Sunday, February 24.
When it comes to artistic works—movies, books, composers, bands—I prefer to think in terms of favorites rather than best. Favorites is more honest. It acknowledges the undeniable, inevitable, wonderful subjectivity of evaluating art, of ranking it as though it were something one could measure with a ruler or a stopwatch. Judging between extremes is easy enough, but attempting to weigh this very good thing against that very good thing always seems silly to me.
Take this year’s Academy Award nominees for best animated feature. I think most people would agree that Persepolis and Ratatouille are superior to Surf’s Up, but how do you choose between the two? Both feature striking animation, thought-provoking stories, beautifully complex characters, and outstanding vocal performances. The most dramatic difference is the subject matter—a young girl struggling to be herself in post-revolutionary Iran versus a young rat struggling to become a chef in a human world—so must we use that to choose which is better? Does the seriousness of Persepolis make it the better film? Putting it so baldly makes me cringe, but it’s that kind of reasoning that makes dramas so much more successful than comedies come award time. It’s that kind of reasoning that explains the running Oscar-pool gag about the invincibility of movies featuring the Holocaust and/or Nazi Germany. (It wouldn’t be funny if it weren’t kind of true. Last night, Sean successfully predicted the best foreign film category—about which he knew absolutely nothing—based on a single glimpse of a Nazi uniform in the clip from The Counterfeiters.)
Ultimately, I think the question of which is “best”—Persepolis or Ratatouille—is mainly a matter of personal taste. Do you enjoy memoirs? Are you intrigued by the setting of Persepolis? Are you already a fan of Marjane Satrapi’s writing? Do you appreciate fable-like stories? Are you a gourmand? Do you, like my Aunt Holly, feel visceral disgust at the sight of a rat—even an animated rat—in a kitchen? I myself am a fan of both movies, and though I can see how some people might prefer one over the other, I’m not particularly interested in determining whether one is “objectively” better. I had hoped Persepolis would win the Oscar because I thought the award would do more for it in terms of finding a larger audience, but I could hardly be disappointed when Ratatouille won instead. They’re both excellent. Ranking them numerically is foolish.
Of course, I understand that my outlook (“Let’s all talk about our favorite movies and why we love them!”) isn’t practical. People live to compete and rank and judge; it’s what we do. But even in a quantitative world, a qualitative perspective can be rewarding. I find that if you insist on thinking about a movie in terms of your own subjective experience, it’s actually easier to appreciate and respect movies that you didn’t particularly enjoy. If you accept your own feelings, you don’t have to pretend you felt something you didn’t, and you don’t have to bully others into seeing things your way in order to justify your response. You can take a step back and find what you liked and what you didn’t. You can consider other people’s opinions without being defensive. You can consider your opinion and how best to articulate it. And then you can move on.
Take No Country for Old Men. I spent much of the movie having flashbacks to the Cormac McCarthy Semester from Hell and longing for it to be over. But the oblique ending intrigued me, and Kelly Macdonald moved me, and Javier Bardem scared the shit out of me (which, in retrospect, I sort of enjoyed), and now I find myself wanting to see it again, without the unbearable agony of waiting for the Sword of Damocles to fall, to truly relish the Coens’ spare aesthetic and Bardem’s terrifying angel-of-death dialogue. It’s never going to be one of my favorite movies—it’s too bleak, and I don’t find the protagonist particularly interesting—but I was happy for the Coens when No Country won best picture. It’s a great movie. They deserve it.
But in my world, where I pick the Oscars, who wins? Honestly, I hate to pick just one, but if I must …
Persepolis—for best animated feature and best picture. Beautiful, provocative, imaginative, poignant, timely, and jasmine-scented, it was certainly among the best movies of the year, and what’s more, it was my favorite.