Why I Loathe Top 10 Film Lists

Movie rankings are all the rage—too bad that they have next to nothing to do with the quality of movies

No, I won’t be making out my list of the 10 Best Films for Halloween this year. Nor earlier this year did I make lists of the 10 Best Horror Films, the 10 Scariest Films, or the 10 Most Frightening Slashers in the Cinema. By not making my list of Halloween films, I’ll clear my desk and have plenty of time left to not make my list of the Top 10 Thanksgiving Films. It’s still a little early to consider not making a list of the 10 Best Christmas Pictures, and don’t even ask about the list I won’t be compiling of the 10 Greatest Love Stories for Valentine’s Day.

No list of films has the slightest significance, unless it involves box-office receipts. Every film critic I know loathes making lists. Most of us make an annual Year’s Best Films List, because that’s our equivalent of signing the Hippocratic Oath when you’re a doctor. One year I picked the year’s 20 best films, and the readers screamed bloody hell. Didn’t I know that the rules said I had to choose 10?

Last year I selected the 10 best mainstream films, the 10 best indie films, the 10 best foreign films and the 10 best animated films. “But that’s 40 films!” screamed Hud34, one of my readers. I had to agree. Other readers accused me of cowardice.

Is ‘The Shawshank Redemption’ the greatest film of all time? One Internet ranking says it is. ‘Citizen Kane,’ in dull black and white, rates only No. 37.

Lists inspire endless e-mails from readers asking questions like, “How could you possibly put ‘Bad Lieutenant’ above ‘The Hurt Locker’?” I shot back an instant reply: “Because my list is alphabetical.” Man, did that make them angry. The year I listed 20 films alphabetically, several people informed me they would never read me again, and one canceled a subscription. No, really.

At least my list is mine. Gene Siskel refused to vote for any awards by critics’ groups, “because why should I associate my name with choices I might not have made?” There is, however, one such list to which I grudgingly grant significance. Every 10 years for the last 60 years, Sight & Sound, the magazine of the British Film Institute, has polled the world’s directors, critics, archivists and so on. Originally all the votes were tallied together, but nooooo, that was too simple, so in 2002 the magazine separated critics and directors and made two lists, and we could ponder the significance of the directors placing “Godfather I and II” in second place, while the critics voted them No. 4. Both groups placed “Citizen Kane” first, which is fitting, because it is the Official Best Film of All Time.

This list is notoriously elitist and slow to recognize newer films. Now that the cinema is well into its second century, it is good to maintain a historical perspective. Compare the Sight & Sound list with the Top 250 at the Internet Movie Database, where “The Godfather” is in second place and “Godfather II” in third. The greatest film of all time, by the way, is “The Shawshank Redemption,” and No. 4 is “Inception” (this year’s film, so perhaps premature). “Citizen Kane” is only No. 37, and some critics suspect that’s because some online fanboys won’t watch black-and-white movies. (Anyone who will not watch black and white should be locked in a closet with mice, but that’s another subject.)

The plague of lists has grown much more fearsome in the age of the Internet. That isn’t because website owners give a damn about lists. It’s because they are obsessed with page visits. Let’s say their critic lists 10 films. They could run a little list—oh, say, films Nos. 1 through 10. Nooooo, too simple. They’ll supply a slideshow. Keep clicking on the right arrow to see all 10 titles while they get nine meaningless page visits and inflict carpal tunnel syndrome.

But the most insidious subterfuge of Best Lists is how they extract free work from free-lance critics. Here is a typical email I’ll receive: “For the World Congress of Hot Air Ballooning, we are asking experts like yourself to choose the 10 best hot-air-balloon movies of all time, and write 50 words on each one.”

I absolutely am not making this up. Here’s another that I got recently: “Dear Roger, I’m working on a really great project with [network and magazine] entitled ‘Best In Film.’ We would be honored if you would consider being an integral part of this prime time special which will celebrate the greatest films of all time and likely be hosted by [name]….

“The good news is that it requires a minimal amount of your time. What we want are your thoughts and opinions via an online ballot on what you feel are the greatest films of all time in a number of various categories.

“I look forward to hearing from you soon and as always appreciate the consideration.

“Many thanks, [signed]”

I wrote back:

“Dear [signed], Thank you for your kind request. I made a policy long ago to never do lists. They amount to soliciting unpaid labor from experts in order to lend legitimacy to a meaningless list used to support clip packages and to sell ads. Let me predict that few great silent, foreign or little-known films will be on your show, and that after the balloting, the winner will not be ‘Citizen Kane,’ ‘Rules of the Game,’ ‘Metropolis’ or anything by Buster Keaton.”

The good news is that [signed] hasn’t written back yet.

Roger Ebert has been the film critic of the Chicago-Sun-Times since 1967.


Full article and photo: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052702303341904575576431449824128.html