I tried not to get involved, or even read, AO Scott and Manohla Dargis’ list of Greatest Actors of the 21st Century. Why, because I knew already, without even reading it, that would be very AO Scott, very Manohla Dargis and very 2020. Film critics as activists.
That doesn’t mean it’s a bad list. Any list with Denzel Washington at number 1 is not a bad list. He would absolutely be in my top five. It is the names they left out that apparently is the problem. So much so that they had to be interviewed to “explain” to their lowly readers why Meryl Streep was left off the list.
But Manohla Dargis and A.O. Scott, The Times’s co-chief film critics who over the past six months compiled the nearly 12,000-word list of standout performers, have no regrets. “Just because you haven’t seen a film or aren’t familiar with an actor doesn’t mean they aren’t great,” Ms. Dargis said. “I hope people use this list as an opportunity to expand their horizons.”
DARGIS People keep yelling at us about how many Oscar nominations Streep has, as if that’s a metric Tony and I ever paid attention to. This is not a list of people who have been nominated for Oscars; this is our list of people we really, really respect and love. But we will be doing a 25,000-word ode to Meryl Streep at the end of the year, just so everyone knows.
They don’t pay attention to the Oscars except that they do their own Oscar picks every year and I can promise you, they will be as infuriating as their Best of Whatever list.
It’s a perfectly fine list – it is very in keeping with 2020 and very in keeping with what film criticism is now. Any of the film critics who gather on Film Twitter probably would have written the same list. What they should have done was call it something different. Call it — “What We Think is the Best Acting.” Because nine times out of ten film critics do not think great acting is what most people – up to and including actors – think is great acting. In my experience, film critics like the “less is more” style – where an actor does nothing. Actors, and moviegoers broadly, prefer actors where their work is visible. Where they aren’t doing nothing.
If you’re leaving Meryl Streep off the list, this is what you are saying doesn’t equal the greatest acting of the last two decades:
Angels in America
The Devil Wears Prada
Julie & Julia
August: Osage County
Florence Foster Jenkins
Yeah so what are they measuring for best? They are measuring their own unique tastes. And of course, that is their right but to then say to their readers, essentially, “let them eat cake” as in, if you’re mad about it you need to expand your horizons a little. In the same vein of personal expression, I have no choice but to call hot steaming BULLSHIT on the whole sham.
For Dargis to say “you should expand your horizons” when people get angry at her list – well, that doesn’t address why they left off arguably the greatest actor of our time. When you read their long conversation about it you can see why Streep or DiCaprio or Hanks didn’t rank. They discuss actors that fascinate them in films that fascinate them. Like most critics in general in 2020, these aren’t really two people who are going to sit around and talk about how great Meryl Streep was as Julia Child.
But it isn’t just Meryl Streep as Julia Child. It’s also Meryl Streep as Miranda Priestly – if her entire 21st century career was just these two performances she would be worthy of inclusion.
Film criticism was never meant to become a hive mind. When your tastes define your ideology in a time of fear and paranoia and calls outs – you are always better off huddling with a group than going out on a limb. Film criticism is not what it used to be when I started. Now you have close to a thousand ringing in on Rotten Tomatoes. Most people just look at the numerical score. I don’t do that anymore because film criticism has become such a hive mind that their score is often useless. If you’re looking for a better barometer look at the user reviews, or the audience score. :
That illustration above is why I personally have stopped trusting film critics to assess movies as a group or a score. Rather, I find one or two I know are going to be absolutely honest with me and I read their work. I appreciate film criticism that is personal. I also appreciate film criticism that expands and illuminates the film, teaching me something. I would not have minded The NY Times list if it was described as an “under the radar” kind of thing. But to boldly proclaim Meryl Streep does not belong on the list – well, I can see why there was so much blowback. (At the same time, this does not excuse vicious attacks against anyone. Stand down, Streep warriors!)
When I first began this site, much of what I did was try to amplify the voices of film critics as influencers in the Oscars. Back then, there was a massive disconnect. But now, the Oscars basically mirror the critics, which is why it’s funny that even now both Scott and Dargis sneer at the Oscars when many of those they chose ARE Oscar winners.
In my latest episode of my podcast memoir (I know, it sounds pretentious but I am not going to live forever) I talk about the year 2011, the year I tried to move mountains to ensure Viola Davis prevailed over Meryl Streep in the Best Actress race. It failed because she was up against not only Meryl Streep but the Weinstein publicity machine back when they had massive amounts of power.
I lost almost half of my readers — and my forums — that year because my site had become more activist based. I know this is ironic, considering I’ve been called a racist and rape apologist so many times on Twitter of late. Big sigh. But that’s what happened. I did that for years, activism or advocacy as Oscar coverage because I believed that the Oscars didn’t mean anything unless they meant something. Eventually a couple of prominent black voices called me out privately and publicly for fighting a war they said I had no business fighting. Maybe back in 2000 it made a difference but in 2013 and beyond I was just another self-appointed white savior. So I took a step back. As you can see, I am more likely to call out mass hysteria online and cancel culture than I am to advocate even if:
To date, no black director has ever won. No black actress has won in lead since Halle Berry in 2001.
The Oscars, film coverage, news – education, science, major institutions across America have had to completely re-order themselves in the wake of the George Floyd protests and subsequent movement, which morphed into a wave of fear and paranoia around racism and antiracism. The only prominent person who waged a campaign against it was Donald Trump who has just been overwhelmingly rejected by the American people since he was the reason racism rose to the surface the way it has in the past four years. His objection, therefore, just looks like more racism.
The long and short of it is that too many people assume that every white person is a racist unless they actively shed themselves from this plague deep inside them that they can do nothing about. Prominent people live in fear of being called a racist, as one can lose their job just for the accusation. How do you even prove it? You can’t. It’s like being accused of being a witch. Once accused, forever guilty.
This is probably likely to eventually come apart – no waves of hysteria that overtake American culture can last for very long, like the Witch Trials, like the Red Scare. But for now, here is where we are. That is why I do not expect to get the truth from critics or critics groups – least of all at the New York Times. I can’t even be sure I am telling the truth half the time because we all have become so accustomed to self-censoring everything we tweet, everything we write, every list we make. Is it inclusive enough? Is it woke enough? Is it phobic in any way, shape or form?
When we look back on this era, at the movies of this time, we will be able to pinpoint exactly where we are in culture just by how films are being cast. The Oscars, in fact, are on notice to be inclusive or the films simply won’t be eligible for the Oscars.
I can’t say with certainty that this was in the minds of the critics at the Times when they made their list of the best actors of the past two decades and left off Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks, and Leonardo DiCaprio. To be honest, I do not know what was in their heads and don’t presume to know.
Using film criticism or film awards to push for inclusion isn’t necessarily wrong, I don’t think. But the dark side of the times we’re living through can best be described in this piece just posted on Persuasion:
A young woman tweeted an image of her character in the videogame Animal Crossing, a smiley cartoon girl with big glasses and Princess Leia-style hair, captioned “Cute space buns.” The blowback came in a hurry.
First, angry messages said the hairstyle did not constitute “space buns” but “afro puffs,” and that the gamer was racist for applying these to her character. “If you’re not BIPOC [Black, Indigenous, people of color], it’s not meant for ya. dumb bitches,” one said. Then came the blowback to the blowback: “You’re super privileged AF if your life is SO EASY that you can complain about crap like this,” one tweet said. “I wish my problems were as small as yours. Do better and strive to become less fragile.”
Moral debate is a vital tool in society: We use it to identify people who harm others; to praise those worthy of trust; to spur positive social change. But some people—especially on social media—use moral talk for another purpose: social status. This is called “moral grandstanding,” and it’s pushing us apart in dangerous ways.
It’s pushing us apart and it’s doing strange things to film criticism. Had Dargis and Scott, in fact, made their list more white-centric, and excluding a good many actors of color or actors from other countries they would have been called out for racism. But somehow I doubt being called out for excluding Meryl Streep is probably the better side anyone in 2020 would want to land on.
All of this is to say that, to me, leaving off Streep was very much in keeping with how these two critics think in general, how they make their lists every year, how it drives me insane every year and that is why I didn’t click on it or pay attention to it anymore. (Sorry but I don’t need a lecture from people who sneer at what I do and the industry I cover).
A great example of the way these efforts feed on themselves is how their list has been turned into another story about why their readers got mad. But here’s what they don’t admit: their readers got mad because they wanted them to get mad. They knew they were being Don Quixotes and they probably knew it would receive massive blowback but in journalism that is exactly what drives clicks.
I don’t doubt for one second that this is what they genuinely believe is true and that they named actors they genuinely value. I am not saying they are grandstanding. Most of those who cover film now would probably be very happy with their list. And approving of it. But many looked at it and said – how can this be true?
Either which way, of this we approve:
So, tell me Oscarwatchers, who are your Best Actors of the 21st Century So Far?