Saturday, December 24, 2016

Notes on the Empire Magazine Top 300 Poll

In 2014, Empire Magazine compiled a reader poll of the 301 greatest films of all time  (you can play it in quiz form here, the list is unavailable but the final composited total is here).

 Here are some notes on the list:

  1.   The Empire subscriber base is likely dominated by film aficionados who came of age in the 1990s. This can be seen in the high rankings of the films of Quentin Tarantino’s and Frank Darabont’s films, the ranking of Scorsese’s 1990 film “Goodfellas” over his earlier masterpieces, the high rankings of “Fight Cub,” “The Matrix” and the fact that Kevin Smith is even mentioned at all, shows that this is likely a group of voters that primarily came of age during the 1990s. Tarantino’s debut “Reservoir Dogs” (which didn’t really bring anything to the table that “Pulp Fiction” would do two years later) clocks in at #75. Additionally, David Fincher’s hits “Se7en” and “Fight Club” and the David Fincheresque “Usual Suspects” all place extremely high.
  2.   It’s also worth noting that after the big triumvate of “Raging Bull” “Taxi Driver” and “Goodfellas”, the only other pre-2000 Scorsese work listed here is “Casino” which isn’t particularly memorable unless you were forming your filmic vocabulary in that decade. A more preferable choice for a film that defined Scorsese pre-2000 is “Mean Streets.”
  3.  This is clearly a male voting body that grew up in the 1990’s. Tarantino and Fincher’s 90’s work are both hyper-masculine celebrations of violence whereas heady science fiction stuff like “Contact” gets ignored in favor of something like “The Matrix” which revels in bullets and special effects. Romantic comedies and musicals are both given much less weight than they would ordinarily. Among the older Westerns, the 1969 film “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” makes the cuts which is a celebration of masculine strength. Another 1969 film which won the best picture that year and generally does about as well on these kinds of lists, “Midnight Cowboy” gets omitted entirely and that’s a film that celebrates masculine weakness. Well-regarded films such as “Ghost” or “In the Name of the Father” from the time period where many of the films are skewed towards stand no chance of making it. "English Patient" is another outliar. I might say the same about the 2012 version of "Les Mis" but as Key and Peele reminded us, it's got Wolverine in it.
  4.  Then again, Tim Burton who was one of the most successful film directors of the decade in terms of box office pull, innovation, and cultural clout seems to have retreated from memory. Edward Scissorhands clocks in at 170 while his masterpiece “Ed Wood” isn’t even mentioned at all. Batman is 288 and that’s more likely due to the presence of superhero tastes than Burton’s touch. Perhaps, his gothic flights of imagination are easier to get invested in as kids and  they detached from him as an adult despite the fact that “Big Fish” (which ranks on IMDB’s Top 250) and “Ed Wood” are both considered great films that aren’t particularly relevant to a children’s audience.
  5. One would think that a year later in the post-truth era, movies that either champion political truth like “The Candidate,” “All the President’s Men” or “Spotlight” or that satirize news absurdity like Elia Kazan’s “A Face in the Crowd” or “Network” might rise a bit in the rankings. “All the President’s Men” and “Network” are both on AFI’s Top 100. “All the President’s Men” doesn’t even make the list!
  6. It’s also clear that this voting body has been selectively exposed to the past. “Scarface” makes the list because the poster is on everyone’s dorm room. “It’s a Wonderful Life” and “Wizard of Oz” our TV staples around Christmastime whereas Frank Capra’s other masterpieces don’t make the cut. Similarly, “Cool Hand Luke” has become a very quotable film and as such beat out 1967 films such as “Bonnie and Clyde” and “In the Heat of the Night” that had previously ranked higher on many lists. And don’t forget the cannon of John Hughes whose films are popular at summer parties and clubs.
  7.  It seems the artsier the group of film experts, the more dismissive they are of Spielberg. However, if you’re pragmatic enough to realize that Spielberg’s films are as essential as Sergio Leone, David Lynch, Martin Scorsese, and Quentin Tarantino. Whereas “Schindler’s List” ordinarily tops these types of lists, these voters selected “Jaws” and “Raiders of the Lost Ark” 8th and 9th. “Schindler’s List” represents Spielberg’s high-brow ambitions, whereas “Jaws” and “Raiders” represent Spielberg sticking to his forte.
  8.  For a voting body that rewards the hyper-violent and special-effects laden, it is refreshing to see a couple of Terrence Malick’s films make the list in “Tree of Life” and “New World.” His films stand entirely against any cinematic trends to make narratives faster and tighter.
  9. Old-school blockbusters like "Superman" "Star Trek II: The Wrath of Kahn" and particuarly "Die Hard" finally get their due as smartly made blockbusters unashamed to dig into their deep mythologies. I know this is hard to believe but some 15 years ago, there was virtually nothing indicating "Die Hard" was a classic among any serious segment of the population. This also could explain Tim Burton's "Batman" making the list.

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