Year in Film: Number nine -- with a bullet

At least the fourth-best article ever about the folly of top 10 lists

There is something pretty silly, it seems to me, about knocking the concept of the top 10 list. Not in the way that it's silly to knock year-end awards and nominations, which is kind of like taking the bold position that Joseph Stalin was a prick. No, top 10 lists, being the choices of individuals (sort of — I know I at least can be easily influenced), are not nearly worthless enough for that. What's silly about knocking them is that doing so requires a denial of the fact that clearly, at some point in human evolution, we were hardwired to appreciate the level of informational tidiness that corresponds to the top 10 list, a smart little package that says unequivocally, "Here's the deal right here. Now leave me alone." It may not be the best feature of our nature, but by God, it's ours.

Also silly is the strange assumption that the author or the reader of the top 10 list attaches more importance to it than to the body of considered criticism the writer has composed during the other 364 days of the year. Oftentimes authors knock their lists in their introductions, probably to preempt any charges of presumptuousness or reductionism.

And yet I'm always disappointed when an anticipated top 10 shows up unburdened by commentary, the critic bowing out of delivering some cleverly wrought statement of the obvious. As much as I love the tidy little lists, it is this by-product, this fuzzy mold of qualification growing around the tradition, that, for me, is the real joy of the annual verdicts.

For an undertaking so often characterized by noncritics as arrogant and autocratic, criticism is awfully well saddled with caveats and contingencies, and there are certainly no shortage of self-directed smirks. I used to be terribly impressed by all of this mutinous talk about fuzziness, the perennial anti–top 10 two-step around the idea of inherent artistic worth. But although I'm certainly no less a fan of these pieces than I ever was, I find that these little rebellions tend to lose their sense of urgency as they continue to accumulate. The more of them there are, the more it seems like knocking top 10s is its own charmingly musty, imperfect tradition.

There are a variety of ways to knock the top 10. The safest and probably most respectable is to accessorize such a list with a self-effacing wink, as in this barely registered sigh from a Village Voice blog: "Most of us labor under the delusion that people actually care about what we think, that people will painstakingly scrutinize our top-ten lists and judge us accordingly." (My falsely modest sentiments exactly.) This low-stakes approach can lose respectability, though, with the addition of uninspired aggression, as in Anthony Kaufman's kvetch from a 2005 top 10 that apparently bullied him into writing: "As I have written before, I believe the process of creating a top 10 list is a fickle pursuit. And ranking films is even more slippery. But in our hierarchical America's Next Top Model world ..."

I hope I'm not sounding snide — I really am a fan. And I don't want to imply that I think the list-making practice is (exclusively) onanistic. It is, after all, a key component of the system of checks and balances that tempers an artwork's rise to historical indestructibility. But I will say it's the element of solipsism in top tennery I'm attracted to, the peek into the part of the critic's brain that isn't worrying about the legacy of the films (I never trust all that crusading rhetoric) so much as just getting it right in his or her own head. All of this refining and complicating what it means to produce something so straightforward as a list feels to me like the critic at play. There's almost a meditative quality to it.

In 2004, Louis Menand wrote an enjoyably snotty New Yorker article about the absurdity of year-end list making, a piece that is practically a list itself of the list maker's crimes.

Also from this author

  • Sounds of summer

    Concert and music festival highlights from air guitar to Woodsist this season 

  • Soul sounds

    The Weeknd and Hype Williams navigate music and identity in 2011

  • Snap Sounds: Jessica 6

  • Also in this section

  • Con and on

    Thrilling, stylish Highsmith adaptation 'The Two Faces of January'

  • Cel mates

    Mill Valley Film Festival screens vintage and innovative animated features

  • Bridgeworthy

    More Mill Valley Film Festival picks