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.]

Five happy songs with unhappy lyrics

For the first in a series of attempting to highlight ambiguously defined trends in music, here’s a pointless rundown of a few songs featuring an incongruous contrast between the downbeat subject matter and the upbeat musical timbre.  This is definitely not a waste of anybody’s time.

1. Johnny Cash – Ring of Fire

When you hear that opening brass fanfare, it’s a guarantee everyone is up on their feet at the wedding reception/east London indie club/teenage house party.  This is a song which transcends age, race, creed or musical snobbery.  But have ever really listened to it?  It’s depressing as fuck, either a tragic metaphor for romantic rejection or a needlessly graphic account of post-curry defecation.  “I fell in to a burning ring of fire, I went down, down, down, and the flames went higher. And it burns, burns, burns; the ring of fire.”  Yeesh. Pass the talcum powder.

2. Tunng – Hands

Tunng are an impossibly sweet British folk band with lashings of electronica invading their softly melodic acoustic guitars.  Listening to them is analogous to soaking in a bath of distilled loveliness.  But they relish being a bit dark.  The lyrics on Hands (musically, a delightful, friendly little tune) are a bit like an episode of Eastenders, opening on man who can’t resuscitate his wife, before launching into this cheerful chorus: ‘We sing as the sky falls down, We sing as the sky collapses, And make of this what we can, It’s ok, we’re all going to end up dead and gone.”   These may be the nicest emos you will ever meet.

3. Eels – Your Lucky Day In Hell

There are a few candidates from Mr E’s discography, to be honest; the man has a habit of making upbeat, bouncy indie with an undercurrent of melancholy, and ‘World of Shit’ is certainly a close second.  But ‘Your Lucky Day in Hell’ just about snags it.  It’s the chorus which really kicks it, the whimpering refrain ‘Never know who it might be at your doorbell‘ in the vague HOPE that the Reaper will drag you down to Beelzebub’s lair, set to inoffensive 90s pop-rock.

4. Joy Division – Love Will Tear Us Apart

Perhaps getting a bit obvious now, but ignore the resoundingly bleak words and listen to that music.  Quite chipper, isn’t it?  It’s in the major key, and those eighties synths almost seem closer to new wave than post-punk.  Of course, the lyrics, sung in that incredible baritone of 23-year-old Ian Curtis, are nothing if not disturbing, especially with impending Curtis’ suicide, just months after the song was released.  ‘When routines bite hard, And ambitions are low, And resentment runs high, But emotions won’t grow.’  As sad and poetic as music can ever be.

5. The Doors – Alabama Song

Originally written by Bertolt Brecht, this is one of the more cheerful tracks on the blues rock legends’ self-titled debut; it has a choppy edge of gypsy folk, and the “Show me the way to the next whiskey bar” refrain will, when selected on a jukebox, rouse the patrons of a pub into merry singing unison.  But this is a song about alcoholism (“For if we don’t find the next whiskey bar/I tell you we will die” and prostitution (“Well show me the way to the next little girl”). Blues to the bitter end.

Because there haven’t been enough lists lately: My top 10 films of 2010

10. Lebanon

This one never really got a look-in outside the arthouse world, partly because it’s mostly in Hebrew, and partly because – like Buried – it spends its entire screentime trapped inside an enclosed space, in this case, a tank. The word ‘claustrophobic’ doesn’t do it justice.

9. Another Year

Nestled amongst the whizz-bang releases of Hollywood was the latest from Brit legend Mike Leigh, doing what he really does do best – make an honest film about ordinary people in which not a great deal of drama or conflict takes place, but you leave the cinema feeling like you have seem something true and real.

8. A Prophet

A taut French thriller in the greatest tradition, A Prophet is terrifically well put-together drama, portraying prison thugs with confidence, ease, and often excruciating detail.  A gripping and convincing portrait of a complex criminal underworld.

7. Four Lions

Chris Morris is simultaneously loved by fans of British comedy and reviled by the tabloids, who once heralded him “Britain’s most hated man”.  Never one to shirk controversy, his first film is a comedy about suicide bombing, which balances masterfully between sweet, charming humour and brutal, disturbing satire.

6. Kick-Ass

A flop which should have been a hit, Kick-Ass was never going to win the love of the mainstream with a thirteen-year-old girl violently murdering criminals she calls “cunts”.  But this detail overshadows what is easily the best non-Canadian comicbook movie of the year.  The sequel will be a treat.

5. Exit Through The Gift Shop

Banksy’s debut film never got a wide release, but it’s worth a look. It manages to be a fascinating mini-history of street art, and a devastating portrait of a bizarre, eccentric Frenchman who fancies himself as the next Andy Warhol.  Just don’t ask if it’s fake or not.

5. Toy Story 3

The world waits for when Pixar will make a bad film, but it hasn’t happened yet.  Toy Story 3 is the eleventh critical and commercial success in a row (out of eleven), and this was their biggest one yet, with over a billion at the box office.  It’s also one of their best, and a fitting end to an extraordinary trilogy.

4. The Social Network

A one-two punch success in David Fincher’s directing and Aaron Sorkin’s writing, this was a perfect formula, and it delivered.  Even though it documented recent, well known history, it still managed to be surprising, fascinating and gripping.

3. Buried

Never quite achieving the mainstream success it could have had, perhaps because the studio didn’t know how the hell to market it – a guy is stuck in a box for an hour and a half? And that’s thrilling, is it?  – but Buried managed to be more thrilling than most ‘thrillers’ released this year, thanks to its perfect combo of a great script, a great director, and a great leading man in the form of Ryan Reynolds, who gives the performance of his life.

2. Scott Pilgrim Vs The World

When the teaser trailer for Edgar Wright’s third film hit the interwebs, a black hole of hype threatened to envelop the comic adaptation.  And, like Kick-Ass before it, the hype did not translate into a box-office success.  This is unfortunate and hopefully will not preclude the cult status this film deserves, for this is a dazzling, inventive, barmy wild ride of a movie, a lesson in caffeine-fuelled pace and energy, and an impressive showcase for Wright’s directorial box of tricks. Like most films on this list, best seen on a big screen, too.

1. Inception

It hardly need to be explained to you why Christopher Nolan’s epic, intelligent blockbuster has made it to the top of this list.  You need only look at the myriad of other top 10 lists who have prominently featured it to get a sense of the extraordinary impact it has left on cinema in 2010.  In fact, you needn’t look any further than this very website, which has championed the film from the start, and quite accurately named it Nolan’s “magnum opus” in our review.  So there is no need to explain why Inception is the film of 2010 – either you know this for yourself, or you’ve yet to see it.

A version of this article originally appeared on ObsessedWithFilm.com

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