Posted by Ken Burke On August - 20 - 2013 0 Comment

There’s no easier way to get into a lengthy debate with other cinephiles—or just ardent moviegoers—than trying to agree on the criteria for what makes an individual film a masterpiece.  If you refer opinion-blocked questions to some “authority” such as the Sight and Sound critics’ poll of the all-time best films (most recent results, from 2012, compiled into their top 250 choices at http://explore.bfi.org.uk/sightandsoundpolls/2012/critics/) you’ll be quickly countered by the same magazine’s poll of directors in 2012 where their #1 was Tokyo Story (Ozu Yassujirô, 1953)—their full top 100 list is at http://explore.bfi.org.uk/sightandsoundpolls/2012/directors/—while the critics went with Vertigo (Alfred Hitchcock, 1958), bumping Citizen Kane (Orson Welles, 1941) down to #2 after a 50-year reign atop both the critics’ and directors’ lists.  Yet, the only overlaps on their two winners’ tallies at the Top 10 level are Tokyo Story (#3 with critics), Citizen Kane (tied for #2 with the directors, clear #2 for the critics), 2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick, 1968; tied for #2 with directors, #6 for critics), and 8 ½ (Federico Fellini, 1963; #4 for directors, #10 for critics).  If you put my choices into the equation my overlaps are Citizen Kane (#1), Rules of the Game (Jean Renoir, 1939; #3 for me, #4 for critics), The Bicycle Thieves (Vittorio de Sica, 1948; #7 for me, #10 with critics), 2001: A Space Odyssey (#8), and Passion of Joan of Arc (1927, Carl Theodor Dreyer; #10 for me, #9 for critics).  Turn your poll sensors in some other direction and you’ll get even more varied results, especially if you could look at the individual ballots (which I’ve seen at times in the print version of S&S), where the choices are all over the place so we have to remember that the final rankings are accumulations of all of the candidates’ individual tallies, not the result of some consensus determined by in-person gatherings and decision-making discussions.

Blue Jasmine film still

 Where all of this becomes relevant to a contemporary film is a consideration for masterpiece status for Woody Allen’s newest film, Blue Jasmine, a marvelous exploration of class and personality issues in which Cate Blanchett delivers an Oscar-worthy performance—possibly the best of her already-noteworthy career—so powerful that she lifts the entire experience, including some minor aspects that seem to me to be too contrived or calculated.  So, can a film be touted as a masterpiece when it’s competent or better in most of its elements but truly superb in just one?  Or does everything about its conception and execution need to rise to the mastery level of films such as those I’ve cited—or others such as The Godfather (Francis Ford Coppola, 1972) or even Allen’s own Annie Hall (1977) if some of the titles above are a bit too scholar-centric.  I’ve explored this “masterpiece” question at length in my review of Blue Jasmine, which you can find at http://filmreviewsfromtwoguysinthedark.blogspot.com/2013/08/blue-jasmine-and-elysium.html.  Please feel free to read it and then continue the dialogue as you see fit.

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