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February 3, 2010

To List-Make Is Human

by HELEN GEIB

Best of year lists are inescapable this time of year. The newspapers start printing their critics top tens in mid-December; critics societies, guilds, groups film-related and not film-related seemingly ad infinitum confer their honors beginning in January; the Academy’s nominations dominate the popular discourse on movies through February; movie blogs and non-movie blogs comment on the foregoing, publish their own picks, and poll their readers for theirs. The mania is compounded in years divisible by ten: throw a stone and you’ll hit a best of decade list.

If it sounds like I’m less than enthusiastic about “best of” list-making, I am. (That’s not to say Commentary Track won’t be getting into the act – the writers’ individual best of year lists are slated for February publication and our year-by-year best of decade project commences later this year.) To start with I take a jaundiced view of ranking the best of anything. If two films approach – perhaps even attain – perfection, then how is it possible to say one is better than the other? Even if a group of films is “merely” very good, ranking them is inherently arbitrary. I’m not trying to argue that there’s no such thing as objective measures of artistic quality in filmmaking or that one film can’t be judged to be better or worse than another. My point is that when you have a fantastic film on one hand and an amazing one on the other, ranking them is a distinction without a difference.

What best of rankings do reveal and reflect is personal preference: for drama over genre; for one genre over another; for Hollywood-model collaborative or Saylesian individualistic filmmaking; for actors’ films or directors’; for subject matter; for the star; for style over substance or substance over style; for films that make us think or films that make us feel. What we decide is the best ultimately comes down to what moved us the most deeply and while objective quality is a significant contributing factor to how we respond to a film, it’s not the be all and end all. This is not meant as a criticism, but rather as an acknowledgment that we inevitably, to some degree interject our selves into our critical judgments. In the final analysis, every best of list is a list of favorites.

Arbitrariness is joined by incompleteness. Not even professional (i.e., paid) critics have the time or opportunity to see every movie somebody somewhere thinks is wonderful, let alone every movie released in any given year. The rest of us are further hobbled by the sorry state of theatrical distribution of non-Hollywood films and the limited availability of foreign and independent films on DVD. We can’t rank what we haven’t seen, and we can’t fairly judge movies made to be watched on a big screen that we’ve only been able to watch on a TV (and don’t even talk to me about any screen smaller than a good sized TV).

Lest I be accused of wishing to banish all end of year list-making to the Outer Hebrides, let me hasten to add that I have felt the urge to make best of year lists, I have made many best of year lists in the years since I became a dedicated moviegoer, and I recognize there can be real value in lists and the list-making process. List-making is the ideal opportunity to reflect on, and perhaps re-evaluate the films we have admired during the year. Giving reasons for our selections forces us to consider and distill what is admirable about them. It’s natural to wish other people to see and – we hope – appreciate the films we love. Conversely, other people’s lists can be the best possible source of recommendations. A film that has deeply impressed someone who cares passionately about cinema is a film worth watching.

Publishing a best of list and commenting on other best of lists is also a way to participate in the cultural conversation about films and filmmaking. At its worst – and there’s far too much of the worst in the comments sections of blogs and on discussion forums – the conversation degenerates into vituperative insults. At its best the conversation is not only a pleasure in itself, but guides us into a deeper appreciation of great films.

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