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Burning Questions: How Does One Rank An Almost Masterpiece?

Michael C. here with a question I can't stop turning over in my mind.

After finalizing my list of the best movies of 2011 I experienced a powerful surge of cinephile guilt when I realized Joe Cornish’s fantastically goofy Attack the Block enjoyed a healthy place on the list while Malick’s The Tree of Life was nowhere to be seen. Certainly this was an unforgivable lapse of taste, if not a dereliction of my duties as a film writer. Tree of Life is about nothing less than - to borrow a phrase from Douglas Adams - life, the universe and everything. Even if I had gripes with Tree and thought it only reached its potential in fits and starts, shouldn’t laying a fingertip on such greatness guarantee it a spot? If Olympic athletes can be graded according to degree of difficulty, why not films?

The question, simply put, is how does one rank a flawed masterpiece?

If, by the way, you consider Malick's magnum opus an unqualified success, if you had a religious experience watching butterflies land on Jessica Chastain, then feel free to substitute the name Melancholia, Shame, Margaret or whichever hugely ambitious endeavor you felt stayed stubbornly Earthbound despite its attempts to reach for the stars. But for me, Tree is the one I wrestle with.

One problem with giving points for unfulfilled ambition is that it reinforces the idea that certain movies are superior to others in their very conception. This is the same lazy thinking that leads thudding Oscar bait to be nominated over exciting genre fare year after year. Frost/Nixon is history, Dark Knight is kid stuff. Nominate Frost/Nixon. Ideally both Attack the Block and The Tree of Life start with the same blank slate. 

Of course, the real dilemma is not unfulfilled ambition but those fleeting moments when a film earns all that hyperbolic praise. It would be irresponsible to ignore that Tree of Life frequently presents images that stop the heart and contains stretches that are just about flawless. But those moments come married to endless minutes of Sean Penn stumbling over rocks. Material that felt like Malick cut it down just enough to lose all meaning but kept it in to assure us that it had a purpose when he started. In the end, I was overwhelmed with admiration but my spirit remained curiously unstirred. Wouldn’t the professional thing be to chalk that up to my own problem and rank Tree highly because I recognize the film's potential to move others?

Sean Penn, stumbling around.

I don’t think so. If there is a benefit to the questionable practice of ranking artistic achievements against each other it is to level the playing field between the grand apples and the quirky oranges. What is owed to Malick’s achievement is respect and careful consideration, not genuflection. If in 2011 the film that made the strongest impression on me was the one with furry black aliens with bioluminescent blue teeth then I have to stand up and say so, even if that makes it appear that I have the critical acumen of a 12 year old boy on a sugar high. 

Because when you get down to it all movies from Kubrick and Tarkovsky down to Babe: Pig in the City are after the same thing: a lasting connection with the audience. The test of time is going to be merciless to those films that almost but did not quite achieve greatness, so we may as well be just as merciless in the present. Singin' in Rain was not made with an eye for the list of all-time greats, but there it sits while grand almost-masterpieces like Lost Horizon fade with each year. I would take any random Daffy Duck cartoon over Doctor Zhivago. And let's not forget: In 1998 it wasn't exactly fashionable for a critic to rank a shaggy mystery about a pot-addled bowler above Malick’s Thin Red Line. Yet which of those two films spawned a religion?  



Feel that I am being way too glib with a cinematic masterpiece? Have another example of cinematic emperor's new clothes that needs to be mentioned? Let me know in the comments. You can follow Michael C. on Twitter at @SeriousFilm or read his blog Serious Film

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Reader Comments (22)

Michael: Frost/Nixon and The Reader have the same nom counts, but I'd say the latter was probably fifth. Editing trumps cinematography.

January 2, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterVolvagia

The best way to judge art is how often you return to it. I re-watch and appreciate a lot of movies that aren't in anyway furthering cinema or important to anyone but me while I'm watching them. What matters is personal taste. I don't give too much thought to what movies when Best Picture because the best movies--the ones that personally matter to you aren't likely to catch on with The Academy. That's fine with me because I don't need my movies to be approved by anyone.

On the subject of almost masterpieces-- a list
Dracula (1992)
Dune (1984)
Beloved (1998)
Blade Runner (1982)
All Things Almodovar--except the ones that I love above the others which then become masterpieces--see how this works!

January 2, 2012 | Unregistered Commenter//3|RT

This is indeed a 'burning question' I consider myself. And I really like your take on it. It is important to recognize when something so ambitious and awe-inspiring doesn't connect with you in an honest way because those are the films we tend to lie to ourselves about. I also have a lot of issues with the Tree of Life but am completely floored by elements of it. It won't show up on my top 10 list this year but I have to think that 5 years from now I won't be able to talk about 2011 without mentioning The Tree of Life. Flawed masterpieces are a real thing and it's tricky to know how to think about them.

I must say this: I have to disagree that films shouldn't get points for sheer ambition. I very much like your 'grand apples' 'quirky oranges' point but I think stating that every film should be judged on a level playing field is difficult to carry through on. I take issue with your idea of ambition, and this may be part of our disagreement here. I'd argue that quote-unquote 'important' topics don't equal ambition in any sense. I think The Dark Knight is a thousand times more ambitious than Frost/Nixon and it should be recognized as such. If you are troubled by the flaws of The Dark Knight and pleased by the sufficient-ness of Frost/Nixon and you are considering which to rank over the other (granted we are discussing actually ranking films), I think you should take into account how much more went into The Dark Knight than Frost/Nixon

January 2, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterCasey Fiore

Volvagia: I agree with you, but either film serves my point. Uninspired choices that bypassed numerous more compelling titles that appeared less worthy on the surface.

//3: That is a great standard and similar to what I was getting at when I referred to the test of time. Another modern close-but-not-quite title for me would be AI: Artificial Intelligence.

January 2, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMichael C


I think we agree more than we disagree. I mention Frost/Nixon vs. Dark Knight only as example of superficial quality vs. awesome genre films. I hold to the principle that you shouldn't get points for ambition but it gets complicated for something like Tree of Life because - at least for me - it came so very, very close to success. If it was a complete washout I doubt you would argue that it deserves points for aiming high. See something like Heaven's Gate for a good example of this.

January 2, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMichael C

Three years later, and we're still bitching about The Dark Knight? Aw, poor movie! All it has to show for itself is its $1 billion in worldwide grosses and another few hundred million in video and cable sales. Why, why, why couldn't it have been granted the additional honor of being one of the four also-rans that year? Why couldn't Christopher Nolan and the other producers get a highly coveted Certificate of Nomination for Award to hang on their walls? If only it got some recognition, like an Academy Award for one of its actors. Or another one for the sound editor. Or six other nominations.

Merit notwithstanding, it bears reminding that the Academy Awards were invented by the studios to promote the prestige pictures that might not draw in audiences as much as their more commercial fare. ("Sunrise is the Best Picture of the year? I guess we should go see it, honey.") Now, I'm not going to say that commercially successful movies shouldn't be considered at Oscar time, but a deserving movie like Frost/Nixon would have been significantly ignored without a BP nomination, whereas naming TDK in its stead would have had little effect on its viewership and bottom line—and that outcome would have been a bigger travesty than its absence from a semi-arbitrary, historically imperfect roster. (As it is, Frost/Nixon probably still hasn't recouped its modest production budget plus promotional expenses.)

Besides—I thought we all agreed that The Reader was to blame for The Dark Knight's omission. Take your frustrations out on that movie. ; )

January 2, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJ.P.

wonderful question and something i always struggle with during top ten season. it's weird to read this just as I was finishing my top ten list and writing up a bit on The Tree of Life (which did not make the top ten list) and which I think I like a bit more than you but love in the same way though less --- wait, what????

ANYWAY. great topic. If you must know though you didn't ask, ATTACK THE BLOCK was the 33rd picture (haha) when I decided to only write up 32 of them for the year in review.

January 2, 2012 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

I love a good flawed masterpiece!

For me the mark of a one is not unfulfilled ambition but overfulfilled ambition- it's crossing a line rather than missing a mark and I kind of love to see this. I love to see filmmakers be weird and peculiar and particular. It's like you're seeing something very personal, just how the filmmaker's taste or beliefs differ from your own and sometimes from everyone's. Flaws give you something to grasp onto, to think about. I'd put The Fountain (which in my head I've always called the Tree of Life so it was confusing for me this year) in this category, definitely flawed, I thought some of it was just silly, but it has stuck in my mind like few other films.

Did anyone else watch the doc series The Story of Film? There's a bit in it where Lars von Trier talks about the end of Breaking the Waves with the bells. He said something like (if I'm remembering it right) some people thought he'd pushed it too far but that's how he knows it was right. That's what I want to see, something unique and individual and human- I may not agree with it but I'll take it any day of the week over something that has been focus-grouped.

January 2, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterSVG

J.P.: Should have known better to mention Dark Knight in passing, especially since my larger point had to do with larger critical standing more than the Oscars. Just thought it was a handy example of a genre film being unfairly dismissed, not because it was the crime of the century. Personally, I thought WALL-E, In Bruges, or The Wrestler were all more deserving of nods that year than Batman.

SVG: Well said.

Nat: You're comment is over-indulgent and convoluted but I applaud its ambition.

January 2, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMichael C

I think the main thing with almost-masterpieces (I would add Minority Report to the list of titles people have already mentioned) is to pick out your most overwhelming feeling when thinking about it. For example, I just really FELT The Tree of Life, and despite my critical faculties screaming all its flaws at me, it's my number 1 film of the year, because there was nothing else that I felt so connected to not just while I was watching it, but long afterwards. I certainly acknowledge that the film has its flaws (there was even a period towards the end of the sequence in Texas where I was really bored - like, checking my watch to see how long it had gone on bored), but when I think back on it, I remember it so fondly that I overlook the flaws. So if you feel the greatness of a film more than you feel the flawed-ness of a film, then that's what you should go by.

January 2, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterdenny

Great question, excellent article. I really enjoyed reading this.

January 2, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterEvan

This issue comes up for me every time I think about The Hours. I think it's a beautiful film and I've watched it more times than I can count, but I don't consider it a masterpiece. There's an element missing (it's technically well made, but not an exceptional "looking" film) that keeps it from reaching the highest heights. Which is a shame, when all those other pieces (acting, script, score) are right there at that masterpiece level for me. The Tree of Life is pretty much the same thing in reverse for me, because as beautiful as all the elements in that film are, the lack of narrative kept me from connecting with it (but I have that issue with most of a Malick's work).

What's really weird, and has been touched on, is that the films I usually consider to be masterpieces are often very flawed. There Will be Blood hinges on an over-the-top performance and the most ridiculous ending EVER, and I think it's far and away the best American film from the last decade. There are definitely more controlled, more "perfect" films out there, but I think that ungainliness actually takes it (and most other masterpieces) to the next level.

January 2, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterVal

Denny: Excellent point. If Tree of Life really got me on a gut level I'd probably overlook everything. It didn't, so I'm left to sort out why.

Evan: Thanks!

Val: True enough, seldom do greatness and perfection go hand in hand. Sometimes it's the heights reached that count.

January 2, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMichael C

The Tree of Life came nowhere near my Top 10 list because I didn't like it. I just reinstated scoring on my film reviews and it honestly goes like this. If I go 7/10 or higher, I think it's a very well-made film. The Tree of Life is 7/10 because it left me cold. I praise the visuals, concept, and technical execution, but I have big issues with the narrative approach (evaluating it on its own set of standards, naturally, as complaining that the characters were too broad would be missing the point).

Attack the Block made my Top 10 with an 8/10. Why? Because I liked it. It, too, is a well-made film. I think the storytelling is better and I had more of a connection with it than The Tree of Life. And neither one moved me as much as Young Adult, a film that's extremely polarizing but got a 10/10 from me.

But honestly, we're comparing the difference between The Dubliners and Ulysses. It's hard to find someone who thinks either of those books is poorly written. It's harder still to find someone who doesn't prefer one over the other. Art is a deeply person experience. Just because I have to acknowledge that something is well-executed does not mean I have to like it or account for it at the end of the year or in any comparison. It's not math. There is no right answer. Film is the epitome of subjectivity.

January 2, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterRobert G

This may sound kind of glib, but I'm of the opinion that there is virtually no such thing as a 100% perfect movie. 98% perfect, however, I'll concede. There's always that little something that doesn't quite work, a scene or a subplot or a performance that holds a movie back from unqualified glory. But there are so many steps in the production of a movie, so many checks and balances and edits and voices - that when a movie somehow does manage to reach the 98% mark, I will gladly round up. That's why I'd call "Now, Voyager" a perfect movie despite the awkward foreigner humor during the Rio de Janeiro sequence. When a movie is tremendously effective except for that little "but", I think it's totally reasonable to pardon - but not necessarily deny - the small stuff.

January 2, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterDS

Art is in the eye of the beholder.

Most recent masterpiece I've seen was Of Gods and Men. Before that it was Babel. True masterpieces are a rare thing.

January 2, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterbrandz

excellent piece.

I don't think you can rate a movie based on what it nearly was, but I think you can look past a movies flaws to rate it highly if you like it enough, if you see the distinction....

One for me, like another poster said, The Fountain. Many flaws, many things that could have done better, but I don't care, cos it moved me like no other.

January 2, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterBrooooke

I totally subscribe what Denny wrote.

The Tree of Life gave me such rare mix of emotions, from total bliss to a certain boredom, and even today I can say I keep such a strong and fond memory of it... Strange fascinating movie.

January 2, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterPeggy Sue

Yeah, I enjoyed reading this, and I think about these questions myself. I suppose I distinguish between "Best" and "Favorite." Going back aways, I think of Ordinary People and Raging Bull. I can fully agree when people say RB/Scorcese got robbed because there is something about that movie and DeNiro's performance that is just obviously great to me. But I have seen it, like, 3 times in my life, and I have seen Ordinary People over 50 times. I can quote the dialogue with the movie. I just saw it at the time of my life when the story of a rich, suicidal, suburban adolescent resonated with me, and as depressing as the movie is to some, it's pure comfort food to me. This year I liked Hanna because it just reminded me of the two friends I saw it with and I had a great time in the theater. More fun than Melancholia. But I don't know that I think Hanna is a better movie. So yeah, I talk of my faves more than the best. And I appreciated the thoughts in this post and this comment thread.

January 2, 2012 | Unregistered Commentertimothy

Not only is over-praising Oscar movies unfair to the good, less "meaningful" films (the "quirky" ones as you call them) it's also unfair to the bad, less "meaningful" ones. Ibdintbjnownhow many blockbusters, comedies, or family films I rate low each year because they're not as entertaining, funny, or magical as they thought they were. Why shouldn't I do the same with films like Tree of Life, even if they are trying to tackle the meaning of the universe. In my mind, they were no less successful in achieving their aim.

I will add that I feel like there were a lot of misfires among the baity crop this year, films I don't hate but that I should and could have loved. And they come from renowned directors like Spielberg, von Trier, and Almodovar. Weird year.

January 2, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterThe Other Evan

*I don't know how many...


January 2, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterThe Other Evan

I think denny's comment is totally on the nose.
We all looked down on Weinstein's "some movies you feel" campaign for The King's Speech last year, but it's really what it come down to. The only reason I disliked that campaign was because a stuttering monarch actually didn't make me "feel" anything.
I have the same feelings as you on The Tree of Life: essentially a mixture of admiration and respect but very little personal connection. I haven't thought of my favourites of the year yet, but I'd probably say Oslo August 31st just about tops it for me. I left the theatre in a total mess of tears and it's the one that's stuck with me the most.
I have to add though, generally films have to be of a reasonable level of quality to make that personal connection in the first place. The ability of a film to affect me personally and emotionally goes considerably down with flaws in conception or execution.

January 3, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterAmir
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