"The 5 Greatest (blanks) of the Decade," so Sayeth I

If you are involved in the critical analysis of film, television, literature or any other aesthete pursuit, you’ve probably had someone ask you what you consider to be the “greatest” film, TV series, or novel of all time (or its slight variant, your “favorite” film, series, or novel).  This question always completely stupefies me.  I’ve never understood the predilection for ranking secretions of the culture industry.  Fighting over individual products is always fun; indeed, it often provides the only amusement currently available within the pop arena (discussing Jersey Shore by attacking or defending it through hyperbole is diverting enough, but damned if I’m going to sit through EVERY episode.  Similarly, even if Avatar had lived up to the hype and been the single greatest game-changer in the movies since sound, it would still be required to suck on moral/political grounds, sight unseen.  Too many of us have too much invested against Cameron to acknowledge success at any level).   Like Pokeman, then, pitting individual films or TV shows against one another for the pleasure of critical battle is a time-honored pursuit.  But when it comes to arguing that “X” is the greatest TV show of the year, or “Y” is the greatest film of the decade, or “Z” is the greatest Bob Dylan album since Dylan Album “W,” I’ve never really understood the hubris of it all. 

Of course, even the most rudimentary brush with cultural theory should teach us to be suspicious of such lists, and it is no coincidence that the vast majority of these pronouncements come from the keyboards of middle-class white males with some amount of college behind them—critics who fancy themselves “informed” consumers when really they have mastered certain class/gender/hetero/race specific criteria that they feel empowers them to translate between the inherently squiggly categories of pleasure, quality, and worth.  Curb Your Enthusiasm made an inspired gesture toward this unexamined privilege during the past season.  Larry’s African-American housemate, Leon, visits the set for the much-anticipated Seinfeld reunion episode.  Jerry, Kramer, George, Elaine, the apartment?  Clueless.  Never seen them or it.  Not really even sure if he’s heard of Seinfeld before either.  Or as Chris Rock put it a decade or so ago (discussing O.J.), “Never seen white people this mad since they canceled M*A*S*H”).

Does this mean we are left with only godless relativism?  Yes, let’s hope so.  I certainly understand all the reasons Citizen Kane (1941) “should” be esteemed above Blood Feast (1963)—but I don’t want to foreclose the possibility of a world where Blood Feast IS the better film, or dismiss the psycho-aesthete who genuinely enjoys Blood Feast over Kane.  Come to think of it, beyond There Will Be Blood (2007), how many recent films have taken up the Kanian mantle of the thinly-veiled bio-pic as sweeping assessment of the American experience?  I can’t think of any.  But I can think of about a thousand films that spring from the demented head of Blood Feast. 

Shouldn’t we simply celebrate and/or condemn a world that has both Michael Haneke and Uwe Boll, 30-Rock and The Ghost Whisperer, Tom Waits and Dave Matthews, without necessarily worrying about how to assess their relative worth against one another?  Wouldn’t it be more interesting to live in a world where none of these issues can be resolved (which just so happens to be the world we DO live in), where no one’s aesthetic fences in the territory of other people's affect and imagination? 

Here’s an anecdote of how the whole critical evaluation racket typically works, drawn from the way-back times of print journalism.  When I was reviewing movies for the Austin Chronicle, our editor (and esteemed architect of the whole Austin mythos), Louis Black, was adamant that staff writers be very sparing in allotting the supreme 5-star rating to their film reviews.   The Chronicle’s scale went from bomb to 5 stars (with half stars in between for the truly anal).  The 5-star rating was to be awarded only to unqualified masterpieces—exemplars of the medium or at least of their genre.   After getting to the end of my rave review of David Cronenberg’s remake of The Fly, I had to wrestle with the 4.5 or 5 star dilemma.  After much soul-searching, I turned in my copy with the full 5 stars emblazoned at the bottom.  Can you think of a more perfect horror/romance/AIDS allegory that represented such a major step forward for a previously spotty director?  No, you can’t.  For what it aims to be, The Fly is perfect—I really can’t imagine how anyone would improve on it.

Within a half-hour of dropping off my copy, Louis called me and we spent the next hour arguing over whether or not the film truly deserved the rare mobilization of the coveted 5 star endorsement.  As an editor for the entire paper, not just the film section, Louis was no doubt thinking about the overall reputation/profile of the Chronicle—sure, he agreed it was a truly great film, and probably even deserved 5 stars, but would the public stand for it?  (note to younger readers: in 1986, newspaper reviewers still had some modicum of influence/authority, or at the very least, could serve as lightning rods for angry letters).  We both made our cases, and in the end (to his immense credit), Louis allowed the 5 star banner to be unfurled (I think his exact words were, “yeah, you’re right…it’s a great f#@kin’ film, let’s go with it).

Now, why was it so important that The Fly receive 5 stars and not 4.5?  Why was it worth spending an hour on the phone arguing over HALF a star (beyond the intellectual challenge of it all)?  Because only a month or so before we had this debate, another reviewer at the Chronicle had given Woody Allen’s Hannah and Her Sisters a 5 star rating—and there was no way in hell I was going to allow that steaming pile of tripe to outrank what at that point stood as Cronenberg’s masterwork.  So, once again, as Bourdieu tells us—taste is more about a distaste for the cultural selections of others.  For the year of 1986, which film was to represent the possibility and hope of the mainstream cinema, and in so doing, crush the reactionary, pompous, tired aesthetic criteria of the past?  Seeing Duck Soup saves you from an existential crisis?  Not in my world, bub…
As it so happens, we’re right in the midst of this ritualistic compiling of the “best” lists, not just for 2009, but also for the decade (and I guess that would mean the century as well).  In that spirit, then, here is my own list, one that will allow me to showcase the awesomeness of my taste across all significant media.  Those who take issue with any of the selections below are happily invited to argue with me, but be assured, I will do everything within my power to defeat you. 

Best TV Series of the Decade (in no particular order)

1.    Strangers with Candy (Comedy Central): Did any other series have the courage to feature a 47 year-old bi-sexual ex-con junkie freshman begging a high school senior to “pee on me?”  Nope.  Tina Fey’s amusing and all that, but Amy Sedaris as “Jerri Blank” deserves every Emmy of the past decade to be melted down into one giant uber-emmy.

2.    Wundershowzen/Xavier: Renegade Angel (MTV/Adult Swim): Utterly nihilistic disengagement has never been so hilarious.  Xavier is probably the only program ever to appear on American television specifically designed to trigger a psychotic fugue in the viewer.  One episode featured an evangelical screwing a gorilla and causing the rapture, so there you go.  Almost universally hated by the Adult Swim demo, it appears to have remained on the air solely for the amusement of the Adult Swim brain-trust.

 3.    Pants Off/Dance Off (FUSE):  Contestants strip-dance on TV, but to see them completely naked, you have to switch over to the show’s website.  Transmediality meets P.T. Barnum meets polymorphously perverse strip-club.  Genius.

4.    Caveman (ABC):  Hilarious Geico commercial campaign creates an equally hilarious premise for a TV series.  Neanderthals enacting the day-to-day problems of yuppie 20-somethings....could have been the greatest “fish-out-of-water” tale since The Munsters.  Canceled way too soon by critics and corporate suits who never actually watched it.

5.    Tom Goes to the Mayor (Adult Swim): Bob and Ray remade as soul-crushing comedy about the futility of civic involvement and the utter despair of American architecture/themed environments.   Essential viewing for all cranks and misanthropes.  

There are no dramas on this list as drama is now a bankrupt form destined for the scrapheap of history—except for John From Cincinnati, which was awesome, and if you didn’t like it, that only means you probably weren’t smart enough to “get it.” 

Best Movies of the Decade (in no particular order, except for Idiocracy, which should be precisely at  #4))

1.    Grizzly Man (2005): A crazy guy loves bears so much that he lets one of them eat him.  Amazing.

2.    Freddie Got Fingered (2001):  Maybe the single greatest Oedipal narrative ever committed to film.  The hatred between Tom Green and Rip Torn builds slowly and convincingly, eventually blurring all diegetic and pro-filmic distinctions.   Plus it's like watching the C.E.O. of 20th Century Fox setting $10 million dollars on fire.  

3.   Mulholland Drive (2001):  Why isn’t every movie like this?

4.    Speed Racer (2008):  Everything The Matrix wanted to say about our future, but much more subtle and diabolical in its execution. The Wachowskis claimed The Matrix was inspired, in part, by Baudrillard--but this is the far better example of a hyperreal cinema.  A true masterwork of uncompromising superficiality.   

5.    2 Girls, 1 Cup (????): The entertainment of the future will be about finding and/or simulating highly charged episodes of stunning actuality.  This is a good start. 

6.    Idiocracy (2006):  Should have made $100 million, but I guess that would have undermined its own purpose.  Would thrive as a TV series. 

Best “Albums” of the Decade

1.    Blueberry Boat by The Fiery Furnaces (2004)

2.    Hypermagic Mountain by Lightning Bolt (2005)

These are the only two records I heard this decade that moved the ball forward in any way, at least in my opinion  (note to those under 30—you should seek out and attack anyone over 30 who deigns to weigh in on the world of popular music.  I await your jibes, and again, I vow to defeat you). 

See you in 2020!

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