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December 17, 2002

10-Best Lists

Friedrich --

Do you enjoy end-of-the-year best-of lists? I do. I have plenty of dignified intellectual and critic friends who disapprove of them. Their argument generally seems to be that such lists are (surprise!) undignified. For me, that's a good reason to like them; making one up, and making it public, humanizes the person behind it. Why? Because of the clip-and-save aspect, for one thing. But also because it gives the public such a good, terse look at the critic's tastes. There are people out there you're semi-aware of and willing to feel semi-respectful towards. But what if, say, Louis Menand made up an end-of-the-year 10-best list? You could look at it and decide very quickly whether he's a guy for you. You might think, hmm, yes, yes, very good. But you might equally as well think, Lordy, why was I paying attention to this idiot? Or: What a priss!

So I approve of these lists. But there's something about the typical 10-best list that has always bugged me, and I think I've finally figured it out. It boils down to this: "'Best' as in what exactly?"

Using movies as an example, here are some possibilities:

  • "Best" as in "my personal favorite"?
  • "Best" as in, "in my professional opinion this is likely to be remembered as influential"?
  • "Best" as in, "in 50 years, there will be a get-together of all the best taste-makers, and they will vote on the best movies of this year. And with this list, I'm predicting the results of their poll"?

Which is it, critics?

Why is this a problem? Because, if a critic were to make up all three of these lists, and do so in all sincerity, it's quite possible that there would be no overlap between them at all. Perhaps the critic has a hunch that a certain movie will prove influential -- but didn't enjoy it personally. Perhaps a critic has the feeling that a given picture will one day be viewed as important, yet it put this critic to sleep. Perhaps the critic loved some oddball movie, yet it's already been forgotten.

So which one is it that your typical movie reviewer is giving you when he supplies his year-end 10-best list? 2Blowhards, or at least this half of 2Blowhards, wants to know.

My fear (conviction, actually) is that what we're getting from the typical reviewer is a list that combines all these elements and more. Something along the lines of: Here are some movies I enjoyed personally; here are some movies I guess I gotta resign myself to giving a nod to because everyone thinks they're important; here's a few respectable big-pop entertainments, because my bosses would kill me if I appeared too snobbish; here's a couple of difficult movies I include to impress my critic colleagues ...

I don't find the kind of list that results from such calculations very satisfying. I want something cleaner, and more revealing. What I'm most interested in finding out from people (even critics!) is what they personally enjoyed most. Let the "importance" and "greatness" sweepstakes take care of themselves.

Aha, one of my themes -- how unlikely it is that what you enjoy most will also prove to be, in some semi-objective way, the very best. We all find that there's "great" work we don't care about much, and we're all emotionally drawn to (and pleased by) work that can be very hard to defend, or puff up as "important." That just seems like a basic statement of life-in-the-arts to me. But perhaps it isn't for some reviewers and critics. Perhaps the kinds of people who succeed in the reviewing-and-criticism game are people who really don't mind saying "I like this a lot" and "It's the best" at one and the exact same time. (They might be able to do so because they're egomaniacs who think their opinion shapes -- or should shape --the world; or perhaps they're simply willing to do it because they want a career badly, and that seems to be what's called for.)

So, what's the solution? I do think there's a semi-straightforward way of dealing with this, which is simply to have every critic and reviewer draw up three 10-best lists.

  • Here are the ten new movies I enjoyed the most this past year. Purely a matter of personal taste.
  • Based on my experience, here are the ten new movies that I predict will prove over time to be the most influential films of the past year, no matter how much I enjoyed or didn't enjoy them personally.
  • And here are the ten movies that I, if I were a betting man, would wager will be remembered in 50 years as "the greatest" movies of the past year, whether or not I enjoyed them personally.

I'd read such 10-best lists eagerly. Shall we pass a law insisting that all critics and reviewers play along with this plan?

At this point, instinct tells me that I should be volunteering a set of such lists myself. Once again, I disappoint. I've semi-dropped out of keeping up with the current and new arts. I see a new movie now and then, thumb around inside a few new books, check out a few new art shows, and read the occasional new poem. But not in any compulsive, professional, competitive or even just-keeping-up way.

Hey, I can in fact volunteer something: my best art-enjoyment tip of the year, which is:

  • Forget keeping up. Life and art are much more enjoyable when you let go the compulsion and instead follow your own interests.

IMHO, of course.

I'm trying to keep a straight face here, and am in fact halfway serious. I'd be interested to hear from you (or from readers) about other possible "bests."



posted by Michael at December 17, 2002


So I'm reading and scrolling and scrolling and scrolling, expecting this lovely bit of essaying to end in a, what else?, Top 10 list! Where is it?

Posted by: Tank Mommy on December 17, 2002 05:01 PM

I have only one list, what *I* liked this year:

Best books:
"The Life of Pi" by Yann Martel
"The Lovely Bones" by Alice Sebold
"Coraline" by Neil Gaiman
"Blinded by the Right: The Conscience of an Ex-Conservative" by David Brock

Best Music:
Foo Fighters - One by One
U2 - All That You Can't Leave Behind
Phil Vassar - American Child
The Flaming Lips - Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots
Santana - Shaman

Best Movies:
About a Boy
Lilo and Stitch
The Ring

Of those lists, I think "The Life of Pi," "All That You Can't Leave Behind," "About a Boy," and "Lilo and Stitch" will be the ones that will endure and people will still be playing/reading them 10 years from now. Though Phil Vassar still has his big one coming up - he's the next Billy Joel.

Posted by: Yahmdallah on December 18, 2002 11:56 AM

Oh, and by the way, I think the ONLY critic in any medium who tries the triune approach that you talk about is Roger Ebert. He is THE MAN when it comes to critical insight and self-awareness about the same.

Posted by: Yahmdallah on December 19, 2002 02:32 PM

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