Critics seem to have already forgotten some of the past decade’s best films
Donald Clarke: Blue is the Warmest Colour, 12 Years a Slave both overlooked in the polls
Blue Is the Warmest Colour/La Vie d’Adele was left out of lists for best films of the last decade
I’m sure you’ve all had fun reading polls on best stuff of the decade. This correspondent is one of many who enjoys rolling his eyes at the concept, while reading every one that comes within sighing distance. Never mind what’s there. What about what isn’t where we expect it to be?
Because I’m paid to do this and you aren’t, I have been ploughing through the decadal film polls – IndieWire, The Playlist, Esquire, The AV Club, others – to get some handle on the once-acclaimed films that have dropped off (or been propelled from) the radar. Some do a little less well than one might have guessed. Others have been banished to the outer corners of Narnia. Sometimes we know why. Sometimes we don’t.
A few winners of the best picture Oscar were less well received by critics than by Academy members. We should not be enormously surprised that Argo, The Revenant and Birdman make few appearances here. It is, maybe, worth noting the absence of Michel Hazanavicius’s The Artist from the conversation, but, a year or so after that film’s win in 2012, some feet-shuffling was already taking place. The silent-movie parody was fun, but it was so slight the faintest zephyr of reappraisal was enough to blow it away.
There was some healthy scepticism about the maleness of the director’s gaze in the sex scenes
More interesting is the lack of attention given to Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave. The film was IndieWire’s favourite of 2013, but figures nowhere in that reliable website’s top 100 of the 2010s. The AV Club rates it at number 67. It also appears in lists from the Independent, RogerEbert.com and others. Nobody could accuse the critics of total erasure, but 12 Years a Slave has certainly slid a little. The director is admired. The subject was worth examining. But one gets the sense that, when critics return to McQueen, they favour Hunger or Shame.
Three critically lauded films in particular do seem to have been completely erased from the decadal canon: Benh Zeitlin’s Beasts of the Southern Wild, Paolo Sorrentino’s The Great Beauty and Abdellatif Kechiche’s Blue is the Warmest Colour. The last two played against one another at Cannes in 2013 and were both considered potential winners. In the event, The Great Beauty got nothing and Blue is The Warmest Colour took the Palme d’Or. The following year, Sorrentino secured a sort of revenge when his film won the Oscar for best foreign-language film (there was a minor scandal at France’s failure, for reasons too boring to recall, to submit Warmest Colour for that prize). Beasts of the Southern Wild won the Camera d’Or at Cannes in 2012 and the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance. It went on to secure a best picture nomination at the Oscars. None is in competition for the current decadal plaudits.
At the risk of sounding like a representative of the Cancel Police, the shift in attitudes, social and political, over this strange decade has contributed to the decline of all three. Critics are, despite contemporaneous praise from Barack Obama, now that bit warier of a white director’s efforts to parse African-American communities in Beasts of the Southern Wild. The long delay in delivery of Zeitlin’s second feature – Wendy finally premieres at Sundance in a few weeks’ time – has helped keep him out of the conversation.
There is also increased unease at the sort of bunga-bunga hijinks one encounters throughout The Great Beauty. We are in no doubt that Sorrentino, like Fellini in La Dolce Vita, is satirising the Roman excess, but The Great Beauty, stuffed with female nudity, no longer feels like a vital part of the conversation. What was once glorious decadence, can now (unfairly in my view) be dismissed as shameless vulgarity.
Or maybe The Great Beauty and Beasts of the Southern Wild just didn’t age well. Maybe they didn’t stand up to the rigour of a second viewing. There can, however, be little doubt that surrounding controversies ultimately did for Blue is the Warmest Colour. There was general celebration when Steven Spielberg’s jury awarded the Palme to Kechiche’s study of a passionate lesbian romance. So impressive were the performances by Léa Seydoux and Adèle Exarchopoulos that they ended up with honorary Palmes of their own. There was some healthy scepticism about the maleness of the director’s gaze in the sex scenes (some from the author of the source comic), but nothing that seemed likely to derail its passage to the decadal pantheon.
Then grim allegations emerged about the director’s treatment of his actors on set. His later, bifurcated film, Mektoub, My Love, was rightly criticised for its fixation on intimate parts of the female anatomy. The reappraisals that came with #MeToo finished off Blue is the Warmest Colour with many critics. Yet it remains the same film that almost everyone admired on the Croisette in 2013. Posterity sets in awfully quickly these days.