Angelina Jolie’s best movie is Changeling. It is an amazing movie, an amazing performance. It is grim and impassioned and painful, and it’s the story of a woman whose child is murdered and no one has the slightest interest in the truth but her. And I will never watch it again, because it includes an accurate portrayal of a 1920s-era mental hospital. It’s horrific, and it’s particularly hard to watch for a mentally ill woman who’s aware of the odds that she herself would have ended up with that kind of “treatment” a century ago. Frankly, my favorite of her movies to rewatch is Pushing Tin, not that I’ve seen it in years, because she’s in her Goth Queen era and having enormous amounts of fun in pursuit of a ridiculous John Cusack movie, and I love me some John Cusack.
One of the more interesting backlashes against the idea of the guilty pleasure—and I do not support the idea of a guilty pleasure, because why should you feel guilt—is the belief that there isn’t a difference between “I like it” and “it’s good.” Art is absolutely subjective. Of course it is. To pick an obvious example, I don’t like Jackson Pollock, but a friend of mine who doesn’t want her art to be representational all the time has a lot of things to say about his work that I simply don’t see at all. That’s fine. We don’t have to like the same things.
Now, it’s also true that I believe there are some objective things that can make art bad. If I were to sculpt the best elephant I could, striving for realism and accuracy, it would still be a terrible elephant. You might like it anyway, and you might feel I captured something emotional in it or whatever you had to say, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t objectively fail to look like an elephant. Manos: The Hands of Fate has objective failings based on the limitations they were working with—and the fact that, rather than try to play to those as strengths, Harold P. Warren just kind of pretended they didn’t exist and did a terrible job of dubbing and so forth.
But that’s not what I’m talking about right now. What I’m talking about is something where you believe that something is of superior quality but there’s some aspect about it that means it’s not something you find yourself actually loving. Every aspect of it is, by your standards—whatever your standards are—superior. However, it doesn’t click for you on an emotional level. Or maybe the other one simply has an actor you like better. If you think The Muppet Movie is the superior movie but can’t get enough of that Peter Falk scene and will watch The Great Muppet Caper for it any day of the week, that’s the kind of thing I’m talking about. Or like my Angelina Jolie example; Changeling is a beautiful piece of film that happens to hit my personal buttons and is what keeps me from actually liking the movie and certainly from enjoying it.
Even beyond that, there’s the comfort movie. Sometimes, that overlaps; Steve Martin’s best movie is up for debate, but probably my favorite and definitely my comfort movie is LA Story. It makes me happy, and on those vanishingly rare occasions when I’m homesick, it’s what I return to. Similarly, you could have quite the fight about what Morgan Freeman’s best movie is, but my favorite is probably Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (because I was fourteen when it came out and in love with Christian Slater) and my comfort movie of his is The Shawshank Redemption, for that beautiful ending. All of these can be different things, but don’t have to. For Kurosawa, Ikiru is all three for me.
That can also mean that you ask two people about a movie and get two different answers based on what question they think you’re asking. Which is best? Which is favorite? How much does replayability factor into that? For me, it’s a lot, because I am a big fan of watching things over and over. If I only want to see it once, it’s not a favorite, pure and simple. No matter the level of quality I believe the film has, if I’m never going to watch it again, it’s not a favorite. On the other hand, one of my friends never rewatches, and I don’t know how she calculates things like that. Does she purely judge based on “best”? It’s so foreign to my experience that I literally can’t figure it out.
And you know, you may be the sort of person who will absolutely watch the “woman being screwed over by the system in 1920s Los Angeles” movie over and over. Maybe it’s your favorite, and while you understand why it isn’t mine, the idea that someone would legitimately rather watch Pushing Tin is the weirdest thing you’ve ever heard. Granted that it’s not exactly a common preference, given how many of you probably haven’t thought of Pushing Tin in more than twenty years. That’s where we get into the subjective. Come to that, you may find LA Story grating and a reminder of that time you were stuck in traffic on your one and only vacation to LA, and Parenthood is a movie you watched every time you were sick as a kid that always takes you back to being cared for. All of that is personal, and there’s no shame there. We’re back to snails and oysters, here, and therefore we are not in moral territory. Usually.