In our Yearbook series, Double Exposure contributors share lists and essays that attempt to define their year in film. In this entry, Nick Lieberman focuses on the appeal of lists and canons.

vertigo

My Year as a List Reader

Some may call 2012 the Year of the GIF, but for those of us who prefer movies lasting longer than 10 frames, I would make the claim that 2012 could more aptly be called the Year of the List.

While others bemoaned the requisite decline in quality criticism that occurs when people are asked to rank, summarize or abstractly group, I was very conflicted. When I was 13 years old, my stepsister gave me Barron’s 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die edited by Steven Jay Schneider. This was without a doubt my introduction to cinephilia and criticism. (For example, I began to look for the “JRos” that would be at the end of certain particularly well-written précis.) For a long time the driving force behind my movie watching was the idea of this canon—that within its covers was a representative from any facet of cinema I could care to explore. I am no longer so naïve, but the joy of checking off a film I’ve seen over and over again when leafing through a book or scrolling through a list has few matches except for, at times, watching the actual film.

As I’ve said, it was a great year for those of us who do not mind subjecting our favorite films to rigorous competition. First, there was the all-important Sight and Sound poll, which debatably got it right this year by expanding its contributors more drastically than it ever had in its sixty-year history. The individual ballots are sources of endless entertainment, as the new interface allows you to easily see who agrees with your top 10, and to get a close look at the films your favorite filmmakers value. In the lead up to the poll, Press Play hosted a fantastic series of video essays that shed a light on a handful of critics’ selection process. The blog also conducted a series of discussions about the poll’s usefulness, engaging different voices and perspectives that made me feel at once immensely excited for the still-unpublished list, and also a bit guilty for putting so much weight on something ultimately meaningless. The think pieces that followed the list’s eventual release resulted in fertile comments sections (I foundTwitchfilm’s list about the list a particularly telling representation of the current state of criticism.).

In addition, websites and publications that previously shunned any list-making impulse jumped on the bandwagon and started writing in the most clickable format the Internet has found. (Don’t believe me? Next time you are blog reading, look at the websites that have a “Most Commented” or “Most Read” section and count the number of times the word “Best” appears.) Leading the pack of novelty lists was Film Comment’s authoritative “Trivial Top 20” which they, at times, have expanded on their website.  Every issue brings a new obscure criteria for categorization, the imprimatur of Lincoln Center making the content something worth returning to.

In terms of high concept list-making, Nerve.com’s series Ranked is one that I find highly viewable. The appeal here is seeing all the films of a given director ranked, worst to best (This year they also did non-film-related lists of note such as Tom Waits albums, SNL cast members from all seasons, and HBO dramas.). While I may not feel that The Lady Vanishes is better than Strangers on a Train (Numbers 5 and 8 on the Hitchcock list, respectively), anything that helps an explorer make sense of a massive filmography gets points in my book.

A moment now for the aggregation behemoth They Shoot Pictures Don’t They? This over-ten-year-old website run out of Adelaide, Australia maintains a few essential lists that have been some of my most reliable companions throughout 2012. The first is the “1,000 Greatest Films,” which updates yearly and incorporates the opinions of critics and directors from every era. They claim that it is “quite possibly the most definitive guide to the most-acclaimed movies of all-time.” Even more important than the top 1000 for me is the starting list of almost 10,000 films available as an Excel spreadsheet, including information like each film’s director, country of origin, genre, and duration. This one document contains an inordinate number of hidden masterpieces and, because it’s arranged by director, one can see any auteur’s greats in the context of their greater filmography instantaneously.

Their other lists include “250 Quintessential Noir Films,” the “21st Century’s Most Acclaimed Films,” and a fascinating compilation they call “Ain’t Nobody’s Blues But My Own.” The latter is a list of films that have been selected by only one critic or director on a list of the greatest films. It is a remarkable place to turn for fascinatingly weird/maligned/unknown possible viewing.

Without the Sight and Sound poll, 2013 will no doubt be about a different kind of discourse, but I’m not sure if the list trend can reverse itself as long as there are still people who click as readily as I do. The beauty of immense content neatly sorted is too much of a hit for some to avoid, and I reckon my habit for it will continue to be fed in the coming months.

Honorable Mention: ComplexPasteA.V. Club (meatier text), Keyframe posting “The Film 100”, Jonathan Rosenbaum (most from 2006, but just compiled on his website)