I'm only just getting around to listening to a Slashfilm podcast from the start of the year, recorded in the midst of top 10 lists and the Oscar race. In it, the group has a discussion of what a "top 10 films of the year" list means, or should mean. Do you list your favorite movies? Those that you think are objectively best? Is it possible to say which are objectively best - aren't all film critiques subjective to at least a degree? I know I'm far more likely to laud a film with beautiful cinematography. And say you could critique each film on some sort of objective scale (4/5 in sound editing, 3/5 in costume, etc.), isn't the end product - that complete package - that which ends up as your favorite, the real purpose of cinema? The whole shebang which speaks to you as a viewer?
The guys also discuss the Oscars, and what the intent is in voting for best picture. Are they voting for a film because they feel like they should? Because it was their favorite? Because they thought *that* film, above all others, advanced cinema in the last year? (Ha!) Dave Chen brought up the idea that the Oscars should only be voted on 50 years in the future, with the benefit of hindsight.
(Although I might argue that you'd still be subject to the vagaries of what's popular at the time; certain silent films are more in vogue now than they were in the 60s, for instance. After all, just looking at Sight and Sound's best film poll shows the changes in preferences from decade to decade. Not to mention, you might have lost certain films altogether after 50 years. Perhaps looking back at a decade works better? Then again, picking films from the final year in the decade is still awfully fresh and difficult to do.)
I do also like that idea of looking separately at which films advance the medium in any given year. It is certainly a different criteria than simply "best" films of the year.
Which leads me to think about the purpose of top 10 lists in general (and lord knows I love thinking about lists). What is the purpose of a top 10 list? Mine tend to be my favorite films of the year, although I have a tendency to split off those which I think of as "just fun" from those that I think of as more "high art." (See my awards where I pick top 10 best picture and top 10 best popcorn flicks.) And I keep the lists somewhat general, not knowing who will be reading them.
What I mean to say is, in specific cases, I might only recommend a film with a caveat. Or with something along the lines of "you might not like this (for x,y,z reason), but I really loved it." I do always want to recommend the things that have affected me. In part to have the chance to continue to talk about something I enjoy and in part to try to support artists who I think are doing good work. But mostly I think there's a fundamental urge to push upon others those things which have brought you joy. Rationally, I may know that Sally Smith might not like horror films, and that I'd be better off recommending a period drama. But I think some little serotonin processor in my brain is still going to want to rave about a great horror film. Because it made me happy, and I like Sally, and I want her to be happy. Even if objectively I know she'll be happier with Pride and Prejudice.
And I think sometimes the ego gets involved in terms of wanting to be the one who introduces someone to something good. Or knowing that your opinion is rated highly enough with others to influence their behavior. And I think film snobs, in particular, rail against a system where many well-made, interesting films are complete unknowns to people who don't obsessively follow movie news. So there is that push to be the town crier, alerting people to good work they may not know about otherwise.
Hm. So. Looking at some examples. As I mentioned above, it can be hard to look back at a year in film, because the list has to come out in December or early January, in mid-campaign mode, right when most of the Oscar bait is freshest in your mind. It is difficult to try to lend any objectivity or distance to ranking films then. (Would I be so down on Avatar had it not threatened Hurt Locker's chances at the Oscar? Well, probably.) BUT - I've soured much more on King's Speech for its Oscar campaign than I remembered. Going back to my top 10 lists a year later always surprises me, because I never remember ranking films that particular way. I might still have mostly the same list, although I may have had a chance to catch up on a few things.
And more to the point, while all are films that I enjoyed, and might be categorized as my "favorites" of the year, the films end up on the list for a variety of reasons.
As an exercise, let's look back at those last three lists as examples of the above:
Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
Cave of Forgotten Dreams
Ides of March
Martha Marcy Mae Marlene
Tree of Life
Le Quattro Volte
Rise of the Planet of the Apes
Attack the Block
Since I making that list, I caught up on a number of films from that year, and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Margin Call and probably Young Adult and Sleeping Beauty would now make the list. I'd move the Guard down and Martha Marcy up. Submarine and Moneyball up, too. I'd say overall that that is a good group of films. I still think that it was a weird year in movies. A dearth coming out of the production schedule after the writer's strike? Or just not to my particular tastes? There are several larger family films on there, which I think shows that the indie house wasn't as entertaining as in other years.
There's also a mix of genres, so hopefully readers would find something interesting to them - either in a particular genre or with one of the films they may not have heard of (Submarine?)
(And of course I still wouldn't call it a definitive list. I still haven't seen House of Pleasures, Higher Ground, Drei, the Mill and the Cross, Red State, the Princess of Montpensier, Like Crazy, Incendies, Melancholia, the Skin I Live in, Coriolanus, Tyrannosaur or Weekend.)
I suppose of you want an "objective" top film list, you could look at Metacritic, which are those films the most critics gave high ratings to. They tend to be more documentary and foreign film oriented than my lists. (And Metacritic is a bit more curated than Rotten Tomatoes, not that there isn't overlap.) For comparison:
A Separation [Need to see, foreign - Iran]
We Were Here [documentary - AIDS]
My Perestroika [documentary - fall of the Soviet Union]
Poetry [foreign - South Korea]
The Artist [Eh.]
The Arbor [documentary - experimental artistic take on British playwright]
I Travel Because I Have to, I Come Back because I Love You [I have never heard of this. Foreign - Brazil]
Uncle Boonmee [Need to see, foreign - Thai ]
The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceauscu [documentary - um.]
13 Assassins [Need to see, foreign - Japan]
Cave of Forgotten Dreams
Of Gods and Men [Need to see, foreign - France]
Children of Hiroshima [experimental? or at least artistic documentary on Hiroshima?]
The Interrupters [documentary - violence in Chicago]
City of Life and Death [Need to see, foreign - China]
Nostalgia for the Light [I disliked this so much. Chilean]
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
Take Shelter [I didn't love this as much as others, but it is good.]
The Tree of Life
Position Among the Stars [Never heard of this one, either! Documentary - Jakarta]
The Descendants [Need to see]
So a bit of overlap (in bold). Mostly foreign and documentary releases I never got around to. Let's look at 2010:
Red Riding: 1974
Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
Red Riding: 1980
Red, White and Blue
The Killer Inside Me
Never Let Me Go
The Girl who Kicked the Hornet's Nest
The King's Speech
Since then, I've seen A Prophet, which definitely makes the top 10. I'd move Social Network and Never Let Me Go up a little. I clearly had issues with King's Speech when it came out, and yet I still included it in my top 20. I'd bump it for A Prophet. Overall, I think this was such an incredible year for movies. So many great ones there.
The Social Network [Wow. A little surprised this was so unanimous.]
Toy Story 3
Children of Tokyo
A Film Unfinished
The Kings Speech
The Tillman Story
The Kids Are All Right
Last Train Home
Exit Through the Gift Shop
Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench
Boxing Gym [ARGH. I cannot BELIEVE I missed this. I wanted to see it SO MUCH. It's Frederick Wiseman, so I have no idea if/when I'll ever have the opportunity.]
*The Escapist [Special unranked mention]
*Trick 'r Treat [Special unranked mention]
The Hurt Locker
The Brothers Bloom
The Damned United
Fantastic Mr. Fox
A Serious Man
In the Loop
Me and Orson Welles
500 Days of Summer
I'd now add Bronson and A Single Man, both close to the top. I'd probably put A Single Man in after Bright Star, and Bronson after Inglorious Basterds. I still need to see The White Ribbon.
The Hurt Locker [HA! OBJECTIVE PROOF I MAKE GOOD LIST! I mean.... good choice.]
Sita Sings the Blue
35 Shots of Rum
The Beaches of Agnes
Forbidden Lie$ (really? top 20 with a symbol in the title?)
The Cove [I did not see this at the time, but I have seen it since. And while I don't often think of documentaries when making these lists, it was easily one of the best made and most engrossing films of the year.]
In the Loop
Fantastic Mr. Fox
Again, some overlap in 2010 and 2009. Which I guess means my taste occasionally lines up with a critical aggregate. More telling is the fact that I don't get to as many critically beloved foreign and documentary films as domestic narrative flicks.
There are some films on these lists that I really think everyone should see: Winter's Bone, The Social Network, The Hurt Locker, Moon (Mooooooooon). Several of those are on the metacritic lists - and I do think a general critical consensus can be a good factor in determining if a movie is worth the time. Again there is some variation in who the list is for. I think the Brother's Bloom is a pretty safe recommendation for everyone - I can't imagine anyone not enjoying it. But I wouldn't recommend Drive to everyone; it's too violent and I'd only tell someone to see Dragon Tattoo with caveats.
In the end, I think I come down on this dichotomy somewhere in between. Some of the films included on the above lists are personal faves - the kind I'd like to own on DVD (Pirate Radio), and some are there because I respect the craft involved, even if I won't ever watch it again (Le Quattro Volte). I think Le Quattro Volte is an extremely well made film and it is an important film in how it pushes the boundaries of cinema. And I really enjoyed watching it and doubt many people have heard of it. I think Pirate Radio was really fun and probably overlooked by a lot of people. It isn't an important film, but it is an entertaining one. And I know that while I do like arguing for genre work, and I do think that every film should be judged on it's own merits (e.g. how well it achieves what it particularly sets out to do, be it in action, horror, drama, etc.), I know that I do tend to weigh important/buzzy/award discussion films a little higher when it comes to compiling a year end list. (Not always, though. Stake Land was certainly way up there!)
And I think I'm happiest when all those factors considered line up - when I completely adore something that is progressive or audacious cinema, technically marvelous, and feels like it should be an important part of social discussion. Those, I think, are the films that should be vying for the Oscar. As for a year end list? Well, it can be good to nudge people towards a variety of films they may have missed and might enjoy for whatever reason. Including watching Ellen Page learn roller derby.