Wednesday, December 26, 2007

The dreaded Top Ten lists we've been anticipating all year

Critics often write about year-end top ten lists as if they are journalistic necessities demanded by the institution of journalism. Nevertheless, top ten lists are staple of journalistic film criticism. Moreover, some critics who denounce them seem to demonstrate a strong passion for them.

Though I have railed against year-end listmaking in the past, I have also expressed my insatiable desire to construct my own and read others. There's something undeniably enticing about ranking movies, as if the critic espouses some kind of power or control over the image. S/he is the judge, and only one movie can stand above all others in a year.

Of course, measuring cinematic greatness is arbitrary, as well as problematic on a number of levels. There are no criteria for "Great Filmmaking," and the idea of naming one movie above another just is absurd. Nonetheless, this practice is a stamp of journalistic film criticism that seems to undermine criticism. Yet we love to do it. Our enjoyment of constructing and/or reading these Top Ten lists is thus a kind of masochism; or perhaps the sort of pleasure that invokes guilty pleasure.

Although some of us more outwardly complain about simplifying film criticism to a childish ranking system, these rankings/ratings/lists/awards actually hold some kind of meaning when you consider the shear amount of movies released in a year. Trying to make sense of film history, or a particular area of film history or style, even a calendar year, becomes a great burden without the canonical practices that enable us to sort them out. For example, I keep an annual log of every film I see and how I rated each film on a four-star scale. This helps me look back on a given year in film and to organize what I consider the best movies of that year accordingly. This is but a small example of how critics enact these larger ideological practices of evaulating cinema. The process of organizing and thereby assessing films whittles down the complexity, nuance, and ambiguity of the film world. Of course, this is inevitable and necessary, but it's potentially dangerous too. It's like using grades to signify one's level of intelligence, as our education system demonstrates. It can work, but its fundamental purpose as a universalizing system by which anything can be measures is also its central conceit.

That said, these practices structure a history of film and criticism as we know it, which is why some critics (myself included) look unfavorably on what appears to be a necessary evil. However, since listmaking is here to stay, perhaps the best way to participate in it is to think about why we attach ourselves to such reductive models of evaluating films and their "quality." This may be as simple as keeping a broad perspective of the films we see and not measure them on a scale of useless terms like "direction," "style," or "acting." Cinema is about the unique combination of all these things and more, specifically how they work together to create the moving sound-image.

An inquiry into these matters is really an inquiry into criticism itself, and how our vision of film may often determine what we see in them. A theoretical perspective on how film works is crucial to film criticism, but so is an inquiry into the pleasure associated with seeing and hearing moving images on a screen. That means that we must not just be good theorists of cinema, but also spectators of it. Performing film criticism is like walking a tight rope between engagement in and detachment from the emotions provoked by the sensory perceptions of seeing an image. We must be part of that image, actively feeling the film, but also removed from it. One or the other simply will not do, as each breeds a particular mentality that requires temperament from the other. We cannot "destory the pleasure", as Laura Mulvey asserts, but must be actively involved in the production and consumption of that pleasure in order to understand it.

How does all of this relate to how we read Top Ten lists, as well as form our own? It's more a philosophy to how we see and evaluate films at all. Although star systems and lists provide a structure that we wouldn't otherwise have, it's important to be reflexive of the them while using then. We need to form -- as the great communication scholar Kenneth Burke might say -- perspectives by incongruity. In other words, using star systems and top tens for the broad sense of structure they provide can be useful, so long that the critic/reader maintains a wider perspective of them. It's more productive to have some fun with them than to painstakingly determine which ten films in a given calendar year are the ten best films of the year.

In my experience reading countless Best Of lists a year, I find the most stimulating and educational of these lists to be the ones that loosely adhere to the rules of the Top Ten. Some critics will stringently adhere to the top ten and attempt to name one film as the film of the year. Roger Ebert is a foremost figure among these critics. He is quite aware of the limits of the top ten, which is why he names a bunch of other films that stood out to him. Nevertheless, he plays by the rules, and offers up ten films, ranked by quality, that he believes were the best of the year. But the interesting aspect of his lists are that he tends to choose films that have a very personal significance to him. Of course, his personal and intimate style of writing and approach to movies is what makes him unique, but it stands out in his often bold selections, particularly his number one film. In recent years, he has selected films like Monster, Minority Report, and Monster's Ball; all films that have their followers, but few of which were selected as The Best Film of the Year, or even appeared in many top tens, for that matter. This year, he named Juno as the film that struck him most deeply on an emotional level, if not a formal one.

Other critics whose selections tend to a reflect a particular ideology of cinema, e.g., cinema as Serious Art, may turn the structure of the top ten against itself while offering choices that generally represent that school of thought. (Keep in mind: That's not to say that a little predictability is a bad thing.) For example, A.O. Scott and Manohla Dargis of The New York Times provide lists that don't adhere to the rules of the top ten, even though many of the films they selected generally represents more internationally- and "smaller film"- based critical lens. They both feature one or two mainstream selections (Scott selected Ratatouille, while Dargis opted for The Bourne Ultimatum), but their lists tends to fit within that overall sphere of film criticism and appreciation. But because they package that differently, i.e., not in an ordered or ranked list of ten films, their selections are more fresh than many lists containing similar films.

Scott's list is comprised more of combinations and juxtapostions of films than ranked order. This, I feel, is a fresh way of thinking about films. It shatters the notion that films are better or worse than other films, that they can all be ranked on the same scale, and that they exist in a vacuum. Scott instead wants you to think about these films in relation to each other; not just how they tie together thematically, or stylistically, but how they don't connect. He says:

"...Apart from the top two entries, the list below consists of pairs (and in one case a trio) of films that complete, complement, contradict or otherwise engage each other. Taken alone each film on the list is in some way exemplary, but each is also enriched and complicated by its companion. The twinned selections might work as double features, or as possible alternatives (if not x, then maybe y); above all they demonstrate the vitality and mutability of this impossibly fertile art form. It’s a big world, and we can never have too many movies."

Dargis, also, bucks the system and refuses to list, number, or rank her favorite films of the year. Her commentary regarding why she does this is nothing short of incendiary. The opening paragraph of her article containing her picks for the best of '07 captures the absurdity and necessity of top ten lists quite well:

"The whole point of a Top 10 list, a friend recently scolded me, is to number them. (I was declining to do so.) My friend was wrong, but only because Top 10 lists are artificial exercises, assertions of critical ego, capricious and necessarily imperfect. (I have a suspicion that the sacred 10 is meant to suggest biblical certainty, as if critics are merely worldly vessels for some divine wisdom.) More than anything they are a public ritual, which is their most valuable function. I tell you what I liked, and you either agree with my list (which flatters us both) or denounce it (which flatters you). It’s a perfect circle."

Although she cannot elaborate on these concepts (after all, she must get to her top ten!), her words cut deeply into a number of questions and concerns looming over criticism. (One last note on Dargis: the more I read her work, the more I am reminded how important she is to film critiism.) According to some, criticism is becoming less relevant as commercial cinema continues to take over the box office and dictate film journalism and, some fear, film criticism. These concerns are very real, and some even wonder what kind of legitimate future film criticism really holds. Let's be honest, many critics' top ten lists do not include films that would be included in Joe Moviegoer's top ten.

Questions of the critical schism are always raised, and critics themselves don't seem to know how to deal with it. While some have argued that critics' relevance may be waning (Richard Corliss most recently banged that drum), contemporary criticism commands strong influence over critical canon. More films are made and released each year; so many that it would be nearly impossible for any film critic or lover to recall the movies s/he has seen three, four, or five years ago, and beyond. Therefore, as film culture (i.e., critics, scholars, film lovers) looks beyond the films of the moment, and back to films of the past, it increasingly depends on these year-end lists and awards -- not so much the AFI Lists or the Oscars, but the various features by prominent film critics all over the country. No matter how similar or unique these lists may be, they provide a larger sense of critical trends at the time. (This past year, 2007, for example, will be reflected on as "the year of the Coens," among other things.) There are always loose trends and patterns emerging from these critical discourses at the end of the year. These trends are what survive when critics and readers move onto the next year, or the following year. They are what defines a year long after it's gone.

That's why these lists are important. They constitute a sense of film history for those select few who actively enact film criticism and cinephilia as we know it. Year-end lists collectively represent a frustrating inevitability, but they trademarks of criticism for those both within and outside its practices. And since Top Tens are a reality, perhaps it's not best to scorn them and think of oneself "above" them. The beauty of them, after all, is that they are personal reflections on a year a film. The best of these reflections are informed by a deep knowledge of the medium and its history, as well as one's own unique experiences, perspectives, and opinions. We all have different impressions of a given year in film. In the end, we're not just evaluating the year's offerings of movies and identifying films that advance the medium in some way; we're looking back on a year that further shaped and progressed ourselves, as critics and individuals. We can get a real sense of the critic by reading her/his selections for the best films of the year; especially critics who select films that struck them and interested them as film lovers as well as critics.

The examples of productive top ten lists which I've cited above represent but a snapshot of the variety of lists and critics out there. For evert bland top ten, there are countless other examples of interesting lists and year-end reflections; in print, on blogs, even in images (see Jim Emerson's list). The point of these lists is to highlight a diversity in cinematic art out there today, some of which are in the cineplex, others which don't receive a commercial release. The usefulness of these lists, then, is to identify films from all ends of the spectrum, arrange them in some kind of sequence, and argue why this particular band of films is indicative of the diversity of cinema in a year Will we get through to all readers and film goers? Of course not. But we will be actively incorporating familiar critical models to advance cinema and criticism. This hopefully will be what keeps keeps both alive, and will enhance our collective sense of film history and appreciation.

The best film criticism celebrates the diversity of cinema. This criticism envisions cinema as a cultural artifact, a commercial institution, and, most importantly, an art form. It eludes essentialist claims, easy labels, and universalizing frameworks for analysis. It is instead a blend of historical, theoretical, and personal reflections on art, narrative, and aesthetics. That is why we should situate these ranking systems and lists within a the greater empirical and social inquiry that defines the best film criticism.

Top ten lists do not represent the ideal model for reminiscing on a cinematic year. But their flaws and their strengths enable them to endure; keeping us in eager anticipation of writing and reading them, and influencing the perspectives of others interested in this medium we - critics - so passionately value.


Piper said...


I myself don't care much for Year End Top 10 Lists. That doesn't mean I don't read them and somewhat enjoy them, I am just not really interested in creating them myself. My problem with them is that they're too minute in the grander film scheme. Meaning that in the grand list of great films, how does Juno hold up? Maybe it's a great film (I for one don't believe it is) but what the Year End Top 10 List does is to force your hand to rank films that otherwise may not make any list. I myself don't believe I've seen 10 films worth listing this year. I think if I can successfully say that I thought two or three films were great, then it was a good year. I don't have to rank 10 to feel that way.

But as you said, it is a nice way help categorize the year. I myself have problems thinking back to a certain year to remember what films came out. A top 10 list helps in the remembering. But as true film criticism, it does nothing for me.

Ted Pigeon said...

You make a good point, Piper. Lists are good, I suppose, for those of us who see hundreds of films released in a given year. But for me (I only see about 60 or 70 now), it holds less resonance. I tend to see a few great movies in a year, a lot of good ones, and a lot of forgettable ones.

But a lot of this depends on how one thinks of movies. If the top grade is meant to indicate the absolute finest film ever made, than to rank a few films a year with that same rating would be wrong. Then again, there's your Eberts, who think see the star scale as kind of arbitrary. Four stars for him is a great movie, not necessarily one of the best ever.

So I think that definitely translates to lists. To some, naming ten films to stand as the best in a year means something. Others just fill it out with some they liked while the top two or three are special.

Me, I still stand by the canon angle, in that selecting a number of films at the end of a year, however many films that is, that sum up the cream of the crop of that year (as you saw it) is necessary; and if a number of respectable films critics engage in this, it provides a sense of film history as the years go on.

The danger, of course, is when all these lists begin looking the same.

By the way, this article was quoted in the The Reeler's Top Ten of Top Ten lists, in which S.T. VanAirsdale adamantly rails against listmaking. It's funny that I was selected, because I do realize that my position on lists can be perceived as somewhat hypocritical. Nonetheless, I think my position acknowledges the shortcomings of listmaking, as well as the level to which they constitute journalistic film criticism. The question then becomes, can we overthrow this practice, and more importantly, should we?