Digging Into The Dissolve’s 50 Best Films of the Decade So Far

Taste isn’t objective, but what can we learn about film criticism from a mid-decade best-of list?


This week, The Dissolve published “The 50 best films of the decade so far.” (See also: part 2.) Here’s how they describe it:

Inspired by our friends at Pitchfork, The Dissolve polled its regular contributors and some friends of the site about the best films released since January 1, 2010. We compiled the results in an effort to help give shape to the decade in progress, as the cinematic landscape keeps evolving around us.

One could do well to see the 50 films spotlighted by The Dissolve. (I’ve seen 26, if you’re wondering.) They did a great job of doing exactly what they set out to do, to “give shape” to “the cinematic landscape.” But they’ve done more than that. I think the list says as much about the film critics ranking the films as it does about the films themselves. Consider it a mid-decade check-in with film criticism.

Toy Story 3

The Dissolve is not the official authority on criticism (such a thing is a fantasy), but they have a murderer’s row of contributors over there. I may not agree with everything on their list, but it’s honest and well thought out. I also think it’s representative enough (see previous statement of magical thinking) of the critical community I tend to follow. As such I’d like to hold their list up as a slice of criticism in 2015; your mileage may vary in that regard.

The list asks which films are prized among the critical community. I want to ask where the films come from and how they are received by the public (if at all). Does the critical community like certain kinds of films? Are those films different from what filmgoers prefer? Or have access to?

Winnowing down a list of the best 50 films, even over just a five year period, is a gargantuan task. Going by the lists maintained by Mike D’Angelo, a Dissolve contributor, over 4,200 films were released commercially in New York City between 2010 and 2014. (D’Angelo’s lists, by the way, show a marked increase in films year over year, following the trend Manohla Dargis pointed out last January in The New York Times.)

I use D’Angelo’s “NY Master” lists because they’re the best resource I know of, but there’s another reason. Films that open in New York are almost guaranteed a film review, if not in the Times (which will review anything that plays for a week) then somewhere. In the future we may consider it strange that a film had to play in a physical space for a set amount of days.

Those walls are coming down, but one thing that hasn’t changed much is what compels a film critic (or outlet) to write about a work. A release is one way; playing a festival is another. For now there doesn’t seem to be much of a third option. Even if a film is put out digitally, there must be a modicum of pomp and circumstance to its arrival. It must be, in the original sense of the word, released.

Dogtooth

So what makes 50 films stand out from over 4,200? The answers are given lovingly in the capsules for each film over on The Dissolve. Please go read them. Nothing about taste is objective. There isn’t a science to this stuff, but there are patterns, which is where this piece, which I implore you to take with a grain of salt, comes in.

I took every film on The Dissolve’s list and made myself a spreadsheet, supplementing extra data from other sources. Box office and theater data comes from Box Office Mojo. Premiere and awards data comes from IMDb. You can view the full spreadsheet here.

At first glance the list felt very 2014 heavy to me. Maybe that’s because the top pick (no spoilers, go see for yourself) feels more like a zeitgeist pick than a film that will stick with us for five, ten or fifty years. Or maybe I felt that way because of my own relationship with time. Most films that came out in the last five years still feel “new” to me, especially those that I haven’t seen yet, the ones I’ll “get to” (any day now).

My feeling doesn’t bear out, though.

Films Broken Down by Year

It’s nice that the poll didn’t yield ten films per year. That would feel more like a compilation of annual top ten lists than a ranking across the period in question. It’s a nice split.

There are three filmmakers on the list more than once: Paul Thomas Anderson (The Master, Inherent Vice), Wes Anderson (Moonrise Kingdom, The Grand Budapest Hotel) and Richard Linklater (Before Midnight, Boyhood). I’m delighted Paul Thomas Anderson was even able to make the cut. Prior to Inherent Vice, his current film, Anderson would take half-decade long breaks between projects.

That these three Filmmakers would take multiple spots shouldn’t come as much of a shock, but it’s heartening that there weren’t more repeats. Just as the films were spread out nicely by year, the site’s editors also did a decent job of not letting any one filmmaker outshine the others.

The bulk of the films on the The Dissolve’s list, unsurprisingly, come from the United States. They’re a US based site, after all. More than a quarter of the films come from elsewhere, which I think belies a healthy but not overwhelming appetite for foreign films. I say that superlatively; if there is a belief that critics only like foreign work, it is misguided.

Films Broken Down by Country

The list above is inexact. I’m counting Abbas Kiarostami’s Certified Copy as a film from France, though it should probably be counted for Iran (or perhaps even Italy?). The same goes for Michael Haneke’s Amour. I’ve listed it under Austria (the country that submitted it for the foreign language Oscar) but it could just as easily be considered French.

Perhaps the only national surprise on this list is that the UK only managed to take a single spot with Banksy’s Exit Through the Gift Shop, a film that takes place mostly in Los Angeles. (Mike Leigh’s Another Year would be in the upper tier of my own list, but that’s neither here nor there.)

Of only a passing interest to me is how many Oscar nominees and winners there are in the ranks of The Dissolve’s list. It’s certainly something, but critics’ organizations and The Academy tend to break along different lines. That assertion, by the way, is more of a feeling than anything else.

Films Broken Down by Oscars

Still, Oscar voters comprise a powerful, if not representative, taste-making bloc. An Oscar nomination alone can not only bring in a healthy amount of business for a film in the near term; it can mean the life or death of a work in the decades to come.

One more than half of the films have been nominated for an Oscar. Eight have taken home a statue. Fourteen have been nominated for Best Picture and only one, 12 Years a Slave, actually won it. Including this year’s slate, there have been forty-five Best Picture nominees since 2010. That means less than a third of the films on The Dissolve’s list were nominated for Best Picture. Perhaps my pervious assertion that critics and The Academy break along different lines isn’t so far off.

Meek’s Cutoff

These last few charts here will deal with what I think are probably the key splits between critics and the moviegoing public. Namely how and when do these films actually get seen.

The overwhelming majority of the films on The Dissolve’s list had a premiere at a festival. Again, my count may be a bit inexact. Bridesmaids had a premiere in Westwood in early April, 2011, after having a “work-in-progress” screening at SXSW one month prior. It was rightly covered by the film press at the time, so I’m including it as a festival premiere. Equally dubious, but still counted in my tally, is the premiere of Toy Story 3 at the Taormina Film Festival a week before the film’s release. With that disclaimed, 45 of 50 films premiered at a film festival of some walk.

Films Broken Down By Festival

Half of the films listed premiered at either Cannes or Sundance. One cannot understate the power of these two festivals. There is a reason why even the non-moviegoer has heard of them. Of the films that went to festivals, half of them won some sort of award. Some festivals, like the New York Film Festival (NYFF) and Telluride, don’t regularly give out awards, so it’s not a one-to-one comparison. I think it’s fair to say that critics, or at least The Dissolve’s list-makers, hew pretty closely to festival juries at the major international festivals.

The only surprise for me regarding festivals is that not a single film on the list premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF). Though I’ve never attended it, I’ve always considered it to be the second most important film festival in North America. Maybe I’ve just confused its import with the fact that it falls right at the beginning of the awards season calendar, making it a regular launchpad for Oscar contenders. See above for why I shouldn’t be surprised a critics’ list would pick zero films with a TIFF premiere.

Melancholia

Though there are more film festivals in more places than at any point in history (I truly hope and believe this fact will forever become more true), most filmgoers get their films elsewhere. It may be old fashioned of me to consider a film’s theatrical run as a key measurement of access to the work. After all, audiences anywhere can stream or download most new films, sometimes before they’re even supposed to. But a theatrical run brings with it more than the ability to see a film; it brings local awareness. There is advertising in the market playing the film, sure, but there’s also just people who want to see whatever is in theaters. So much of cinema past and present is sitting there waiting to be downloaded and viewed, but it’s worth little if moviegoers haven’t heard of it.

So, of the films on The Dissolve’s list, how many of them were readily available to US audiences in theaters?

Films Broken Down by Release Type

More than half of the films opened in fewer than 300 theaters nationwide. Twenty opened in fewer than 100. On the other end of the spectrum, ten opened in more than 2,000 theaters, which is roughly the number you’re looking for if you want everyone in the US to have a chance to see a film.

As a gross overgeneralization, you can pretty much count on the best films any given year not playing in a theater near you. That is unless you live in a major metropolitan area. Even here in Austin, where there is a thriving, passionate film community, there are films that may never open. As just one example, I don’t know if I’ll ever get to see Jean-Luc Godard’s Goodbye to Language, least of all in its intended 3D.

Since I’m parsing this information already, it only makes sense to take a look at box office. So many people who cover and even read about film consider box office to be gospel; the more money a film makes the better it must be. I (and most critics, I presume) don’t ascribe to this belief, but I know enough to know that box office can tell us something. It can’t tell us how many people liked a film, but it can tell us how many people considered a film worth their time and expense.

Films Broken Down by Box Office

There are no real surprises here given the aforementioned release data. A film released in more markets made more money, i.e. was seen by more people.

Bridesmaids

The majority of the films made fewer than $10 million. Six films made more than $100 million, which is actually a bit surprising to me. While Guardians of the Galaxy, Toy Story 3 and Wreck-It Ralph did predictably well at the box office, Gravity and The Wolf of Wall Street are more nuanced films. Plus it’s still a shock how well Bridesmaids did; comedies so rarely pull in that kind of money. And in April?

We can try to look at this in human terms rather than dollars and cents, but the result is roughly the same. If you take the average ticket price each year into account, you can figure out roughly how many people saw (or at least bought tickets to) a given film. 19 films were seen by more than a million moviegoers which lines up nicely with our 19 films that opened wide and the 18 that made more than $10 million.

So what have we learned? I think the biggest eye-opener for me was how many of the films had a festival premiere. From my own experience I know that festival films stick with a critic and that sometimes a good festival screening (and they usually are good, the Cannes tradition of booing aside) can color one’s impression. It would be interesting, though perhaps not useful, to poll those who voted in The Dissolve’s list to see how many of them saw the films at festivals.

Upstream Color

I feel confident saying that the best regarded films today play festivals first. This is not to suggest foul play. Festivals can be gamed to spread positive word of mouth, it’s true, but for the most part they are run and attended by people with a passion for cinema. So it should be no surprise that critics, whose movie diet is exponentially greater than the average moviegoer, would pick a festival heavy list. That Cannes and Sundance are represented so heavily says a great deal about those festivals.

But I still think there is a divide between the films that are beloved by those of us who see the most movies and the rest of the moviegoing public. This has, perhaps, always been true. But I would love to see more films that are beloved on both ends of the spectrum (think The Godfather or Chinatown, to reach back a bit). That’ll be the day.

Guardians of the Galaxy
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