Voting Blockbusters: One Man's Battle With His Own Mind
I've lived a dissolute life of cowardice and regret, but that's no biggie, because I was also part of a 13-critic jury — all staffers of or contributors to the superb website-for-movie-lovers The Dissolve — who chose, via three rounds of voting, the 50 greatest summer blockbusters, circa 1975-2013. The site revealed our findings in three posts last week.
Our timing could not have been better. Once the by-all-accounts terrific Dawn of the Planet of the Apes opens this weekend, summer will have exhausted itself, moviewise. Life Itself, which just arrived in limited release last weekend, is one of the loveliest films of the year, and Boyhood has yet to land, but these are not "summer movies" in the way I, the Jury, think of them.
That's OK; I've already gorged on a whole bunch of good summer movies — The Winter Soldier! Godzilla! The unfairly ignored Edge of Tomorrow! — this year. The link between summer and big, physically oriented adventure films in my mind remains as unbreakable as adamantium, even if (as others have noted) the notion of "blockbuster season" is as irrelevant as Manufacturer's Suggested Retail Price now that four-quadrant megahits can come out in the flyover months of February (The Lego Movie) or October (Gravity).
I scratched the itch over the holiday weekend by going to see Snowpiercer, a South Korean sci-fi allegory about the perils of rampant capitalism based on a French graphic novel that was shot in Prague, in English. Its international cast is headed up by Chris Evans, Captain America himself.
But I just may chase it down with a revisit of Who Framed Roger Rabbit?
That's the only film in The Dissolve's Top 10 that I don't clearly remember. It placed eighth. My mom and dad took me to see it when it was released in 1988 — the same summer they refused to take me to Die Hard, the third-best blockbuster according to the jury.
The fact they refused to allow their precocious 11-year-old boy to see Die Hard in the theater does not necessarily mean they were neglectful parents. But it did mean I sought it out on video and exposed myself to it an unhealthy number of times, allowing it to imprint itself upon my pliable preteen self-image in a way Roger Rabbit did not.
I probably resisted Roger Rabbit at the time, in the knee-jerk way I resisted any specimen of pop culture I suspected of pandering to children back when I was a, watchacallit, child. The R-rated Die Hard allowed a prepubescent viewer to feel sophisticated, like he was reading above his level. ("Yippie kai yay, [terrible villain]," as James Baldwin once observed.) It would never even occur to me to cite Roger Rabbit among the greatest blockbusters, though 10 of the 12 jurors did. It's hard to appreciate a film that stirs nostalgia for childhood when you're still a child. If the mostly wonderful Pixar movies had come out when I was a kid instead of when I was an adult, I probably would've ignored those, too.
This is a tricky thing. Critics spend their working lives asserting that their taste is a commodity for which they should be paid, so obviously our individual favorites feel vastly important to us. You probably don't become a critic if you don't already consider the conscious part of your identity to be strongly influenced by key texts you encountered at an impressionable age and return to periodically. So every list-making exercise becomes a personality inventory.
A list of most-cherished summer blockbusters will be particularly revealing, assuming you haven't turned up your nose at the entre form, because these are films engineered to appeal to audiences as young as five or six along with everyone else. They target you earlier than most other forms of media do.
What is a summer blockbuster? Our definition was broad. The candidates were all originally released between May 1 and Aug. 31 in the U.S., which is why, as the gamemakers noted, obvious contenders like The Matrix and the Lord of the Rings pictures are absent. Though most of these films were very popular, box office take was not a factor. We were however encouraged to make the feeling of a summer movie part of our selection criteria, which is why, for example, I did not vote for The Shining (No. 25) or Apocalypse Now (No. 17), even though I admire and sometimes love those films. I didn't even realize they were originally released in the summer.
The admissibility of a feeling as evidence of a film's greatness would surely offend the governed-by-logic Mr. Spock, whose heroic [spoiler] was chronicled in the 37th greatest blockbuster, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. (I wrote the blurb.) It also produces a strong biases toward films released when one was at the age of greatest susceptibility to ad campaigns. The anticipation of summer blockbusters is part of the ritual, as anyone who remembers the late 1988 appearance of the shining gold Bat-symbol badge on a black poster devoid of any other imagery or text save for "JUNE 23" — Batman's release date — can tell you. For films you caught up with later, you're less likely to regard them as summer films unless that's part of their lore. Jaws is the prime example of this.
So our choices obviously reflect the age of the judges, no matter how historically informed or cinema-literate we are. The makers of this list are extremely cinema-literate, but they're also racially homogenous, range in age from twentysomething to fortysomething, and only three of the 13 are women.
Screenwriters are taught that action reveals character. The decisions we make show who we are. Our jury started with a list of 655 films, from which we were each instructed to choose fifty. That wasn't too hard; 50 is still a lot. You can choose 50 movies without seriously threatening the delusion you're a sophisticated, well-rounded person who contains multitudes.
But even in the early culling, there are warning signs you lack humor or empathy. Especially if you were one of only two grinches who did not vote for E.T. (No. 5), though I cannot now fathom why I did not. I might've made a mistake filling in my new-fangled electronic ballot.
I know why I didn't pick Ferris Bueller's Day Off, though: I have a hard time accepting any film that does not include strenuous physical action as a summer blockbuster. Dance numbers do not count for some arbitrary and indefensible reason. Wait, Ferris Bueller has a long chase scene at the end, right? Too late.
My initial 50 included many action pictures salted with jokes, but only a handful that could be classified primarily as comedies. I cast Hudson Hawk's sole vote. I'll die on that hill. I was the only person sticking up for Lethal Weapon 2, which admittedly I haven't gone back to since Mel Gibson outed himself as the sort of person he has revealed himself to be. I was the only one who voted for Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, wherein Kevin Costner snorts, "This is English courage!"
Mine were the only votes for Die Hard with a Vengeance and for the 1999 Pierce Brosnan-Rene Russo-starring remake of The Thomas Crown Affair, a film that verbally quotes Die Hard with a Vengeance and was directed by John (Die Hard with a Vengeance) McTiernan. Who also made Die Hard.
And Predator, which got only two votes — one of them from me.
Indeed, I was one-half of a lot of surprising voting blocs. I was one of the two people who voted for The Abyss, the first of James Cameron's two romantic adventures set on/under the unforgiving ocean. (It's not funny.) And Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. (Funny!) And Point Break. ("Eye! Am an Eff! Bee! Eye! Agent.") And Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery, which had the genius to satirize Blow Up! and Our Man Flint and You Only Live Twice-era James Bond all in the same movie. But I'm burying the lede: I voted for a comedy!
I was one of only two votes for Batman Begins, for and Mission: Impossible III, starring the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Mr. and Mrs. Smith, which is basically The Awful Truth with great action scenes, so comedy again, some more. I am not a humorless person who only wants to watch the world burn! Even though I felt deeply gratified that the relentless The Dark Knight came in at No. 10 while the shrugging, mugging The Avengers didn't even crack the Top 50, which is right and just.
I was half the bloc for X-Men and In the Line of Fire and, incredibly, The Fugitive — which was one of 1993's five Best Picture nominees for crying out loud, even if no one cried foul when it lost out to Schindler's List. I also cast one of the only two votes for Braveheart, which actually won Best Picture in 1995. We really do need to consider that 21st-century revelations in RE: Mel Gibson's real-life awfulness has led to a retroactive downgrade of his movies.
Our findings there somehow resulted in a list of 58 finalists, from which we each chose 15 films. This round was weighted; we could assign different sums of points to each of our 15 based on how strongly we felt each one belonged. This is where the real Sophie's Choices start happening. This where you find out who you are.
I threw the maximum weight possible — 20 points each — behind Aliens, Die Hard, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, and The Dark Knight. Three of those made the top ten. With the exception of the latter, which only came out six years ago, they're all films I was obsessed with in high school. And college. And grad school. No, I'm kidding. I never went to grad school.
What do these films have in common? Three words: In. Tense. City. None is devoid of humor, but they're all a lot more suspenseful and viscerally exciting than they are funny. Funny is a trait I prize more highly in people than in summer movies.
In fact, my list of 15 contained only two films that I would classify primarily as comedies: Back to the Future (No. 2) and Toy Story 3 (No. 23). Toy Story 3, you may recall, is as emotionally wrenching at the end as Up (No. 39) was at the beginning. That one didn't make my 15, but I chose it over The World's End (No 41) and Bull Durham (No. 44) — both films I love, even if one of them is at least partially about baseball — in the final tiebreaker round, when each of us had to complete a agonizing gauntlet of choose-this-or-that, choose-two-of-the-following-six, and so on. "More like a Rorschach Test than a critical exercise," I whined to my editor in the e-mail accompanying my final ballot.
There's no rationalizing my votes there; I'd describe my picks as instinctual if I weren't certain that completing that questionnaire five times would give me five different results. I can choose The Blues Brothers over Scott Pilgrim vs. the World because rhythm & soul music contributes much more joy & calm to my life than video games do. But doesn't Scott Pilgrim use the language of games as a platform for its ideas more cleverly than The Blues Brothers uses music? Almost certainly. I still picked The Blues Brothers.
In the end, Scott Pilgrim sneaked in at No. 49 while The Blues Brothers died in committee. That's democracy for you.
I suppressed a strong urge to leave Jaws off my ballot. I knew Jaws would be No. 1. So with the moral courage of someone who votes for a third-party candidate only when they're certain they won't spoil the election for their second choice, I felt liberated to try to shake things up, assigning Jaws the minimum number of points and secretly hoping for an upset. It could happen. Vertigo finally knocked Citizen Kane off the top of the last Sight & Sound poll of the all-time greats.
Jaws still took the top spot. This is probably a just verdict. Getting there was hell.
Anyway, we delivered the bomb.