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December 12, 2003

Seasonal Standard -- 10 Best Lists

[Note to visitors: I was so pleased with this posting I put up last year at this time that I'm going to put it up this year too. It's on a subject of the utmost, world-shaking importance -- end-of-year 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 up a best-of list, 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 are 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 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 to puff up as "important." That seems like a basic statement of life-in-the-arts to me. But perhaps it isn't for some reviewers and critics. Perhaps people who succeed in the reviewing-and-criticism game are likely to be people who 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 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.

But I can 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 of the compulsion to keep up and instead follow your own interests.

IMHO, of course.

I'd be interested to hear from you (or from visitors) about other possible "bests."



UPDATE: In the Comments on this posting, Dick Ranko and Yahmdallah have both chipped in classy best-of lists. I'm pondering one of my own, though I'm not sure I saw ten new movies this year. Anyone else want to pitch in?

posted by Michael at December 12, 2003


Most ten-best lists offer a brief paragraph after each entry to explain why the critic chose the film. I find these justifications far more compelling than the lists themselves.

Posted by: Tim Hulsey on December 12, 2003 1:08 AM

"10 best" lists? I like them, even if their only real value as such is to provoke arguments.

As for the typology of "10 bests":

1) the personal
2) the professional
3) the predictive

Since I've always been of the opinion that all critical systems are ultimately and inevitably based upon the personal preferences of whoever constructed them (because one's own personal opinions and aesthetics are all one has to go on, really), it strikes me that all such "10 best" lists will wind up falling into that first category, at least to some extent. I don't think I know anyone who could produce a genuinely and 100% objective list in the other two categories. The predictive option strikes me as a potential mug's game, anyway; how many of the films the people of fifty years ago thought would last into our time? How many of our admired masterpieces will last fifty years?

Posted by: James Russell on December 12, 2003 2:59 AM

I think there should be a list of 10 best insults heard in the last year. 10 best examples of the pompous being knocked off their perch. Or 10 things that made me laugh the hardest (A couple for me would relate to comments left on 2Blowhards.) I heard a news commentator the other day say that a guy who owns a medical hemp company wants to do an IPO and take the company "sky high." (!) just gotta appreciate David Letterman inviting Oprah Winfrey on his show for the "Super Bowl of Love." That's gotta make SOME top 10 list.

But, what do I know? I was actually thinking as I drove this morning that my three favorite holiday songs I've heard this year are the Beach Boys' "Little St. Nick", Kenny Loggins "Celebrate Me Home", and Alvin and the Chipmunks. No Kenny G or Pavoratti or London Symphony Orchestra (or even Bing Crosby--please shoot me before I have to hear Bing sing "Do You Hear What I hear?" ever again) anywhere. Although I did notice that Johnny Mathis' voice makes a despised holiday song like "Silver Bells" palatable. This is who you are dealing with.

Posted by: annette on December 12, 2003 9:53 AM

If I made a list of ten-best insults this year, they'd probably all be from Triumph the Insult Dog. Dave, alas, just can't compete.

Posted by: Tim Hulsey on December 12, 2003 12:53 PM

Tim -- You're right, the critics often reveal themselves much more in their explanations than they do in their choices.

James -- I think we agree. My little agenda in my proposal is to tease some of those dynamics out. It's hard for me to believe that the ten-best list your average daily newspaper or TV reviewer announces at the end of the year really is a list of his ten personal favorites. People are just too quirky for that, it seems to me. And reviewers are under various pressures that the rest of us aren't -- anxieties about editors and readers (and film companies), feelings of responsibility towards the readership ... An example: what if a critic really, really enjoyed a porn video? What if, if he were being honest, he'd admit to that? I'm pretty sure that it isn't going to wind up on his public ten-best list. And could it really be true that every movie reviewer in the country just loved "LOTR," whichever episode we're up to? I mean, as a personal thing? Really, they love and cherish it the way they love and cherish their personal-favorite movies? Maybe some of them do. But all? So I think what your average reviewer's ten-best list represents is a combo of personal taste and responsible-professional decisions. Which is a combo I find very unsatisfying to read. And, let's face it, the kinds of people who wind up as professional reviewers are a demographic unto themselves. I guess I'm more interested in what people really love and respond to than I am in what they think of as "good." You?

Annette -- Johnny Mathis rules!

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on December 12, 2003 1:05 PM

Honestly, how likely is it that there will be *10* movies released this year or any year that will be considered important in 50 years, though? I think that would be a significant obstacle to the last list.

I think if there is one movie like that per year, you're doing well. Many years have given us nothing important whatsoever.

I would think the same would go for literature by the way.

Posted by: emjaybee on December 12, 2003 2:58 PM

These are my top ten feature films for 2003, as of right now:

1. The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King
2. In America
3. Dark Blue
4. Buffalo Soldiers
5. 28 Days Later
6. Lost in Translation
7. The Secret Lives of Dentists
8. Bad Santa
9. The Station Agent
10. A Mighty Wind

Posted by: Dick Ranko on December 12, 2003 8:30 PM

But is that your I-loved-these-best top-10? Or your these-were-the-best top-10? Readers need to know.

And wow, am I no longer a movie geek. Or at least a new-movie geek. I've seen precisely one-half of one of the films on your list ...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on December 12, 2003 8:35 PM

I had my "best of" post half written when you (re)posted this, so here ya go!

Posted by: Yahmdallah on December 12, 2003 9:15 PM

Funny thing about going back over the movies I saw this year is how the release dates get scrambled up in my mind: I watch so many movies on DVD these days, and to me they're new when I watch them. But I guess I have to play along with the idea that we're talking only about movies that got theatrical US releases in 2003, sigh.

OK, some 2003 movies I enjoyed:
* Bruce Almighty
* Swimming Pool
* Freddy vs. Jason
* Master and Commander
* Lost in La Mancha
* The Devil's Playground
* Jeepers Creepers 2
* The Housekeeper
* And I'm glad I saw "Irreversible," though I'd never urge anyone else to see it.

That's all I can come up with. The two I enjoyed most -- MB's favorite movies of 2003 -- were "Swimming Pool" and "Freddy vs. Jason." Take that, "LOTR" buffs. I wonder if I'm forgetting or overlooking a bunch of 2003 movies I enjoyed. I sure skipped a lot of the big pictures this year, that's for sure.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on December 12, 2003 9:53 PM

Michael -- I think we do indeed agree here. Like you, I'm much more interested in what people really like as opposed to what they think they should like, and I tend to be wary of the "10 best" lists that populate a site like Senses of Cinema. Senses is, by its own description, "an online film journal devoted to the serious and eclectic discussion of cinema", which is reflected in the type of films and filmmakers discussed (not to mention the manner of discussion) and, I suspect, the top ten section. This is a part where pretty much anyone can contribute their list of personal favourites, though I'm often left wondering just how "personal" those favourites are. Are they being honest or are they just being "cinephiles"? Cos I don't have an awful lot of time for the latter...

Posted by: James Russell on December 13, 2003 2:20 AM

I have been racking my brain trying to remember 10 movies I saw in the theater this year--I can only come up with 3 so here they are:

Bend it like Beckham-daughter wanted to see it
The Pirates of the Caribbean-took the kids
Northfork-husband picked it out on a "date"

Now if we could include movies on DVD or VHS, then I could list some of my fave's like Roshamon or The French Connection!

Of course, the opera aint over til the fat lady sings and I think this year's fat lady's gonna be LOTR part 3. We'll see...

Posted by: Deb on December 13, 2003 10:37 AM

A couple '03 movies I haven't seen yet but look forward to: "Triplets of Belleville" and the new Altman, whatever it's called. Which he apparently shot in HD -- eager to see what it looks like, at the very least.

James -- I think you're right, I think some people putting together lists like these overcomplicate them, or over-self-conscious-ize them. They're worried about how people will take them and what they'll conclude from them, so they start fussing and adjusting and, to my mind, lying about their responses. Is "Sense of Cinema" what passes for high-end film buffery on the web? Sigh: I'm so out of date -- I'm of the Sight and Sound generation. And what's your own 10-best list for the year?

Deb -- It's so true, the way you feel when you've seen a DVD that you saw the movie that year, so it's a movie of that year, and who cares when it was released to theaters. I never had that feeling from videocassettes. I wonder what the diff is.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on December 13, 2003 11:47 AM


>> I'm much more interested in what people really like as opposed to what they think they should like

Agreed; thus, here are my annotated offerings:

·Swimming Pool: Stunning, symbolic, engendering much debate afterward about the “meaning” of the film. I tend not to like linear story lines, and thus tend to gravitate toward the symbolic. (It makes my movie-going friends crazy, bythe way.) My interpretation of the film is that the story line was imaginary and represented the coming-to-life again (as well as the plot of the latest novel) of the striking middle-aged character portrayed by Charlotte Rampling. I have admired her work ever since “The Night Porter,” which remains a perennial favorite. (Confession of a true cinephile: When I trudged through the unbearable grounds of Auschwitz, I turned to my friend and remarked sotto voce “Now you understand Night Porter, yes?” “Indeed,” he replied … “Indeed.”
·Irreversible: Gaspar Noe has created a film that I cannot erase from my mind. Would I recommend it to others? Absolutely not. It is, by far, the most violent film I have ever seen, but it is that same realistic violence that has seared two scenes into memory. Normally, I abhor film violence, but after seeing this, I wonder if I avoid the current crop of violent films because they timidly tread the edges of deep, down-and-dirty true violence (a la Tarantino). The story is told in reverse, and opens with a stomach-churning murder scene, and later presents a rape that is the most agonizing scene I have ever witnessed on film – and Noe’s camera never cuts away, never flinches. I see shades of early Kubrick in his work as well.
·The Pianist: Although technically not a 2003 film, the DVD version was released then, so I include it. I have always been a Polanski fan, but always sensed that he distanced himself from his subject matter (perhaps related to his expat status). The Pianist changed that. Since I’ve lived in Warsaw off and on since 1995, the devastation of Warsaw has particular meaning for me. When I read Szpilman’s book for the first time, I took note of street names and discovered – to my astonishment – that the apartment I still sublet is located one block from his hiding place throughout the war. There is also a powerful shot of the destroyed city that is heartbreaking to watch for one who is deeply attached to Warsaw.
·Lost in Translation: For the reasons that have been given by many other viewers, as well as the palpable sense of unrealized longing (and jet lag) that permeates the film.
·I also saw one film in the “Trilogy” series during the excellent French Film Festival in Sydney last March. It was quite a wonderful find:

Posted by: Maureen on December 13, 2003 12:03 PM

Also, my (very) short list of film actors that I just don’t “get”:

Russell Crowe: His exaggerated, hyper-masculinity leaves me cold. I enjoyed his work in Romper Stomper and The Insider, but the latest incarnation of Mr. Crowe is most definitely not appealing, and is rapidly approaching the repulsive. I much prefer tortured intellectuals :)

So sue me.

Posted by: Maureen on December 13, 2003 12:30 PM

Michael -- "Senses" is indeed fairly represented by that higher end of film-buffery which calls itself "cinephilia". They're actually a good part of the reason why, for all that I love movies and have seen about 2000 of the things in my life, I refuse to describe myself as a cinephile because I loathe the snobbery that comes with the term. Still, I do intend one day to submit my own top 10 list to them, although in the interests of diversity (not to mention perversity) I'll be restricting myself to films no one else has mentioned yet. I will do a top 10 for this year too, though I want to wait until the year's fully over before doing so.

Maureen -- agree entirely on "The Pianist" (which only hit local cinemas this year). Even though it's not his own story, there's a real evident personal connection between Polanski and the material in that film. The only other Polanski film I really like is "Macbeth", because I feel the same sort of personal connection between him and the story (there's a very good article by Mikita Brottman—I think—which argues the film was his response to the murder of Sharon Tate). I'm amazed to discover "Irreversible" is to be shown here next year, too, I'd have thought the censors would've put a match to it as soon as they saw it. Better go see it before Fred Nile complains about it...

Posted by: James Russell on December 14, 2003 2:17 AM

James: Sometimes, Fred Nile-ish figures can provide great amusement, and this is especially true in the case of Irreversible. If you check the list of films offered during the last French Film Festival, you will see that Noe's film has indeed seen the (murky) light of day in Sydney.

I love slipping one past the fanatical religious right. I guess he was preoccupied with Muslim veils, or similarly earth-shattering issues.

Posted by: Maureen on December 14, 2003 9:42 AM

James -- Eager to see your 2003 list, of course, and ultraeager to see what you decide to throw at the Senses of Cinema crowd. I did a little browsing and was surprised at how little they seem to have added to the usual Cahiers and Sight and Sound way of being a cinephile. You'd think the web would set free some new ways of thinking and responding. As for Polanski, put me down for his little thrillers: Knife in the Water, Repulsion, especially The Tenant, and even the Hugh Grant thing, whatever it was called. That semi-camp, genuinely creepy thing he does is something I find pretty sexy and compelling. I'm old enough (alas) to remember the release of his Macbeth, and I think I remember that it was fairly widely viewed as his response to the murder of Sharon Tate -- people were kind of shaking their heads about it.

Ah, me in self-promo mode: here's a posting that's half about "Irreversible." Like I say, glad I saw it, although nothing I'd recommend. Horrifying, churning, innovative if in a nightmare way, and hot in a way that makes you semi-hate yourself (though in an interesting way) for finding it hot. And, what the heck, it has Monica Bellucci.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on December 14, 2003 10:20 AM

Like Deb, I'm not sure I saw 10 films in 2003. My idea of "best" though is "most fun." Sometimes movies that may not hold up or be worth anyone else's time made a wonderful evening for me. And let's put Jeeper Creepers 2 in that category.

Really, this has been an awful year, entertainment-wise. Bad opera, bad concerts, bad theater, bad comedy. Good year for hiking, thought. Excellent. What would happen if someone were to write a "10 Best" list and stop at, say, six in the given category and then conclude that was it, there were not more, and fill in the last four with other events???

Posted by: j.c. on December 15, 2003 10:54 AM

Yeah, this was a hard year to put together 10 best films. (I couldn't do it. Yet.) Ain't that sad?

Posted by: Yahmdallah on December 15, 2003 11:14 AM

I don't think it's possible to make a useful answer to the "50 years from now" question. Movie technology is changing rapidly, and this will lead to changes in movie economics, and movie structure. 50 years from now, the standard format for a movie may be 12 hours of segments linked non-linearly in a matrix, viewed interactively on an Imax type screen or with a 'virtual-reality' headset.

Or consider this: within 50 years, and very probably within 20 years, maybe even in 10 years, it will be possible to replace live actors with fully realistic CGI constructs. Which means that the viewer will be relieved of the need to pretend that the face on the screen isn't that of a very familiar actor. A viewer accustomed to seeing characters imagined 'from scratch' might well regard old movies with live actors as pathetic: how could anyone take seriously a 'drama', 'adventure', or 'romance', where the 'characters' are easily recognizable as actors and the viewer is thus continually reminded the story is fake?

To make a comparison - what movies of 1925 were important in 1975?

Posted by: Rich Rostrom on December 15, 2003 9:07 PM

Rich -- I might offer The Phantom of the Opera (1925), with its German Expressionist influence. It remains one of my favorite films, largely due to Lon Chaney's intensely physical performance.

Posted by: Maureen on December 16, 2003 6:12 PM

Thank you!

Posted by: FREE PORN on May 29, 2004 7:13 PM

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