Friday, January 28, 2011

The List Mentality

Movie best lists are ubiquitous.  So many people and groups feel some need to categorize movies.  It feels like today that people spend more time typing down or listing the things they enjoy than they could possibly spend enjoying said things.  Anyone on Facebook remembers this asinine trend from a few months back.  Movie lists are a different animal every single time and there are many concerns that go with them.  What are the pros and cons of movie lists? What purpose do they serve and what makes a list valid?

I believe the thing that movie lists are best for is helping new people start in film appreciation.  It gives someone a large set of important films to go through rather than just one.  When a pontifical commission at the Vatican came up with a list of top movies back in 1995, it was meant for just that purpose, to help newcomers start on film appreciation.  It was not made for people to debate the greatest movie of all time.  In fact, they specifically stated that it was not a best list and that perhaps superior films were omitted.  It was merely titled "Some Important Films."

What makes a good and valid best list?  It's tough to say definitively because most things to do with movies or the arts are subjective and highly charged.  I would argue that every best list should have a few characteristics.  It should have movies from many countries and time periods.  It should have both black and white and color movies.  Silent movies should probably be a must.  If a list doesn't have this dynamism, I assume the group or person are close-minded, not true movie connoisseurs and not in a valid position to make such a list.  I would never attack a list based on one submission or omission because, as I said, it is largely subjective.  You can only judge based on trends.  Granted, some lists only purport to cover a certain category.

Who can make a valid best list?  Best lists written by friends and respectable reviewers can be fun to read and interesting-- although I like to think I'm not geeky enough to care much about such things-- because there is a reference point which gives the movies on the page some meaning.  A real movie critic also has some authority in his words.  It is also made better when someone can explain their choices so you can tell they didn't just cut and paste movie titles on to the page.  While anyone can make a movie best list for their own edification, they shouldn't expect me to waste my time reading it.  Unless it was made by a friend or valid, known authority on cinema, a best list is just a set of movie titles written on a page.  It may as well be generated by a computer as far as I'm concerned.  Despite this, people take up much web space anally classifying all the movies they enjoy, which usually happen to be the same obvious movies that everyone already knows are great.  I think people like to do this because it is easier to monotonously name-drop movie titles than to write something substantial about movies.  Plus, its easy to fake being smart by latching onto others opinions or saying "I like (fill in blank with name of something smart)."  I must confess that I have a personal best list, the top fifty movies of which are listed on this blog, although I put off posting it until after I had written a substantial amount of material elsewhere on the blog.

Even when real authorities make these lists, I still find it tiresome.  Go through a Border's store and check out the books on movies.  Almost all of them are trivia books and books about some random critics group's best list.  These books are a racket.  Do I really need to know the favorite movies of the society of New York Film Critics?  Are they more or less valid than Time Magazine?  These books are filled with titles of movies every film buff already knows and trivia facts that every film buff already knows or can at least easily look up.  I believe these books mainly exist to validate the geeky knowledge of their readers rather than for anyone to learn something new.  That's why the covers nearly always feature famous, recognizable movies guaranteed to not stump anyone.  People like to know that some important group says the movies they have seen are great.  In most cases, you can copy the table of contents and skip the book.

One of the largest cons about movie best lists is that they can promote a checklist or to-do list mentality to art.  Art is something to be savored.  It is a moment of transcendent beauty, not to be rushed.  Although movies have a set run-time, they can be mentally "rushed" by the viewer.  Art is not a grocery list of "must-see" movies.  When we turn art into must-learn factual knowledge, we miss the point.  Watching movies normally shouldn't feel like a unhappy child going to school.  In some cases, we may need to stretch ourselves to break our narrow tastes and this does take discipline, but we should always attempt to savor each individual movie.  We should never watch movies just so we can say we've seen all the movies on such and such list.  Movie viewing is no more a cause for bragging rights than sitting on your porch watching the sun set.

In conclusion, movie best lists are a mixed bag.  They can have meaning and import to some extent or they can be the meaningless rantings of a bored person.  Because of my belief in best lists as a great starting point for film viewing, I may eventually put brief reviews for some of the more credible best lists on this blog.

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