“Not only do living things lessen the disorder in their environments; they are in themselves, their skeletons and their flesh, vesicles and membranes, shells and carapaces, leaves and blossoms, circulatory systems and metabolic pathways – miracles of pattern and structure. It sometimes seems as if curbing entropy is our quixotic purpose in the universe.” -James Gleick, The Information
Here’s a ranked list of movies from 1979:
1. The Marriage of Maria Braun
2. The Brood
3. Breaking Away
4. Nosferatu the Vampyre
5. The Wanderers
7. The China Syndrome
8. Time After Time
9. Rocky II
10. Tale of Tales
Reading this, you probably had some kind of snap reaction, either regarding placement (“The Brood over Alien, what gives?”), omission (“Where’s Apocalypse Now? Or All That Jazz? Or Manhattan?”), or your own cinephilic blind spots (I have only seen numbers 4, 6, and 8). Maybe you remembered that The Wanderers is an underrated movie, or that James Bridges was an underrated director. Maybe the fact that none of these movies were directed by women jumped out at you, or that there was only one film not in English, or only one film that was animated. No two sets of eyes or brains will react to a list in the same way; maybe like me, you’ll go down a Wikipedia wormhole and go from not knowing what Tale of Tales is to wondering if The Overcoat will ever see the light of day to gobbling down interview/workshop footage of director Yuriy Norshteyn. Then I saw that Norshteyn’s short Hedgehog in the Fog was named the best animated film of all time at the Laputa Animation Festival in Japan in 2003 and thought, “Really?” And the cycle begins anew.
I love lists. I love making them, I love reading them, and I love writing about them. Ranked, unranked, alphabetical, numerical, you name it. Regardless of organizing principle or throughline, I am there for it. I have been making lists for kicks since I was a kid. I made lists of cities and hockey players and songs and, yes, movies. I’m still making lists. Sometimes it’s a mix on Spotify and sometimes it’s organizing my bookshelf, but what are those if not just making lists in cyberspace and meatspace, respectively? At its core, lists are a way of making the chaotic orderly, of streamlining a larger concept or presence into something a bit easier to grasp. Lists, at their best, can be a form of bootleg semiotics, with each item included therein acting as a mirror of the greater culture, or the compiler’s relationship with same (the same goes for one of my other cultural geometric obsessions, the bracket, because they fulfill the same purpose as lists, but with a head-to-head nature that gets the comp-lit grad in me all hot and bothered). And just as every list contains a part of the compiler’s baggage, so do the reactions to them within any given reader.
For the purposes of this essay, I’m mostly going to be talking about lists of films, but this goes equally for any kind of list where quality (or the lack thereof) is a broad guide. But whether the subject is art or ideas or anything you can relative merit to, list-making is political. Inclusions, omissions, and positions are all informed by greater ideas and values, the same ones that govern our assessments of the items themselves. When crafting a list, the compiler not only considers the aesthetic and political qualities of a film, but weighs those same aesthetics and politics against each other. Any endeavour that involves giving a score or a ranking also involves a strange kind of intellectual alchemy, a series of gut reactions that are then reverse-engineered into opinions and wheelhouses. Then there’s the real micro-level stuff. What variable breaks a tie? What deserves to be captured in this tiny piece of fleeting semiotic amber that could have just as well have been on the outside looking in had a different metric been given a different weight? Does a scrappy underdog merit that last slot over a slightly better but more ubiquitous item? Even something as seemingly insignificant as the nomenclature of lists can be loaded: the semantic difference between qualifying a list as “best” rather than “favourite” says something about the compiler and/or the compiled (personally, I am fond of fluid-yet-robust term “power ranking”). Hell, just figuring out what even gets a chance to make the cut is a political act in and of itself. The way the field is selected is just as deliberate and reflective as the order it ends up in.
There are obvious ways in which the field is culled. There’s the aforementioned rubric of quality, with all the subjectivity and malleability that term connotes. Nostalgia can come into play. Timeframes and other stipulations limiting the scope of items can be introduced. But the one deciding factor that is at once obvious and forgotten about is that the field can only be composed of things you’ve actually seen or heard. This, of course, is dictated by access: a cinephile based in New York/Los Angeles/Chicago is able to have a much bigger field than someone from a small town or any place that otherwise isn’t a cultural hub. Netflix isn’t an option for everyone if money’s tight. Video stores are dying left and right. Distribution channels get fewer and farther between the further you get from urban areas. Class has always dictated taste, but it also dictates what someone can take in. The person saying that The Dark Knight was the best film of 2008 probably has a reason for it, whether that’s appreciation, nostalgia, or just slim pickings at the movie house, all of them equally valid. Everyone can see The Dark Knight (a cultural juggernaut that made nearly a billion dollars), but not everyone can see, say, Synecdoche, New York (a limited-release flop that didn’t even make back a quarter of its budget). When something is included on a list, the underlying thought should be “They were able to see this.”
But inclusion implies omission, which gives way to a new kind of inclusion. There are as many list-making stipulations as there are compilers. These self-imposed rules and constraints can shed new light on the ways we experience art. Writer Marya E. Gates dedicated her 2015 viewing year to movies directed by women, and naturally, her end-of-year top 15 followed suit. The list then doubles as a road map: if you want to support women in the movie business, here’s what you should be paying attention too, and here’s where to find it. By her own admission, she lives in Los Angeles, the one place other than New York where nearly every movie opens, but VOD titles crop up as well. This is list-making as a sort of pamphleteering, a way of bringing ideas and issues to life in a grassroots, semi-ephemeral kind of way, only here, the ephemera now is immortalized as long as someone keeps paying the hosting fees.
The flip side of pamphleteering would be gatekeeping; this is where all those critic’s polls and must-see-before-you-die lists come in. Often, these types of lists are self-fulfilling prophecies: changes to the canon are usually rare and minor, so much so that in 2012, when Vertigo took the greatest-movie-of-all-time championship belt from five-time winner Citizen Kane, it was an event in and of itself. This is strange considering that between the two of them, Vertigo and Citizen Kane have had 10 top-ten finishes since the 1962 poll, only trading spots with each other since the last time the poll was conducted in 2002. In fact, with the exception of 1962, every Sound & Sight poll has carried over at least half of the top 10 from the previous year. The canon does tectonically shift over time, reflecting changing tastes and mores, but they don’t exactly make for great lists. A good list feels personal and idiosyncratic. A bad list looks like a book report or a works cited. Gates’ end-of-year list was a good one. So was current A.V. club critic Ignatiy Vishivetsky’s ballot for the 2012 Sound & Sight poll, thanks in no small part to the methodology. On his ballot’s pages, Vishnevetsky notes that:
“What’s the greatest movie ever made?” is a question with about four hundred correct answers. I wrote down 90 titles on scraps of paper, put them in a bowl, and drew out these ten. I figure my methodology is as good as any other.
Why the semi-randomness? Part of it stems from indecisiveness, or as the quote above hints at, the problems in whittling down the bounty of cinema history to 10 titles. In an e-mail exchange I had with him, Vishnevetsky said: “I’ve yet to put together a ranked list that I didn’t regret <10 mins afterward. So the random selection thing was just a way to take some of the guilt and pain out of it.” And those 90 movies? All films he considers all-timers, limiting himself to one per director, and then letting the gods of chance have their way. This was the way to break what was essentially a 90-way tie, and offset the burden of history.
It’s how that top 10 at the top of the article was created: with a randomized grab bag of juggernauts, canonical films, populist fare, and a few esoteric nuggets plucked from Letterboxd. Randomized, semi-randomized, or otherwise, there’s no such thing as a list that makes no sense. There’s always an internal logic to suss out or parallels to be drawn. But my favourites are ones that appear to not make sense at first glance. For example, back when I was on MUBI, I stumbled upon a list called “Kizeki Top 100 Favorite Films.” I don’t know who Kizeki is, or where they’re from, or any relevant information about them at all. But I do know that this list is awesome. Why? It has the beyond-obscure, excellently-titled Jesus Franco junker Dr. Wong’s Virtual Hell at #1. It pinballs freely across genres, budgets, countries, and levels of acclaim and notoriety until it ends with Kenji Mizoguchi’s classic Sansho the Bailiff at #100. It includes television, splatter movies, art house fare, and late-night cable fodder. There is a lot of animation, including two Bill Plympton movies in the top 20. The only Disney movie included is the consensus mutt of the litter, The Black Cauldron. Films by Federico Fellini and David A. Prior dance together in the homestretch. It’s a thing of true beauty.
Kizeki’s top 100 may be my favourite list of them all. It is thick with cinematic riches of all stripes, a complete upending of what “good” means. And that is the Platonic ideal that a list can achieve: recontextualisation and recalibration of ideas, viewing habits, and tastes. Semiotician and novelist Umberto Eco said it best in a 2009 interview with Der Spiegel:
The list is the origin of culture. It’s part of the history of art and literature. What does culture want? To make infinity comprehensible. It also wants to create order — not always, but often. And how, as a human being, does one face infinity? How does one attempt to grasp the incomprehensible? Through lists, through catalogs, through collections in museums and through encyclopedias and dictionaries.
There has always been an elemental cultural power in having thoughts and objects in sequence, because that’s when synapses start firing and doors start opening. I love lists because, in distilling a sizable chunk of the universe into something that can fit on a notebook page, it can exist as both maze and map, as means and end. That deceptive complexity is worth celebrating in every list we encounter.