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With best-of-decade lists, critics reveal tastes, preferences, a touch of amnesia

December 30, 2009 |  2:29 pm

We've come to that point on the calendar when everyone and their nephew assembles best-of-year lists -- and, more ambitiously/pretentiously this year, best-of-decade lists.

Most rankings, usually arrived at after weeks of debate and argument, aim to shorthand the period just passed, all for people who don't have the time or inclination to sift through hundreds of movies (or movie descriptions). But in the true spirit of we-read-them-so-you-don't-have-to, we decided to do one better: compile and study the best of the best-of-the-decade lists. (We're helpful that way.)

There_will_be_blood_ver4 What we uncovered was telling. Once you get beyond the lists' more expected elements -- "There Will Be Blood" on about one-third of them, etc. -- a number of interesting patterns reveal themselves. Of the approximately dozen lists we surveyed (from entities as varied as the New York Post, At the Movies, the Onion and the New Yorker), nearly 60% of the slots went to movies released in the second half of the decade. It's a period when studios downgraded the number -- and, arguably, the overall quality -- of movies they released.

Were executives just that much better at cherry-picking the good ones these last five years? Or were critics a little more likely to forget the period when a "face book" was another word you vaguely knew from college? (For the Los Angeles Times' critics own views on the decade -- in essay form -- check out Kenneth Turan's take on the filmmakers who proved the exception to this decade's mediocre rule, and Betsy Sharkey's piece about the refraction of race through the lens of 2000's cinema.)

An amnesiac force did seem to help some films, as a few movies that drew the back of some critics' hands when they were released got the velvet glove this time around. Two films in particular -- the summer of 2001 man-or-machine meditation "A.I" (with a stirring shot of the World Trade Center hundreds of years into the future) and the little-seen Spike Lee post-9/11 movie "25th Hour" (2002) -- ended up on or at the top of many lists.

Both are worthy choices (the former holds up particularly well as an exploration of a moment when robots supplant humans, chillingly futuristic without the taint of implausibility). But it's curious how much more beloved these films seem to be in retrospect, and one can only wonder if the specter of 9/11 is at much a factor in their selection as is anything that appeared on the screen.

Tenenbaums There were some other eyebrow-raisers -- At the Movies' A.O. Scott including "Where the Wild Things Are" on his top five (you can watch the "At the Movies" choices in the video above) and the New York Post's Lou Lumenick naming "The Royal Tenenbaums" as his best movie of the decade.  And it was notable that among the critics' dozen or choices for the No. 1 movie of the past 10  years, only two ("Blood" and the third "Lord of the Rings") were even nominated by the academy for best picture. (Critics instead went with the media darlings and the underappreciated foreign entries -- think "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" and "Cache" -- making one wonder how the Oscars would look if the academy ever decided to do what they'll never do and form a critics branch.)

But perhaps the most curious wrinkle is that the movies that were the most widely liked didn't seem to be the ones that were the best-liked. Metacritic found that its two highest scores this decade went to the Guillermo del Toro coming-of-age fantasy "Pan's Labyrinth" and the Romanian abortion drama "4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days." Yet each movie made only one of the dozen lists we reviewed. Sometimes it's better to be loved by a few than praised by many.

As for the most salient question -- which critic had the best best-of-the-decade list -- we spent hours poring over this question (well, an hour) and the honor has to go to the Times of London, which showed an irresistibly British, damn-the-torpedoes sensibility when it audaciously (if self-consciously) included two Jason Bourne movies, "Casino Royale" and that bastion of cinematic excellence, the South Park caper "Team America: World Police" in its final 10. Contrarian trend-setters or people simply afflicted with a bout of amnesia? The argument continues.

-- Steven Zeitchik

Video: "At the Movies"/Buena Vista Television

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