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artisanal film reviews | by maryann johanson

alert! ‘The New York Times’ picks the 10 bestest movies evar!

Stanley Fish has, for some reason, been chosen by The New York Times to name “the 10 best American movies”… ever.

Fish is “the Davidson-Kahn Distinguished University Professor and a professor of law at Florida International University, in Miami, and dean emeritus of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago,” so I guess we’re supposed to accept that he knows what he’s talking about. Why a professor of law should be called upon to comment on film is something of a mystery to me. Why not a professor of biology? Or literature? Or politics? Why not the person who’s posted the most reviews of movies on Amazon? Or Ain’t It Cool News? Why not the person who’s rented the widest range of movies from Netflix?
I leave it to you to discover the titles on the list for yourself. Not that I have anything in particular against any of the movies on the list — a few I have not seen, others I acknowledge as quite good indeed — but when I say the list is classic, I mean that sarcastically. It’s classic “cluelessness of the Times” in that it appears to be designed to appeal to, ahem, the certain demographic that still reads newspapers (and people wonder why no one under 60 is buying a daily paper anymore). The average year of production of the 10 movies on the list is 1956. Only two of the 10 movies were produced since I was born, and I’m no spring chicken. If you take out those two movies, the average year of production drops to 1948.

Like I said, I’m not saying there’s anything actually wrong with the movies mentioned. But I do find it somewhat shocking that not one of the best American movies ever is less than 15 years old… and most of them are more than half a century old. Even more suspicious, not one of them is older than Fish, who was born in 1938, and the median year of films on his list is 1949… which is very suspiciously close to that “golden age” of 12, which is typically applied to explain a fanatical devotion to science fiction, but which I think applies to movies, too.

But of course, were I to submit a “10 best movies ever” list to The New York Times that included Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Empire Strikes Back, and The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai: Across the Eighth Dimension, I’d get laughed at, wouldn’t I?



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  • So I guess the person that compiled that list is headed into retirement?

    I’ve seen and liked most of those movies, but I’ve always found both Shane and The Best Years of Our Lives to be extremely overrated. And Groundhog Day? What’s that all about?

  • JoshDM

    “Serenity” is missing from the list?

    NERD. RAGE. ACTIVATED.

  • Ryan H

    Wow. There is a 22 year gap between the second most recent movie and the third most recent movie. 8 of the ten movies were filmed within a 14 year period. So, from 1944 onwards, there was roughly a one movie every two years worthy of the top ten. Then from 1958, only one movie every 25 years makes the cut.

    That must have been some 14 years of film making.

  • Ryan H

    Also, the commentators over at the Times site make some good points. A top 10 American Films list but no mention of Citizen Kane or Wizard of Oz? These films are nice, but the list is weak.

  • Anne-Kari

    Wow. What the hell? I too have nothing against the individual movies, but seriously. Even the commentors at the NYT website were all “American cinema peaked in the 1940’s?”.

    And here’s the weird thing: I’m a newspaper groupie. When I lived in NY, I got the Times daily. Now that I’m in the DC metro area, I get the Washington Post daily. In paper form. I just can’t give up my morning coffee and paper habit. Yet I’m so often annoyed/disappointed by what I read, and I supplement daily with online news.

    I guess I’m just a crotchety old girl used to yelling at inanimate newsprint. It’s a form of entertainment in itself.

    But seriously. The Times is just fucking annoying at this point.

  • Jester

    God, I’ll be glad when the last movie critic born between 1935 and 1945 falls over dead and I never have to hear “Sunset Blvd! Squee!” again.

    What IS it with movie critics born in that envelope and that movie? Seriously?

  • Jurgan

    Would anyone have objected if the list was labeled “My 10 Favorite American Movies of All Time?” Certainly not- that’d be accepted as an opinion. So NYT is trying to make it seem authoritative by taking a law professors list and labeling it “best of all time.” Is anyone going to be fooled by this?

  • Mo

    Wow… I’m suddenly having flashbacks to every Rolling Stone music list I’ve ever read, except with Hitchcock instead of Dylan. Someone really needs to come up with a name for that syndrome. It makes good news sources look like narrow-minded old farts.

  • t6

    In addition to being a legal scholar, Stanley Fish if a famous literary theorist–very central to reader-response theory (often conflated with postmodernism). I read one of his important texts, “Is there a Text in this Class” in grad school.

    Considering his death of the author-ness, and his reader-response-ness. I don’t think he’d ever claim that his list is the best for anyone but himself. I think the fact that his list is so very old was part of the point and in keeping with his philosophical background. Furthermore, he’d probably support your (MAJ) list with Buckaroo Banzai and Raiders.

  • PaulW

    You’re right though. Having a lawyer decide by himself the 10 Best Movies EVER is like having Ebert on the Supreme Court. Experience in one field does not lend to expertise in the other.

    And you also pointed out another point: people seem to think age improves a movie, without recognizing that movies made in the last 20-30 years deserve equal consideration. Black-and-white greyscale does not a great film make… great noir, yah, but not great films…

    And while I like Buckaroo Banzai… I’m sorry, it’s not Top 10. Top 20, definitely.

  • Henry

    I believe Stanley Fish has published a bunch of essays about Performance Theory and performativity, which is in fact as much pointless pretentious bullshit as it sounds. The titles of his books are always interesting, but the text inside…not so much. Anyway, that’s probably why they picked him; he’s a law professor, but a lot of his “work” has revolved around performance studies.

    I realize I just shared information nobody cares about, but it’s in my brain and I figured, why should I suffer alone?

  • Henry

    And it was redundant information, since t6 had already stated as much. Sorry.

  • Jurgan

    On the other hand, most “best ever” list are heavily skewed toward recent times (take a stroll through imdb’s top movies list). Maybe this is just a karmic attempt to balance the scales.

  • On the other hand, most “best ever” list are heavily skewed toward recent times (take a stroll through imdb’s top movies list). Maybe this is just a karmic attempt to balance the scales.

    What Jurgan said. One can find plenty of Top Ten lists in, say, Entertainment Weekly that are just as skewed towards the more recent years, often to the point of ridiculousness.

    And, yes, we all tend to elevate movies we’ve seen during our youth to a higher level than the movies other people saw during their youth.

    That said, there were a lot of bad movies released in the theatres during my teens and my 20’s that I’d just as soon not see on a “Best of” list.

    And quite frankly I see nothing wrong with trying to relate to movies that were made before one’s youth. Many of the movies I’ve enjoyed most during the last few years were movies that came out at least two or three decades before I was born.

    And yes, there’s a lot to say about the decline of the American newspaper but I’m not sure encouraging newspapers to encourage to the younger set is going to work because I’ve read such efforts to appeal to younger readers and for the most part, they seem awful. All too often, newspapers equate “stuff that appeals to young people” with “stuff that’s been dumbed down” and quite frankly, that’s one of the reasons I no longer buy newspapers on a regular basis. (That and the fact that the newspaper items that allegedly appeal to older folk are being more and more generic–and are as about as interesting to read as an income tax form.)

  • “Encouraging newspapers to appeal,” I meant to say.

  • MaryAnn

    Newspapers being idiotic about what it means to appeal to readers younger than 50 is part of why they’re failing. It doesn’t mean they shouldn’t have tried — it means they should have done it in the right way.

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