So… was The Master a good movie, or not? What about Lincoln or The Avengers? What about This is 40 or Zero Dark Thirty?

This year, I had the honor of becoming one of the film critics rating films for Indiewire. That led to an invitation to vote in their year-end poll on the best films of 2012.

204 film critics voted in this year’s Indiewire critics’ poll. 

As the site explains:

For each ballot in which critics were asked to create lists — Best Film, Best Performance, Best Supporting Performance and Best Undistributed Film — films were ranked using a simple point system, the results of which are visible in the numerical breakdown to the right of each film title. In the other categories, critics submitted single votes, with each vote counting as one point.

While I would have liked to see Moonrise Kingdom rate higher on these lists (it came in at #6 in the Best Picture list, even though it tied in the number of votes with the movie at #5), I am quite pleased with many of these choices.

Here are the results.

While I’m thrilled to see which movie was voted Best Picture, I’m also pleased to see The Master at #2.

I love following year-end critics’ polls. While I don’t believe there is any final “right” or “wrong” answer as to judging one film against another, I find that critics’ polls have so much more credibility than other kinds of movie contests (The Golden Globes, the Oscars, the box office).

Critics have usually seen hundreds of films per year. They have a broader scope of reference than those who see 10 or 20. They spend the year writing and reflecting and revisiting and studying and sifting and discerning. In general, they don’t cast their votes based on what film gave them the biggest emotional high, what film they “liked” best, what film gave the greatest affirmation to their political position. They’re often willing to see the value in being disturbed by a movie about difficult things, rather than just cheering for films that give them a good feeling. Usually, the films that win Oscars and Golden Globes evaporate from my memory.

Films that rate highly in critics’ polls may not immediately impress me, but as months and years pass, I often find myself haunted by those films. They stick with me and challenge me.

Earlier this year, a community of my colleagues discussed Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master. Some of us expressed admiration for the film’s strengths, some of us struggled with its weaknesses.

Then, something strange happened. In an online discussion, one of my colleagues condemned the lot of us for admiring the film at all. That critic mocked us for bowing in “abject adoration” for The Master. (We didn’t, actually — we expressed admiration, but also acknowledged the difficulties it presented.)

Then, that critic made a very revealing statement, saying that  The Master‘s unremarkable box office numbers and a “snubbing” by the Golden Globes was some kind of proof that The Master was a bad movie.

Well… that was quite a statement.

That critic will remain nameless, as I’m interested here in the questions that such a statement raises, not in reviving an old debate.

Let’s consider: Does box office success point to artistic excellence?

You may disagree, but I don’t think it does. I don’t consider the box office a measure of a film’s quality any more than I consider the number of McDonald’s hamburgers sold as a measure of how nutritious they are. (Look how many cans of Coca-cola are sold each year! Coke must be so good for you!) Look at the year’s biggest box office hits, and see how evident it is that money, marketing, corporate resources, celebrity, and familiarity play a part in ticket sales.

What about The Golden Globes? If a movie is “snubbed,” and doesn’t show up among the short list of nominees, does that mean it isn’t excellent? Hundreds and hundreds of films are released each year. The Golden Globes focus primarily on commercial American releases. The Hollywood Foreign Press, the organization that makes those choices, is a notoriously untrustworthy lot. Many point to bizarre selections and conclude that the HFPA is interested in honoring movies that will give them access to celebrities.

(A couple of years ago, the HFPA nominated The TouristThe Tourist! — a widely panned caper movie with Johnny Depp and Angelina Jolie. The Tourist was nominated for Best Picture – Comedy or Musical, Best Actor, and Best Actress. Other nominees that year included the celebrity-packed action movie Red and the musical Burlesque. Are any of these likely to be remembered as great films?)

Nevertheless, my colleague was wrong there too — the HFPA didn’t “snub” The Master. For whatever reason, the HFPA nominated Joaquin Phoenix for Best Actor, Philip Seymour Hoffman for Best Supporting Actor, and Amy Adams for Best Supporting Actress. I’d call that the opposite of a “snubbing.”

When I sought to explain that box office and Golden Globes don’t play a part in how I assess the greatness of a film, my colleague replied, “You are so bad at this game.

This brings us to the core of our disagreement.

By my lights, art is not a game.

Art is not a contest.

Art is about men and women exploring ideas and expressing them in ways that are too mysterious for description. And each viewer has a personal experience with each work of art, an experience that is partly influenced by their unique history, their preferences, their questions, their strengths, their weaknesses. That immediately demonstrates that works of art cannot be judged, one against the other, as to which one is best.

I would go on, but the best description of why art cannot be accurately measured by numbers or by votes is explained in the short article that I’ve posted as the foundation for this blog: “Mystery and Message, or What We Talk About When We Talk About Art,” by Michael Demkowicz.

The Master, Holy Motors, Lincoln, Moonrise Kingdom, Zero Dark Thirty… I don’t care which one succeeds most at the box office. I don’t care what the celebrity-loving Hollywood Foreign Press honors at the Golden Globes. I don’t believe in the “game.” As Paul Thomas Anderson, the director of The Master, said, “I don’t think there’s an actor out there — and I know lots of them — that feels comfortable when performances get turned into sport.”

I care about the conversation, because when critics — and I don’t just mean film journalists, I mean anybody who thinks about what they watch — discuss their experiences at the movies, they are revealing things about themselves. They are getting to know each other. Art can do that for us. And I want to share the most interesting, provocative, idea-driven films because those are the films that will inspire the best conversations, help us wrestle the most revealing questions, and enhance our relationships.

So no… this critics’ poll doesn’t prove anything. It just says, “These movies were meaningful to us this year, and we are grateful for them. We’d like to share them with you.”

I’d encourage you to be very, very suspicious of the box office. It tells us what people want, not necessarily what they need.

I’d encourage you to beware of contests that hand out golden trophies.

I’d invite you to participate in the rich, fascinating conversation about ideas that film enthusiasts enjoy all year, and especially at this time of year.


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