We love lists. We love horse races, especially the ones without horses .
Put a list or a race result – even the most tentative one – in our sightlines and our eyes light up.
Never mind how meaningless they can be. Take the current issue of Entertainment Weekly. Please, as that immortal Borscht Belt tail gunner Henny Youngman used to say. Or the current weekend box office totals.
Quite the most ridiculous issue of Entertainment Weekly in years is its current list of “100 All-Time Greatest” movies, TV shows, record albums and novels. As an exercise in unabashed cultural silliness, you can’t top it.
Here, for instance, is EW’s list of the Top 10 TV shows, all of which are comparable only as things that appeared on TV and in no other way whatsoever: 1) “The Wire.” 2) “The Simpsons.” 3) “Seinfeld.” 4) “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.” 5) “The Sopranos.” 6) “All in the Family.” 7) “The Andy Griffith Show.” 8) “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” 9) “Mad Men.” 10) “Your Show of Shows.”
I’m only surprised they couldn’t figure out a way to stuff news coverage of the Kennedy assassination into that list.
The Top 10 movie list isn’t quite as ridiculous, but it’s absurd enough. 1) “Citizen Kane.” 2) “The Godfather.” 3) “Casablanca.” 4) “Bonnie and Clyde.” 5) “Psycho.” 6) “It’s a Wonderful Life.” 7) “Mean Streets.” (Say what?) 8) “The Gold Rush.” 9) “Nashville.” (Say what, part two?) 10) “Gone With the Wind.”
We can’t even talk about the Top 100 albums. (Almost no jazz to speak of; no classical music at all. It’s all post-rock pop.) Or the Top 100 novels (Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina” is numero uno. “Lolita” comes out at 19 and is described as a “brilliant little package” even though a recent paperback edition weighs in at a decidedly chunky 368 pages. Madeleine L’Engle’s “A Wrinkle in Time” is at 27, just ahead of Tolstoy’s “War and Peace” at 28, Margaret Atwood’s “A Handmaid’s Tale” at 29 and, yes, Richard Wright’s “Native Son” at 30).
The whole exercise seems like either 1) One person’s willfully eccentric rundown or 2) a committee making even less sense together than bad committees usually do.
And now let’s talk about one of America’s favorite recurring horse race results: each Monday’s Top 10 in weekend movie box office totals.
If ever there were a weekend that proved the list tells you almost nothing about films and everything about audiences, it’s the weekend we just had.
In the top four were : 1) “Monsters University” $46.2 million. 2) “Heat,” $40 million. 3) “World War Z,” $29.8 million and 4) “White House Down,” $25.7 million.
To me, the paramount issue with movies ought to be quality: Given the kinds of movies they are, what’s good and what isn’t?
“Monsters University” is bad Pixar and, therefore, merely a mediocre movie. (There’s a certain middling level beneath which Pixar movies never sink). “White House Down,” on the other hand, is a hugely enjoyable action thriller that happened to come out a few weeks after a lesser “Die Hard in the White House” movie called “Olympus Has Fallen.”
The list, then, tells you nothing whatsoever about movie quality. It speaks volumes though about what audiences want and, most importantly, need.
It makes perfectly good sense that the biggest need of American movie audiences is for real family movies, i.e., movies you see with 6-year-olds and spry 60- and 80-year-olds, too. Pixar movies – like Disney movies of old – are all of that. Parents feel safe taking kids to “Monsters University,” or dropping them off. It’s a primal need for a huge American audience.
Even more significant, by far, is the No. 2 film, “The Heat,” which continues to bash the bejabbers out of a deeply foolish movie industry’s apparently terminal reluctance to figure out appealing movies for women. “The Heat” stars two of the more beloved figures in movies right now, Sandra Bullock and Melissa McCarthy, a pairing of such immense audience magnetism that the movie would have had to be all thumbs not to score big.
“World War Z” is a plushly upscale horror movie so well made that it takes almost all possible embarrassment out of a card-carrying grown-up lining up for a zombie movie. At the same time, it’s so elegantly suspenseful – especially in its reshot ending – that any gaggle of teen gigglepusses and gore fanciers is going to have the experience of seeing a very good movie along with one with an undead army, whether they wanted to or not.
“World War Z” is, in other words, on a lower level, what “The Exorcist,” or “Alien” or “The Shining” once were – an upscale and truly mass-audience horror film.
That a film as entertaining as “White House Down” could only clock in at No. 4 with a take of $25 million says less than nothing about the film itself, which is more fun than at least 80 percent of what’s likely to be released the entire summer, than it does about a Hollywood creative community that is repeatedly killing itself by substituting marketing for creativity.
We are being bombarded with movies of so much mega-budget CGI sameness for a world movie market with no interest whatsoever in the niceties (or, for that matter, meannesses) of our beleaguered language that some of us were struggling with apocalypse fatigue before we’d even hit July.
And that’s before some spectacular-sounding summer fantasies (“Pacific Rim,” “R.I.P.D.” “Elysium”) are even sent our way. Whether they’re deadly overkill or exhilarating and witty excess is what remains to be seen.
With two “Die Hard in the White House” movies released so close together, you can feel renewed appreciation for “Now You See Me,” a creative number about a bunch of magicians who get together to rob banks and mount populist attacks on the more heedless 2 percenters in this world.
Its off-the-wall charm and cast of flavorful non-stars and senior stars (Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman) has given it a $100 million box office.
No, that’s not quite up there with, uhhh, “Fast and Furious 6,” but it means that there does indeed remain a summer movie audience in America for something that hasn’t been done before – or, at least, not for a very long time.
Think of what movie summers might be if we saw two or three of those a month during the summer months, along with “Fast and Furious 7” and “Iron Man 4.”