It bats at the tradition like a toy mouse, playing the game by proudly working out the rules: "In a mass-market publication, a movie list should contain one foreign-language film that few readers have heard of.... Conversely, in an "alternative" or highbrow publication the movie list needs one blockbuster one film the critic liked despite the fact that everyone else liked it."
This stuff is like the wrapping paper that ends up being way more interesting than the actual gift. I do get excited over the lists, and I do find them extremely helpful in a limited way, but after about 20, I hardly register them and instead head straight for the disclaimers.
Of course, Menand's piece is hardly self-effacing. It's closer to the carnivorous end of the spectrum, where the critic doesn't worry too terribly about the value of listing itself and is primarily interested in pouncing on the bountiful stupidities the activity has incubated. The takedowns of other critics' opinions are part cultural quality control, part self-serving bullying, and just good clean fun all around.
You can see all three shining through in one of this year's early and distinguished offensives, carried out on the blog of one of my favorite film sites, Reverse Shot. (The main page can be pretty ornery, but something about the blog brings out the John Simon in the writers, causing them to rip into people with a wit that's almost pathologically cruel. Their readers regularly tsk-tsk them in the comments section.)
The Reverse Shot attack was directed at Richard Corliss, who'd pretty much painted a target on his face by writing in Time that Charles Burnett's Killer of Sheep, number three on his list, is the finest film ever made by a black director. "That's right," Reverse Shot crows, "the 'finest film ... by a black director' (note: NOT 'black American') is the third best movie of the year behind No Country for Old Men and The Lives of Others. Sorry Spike Lee and Ousmane Sembene, you've made some good movies, but nothing quite as good as The Lives of Others." A quality blow, though I have to say the same syllogistic scrutiny would likely topple the logic structures of plenty of worthier top 10s than Corliss's you can almost see how the whole concept of the top 10 could be discredited with a simple mathematical proof.
In previous years Corliss has also had to put up with smart-ass crusader S.T. VanAirsdale, who's made a name for himself over at the Reeler site both for quality control and for bullying with his annual "Top 10 Top 10s" list, in which he compiles the year's most inane examples. It's been a hoot of a bloodbath the past couple of years, and it should be again (no doubt Corliss will make the team in '07 too there was a lot to observe in his Time piece). This year's list wasn't posted by press time, but VanAirsdale has written that he's already prepared to take on "the high tide of hype that washes out entire habitats of superb cinema built throughout the year and start the clean-up." Hyperbolic and a touch messianic, yeah, but the man gives me something to look forward to when I've reached my list threshold, so he can go ahead and have himself a little complex as far as I'm concerned. It's funny, though, that we have opposing metaphors for all of this list talk. He thinks of it as cleaning up, while I see it as reestablishing the mess.
A wise reader of top 10s already knows this mess is implied and doesn't need all of the attendant eye rolling. But we don't need Christmas, either.
JASON SHAMAI'S TOP 10
To avoid condemning syllogisms, the order of the following list is scrambled, and only I have the code. Even the alternates could have been number one.