What’s in a list?

To The WonderIt’s around this time of year that lists start to pop up all over the internet; left, right and centre like bacteria multiplying on the cut side of a browning piece of fruit. I liken these lists to bacteria, for critics, as we all know, are parasites. Parasites, feeding on the creation of culture — chewing it, and swishing it around in our mouths, before spitting it out at our computer screens and seeing what sticks. I think I have a problem with lists.

The irony of my disenchantment with the ol’ listicle is that I, like most human beings I know, am prone to clicking on it. Snackable content is the precise reason why Buzzfeed is one of the most popular websites online right now. Lists are clickbait, and I just can’t resist a sneaky scroll through a good Top 10. And what’s wrong with a Top 10? There are entire websites devoted to lists, like Letterboxd, which allows you to tag films you’ve watched and create lists to keep track of them.

But the problem with lists, you see, is that they create a false sense of urgency. And I think this sense of urgency does a disservice to the very things that the list format claims to celebrate. Lists, especially lists of the Top 10 Best Whatever of This Year sort, are not a good way to clarify and quantify and reflect on the Best Things you have consumed during this calendar year. No. Not so.

We (and more specifically, I) trawl through list after list, looking for recommendations, invariably seeking out validation for where we put our time, our money, our mouths. I see the gaps in my own cultural diet reflected in the lists of others.

There is a strange sense of pressure that we impose upon ourselves, self-proclaimed pop-culture aficionados and anthropologists with our individual inflated senses of self-importance, to cram as much content as possible into the latter part of December. The winter solstice is a time of reflection, but we use it as a time to catch up, watching in double-time, racing against an invisible hourglass in a bid to make sure our lists are fair, considered — things that they can never be.

When we consume to catch up, we kid ourselves that we are consuming in a vacuum, that the film speaks for itself. It doesn’t. I loved the swooning, sunset palette of Terrence Malik’s To the Wonder. It looked and felt rapturous when I watched it on the big screen, but had I seen it on Netflix? I can’t imagine I would have felt the same. And yet, as much as I enjoyed To the Wonder, it isn’t in my Top 10. It pains me to speak of it in the same breath as the spiritual experience that is Malik’s The Tree of Life (a firm fixture in my Top 10 of 2011), even though I understand the ways in which the two films are of the same ilk. The Top 10 of this year does not exist as complete and separate from last year’s, or the year before. Lists neglect to consider the very thing that might render them useful: context.

We aren’t examining why these films are significant — either to us, as individuals, or in the wider context of cinematic output. We aren’t critically evaluating these films in the context that they have been received — by the people who are paid to write about them, or by the people who have paid to see them. We aren’t differentiating how we ourselves have received them — at press screenings, as paying customers, on LoveFilm Instant, via BitTorrent, with bathroom breaks, tired, alone, with friends, hungry, indifferent, fraught with anticipation, newly heartbroken.

Lists suck the meaning out of film criticism. Maybe. Or maybe I’m sucking the fun out of lists.

Are lists fun? I find them fucking exhausting.

But maybe it’s not the lists that are the problem. Maybe it’s List Culture. Our incessant ordering and re-ordering of everything that we read, hear and watch makes it easier to package and sell to other people. If a list is just for us, why does it need to be on the internet? No, we use these lists to better understand other people, and to help people to better understand us, often at the expense of the lists’ content.

And yet so many of these lists refuse to consider the relationship between the films they contain. Can you really (and fairly) compare a sprawling story of love, lust and loss to a documentary about a representation of a representation of a representation of genocide? Is Frances Ha somehow better than Beyond the Hills because I can imagine watching — and enjoying — it again and again? Is Spring Breakers a lesser film than 12 Years a Slave because its agenda is of less cultural, political and historical significance?

What is the criteria that qualifies a film’s entry into a Top 10 list anyway? “It was good” is not good enough. Is it instant impact or staying power? Is it pure enjoyment or a film’s ability to provoke thought and discussion? Is it novelty? Spectacle? Precise execution? These categories aren’t mutually exclusive (indeed, the very best films are all of these things), though they do begin to show how difficult it is to classify a film.

And what do my choices say about me? Am I frivolous because I loved The Hunger Games: Catching Fire? A prude, because I despised Danny Boyle’s pornification of Rosario Dawson in Trance? Secretly right-wing because I found myself awed by Zero Dark Thirty?

The problem with lists is that in order to weigh in on them, we have to have seen the things that they are made of. In our efforts to join in with our peers, we watch quickly and talk authoritatively in repetitive, rehearsed soundbites that defy complexity. In focusing on how to defend our choices (or worse, not justifying them at all), we fail to look closely at our own relationships to these films. We chew, but we don’t swallow. And I, for one, don’t want to binge on films that I might have loved, had I enough time to digest them.

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3 comments
  1. There’s a lot to engage with in this beautifully written article (Top 10 Things To Engage With in What’s in a List, lol, etc), but one aspect I always find obviously and essentially problematic about the whole business of creating year-end lists is the lack of digestion issue. It’s not just the rushing to create a list, and gorging on what one has missed – though that sickness does permeate the obsessive-compulsive’s habit – it’s the very idea of doing a supposedly definitive list of the year we’re still in, as if hindsight doesn’t offer us more perspective. At the end of 2013, I’d put more stock in an intelligent cineaste’s list of the best of 2003 than his list of 2013.

    The rush factor is real, though, and those who overshare about their self-defeating listmaking psychology have some maddening neurotic quirks that show it up. One is the preoccupation with what qualifies as a film from “this year,” which in the UK is basically a symptom of people still not having seen America’s year-end prestige releases, and feeling the need to define their own imaginarily defined year (eg ” first widely distributed in the UK in 2013″) to justify getting a list out without those experiences. Another is the idea that there’s a set menu of choices – “I only have to see the new Coen Bros flick and the new Guiraudie to finalise my top ten,” or whatever. Which is the same maddening logic used by the Academy, although with a different set of films; they’re rearranging choices put out for them by an established, approved chain of process, rather than finding surprises and personal reactions in the whole world of cinema.

    If people have to write year-end lists, and they don’t, I’d rather they tell me their ten best discoveries, or ten best experiences, of the year, anything outside of the rigid fucking box, instead of this feeble, doomed attempt to define the ten greatest films that played in whatever they randomly classify as being the past 12 months of cinema.

    • Thank you for engaging with me, Ian!

      I totally agree with what you’re saying about the prescriptive (and often arbitrary) menu of Possible Best Films. This is definitely dictated by the awards season agenda. I think people freak out about the idea of a Best Films of 2013 list, when really, if they want to make a list, it should be Best Films (Out of the Ones I’ve Seen).

      I also think that the films that don’t make a list (as a symptom of taste or simply limited availability) say as much about a person — and the current model of marketing/distribution — as the ones that do make the list.

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