There is nothing critics love more than a good list. Or a bad one. Basically, any numerical ranking of films should send a half-decent reviewer into a dizzying spiral of fury and self-doubt. It's why, however much we may grunt about compiling such things – how can you put a number on a work of art, we'll cry to no one in particular – the end of the year is Christmas for film geeks (and regular filmgoers, too, sure). Finally, a chance to make sense of the past 365 days! A way to justify all our time spent in the dark! Plus, you know, a cherished opportunity to revisit all the works that dazzled and thrilled and riled us, etc.
Luckily, though, the film world doesn't have to wait until December this year to whip itself into a frenzy – the BBC has expedited the process by this week releasing its "100 Greatest Films of the 21st Century." The ranking is based on responses from 177 critics from around the world (no Globe contributors were asked to join, but that's fine, perfectly 100-per-cent okay, yes, no bitterness here). And it's already sparked furious, oft-cranky debates online, with factions practically forming overnight to either defend or decry the No. 1 pick, David Lynch's Mulholland Drive. (Or maybe the list itself is simply a dream? Sorry, that's a bad Lynch joke – just like his films! Sorry again.)
The list's timing, however, is certainly perfect. Western audiences have just experienced one of the most offensive summer movie seasons in recent memory – Ben-Hur, really? – and any occasion to pore over 100 genuinely memorable films is one to seize with a tight grip, holding it ever closer as whispers of a Warcraft sequel float on the winds of Hollywood (it'll happen, sorry). Even with the fall season and its promise of Oscar bait on the horizon, there is a certain comfort in knowing that the film industry is capable of producing all-time classics. Or, at the very least, inspiring passionate debate about what constitutes an all-time classic.
But beyond all those considerations, the BBC's list offers a worrisome hint of Hollywood's future, and where criticism might fit into it. Namely, it reveals just how wide the gulf has become between critics and paying audiences. Digging through the list, it's easy to come across movies that are both critically beloved and solid earners, even genuine blockbusters – Mad Max: Fury Road sits at No. 19 and the half-billion-dollar hit WALL-E is at 29, just five spots ahead of the franchise behemoth The Dark Knight.
It's in the list's Top 10, though, where the trouble begins. In descending order, the BBC's respondents have named Mulholland Drive, In the Mood for Love, There Will Be Blood, Spirited Away, Boyhood, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, The Tree of Life, Yi Yi, A Separation and No Country for Old Men as the best films of this new century. Collectively, they have earned $213-million (U.S.) at the North American box office – or about $50-million short of what Suicide Squad has made in two and a half weeks.
Of course, box office should never be taken as a measure of quality. And, yes, most of the aforementioned titles were small independent productions that didn't cost all that much to make in the first place. Oh, and without a doubt no one should ever compare anything to Suicide Squad if they want to be taken seriously.
With all that said, the list does flick at an undeniable divide between critical tastes and what audiences increasingly seem to desire. Even in the once-rich afterlife of home entertainment, Mulholland Drive remains a cult curiosity. Although brilliant, In the Mood for Love and Yi Yi will always be seen by most Western audiences as unapproachable foreign films. And even the list's top earner, the Coen brothers classic No Country for Old Men, is one of the lowest-grossing movies to ever win best picture at the Oscars.
Critics can champion as many ferociously innovative films as they like, but if the audiences who actually feed the coffers of studios continue to ignore their recommendations, then the industry will simply keep delivering substandard, heavily franchised fare. And as the movie-exhibition industry reckons with its shaky future – and make no mistake, the landscape is currently in a state of crisis with Cineplex, for instance, experiencing a 72-per-cent drop in second-quarter profit this year – there may come a time in the near future where theatres simply give up on showcasing independent, artistically daring work altogether. If the smaller studios decide the slimmer profit margins aren't worth the trouble, or that prestige is no longer a valued commodity, then lists like the BBC's will be irrelevant.
All of which is to say that, contradictory as it may sound, these rankings matter now more than ever. The multiplexes might be crowded with superheroes and talking cats (Kevin Spacey, for shame), but if a half-decent debate can shift the attention to works truly deserving of attention – even if only for the time it takes to send out a snarky tweet – then all the moaning and groaning from various corners of the critical community might just be worth it. But seriously – Mulholland Drive? People, people – No. 1 is clearly Children of Men.