In Woody’s Allen’s classic Annie Hall, his character Alvy Singer complains about the propensity of people in Los Angeles to constantly heap praise on everything: “Awards! All they do is give out awards here. 'Greatest Fascist Dictator: Adolf Hitler!'” It’s a funny and astute observation about the absurdity of creating best-of lists, but I think it's built into our DNA to want to ascribe an order to things. Devising numerically-ranked inventories of everything in the human experience is a time-honored tradition, dating back at least as far as the Ten Commandments that Moses brought down from Mount Sinai. The novelist Nick Hornby famously pointed out in his book High Fidelity that men are usually more obsessive about cataloging their passions and experiences into hierarchical indexes than women are, and it's probably no coincidence that men are also more prone to autism than women. There’s just something about the Y chromosome that makes us crave structure and control. Since the invention of the Internet, lists have even further come to dominate much of popular culture and the way all of Western society processes information. Many bemoan this development, justifiably claiming that lists have taken over much of the space where thoughtful, investigative, fact-based journalism once resided. But when it comes to writing that is by definition opinion-based, a category which certainly includes film criticism, lists are a useful and even creative tool for organizing ideas and concepts, and breaking down over a century’s worth of material into manageable divisions.
Since anyone with an Internet connection can publish a list, there are more of them out there than any one person could ever read, and you can find a list of just about anything you can imagine. Lists like ten obscure characters from Star Wars with ridiculously convoluted back-stories, or are five pictures of cats that resemble the actor Wilford Brimley are innocuously fun, instantly forgettable trifles. Lists that resonate, on the other hand, draw the reader’s attention to their underlying content. The quality of a list is determined not simply by the order of the items arranged on it, but, much more importantly, by who made the list, and the reasons the author or authors placed each item above or below the others. I'm personally much more interested in the top 100 greatest films as ranked by the American Film Institute or the British Film Institute, determined by votes from industry leaders, film historians and critics, than I am in the Internet Movie Database’s top 100 list, which is based on an aggregate of their users' ratings. This is not to say that the AFI and BFI’s are better lists--a casual movie viewer looking for something to download tonight might find many more suggestions they might enjoy by consulting the IMDB list--but I’m more interested in the opinions of people who have made movies their life’s work than I am in the clicks of random internet users.
But even lists from organizations like the AFI and BFI only interest me so much. These list have a catch-all quality to them, and I've already seen almost every film they cite. Also, while I enjoy seeing where they position all of my favorite films, I know that these rankings are derived simply by counting which film got the most votes from the collective, rather than through the in-depth reasoning and analysis that I crave. I strongly prefer lists made by smaller groups or even individuals, like the top ten lists of each year and each decade that many film writers compile, specifically because I'm familiar with their tastes, value their opinions, and acknowledge that they see more films than I do. The more readers knows about the individual or groups who created a list, the more stock they place in the author's selections. I also know that critics will include movies that I've never heard of. If, for example, I’ve seen all but two of the films on a “twenty greatest films of the decade” list by David Edelstein, Janet Maslin, or A.O. Scott, you can be sure I’ll eagerly seek out the two films I missed. The same can be said for lists of genre films made by organizations devoted to the cinema of a particular film style. The alphabetical lists many films writers insist on making, so as not to engage in the “childish” practice of ranking, just don’t engender the same visceral response.
After the AFI first published their top 100 list in 1998, film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum of the Chicago Reader published an article lambasting the practice of ordering films by artistic merit, stating that it was "tantamount to ranking oranges over apples or declaring cherries superior to grapes." He has an excellent point, but I think he’s missing out on much of what’s fun about discussing movies, or any form of entertainment about which you can form a subjective opinion. After all, these are not decisions made by the government to determine which filmmakers gets funding and which don’t, or legal guides for which movies are allowed to be shown in theaters and which are forbidden. The very point of these lists is that they are not handed down from above: they're based on opinions, and they're intended to provoke discussion, disagreement, and discovery.
In this blog I rank films of every year and every decade, as well as by many other more specific categories. These lists are only valuable if a reader agrees with me and/or enjoys my detailed reasoning for why each film occupies its position on a given list, even if they disagree with my conclusions. The only criterion for a film to be eligible for inclusion on one of my lists is that it must be feature length, which I define as between 65 minutes and four hours. I rank Hollywood blockbusters, obscure art house fare, foreign films, documentaries, experimental pictures, and even the occasional TV or VOD movie (if it had a theatrical release) side by side. This may often mean comparing apples to oranges to cherries, but I see no reason not to make those comparisons. After all, those items are all fruits, and they're all foods I consume on a regular basis, so why not hold them up against each other and talk about them? It's one of the most fun parts of my passionate for film. Internet lists are malleable and fluid creations. They grow and change in size and complexity as I add more items to them, change my mind about where I've ranked some titles, and leave other movies right where they are. I hope my lists are as much fun to read as they are to compile.