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About that New York Times movie list…

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The surprisingly controversial list of "the best films of the 21st century (so far)" contains glaring omissions and one real head-scratcher of an inclusion

As Carrie Barron M.D notes in her article at Psychology Today, creating a list can have numerous benefits such as helping a person feel pro-active, grounded, calm and clear. Of course, that’s only for lists someone creates themselves. The good doctor fails to mention what emotional states can be elicited from reading lists created by others. For instance, the comments on a recent piece published at The New York Times entitled “The 25 Best Films of the 21st Century” appear to demonstrate every disposition except calm and clear.

Crafted by the Times’ resident movie critics, Manohla Dargis and A.O. Scott, the list has evoked from readers such epithets as “deficient,” “sophomoric,” “dumbed-down, disgusting fluff,” and the inevitable “this list is rubbish.” What was so egregious with the list that it would provoke such reactions? Well, let’s have a look at the top five picks for best films of the 21st Century and see if we can figure it out.

  1. There Will Be Blood (2007)
  2. Spirited Away (2002)
  3. Million Dollar Baby (2004)
  4. A Touch of Sin (2013)
  5. The Death of Mr. Lazarescu (2006)

One thing is immediately obvious; most people have probably never heard of, much less seen, several of these movies. This isn’t surprising. After all, most critics have devoted a good portion of their lives to the study of film, so of course they’re going to have an investment in motion pictures as an art form. Plus, (and don’t discount this) critics get to see movies for free.

For regular moviegoers, on the other hand, a family trip to the local multiplex can truly pinch the purse. Naturally, they’re a bit more concerned with a particular film’s entertainment value. This has always been the case. Back in 1896, when audiences first lined up to see the Lumière brothers film, The Arrival of a Train, they did so because it was a fun experience, not because the movie spoke to the human condition.

So, with the understanding that the Times list is going to favor the obscure and/or the artsy over the entertaining, is it a good list? In general, yes, as long as obscure and/or artsy is your only criteria. You’ll find no trace of popular offerings such as The Dark Knight or the Lord of the Rings trilogy. About the only nod the Times critics give to such plebian tastes is Mad Max: Fury Road, which they are able to justify including because of its in-your-face feminist undertones, and The 40-Year-Old Virgin, whose inclusion I am at a complete loss to explain.

As for movies with any moral or spiritual value above their artistic trappings, the Times list is definitely a mixed bag. For example, the Times has the animated film Spirited Away at number two. No problem there as Hayao Miyazaki’s masterpiece would certainly make my own list. Uber-critic Stephen Greydanus once declared that Spirited Away is a powerful work full of subtle grace, and I tend to agree. In contrast, while the Times’ number three choice, Million Dollar Baby, may be an artistic triumph, it’s also a morally bankrupt miserable experience that attempts to put a heroic spin on assisted suicide. I can’t flip the channel fast enough whenever it comes on.

That’s not to say that every questionable movie on the Times list should be avoided. I myself gave generally positive reviews to films like Boyhood, Inside Llweyn Davis, and Moonlight. Even though these works have some problematic characters and viewpoints, they still show artistic merit and include some decent spiritual insights if you’re willing to dig for them. Interestingly enough, the most successful Christian movie of the century, both at the box office and as a work of art, Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ, is nowhere to be found on the Times list. Make of that what you will. The Times’ own Ross Douthat noted the omission as well.

While it may seem unrelated at first, it’s also noteworthy that not a single horror movie appears on the Times list. Horror is one of the most popular and, quite frankly, moral genre of movies being produced at the present moment, and there’s no shortage of great ones. Take, for example, Let the Right One In. Depending on how you interpret it, the film is either an offbeat tale of a young homosexual finding someone who accepts and cares for him (a vampire in this case), or it’s a horrifying tale of a child molester grooming his next victim. I lean towards the latter, which makes the film a deeply disturbing horror masterpiece that deserves a place on any best of list.

Then again, I’m a Christian and a horror fan, so any list of mine would instinctively include films addressing those concerns. As with any list, the Times article has to be read in the context of all the other reviews its authors have written. Once you establish their individual tastes, it’s easier to see how much they line up with your own. That’s when you’ll really be able to calmly and clearly tell if their recommendation of The 40-Year -Old Virgin as one of the best films of the 21st Century is reliable or not.

Hint: It’s not. Their list is rubbish.

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