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Imperfect tens

A few years back a perhaps over-generous local film critic used to bug the crap out of his colleagues, myself included, by padding his “Ten Best” list with “ties.” It got so we used to joke, somewhat mean-spiritedly, “so and so’s ten best list this year only has 14 movies. What happened?” Very petty. Why should we care?

I pondered this question again this Sunday after reading  the “New York Times” critics “Ten Best” lists. They made so-and-so look like a piker. Only Stephen Holden of their trio of regulars stuck to the traditional ten. The other two didn’t even bother with the euphemism of “ties.” A.O. Scott in a story titled “Stopping at Ten Just Seems Wrong” didn’t stop until he reached 19 and then threw in nine more “Honorable Mentions.” Manohla Dargis trumped him with 24 but drew the line at the “Honorable Mentions.” It reminded me of summer camp where everybody ends up with a trophy.

So why do I think it seems wrong not to stop at 10? It is, after all, an arbitrary number. But then again, all rules and measures are arbitrary. The problem with extending the number of “best films” indefinitely is that it allows the critics to hedge their bets. Believe it or not, there is a big difference between “4 Months, Three Weeks and Two Days,” between “Into the Wild” and “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.” Aesthetic differences, and sometimes ideological ones. I have no doubt someone can be equally enthusiastic for them all, just as Mitt Romney can be for and against abortion.

One of the chief values of a ten best list is that it puts a critic on the line, forces him or her to  define and assert his or her taste and standards. It makes us judge, and so be open to the judgment of others.

And that’s my bah humbug of the day.

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