As controversial poll shows, what critics like isn’t necessarily what audiences want

Jeanne Dielman

Delphine Seyrig starred in the 1975 movie, “Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles.”

Were you feverishly refreshing your Google searches last week, anxious for the unveiling of Sight & Sound’s list of the 100 greatest movies ever made?

No?

Good for you. That means you’re not a film critic.

For those of us still scratching out a living in those dusty vineyards, though, the magazine poll — based on responses from hundreds of international critics, academics and filmmakers, and published once a decade since 1952 — was a top topic of discussion. And a contentious one.

Although highlights have been leaked for days, the full list was not published until today (Dec. 5). But film writers already knew the big news: Ranked No. 1, for the first time, was a film by a woman — Chantal Akerman’s 1975 picture “Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles.”

Even more surprising was the film itself.

Previous “greatest film of all time” winners included “Vertigo” and “Citizen Kane” — brilliant films, inarguably, but also relatively accessible ones. “Jeanne Dielman,” though, is arthouse fare. It unfolds at a glacial pace, over nearly 3 ½ hours. Fiercely feminist, it details the dull, dehumanizing life of a Belgian housewife. It is not heavily plotted or terribly exciting … until the very end (in fact, in some ways, the tedium is the point).

Its anointing as the pinnacle of cinema left some people saying, disgustedly, that this was purely a politically correct choice. Poll respondents, they argued, weren’t picking “Jeanne Dielman” because it was the best movie of all time. They were picking it because it was the best movie not made by a straight man. Voters weren’t rewarding artistry. They were striking a blow against the patriarchy. Pretty soon, the battle lines were drawn.

This was not a fight I was really eager to wade into — on either side.

First of all, I hate lists like this. True, I dutifully do my best-of-the-year every December (I’ll be sharing my latest with you soon). But the best movies of all time? Movies drawn from around the world, and more than a century of filmmaking? How could any list of only 100 titles possibly contain all that? And the ranking methodology was dodgy, too. Participants weren’t asked to rank their favorite film, but to list their Top 10. The fact that “Jeanne Dielman” showed up at No. 1 doesn’t mean it was anyone’s No. 1 choice, just that it showed up on the most lists. Criticism by consensus.

Second, even if this choice was, as some claimed, the result of identity politics — “I’m choosing this film because it speaks to me” — who’s to say those considerations haven’t always been at play in this poll? In the past, correspondents were chiefly white men, and they chiefly chose films by white men; this year, Sight & Sound worked hard to increase and diversify the participants, and their picks were different, and more varied as well.

Should that be a surprise? Sometimes it seems people only complain about identity politics when it’s not their identity, or their politics.

Roy Scheider, in the 1979 movie “All That Jazz.”

What is troubling, though, is that some truly great films that have become problematic for some — such as “Lawrence of Arabia,” with white actors putting on dark makeup and rubber noses to play Arabs — have disappeared from the list entirely. And a snobbish dislike of genre seems to have taken hold, too. Out of the 100 films, there is only one musical, “Singin’ in the Rain” (no “The Wizard of Oz”? No “All That Jazz”?). There are only two Westerns (“The Wild Bunch,” which had made previous polls, got the boot this year). And while Asian animation is finally getting some respect (Hayao Miyazaki’s “Spirited Away” and “My Neighbor Totoro” both finally made the list), couldn’t we have saved some love for Disney’s “Fantasia”?

What I find truly interesting, however, is how the results show the widening gulf between what critics praise and what audiences embrace.

As a critic, I’m open to a wide range of movies. I have to be. I have praised experimental documentaries like “Tarnation” and “Dawson City: Frozen Time.” I’ve sat fascinated through long, incredibly depressing Romanian dramas like “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days” and “The Death of Mr. Lazarescu.” I’ve also raved about pure pop entertainment like “The Incredibles” and “Guardians of the Galaxy.” I admire a movie with ambitions, but I don’t give points for pretensions. What’s most important to me is that a movie knows what it wants to do — and then does it, in an interesting and effective way.

Sometimes, though, I wonder about other writers. I know a fellow critic who, when we’d come out of some difficult, arty epic that neither of us had much liked, would say, “This is the kind of movie that makes people hate movie critics.” He knew there were plenty of reviewers who were going to give the picture great write-ups, because it was “important.” And he knew other people would then go to the theater, based on those reviews, and end up walking out afterwards muttering, “What the hell was that?”

I’ve thought about this disconnect over the years, and I’ve developed what I call The Chicken Parm Theory.

The idea is that all professional reviewers are constant consumers, and as a result they tend to value novelty over consistency, the surprising over the dependable. Take, say, a restaurant critic. They may go out three to five times a week. As a result … well, their palates — literally — get a little jaded. They want to taste something they’ve never tasted before. They prioritize new preparations, new presentations. As soon as a restaurant opens up, they’re there. But once they’ve reviewed it, they’re in no hurry to return.

The average restaurant-goer, however may only eat dinner out once or twice a week, if that. They’re also paying for their own meals (unlike the critic), so they’re less inclined to take risks. They don’t need a life-changing experience. They want something safe and unsurprising. They want something they like, something they understand, something they can depend on. Basically, they want a plate of chicken parm.

I understand that (though I’m more of a veal marsala person, myself). Yet sometimes I think other film critics have forgotten that — and about all the pleasures, high or low, that a motion picture can provide. There is nothing wrong with a movie that only wants to make you laugh (as long as it accomplishes that). And there is nothing very useful in only writing to impress your friends.

There is a place, of course, for all kinds of movies, and all kinds of writing about them. I have entire bookcases groaning under the weight of thoughtful cinema-studies volumes from Pauline Kael, Andrew Sarris and Manny Farber. I’ve studied the extraordinary powers of composition and the tricky psychology of editing. I wouldn’t have written a doorstop-sized encyclopedia on Alfred Hitchcock’s films if I didn’t think movies were worth serious study.

But I’ve never mentioned a new film and had someone ask me about montage, or the mise-en-scène. Instead, their first question is always “What’s it about?” The second is, “Is it any good?” And if you’re not going to devote at least some of your review to answering those questions, don’t be surprised if you’re not going to find many readers devoted to you — or putting much faith in any list you painstakingly draw up.

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