You live by the polls.
You die by the polls.
Ask any politician.
Or ask any movie nut.
Since 1952, the unofficial canon of film classics has been defined very simply. (There's no official canon, despite attempts by the American Film Institute and its 100 Funniest Comedies, 100 Best Romances, etc.). Once a decade, the British Film Institute's movie magazine Sight and Sound mails out a survey to the world's leading critics and filmmakers. The results are kind of like a census, too far and few in between to get a really precise gauge, but the replies are always worth a gawk.
Changes tend to be glacial. Citizen Kane always scores big, of course. Hitchcock is the man. A handful of works from Ozu and Fellini round out the rest. Raging Bull sneaks in, the most contemporary work with a decent rank.
And so it's gone, for 50 years.
Then the Internet came along. Sight and Sound's poll remains (the last one was in 2002). But a survey of what we consider important or popular is only a click away.
And ever since I've held this job, the one canonical gauge other moviegoers have mentioned to me more than any other is the Top 250 as ranked on the Internet Movie Database (imdb.com). Anyone with an e-mail address can vote, at any time. A second after viewers see Friday Night Lights, for instance, they can assign it a grade (one through 10), and send it out to compete against Gone With the Wind. It's democracy in action.
Which can be pretty screwy.
Gone With the Wind is currently ranked 149th. Citizen Kane is 11th. Raging Bull? 60th.
The Godfather is at No. 1.
Makes sense. But No. 2?
The Shawshank Redemption, which has just been released in a two-disc, 10th anniversary Shawshank Redemption: Special Edition (Warner, $26.99),with a cast interview from The Charlie Rose Show, commentary from director Frank Darabont, and a toothless parody with Alfonso Freeman, Morgan's son.
But, No. 2 - what gives?
Well, it's a prison movie. It's full of guys. It's about people relating and overcoming and getting in touch with themselves. There's the eccentric senior citizen and lots of homespun wisdom. But ignore the prison and the guys, and Shawshank satisfies every criteria of the definition of a classic chick flick - and though there are very few women in it, the irony is, it is the chick flick.
One, like the best politicians, that knows how to play to every demographic: men, women, seniors, teenagers. It's No. 2 with 127,496 votes; only The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring has had more people assign it a rating. There's not another touchy-feely slice of whimsy in sight of Morgan Freeman and Tim Robbins for miles around.
This from a movie that tanked in theaters in 1994. Video gave it a second life. Which in itself is the real lesson here: Week to week, the box office lights up with movies nobody cares about a week later, but it's the losers that live on in perpetuity, just biding their time. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (Universal, $29.98), for instance, also new on DVD this week. It died an ignoble death just last winter.
But on IMDB?
It's already the 37th greatest.
GET REAL: How big did documentaries get this year? So big I doubt you'd actually had to have seen Fahrenheit 9/11 (Columbia, $28.95), now on video, to be familiar with the sequence where George W. Bush reads My Pet Goat to Florida schoolchildren. That entered our pop ether, alongside Spider-Man and Paris Hilton. The DVD is loaded with news-junkie goodies: Condoleeza Rice's 9/11 testimony, unused footage from outside the infamous Abu Ghraib prison. The Hunting of the President (Fox, $19.98), which digs into the "vast right-wing conspiracy" that dogged President Clinton, is more melancholy, and whether you agree with it or not, it's a tale of how much savvier the right has been about getting its message out than the left. What they share with Super-Size Me (Hart, $26.99), that other doc hit from this year, about a man who eats only McDonald's and barely lives to tell about it, is a snapshot of our times. These are films with sell-by dates which, no matter the quality, they're not poignant enough to transcend.
How to Draw a Bunny (Palm, $29.98), on the other hand, is a keeper. Think of it as a portrait of the artist as an enigma. But not brooding. Ray Johnson left crude, dark outlines of bunnies and cartoon characters everywhere; he mailed his friends pieces of paper with short messages like "Ray Johnson's Letters. Two Million Dollars Each." He lived in Detroit for a while, and in 1995, he was found drowned, apparently of a suicide, possibly of a perverse final act of performance art. With wit and mystery, this is the biography of a man with dozens of friends - who could never really say they knew him.
ROCKS AND ROLES: There are few things more ridiculous in contemporary film than the sight of Billy Bob Thornton wearing a coonskin cap and telling everyone he's Davy Crockett. This is an image too jarring to get past, and so goes The Alamo (Buena Vista, $29.99), which I forgot even opened this year until the DVD arrived in the mail recently. It's a stalwart, dutifully upstanding, and good-looking historical picture that feels so concerned about whether we're with it or not, we never get anywhere near that Texas dirt. There's no blood, sweat, or tears. There's plenty of the first two in Walking Tall (MGM, $27.98), which stars The Rock as a Marine with a big stick and a grudge. It's a cheap thrill, and as long as they're gonna make them this routine, let's hope they cast The Rock every time. His eyes say self-important, his delivery is pure unpretentious charm.
Contact Christopher Borrelli at: firstname.lastname@example.org