It wouldn’t be awards season if the leading voices of Film Twitter – and TV Twitter, Book Twitter, Podcast Twitter, and Food Twitter – weren’t aflutter about the “best” and “worst” offerings of their respective mediums this year.
When I began working as a film critic for the now-defunct Bay Area magazine Medium Rare TV, it was expected that the writers would publish a Top 10 list at the end of every year. I balked at this requirement and only relented in the end because the site celebrated and advocated for media created, produced, and oriented around women, people of color, and LGBTQ innovators.
Writing a listicle felt definitely immature and borderline insipid to me as a just-recently-teenaged critic; but if it exposed my readers to underseen and underdiscussed work, perhaps it would be worthwhile.
After I left Medium Rare in 2012 to found CineMalin, we decided that we would never use the site for end-of-year lists or clickbait, or to launch promotional trailers. It isn’t that CineMalin is somehow above that kind of reportage: on the contrary, we as cinephiles and art lovers are in dire need of commercially-friendly slideshows and editorials that highlight the kind of independent and avant-garde works that so often fly under-the-radar.
A Top 10 Experimental Films of 2017 Made by Queer Artists list, for instance, would be a most welcome innovation.
But earlier this year, I was asked to participate in a critics’ survey by email, in which I buried several satirical responses. It was barely days after a film festival ended, and I had yet to see all of the major selections. Nonetheless, my answers were published both without my consent and, remarkably, without any awareness that my personal choices were personal, not public.
To my mind, this thoughtless failure to recognize that my answers were not honestly publishable is not the failure of the editors: it is simply part-and-parcel of a culture of publishing lists and surveys in simplistic, spreadsheet-friendly formats without an ongoing dialogue about the writer’s feelings between artists, authors, and publishers.
As many a journalist before me has noted, Top 10 and Best Of pieces put art and artists in public competition with one another, jostling for the possible financial and egotistical bump that coveted space on a well-known critic’s list can bring. Said another way: they force us to pit apples and oranges, non-narrative documentaries and broad comedies, into a battle to be named Best Art.
This inevitably begets not only the Darwinian strategizing that the Weinstein Company used for years to develop its widely formulaic “awards-worthy” projects (which, for decades, were theatrically released around this time of year to much ballyhooing), but also a sort of widespread cultural blindness to the concept of internal subjectivity.
That is to say: those who have been in this game as long as I have know that as soon as her/their/his list is published, there is always a marginal risk that what they might feel the next day, the day after that, or six months later, will be drastically different.
Cinema, television, music – these are interactive mediums, with ever-shifting trends and resonances, and how we respond to them shifts in kind from day-to-day.
Consider how much more honest – and effective – a Top 10 Films of 2017 list would be if the critic who wrote it revisited it once a month, every month, for a year. While I readily acknowledge the difficulty of organizing and maintaining such a thread, at least readers could then trust the list as a batch of solid recommendations, rather than spastic, annually-enforced professional obligations.
Obviously, I am aware that a screed against Top 10 lists is even more of a cliché than the lists themselves at this point. And other critics have found ways to enliven the format, most famously in the case of David Ehrlich’s Top 25 video countdowns, which I anxiously anticipate every year. Far be it from me to beat a dead horse.
However, some writers seem to think that by shitting on the concept of having to write a list – or stipulating so many caveats and provisos that you just want to die – makes it somehow more acceptable, and less creatively compromised, for them to pretend like they do not have a Top 10 list buried within their begrudgingly-written piece. They produce “Not a Top 10” lists, randomly selected and ironic in tone, as if to say: “I am fully aware of the shallowness of this exercise, and the possibility of contributing to a pedagogical history of ‘acclaimed’ work, so this doesn’t really count.”
I vehemently disagree. As Louis C.K. proved to many of us this year, self-awareness does not count as an automatic “Get Out of Jail Free” card. Just because your list is ranked alphabetically instead of by quality, expressly representative only of your punk taste, and casually sarcastic does not mean that you’ve broken the format open through metatextual Charlie Kaufmanesque self-inquiry.
Moreover, one cannot begin to rank and position works of art against one another when the boundaries around what qualifies as art are so widely disagreed upon (unless one has entirely and intentionally ignored any nontraditional pieces of media so as to have a clear conscience come listicle season).
This year, for example, the feature films I most admired were equal in their impact on me as many short films, both experimental and narratively straightforward; movies made for streaming services or screened originally on television; virtual reality projects; and comedy specials, each with its own virtues.
If a one-hour stand-up special pleased me as greatly as a one-and-a-half-hour fiction feature, can it go on the list? When was the last time you saw a VR movie on a critic’s end-of-year wrap-up? And where do we, as a community of journalists, get off arguing over what kind of art something is when its creators already categorized it for us?
I’m not the first critic to ask these questions, nor will I be the last. Perhaps it’s all for naught: Top 10 lists are proliferating, in every field and genre, to the point where even those writers who held off on them for years seem to be broken down, kowtowed by their overwhelming audience appeal.
How post-modern the subgenre of “Top 10 But In No Particular Order and Not Even Really a Top 10” articles will get going forward, I can’t say. But let’s acknowledge for the moment that since critics’ lists are online indefinitely, to be clicked on and shared and argued over like so many pieces of meat, many dozens of other works not included on the most popular lists fall off the cliffside of pop culture into watercooler-less obscurity as a result.
To my mind, such lists are symptomatic of the Pavlovian, destructive editorial group-think that has led so many publications to “pivot to digital” this year.
Such is the nature of competitions, however artificially constructed. Contrary to what the 2018 Academy Awards might tell us, the best films of 2017 are self-sustaining complements to one another, each with a perspective of unique wisdom and intellect at its core, rather than antagonists in a battle for Most Relevant, Best Edited, or Goodest.
Nor is the year in television – especially one so massive that it is logistically impossible to ingest completely – a race against cinema, YouTube videos, podcasts, video games, or any other kind of media for approval. Critics’ lists only fuel this fire, yet our only collective response is to acknowledge (infrequently) that we are demeaning media-makers and creatives by writing them.
If you really want art made for art’s sake, stop making it cockfight.