Free Film School #130: Year-End Top Tens

Welcome, class, to the 130th week in CraveOnline‘s Free Film School. I hope you’ve learned something. This week’s lecture is going to be a little different, as I, as your humble professor, need to get something off of my chest. I want to talk about the ubiquitous news phenomenon of the year-end top-10 list. True, this is a topic that pertains more particularly to film journalism than to film in general, but hear me out.

I just compiled my list of the ten best films of 2013. The list was so strong that every film on it could easily take the #1 spot, and I wouldn’t complain. I did, however, through journalistic necessity, choose a #1 film of the year, which means I have to stand behind it as the single best film of the year (and even then, I feel that my choice was a bit controversial; I am allowed to renege in conversation), but I feel that putting any one of 2013’s film “on top” is a little irresponsible.

Many critics – and I’m sure some of you share the following sentiment – both love and hate year-end top-10 lists. We love reminiscing over the year, taking stock of what we have seen, and compiling a list of the ones we felt were actually worth our time. For people who see dozens (if not hundreds) of films a year (I saw exactly 150 new films in theaters this year), it’s a relief to think of the few that made the trips to the screens worthwhile. And we’re enthused to share! We’re going to trumpet the ones we love.

It’s when it comes to ranking them that the problems arise. Everyone writes top-10 lists, even non-professionals. Look on Twitter or Facebook, and you’ll see people declaring this-or-that to be the best film of the year. But can one say that the seventh-best film of the year is significantly better than the eighth-best? Critics agonize over the ranking, not wanting to give short shrift to films they loved by putting them “too low” on the list. List your films alphabetically, and people cry foul, wondering why you weren’t able to select one single “greatest.” Editors and audiences want, essentially, a mathematical aggregate to gauge which films were the best.

Of course one only has to go to Rotten Tomatoes to see the aggregate in action.

When you come right down to it, though, even measuring “best films” by year becomes increasingly irrelevant as time passes. Over the course of passing history, as decades flee into memory, certain films begin to emerge as classics, while others fade into obscurity. After a while, the year a film came out will only serve as an historical indicator; a marker by which to judge its context. A great film, ultimately, is going to be great no matter what year it came out.

But this time of year, every entertainment website has at lest one top-ten list to peruse and ponder, and we’re forced to pick a best. We like to compete, even in the film world, and our central conflict is what film will “win.”

What is ultimate arbiter of what the best film of the year really is, though? It’s easy to say “your own taste” and leave it there, allowing you to be your own judge (hey, if you liked The Hobbit, more power to you), but the journalistic and cinematic reality is far more complex. We have our own opinions, but often we require validation. We seek a scorecard. Critics who agree with us and who can back up our opinions. We also seek winners. Which is why we give out Academy Awards.

But no single list (not even your own), and especially not the Academy Awards, can be the ultimate endgame for an objective “Best Film of the Year.” You may not have seen some of the best, for one (I know I missed a few palpable contenders myself). One needs several lists to look over, several reminders, and maybe even a few convincing arguments. And even then, you’ll not have narrowed the list down to one or two, but a full list of 10.

What’s more, many critics don’t try to pick the “obvious” choices. Some of the well-regarded and much-talked-about films of the year may be charted low on their lists because, well, those films have already been talked about. Some critics try to make a real and actual chart of the best. Others try to use the top ten as an excuse to recommend some obscure films that you may not have heard of, and let smaller films get some exposure.

Indeed, is that not the ultimate function of year-end top ten lists? To act as recommendations? There is a science-like quality to the lists, but I think we need to think of them differently. If we see them as reminiscences and recommendations, and we abandon our innate need to put a single film “on top,” then perhaps we can enjoy every list for what it is: A single critic’s walk down memory lane, and a desperate plea to watch better movies.

So take my list with a grain of salt. Take every list with a grain of salt. They are definitive, yes, but they are more pragmatic than you think. I encourage you to abandon some of the hard-line notions that come (conceptually) with the very notion of a “top ten” and just look at a big pile of great movies. We don’t necessarily need “the greatest,” because, well, we can all live with “great.”

Homework for the Week:

What were the ten best films you saw in 2013? Was there a definite “#1” on your list? What makes it best? How many films did you see? How many potentially “great” films did you miss? Would you be content if critics listed their ten favorite films alphabetically? To the Wonder wasn’t a bad choice, right?  

Witney Seibold is a featured contributor on the CraveOnline Film Channel, and co-host of The B-Movies Podcast. You can read his weekly articles Trolling, Free Film School and The Series Project, and follow him on “Twitter” at @WitneySeibold, where he is slowly losing his mind.