Why Writing Top Ten Best Lists Is the Worst

Particularly in 2018, says an RCL movie expert.

December 27, 2018 5:00 am

Penning a top-ten list would never make my top-ten favorite activities. It’s up there with selecting my favorite child (my daughter no, wait, my son), my favorite food (the Sophie’s Choice of steak, pizza or strawberries) or choosing my favorite water: Pellegrino, Stop ‘n Shop generic seltzer, Manhattan tap.

There’s a lot of hubris to the effort and a lot of ‘what will my peers think of me’ if I put Nic Cage’s Mandy on the list. (OK, I wouldn’t – because that full-frontal of Linus Roache and his character’s offer to save his life by doing something repulsive to Cage’s crazy may ruin reruns of Law & Order for me forever. Some things I can’t un-see, Executive Assistant D.A. Michael Cutter). But there are critics who did!  

Here are reasons I hate the process – particularly in 2018, which has been a mixed bag of plenty of good movies and a bounty of bad ones, too.

I just can’t. Every time I see A Star is Born atop a list I think my fellow critics must be on crack. The remake is a Bradley Cooper vanity production headed for some kind of apocalyptic end-of-aesthetics-as-we-know-them accolades come Oscar season. Cooper, from the dais, will be both humbled and honored. I can’t wait. What can be expected of a film where the signature song is “Shallow?” Not that it doesn’t have its value: it’s best seen with a gaggle of inebriated friends late at night like The Rocky Horror Picture Show. 

The apples and oranges factor. The pressure is on to include both the most obscure movie that was seen in a black box theater on the edge of Salonika and kid-pleasing Hollywood family fare – what can be made of a list that includes Nathaniel Dorsky’s Colophon (for the Arboretum Cycle) and Paddington 2? How do I choose between the glorious personal journey of Roma and the devastating political comedy of The Death of Stalin, both movies I can watch on endless loops?

There are some critics who have actually seen every movie of 2018. And the percentage of those reviewers that have a real life is about the percentage of African American women voting for Trump. For most, even those that have seen an average of five movies a week and hover at 300 to 500 per year, there must be gems from Iceland to Ethiopia that remain unseen.

The diversity spread. In the current climate, loathe be the critic who doesn’t do a little shifting to ensure that their list isn’t simply the best films but also mixes in ample women directors, those of color and LGBQT. This is laudable – but in a studio and independent system where white males still dominate the films in the pipeline, this could lead to stretching. And, here, I’ll add: BlacKkKlansman is a clumsy if well-cast period comedy based on a fantastic idea: a black man goes undercover in the Colorado KKK and meets Grand Wizard David Duke. But….it reflects Spike Lee’s fatal flaw: his inability to get out of his own way and tell the urgent story at the center of his movies.

Plain old elitism. Yes, Chloe Zhaoe’s The Rider may well be the year’s best movie. But how are you going to merrily discuss it at Christmas dinner with people who’ve never heard of it, didn’t have it playing in their town or spent their media budget binge watching Sharp Objects and Bodyguard? You’re Grinchy companions may be reduced to either feeling “I’m so stupid,” or thanking the lord they have a real paycheck – with medical benefits. This throw-down could result in the dreaded question: what are you going to do when arts journalism collapses in the gig economy – and what are the top ten media closures of 2018?

Overkill. It’s simply obvious – the same thirty films get recycled in the critical equivalent of virtue signaling

What is our obsession with ranking? It comes from the same primordial sludge as how big is…..or what’s in your wallet? I insist that Roma is a masterpiece and it resonates with my love of Fellini and my childhood on the San Diego-Tijuana border in the late 60s and 70s. But that was unlikely everybody’s experience and our tastemaker at the New Yorker, Richard Brody, crippled by his own lack of similar experience and empathy, took the opportunity to piss all over it this week. Is it time for a celebrity death match? You say potatoes….I say yams

There’s no such thing as an objective standard. I would even argue, just for yuks, that I prefer The Third Man or The Magnificent Ambersons to Orson Welles’ acknowledged masterpiece Citizen Kane. Ditto North by Northwest and Rear Window over Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo. More enlightened and genteel aesthetes may argue that it’s the subjectivity that what makes these lists interesting – the opportunity to compare and contrast, dissent and enter into a dialog. Bless them and Tiny Tim, too.    

Some movies get mired in the backwash of controversy. I loved Isle of Dogs and yet a backlash about cultural appropriation followed that poisoned the kibble for Wes Anderson this year. (Ask Quentin Tarantino, who swallowed Ringo Lam’s City on Fire and regurgitated it as Reservoir Dogs to much acclaim.


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