Year in Film: Number nine — with a bullet

There is something pretty silly, it seems to me, about knocking the concept of the top 10 list. Not in the way that it’s silly to knock year-end awards and nominations, which is kind of like taking the bold position that Joseph Stalin was a prick. No, top 10 lists, being the choices of individuals (sort of — I know I at least can be easily influenced), are not nearly worthless enough for that. What’s silly about knocking them is that doing so requires a denial of the fact that clearly, at some point in human evolution, we were hardwired to appreciate the level of informational tidiness that corresponds to the top 10 list, a smart little package that says unequivocally, "Here’s the deal right here. Now leave me alone." It may not be the best feature of our nature, but by God, it’s ours.

Also silly is the strange assumption that the author or the reader of the top 10 list attaches more importance to it than to the body of considered criticism the writer has composed during the other 364 days of the year. Oftentimes authors knock their lists in their introductions, probably to preempt any charges of presumptuousness or reductionism.

And yet I’m always disappointed when an anticipated top 10 shows up unburdened by commentary, the critic bowing out of delivering some cleverly wrought statement of the obvious. As much as I love the tidy little lists, it is this by-product, this fuzzy mold of qualification growing around the tradition, that, for me, is the real joy of the annual verdicts.

For an undertaking so often characterized by noncritics as arrogant and autocratic, criticism is awfully well saddled with caveats and contingencies, and there are certainly no shortage of self-directed smirks. I used to be terribly impressed by all of this mutinous talk about fuzziness, the perennial anti–top 10 two-step around the idea of inherent artistic worth. But although I’m certainly no less a fan of these pieces than I ever was, I find that these little rebellions tend to lose their sense of urgency as they continue to accumulate. The more of them there are, the more it seems like knocking top 10s is its own charmingly musty, imperfect tradition.

There are a variety of ways to knock the top 10. The safest and probably most respectable is to accessorize such a list with a self-effacing wink, as in this barely registered sigh from a Village Voice blog: "Most of us labor under the delusion that people actually care about what we think, that people will painstakingly scrutinize our top-ten lists and judge us accordingly." (My falsely modest sentiments exactly.) This low-stakes approach can lose respectability, though, with the addition of uninspired aggression, as in Anthony Kaufman’s kvetch from a 2005 top 10 that Indiewire.com apparently bullied him into writing: "As I have written before, I believe the process of creating a top 10 list is a fickle pursuit. And ranking films is even more slippery. But in our hierarchical America’s Next Top Model world …"

I hope I’m not sounding snide — I really am a fan. And I don’t want to imply that I think the list-making practice is (exclusively) onanistic. It is, after all, a key component of the system of checks and balances that tempers an artwork’s rise to historical indestructibility. But I will say it’s the element of solipsism in top tennery I’m attracted to, the peek into the part of the critic’s brain that isn’t worrying about the legacy of the films (I never trust all that crusading rhetoric) so much as just getting it right in his or her own head. All of this refining and complicating what it means to produce something so straightforward as a list feels to me like the critic at play. There’s almost a meditative quality to it.

In 2004, Louis Menand wrote an enjoyably snotty New Yorker article about the absurdity of year-end list making, a piece that is practically a list itself of the list maker’s crimes. It bats at the tradition like a toy mouse, playing the game by proudly working out the rules: "In a mass-market publication, a movie list should contain one foreign-language film that few readers have heard of…. Conversely, in an "alternative" or highbrow publication the movie list needs one blockbuster — one film the critic liked despite the fact that everyone else liked it."

This stuff is like the wrapping paper that ends up being way more interesting than the actual gift. I do get excited over the lists, and I do find them extremely helpful in a limited way, but after about 20, I hardly register them and instead head straight for the disclaimers.

Of course, Menand’s piece is hardly self-effacing. It’s closer to the carnivorous end of the spectrum, where the critic doesn’t worry too terribly about the value of listing itself and is primarily interested in pouncing on the bountiful stupidities the activity has incubated. The takedowns of other critics’ opinions are part cultural quality control, part self-serving bullying, and just good clean fun all around.

You can see all three shining through in one of this year’s early and distinguished offensives, carried out on the blog of one of my favorite film sites, Reverse Shot. (The main page can be pretty ornery, but something about the blog brings out the John Simon in the writers, causing them to rip into people with a wit that’s almost pathologically cruel. Their readers regularly tsk-tsk them in the comments section.)

The Reverse Shot attack was directed at Richard Corliss, who’d pretty much painted a target on his face by writing in Time that Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep, number three on his list, is the finest film ever made by a black director. "That’s right," Reverse Shot crows, "the ‘finest film … by a black director’ (note: NOT ‘black American’) is the third best movie of the year behind No Country for Old Men and The Lives of Others. Sorry Spike Lee and Ousmane Sembene, you’ve made some good movies, but nothing quite as good as The Lives of Others." A quality blow, though I have to say the same syllogistic scrutiny would likely topple the logic structures of plenty of worthier top 10s than Corliss’s — you can almost see how the whole concept of the top 10 could be discredited with a simple mathematical proof.

In previous years Corliss has also had to put up with smart-ass crusader S.T. VanAirsdale, who’s made a name for himself over at the Reeler site — both for quality control and for bullying — with his annual "Top 10 Top 10s" list, in which he compiles the year’s most inane examples. It’s been a hoot of a bloodbath the past couple of years, and it should be again (no doubt Corliss will make the team in ’07 too — there was a lot to observe in his Time piece). This year’s list wasn’t posted by press time, but VanAirsdale has written that he’s already prepared to take on "the high tide of hype that washes out entire habitats of superb cinema built throughout the year — and start the clean-up." Hyperbolic and a touch messianic, yeah, but the man gives me something to look forward to when I’ve reached my list threshold, so he can go ahead and have himself a little complex as far as I’m concerned. It’s funny, though, that we have opposing metaphors for all of this list talk. He thinks of it as cleaning up, while I see it as reestablishing the mess.

A wise reader of top 10s already knows this mess is implied and doesn’t need all of the attendant eye rolling. But we don’t need Christmas, either.

JASON SHAMAI’S TOP 10

To avoid condemning syllogisms, the order of the following list is scrambled, and only I have the code. Even the alternates could have been number one. Also, I couldn’t think of a whole lot of movies this year that didn’t bug me at least part of the time, so here is a highly unsatisfying, subjective-like-you-know-your-momma-is (and yet still surprisingly safe) list of what would be the best films of 2007 if I were allowed to have a go at them with my Windows Movie Maker.

1. No Country for Old Men (Ethan Coen and Joel Coen, US) Minus Javier Bardem’s weirdly praised performance of the same old "enigmatic," blaringly quiet psychopath, and the mariachi band, and the unhelpful car thing at the end.

2. Blade Runner: The Final Cut (Ridley Scott, US) Minus the tonally jarring bits of the score.

3. 12:08 East of Bucharest (Corneliu Porumboiu, Romania) Minus the reminder of its elusive transatlantic travel buddy, 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, still unseen and waiting to be loved.

4. Away from Her (Sarah Polley, Canada) Minus the roles of Marian and the ultrainformative staffer, the lame "clusterfuck" joke, and Gordon Pinsent’s sweater.

5. Superbad (Greg Mottola, US) Minus the stuff that wasn’t as funny as the really funny stuff.

6. 28 Weeks Later (Joan Carlos Fresnadillo, UK/Spain) Minus Planet Terror‘s having already killed off zombies this year with a helicopter blade, diminishing with its curatorial kitsch a set piece that was shocking and beautiful.

7. Zodiac (David Fincher, US) Minus Chloë Sevigny’s reprisal of every 2-D role in Hollywood calling for a disapproving, killjoy wife.

8. I’m Not There (Todd Haynes, US) Minus the Heath Ledger–Charlotte Gainsbourg Blood on the Tracks strand (see Chloë Sevigny above), the performance of Marcus Carl Franklin, and the vague, uneasy feeling that the movie didn’t really need to be made.

9. Red Road (Andrea Arnold, Australia) Minus the closure.

10. Killer of Sheep (Charles Burnett, US) Minus nothing.

Alternates

The Simpsons Movie (David Silverman, US) Minus everyone’s requirement that it be as brilliant as the show once was.

Once (John Carney, Ireland) Minus the shitty music.

A Mighty Heart (Michael Winterbottom, US/UK) Minus the uncomfortable politics of making such a movie.