaters, and significantly reduced on the home market. Nielsen ratings of television broadcasts might help us out, but DVD and other home video purchases, finally, blow the question out of the water, because once someone buys a movie, there is no telling how often they actually watch it, and with whom. So, while I have no doubt that more people watched Platoon (1986) last year than watched The Last Emperor (1987), there's just no way to tell.

So, instead I look forward. Considering only movies from the past decade (2000-2009), I list ten films I think Americans will still be watching in 2060. Not just a few people watching, either, but lots, the way people today still watch Harvey, Ben-Hur, and any number of Hitchcock films from the 1950s. Okay, okay, maybe Harvey doesn't often appear as the in-flight movie, but it should.

Sometimes a work (like Melville's Moby Dick) can fall off the map entirely, only to gain in popularity years later. But for the most part, movies will only be watched by future generations if current generations continue to watch them. Timecode (2000) is interesting, unusual, and says a lot about Hollywood culture, but nobody watched it when it came out, so nobody will watch it in fifty years. The real question is which movies will you still be watching in fifty years, and getting your kids to watch, and their kids, etc. We might not all be around that long, but we can at least point people in the right direction before we go. (If I'm still alive in fifty years, I'll still be watching Clue.)

10. Little Miss Sunshine (2007)
This movie is well-made, funny, touching, and well-acted by three generations of actors. The past decade would be generously misrepresented if characterized by this uplifting story.

9. The Day After Tomorrow (2004)
In fifty years we will either have solved most of our environmental problems, or we'll be facing a resource-depleated wasteland. Either way, this disaster movie will serve as a time capsule of our current fears of climate change. An Inconvenient Truth is a good warning, but The Day After Tomorrow is both prescient and entertaining.

8. Elephant (2003)
School shootings will, hopefully, be a thing of the past by 2060. Elephant interweaves various perspectives so that, like in Pulp Fiction, central characters can die in the middle of the film, yet still appear in later scenes. Aside from some nice artistic shots and melodramatic music, the movie is very hands off, just letting us watch the banality of a school day, and how calmly two shooters plot their revenge on bullying and indifferent classmates. Home is where kids sleep at night, but high school is where they live; the dramas that take place on that confined campus are all-important, especially when children apply adult solutions (e.g. war) to juvenile problems.

7. Love Actually (2003)
This is a sappy romance, but its ensemble cast and sometimes laughable sincerity will endear it to future generations looking for an older movie that isn't depressing. We live in a sarcastic age, where humor is at the expense of others, and it's easier to be critical of something than create a thing of beauty. I can only hope that things have not always been so. Love Actually is the rare film that tries just to be nice.

6. Black Hawk Down (2001)
This movie documents the United States's explosive involvement in a foreign conflict. By virtue of being entertaining, as a non-stop action movie, the film glamorizes war. Yet the absolute lethality of the U.S. armed forces, and the number of people our troops kill while taking minimal casualties themselves, is mind-blowing. This movie is sure to generate continued interest as people look back, probably in horror, to examine our country's military expeditions into foreign lands. To misquote Bruce Willis from The Siege, our army is a broadsword, when what is sometimes needed is a scalpel.

5. Crash (2005)
Much of this movie feels forced to me. Trying to examine complex race and class issues, while we're still dealing with them, is bound to come across as naive and heavy-handed. But what makes this film almost unwatchable now (its proximity to its subject matter) is precisely what will make it valuable in the future. These are reflections on tensions in Los Angeles without the benefit of hindsight.

4. Ocean's 11 (2001)
People today (myself included) haven't seen the original. This remake stands on its own. In addition to sporting some of the biggest stars of our time, the movie is stylish, classy, and fun. The team is great and the heist satisfying.

3. Best in Show (2000)
Good comedy can last well beyond its time. Sabrina (1954) made me laugh out loud, as do Harvey and The Trouble with Harry (1955). Best in Show gives such an odd, delightful mix of performances, it might charm people of the 2060s even more than it does us. The film is sure to amuse future film students studying the roots of mockumentary, perfected here.

2. World Trade Center (2006)
This is an absorbing movie. Like Titanic, it is watchable because the plot focuses on the suffering of only a few main characters, rather than forcing us to identify with and watch perish countless others. The attack itself and our country's responses to the attack have made a lasting impression on most of us, which means we'll still be talking about it for years to come. Future movies will be made on this subject, and they might be more historically accurate, or level-headed, the way I trust modern World War II movies more than I do the propagandist movies of the late 1940s. But it is valuable to have a cinematic account made by people still struggling to come to terms with the tragedy.

1. The Lord of the Rings Trilogy (2001-2003)
Any movie heavy on effects can become visually obsolete, but excellent filmmaking ensures longevity, regardless of genre. Consider 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and Star Wars (1977), already decades old, and showing no signs of dropping off the radar. The Lord of the Rings is exciting, cathartic, awe-inspiring, and meticulous in all its details. It feels like a documentary of a time that never existed. Future generations will say, "Wow, movies used to be awesome!", or whatever passes for the word "awesome" in 2060.


  1. "Wow, movies used to be awesome!", or whatever passes for the word "awesome" in 2060.

    Simple. "Wow, movies used to be so michaelclaysome!"

  2. Your comments on #5 “Crash”, immediately made me think of "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner" (1967)