A list of reasons why I don’t like lists


It’s that time of year when every film critic and blogger worth his or her sodium chloride churns out another countdown of their favourite films of the previous twelve months.  I don’t much like top 10 lists. They prescribe – with all the haughtiness of a mid-level civil service bureaucrat – order where there is chaos. It’s a pleasing notion to think that opinions can be categorised as sequential facts. But it’s wrong, I tell you! Wrong! That notion is misguided at best!

Simon Kinnear has written far more eloquently on this problem than I ever could, but broadly speaking I see five major problems with the concept of “the ten best of XX year” lists:

  1. The implication that the writer has seen ALL of the films released in that year is insane. To see all films released in one calendar year is a gruelling undertaking that even the hardiest of film hacks will manage. As Simon notes, literary critics don’t bother with this sort of nonsense. Why would they? (This is a particular problem for so-called ‘Greatest Films of All Time’ lists, which supposes that the writer has seen all of the films, all films ever made, every single one, even the Police Academy sequels and corporate motivational videos and porn.)
  2. You are comparing apples with oranges. But also comparing them pears, kumquats and dingleberries. Isn’t modern cinema too diverse to be stacked up side-by-side? Amour is probably the best film I’ve seen this year. But to compare it to The Cabin In The Woods – probably the film I most enjoyed watching – is a futile exercise, and a disservice to both. How do you quantify these things? Surely the measures of your viewing satisfaction are wildly variable?
  3. In our internet age, lists provoke some of the worst levels commenting debate, in which “where the hell is such-and-such?” or “how can so-and-so be higher/lower than and-so-forth” feature heavily, and bitterly. Witness the vitriol directed at the Guardian for placing Ted at number 2 on their list, or at Empire for placing The Avengers at number 1. Lists do nothing to contribute to the dialogue between creator and critic, and fog the real debate that should be had.
  4. Lists – particularly film critic’s lists – are tiresomely homogenous, to the point where critics seem almost apologetic about it. Once you’ve read one list, you’ve pretty much read them all. Metacritic lists 17 critics who place The Master at number one, and another 17 who put Zero Dark Thirty there. Most lists will contain some combination of the same twenty or so films.
  5. Lists suggest objectivity where there is only subjectivity. These are just opinions. This year, Sight & Sound’s decennial critic poll deemed Vertigo better than Citizen Kane. I don’t agree with this. There is no empirical evidence to prove this, beyond the votes of a few hundred people. But it is presented as fact. It’s not. It’s just opinion.

[Of course, having said all that, I’m a massive hypocrite and have in fact come up with a list of my favourite films of 2012. I have an excuse: this year I’ve been fortunate enough to write a few pieces (see here, and here) for The Skinny, the culture mag Scottish people are all too lucky to have. They asked me for my top 10: that – and the excellent collective top 10 – can be read here.]

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