The X List: The National Society of Film Critics' Guide to the Movies That Turn Us On
edited by Jami Bernard
Published by Da Capo
330 pages, 2005
Reviewed by Monica Stark
The title evokes a very different book. Movies That Turn Us On. The words bring to mind a certain oily cheesiness, the kind that make some people blush, some turn away and send still others searching for a plain brown wrapper. And while some of the writing here is provocative, The X List is a book you can take anywhere, filled with some of the best contemporary writing on film (though not necessarily contemporary film) that you're likely to find.
Edited by New York Daily News' film maven Jami Bernard, The X List's contributors are 40 of the better known members of the National Society of Film Critics. Here we run into William Wolf of the Wolf Entertainment Guide, writing about 2004's Kinsey ("Kinsey is seriously about sex, yet it is not an erotic movie and it isn't meant to be.") Entertainment Weekly's Lisa Schwarzbaum writes about Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) while Roger Ebert -- who needs no introduction -- puts in a vote for Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (1970), a movie he actually worked on.
The films included here run the gamut. Some of those included are ones you'd expect in a compilation of this nature. For example, the Philadelphia Inquirer's Carrie Rickey writes about 1972's Behind the Green Door, and film critic and UCLA professor Emanuel Levy writes about Deep Throat, from the same year. Noted critic Charles Taylor writes about 1980's Talk Dirty to Me, a porno movie, Taylor writes, with "a sense of fun and play and what-the-hell abandonment." Even 1961's Splendor in the Grass -- here lovingly caressed by the Baltimore Sun's Michael Sragow -- is not a surprise in this particular anthology. "Splendor in the Grass," writes Sragow, "is a plea for men and women to honor intensity of feeling. It salutes the 'glory in the flower,' not the 'strength in what remains behind.'"
However, many more of the films included in The X List were -- for me, at any rate -- a surprise. I love, for instance, the inclusion here of 2004's Troy, starring Brad Pitt, Peter O'Toole, Orlando Bloom and a lot of other really big stars. It was a really big movie. Pulitzer Prize-winning film critic Joe Morgenstern eloquently cuts it down to size:
Troy doesn't have a leg to stand on as a work of art, or even of efficient commerce, but it does have its very own Achilles heel -- the flat-footed silliness of its Bronze-age hero, played by a blond, deeply bronzed and muscled Brad Pitt in Greco-martial miniskirt. This legendary warrior coulda, indeed shoulda been a contender for all-time classic hunkdom, whether in the annals of gay or straight hero worship ... a big, bright vending machine dedicated to dispensing sex appeal.
Other inclusions might lift eyebrows: Wuthering Heights (1939), The Mummy (1932), Morocco (1930), McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971), Kinsey (2004), Horror of Dracula (1958) and others. That, I think editor Bernard would say, is kind of the point. As she writes in her introduction to The X List:
Movies uplift us, educate us, thrill us, move us, and make us laugh until we snort. They also turn us on. That turn-on can come from the innocent tilt of your favorite star's head, or from the innocent pleasures of gratuitous nudity in an otherwise forgettable picture you nevertheless keep adding to your Netflix queue.
The thing that any viewer finds hot in a film, Bernard tells us, is indefinable and individual. It's specific. It's to her credit that she does not, with this anthology, even take a stab at the definition. Rather she guides us through some really great writing on film collected around a topic most people never get tired of exploring. | November 2005
Monica Stark is a contributing editor to January Magazine.