Reader Forum: Why Do You Read End-of-Year Top 10 Lists?

A few weeks ago, I was chatting with a webmaster for a fellow movie website who was voicing his distaste for lists that featured “Top 2008″ movies drastically different from what other critics picked. To him, these types of lists smacked of opportunism and a crass desire to be different for the sake of being different. At the time, I agreed with him. In fact, when I heard Filmspotting give their top 10 movies of 2008 (This is a great episode of an always-great podcast and I highly recommend you give it a download. Full disclosure: I make an appearance in voicemail form to defend Slumdog Millionaire), I was struck by how Michael Phillips from the Chicago Tribune derogatorily explained that 2008 was overall a lackluster year for movies, then proceeded to list 10 movies that most of the moviegoing public hasn’t had a chance to see yet (i.e. some were films he saw in 2007 at festivals like Cannes). On a visceral level, such lists are frustrating because they perpetuate the idea that the critic knows better than the lay filmgoer (if there is such a thing). The choices sound pretentious because they imply access to a whole slate of films that the are inaccessible to the general public. But upon further consideration, I think it’s safe to say that while there are some critics who create these lists purely out of a spirit of contrarianism, more often than not, we’re just demonstrating our idiosyncrasies as film critics/reviewers.

This Monday night, the /Film podcast is going run through our favorite movies of 2008. It’s a fun tradition, and one that actually got us started talking about movies together in the first place. But this year, the tenor of conversation surrounding critics’ lists seems to me more poisonous than in years past. Let’s acknowledge the elephant in the room, of course: Most web readers are essentially evaluating lists based on two criteria: 1) Does it have The Dark Knight on it? and 2) how high is The Dark Knight on the list? If the answer to both these questions is favorable, lavish praise will follow. The absence of Nolan’s film on lists will invite obscene insults of the strongest caliber.

But this led me to wonder: Why exactly do people read these lists anyway?

Earlier this week, Salon film critic Stephanie Zacharek published her list of “The 10 Best Movies of 2008.” I won’t reproduce the list here, but it has picks that I probably agree with (e.g. Iron Man), while featuring other picks that are a bit unconventional (e.g. Cadillac Records, Ghost Town). Perhaps more interesting were the movies she put on her “Honorable Mentions” list: Transporter 3, You Don’t Mess with the Zohan, The House Bunny, Twilight and High School Musical 3 (For my money, Transporter 3 isn’t even in the top 2 Transporter movies for me, so to see it make Zacharek’s list of Honorable Mentions of 2008 was utterly baffling. Also, Twilight?!).

Overall, the reaction to Zacharek’s list was unkind on Zacharek’s own comment board. Here is a taste of some of the hatred spewed forth by her readers:

Stephanie: I’ve hated your reviews for a long time because you trashed La Vie en Rose, and because I have spent hundreds of dollars watching miserable crap you’ve praised time after time. I’ve been following your reviews intently to see if you are crazy or simply a pretentious douchebag. Now, you publish this list and it’s obvious that you are both. You are also the sorriest excuse for a critic I’ve ever seen. I guess I’ll stick to reading Andrew [O'Hehir's]‘s reviews and only Andrew’s reviews and wonder how can Salon employ you. Maybe they are douchebags as well who watched Twilight and You Don’t Mess With The Zohan gleefully while clipping their toenails and abusing their Blackberries (or iPhones) in the darkness of the multiplex. Steph, with all due respect to you as a person… you’re just the worst critic out there

You are kidding!!! You really screwed up. Why would anyone think you know the best movies. I can think of several that are better than most of the ones you listed.

Get a new film reviewer before it’s too late – With all due respect Stephanie Zacharek, she has to be the least credible film critic in the top notch press. She apparently has a driving need to distinguish herself from other critics by placing such extraordinary films as Twilight and Hellboy 2 on her top ten of 2008. I also admired her inclusion of a film that has yet to be released, which proves she is in the smallest of inner circles. Wow! It’s not that she has a predilection for French movies, but her taste and manner are relatively vapid. She displays little insight in her interviews and is far too personal and narrow. Please get a new reviewer before Salon looses more subscribers. There are much smarter and interesting reviewers out there looking for work. This was, by far, the least impressive listing of top ten movies I have yet seen. Pathetic.

Zacharek’s list also led to a fairly interesting back-and-forth between my colleague Devindra Hardawar and CHUD EIC Devin Faraci on Twitter. Hardawar and I have seen our affinity for Zacharek’s reviews plunge this year, as Zacharek ferociously ripped The Dark Knight but praised other films that we thought were drastically less deserving, like the atrocious X-Files: I Want To Believe. Nonetheless, I’ve always found Zacharek to be a thoughtful viewer and an analytical writer (Steph, if you’re reading this, you’re always welcome on the show! Just shoot me an e-mail).

Hardawar’s reaction to Zacharek’s list was toxic (as was mine, somewhat) but Faraci tried to take a more even-handed approach. “I don’t agree with her list, but it’s nice to see movies that aren’t big studio pap and spoonfed garbage getting listed,” Devin wrote. “Unless you’re going by some weird math equation, any ‘best of’ ranking of art will ALWAYS be wildly subjective.” Faraci is, of course, correct: While we might expect critics to be able to evaluate certain “objective” elements of films in an impartial manner (although even this characterization is fraught with problems), anything a critic says is always going to subjectively reflect the myriad quirky personality traits that make a person who they are. Nowhere is this more clear than in Top 10 Movies lists.

In some ways this argument is a repeat of the debate that was had this past summer when writers like David Edelstein were forced to defend their views on The Dark Knight (see Edelstein’s original review of that film by clicking here). According to Edelstein:

…the Internet has a mob mentality that can overwhelm serious criticism. There is superb film writing in blogs and discussion groups — as good as anything I do. But there are also thousands of semi-literate tirades that actually reinforce the Hollywood status quo, that say: ‘If you do not like The Dark Knight (or The Phantom Menace), you should be fired because you do not speak for the people.’ Well, the people don’t need to be spoken for. And a critic’s job is not only to steer you to movies you might not have heard of or that died at the box office. It’s also to bring a different, much-needed perspective on blockbusters like The Dark Knight.

To this, all I can respond with is: Amen! And while I agree with any critical perspective that goes against the mob mentality of The Dark Knight, I also think that Edelstein’s broader points about the job of a film critic deserve more attention. Why do we read movie reviews? Why do we read top 10 lists?

I think there’s a lot of self-validation at work in these lists. We read these lists because we have strong feelings about films and as social creatures, we like to see our opinions validated. When allegedly respectable people disagree with us, we label their views as inferior. We express mock outrage because it’s fun to rip apart a writer on a message board or comments section. But ultimately, I think all of that misses the point. Lists, reviews, even news items: We should all read these things to be informed, not only about objective reality but also about subjective opinions. How else can our own opinions be refined and improved except in the presence of those that are opposed to ours? As the old adage goes, “Variety is the spice of life.” How boring, monotonous, and oppressive would it be if everyone just had the same opinion on every single film out there?

So in the spirit of Christmas, all I have to ask of you when you’re reading through your favorite critics’ top 10 lists this year is this: Be charitable. Be understanding. Be grateful that we live in a world where diversity of opinion can be cherished and can spawn intellectually challenging discussions. It’s a great big world wide web out there. There’s plenty of room for your opinion too.

Discuss: Why do you read Top 10 lists? Is it to see your own views confirmed? Is it to open your mind to new possibilities (i.e. films you haven’t seen or heard of before)? Or is it a genuine desire to see what a critic you like has to say about his/her favorite films?

[Photo by Flickr user fzer0]

David Chen can be reached at davechensemail(AT)gmail.com. You can also follow him on Twitter.

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