The Gestation of the Top 10 List

The ending of the year finds itself, almost inevitably, accompanied by “Best of” lists encompassing and addressing everything from fashion to music, books to pornographic videos. (I’ll admit I simply made that last one up, but I have no doubt a quick online jaunt to PornHub would confirm my suspicions). As a filmmaker, I’ve never participated in sharing my favorite films of the year for one core reason: there simply aren’t usually enough notable works of film in a single year to justify a “Top Ten” list. If we’re really going to laud and exemplify the best art of the year, then it should be great art. And great art isn’t easy to make. There are, of course, valid pushbacks to this line of reasoning, plus valid counter-counter arguments to those pushbacks ad infinitum. And my reasoning falls back onto a plethora of lesser-discussed concerns, all of which become much more prominent when we encounter the exponential problems then associated with a “Best of the Decade” list.

The simple fact of the matter is that I’d like to publish a list highlighting my choices for greatest achievement in cinema for the 2010-2019 decade. Many, if not most, film critics, film makers, and film fans are doing something similar, and it looks fun. A brief survey suggests that my list would be unique, and I enjoy championing for films that I believe merit further praise and consideration.

So — what are we going to do? I could start by listing the films that I know belong on this list: Silence, The Master, Steve Jobs, The Tree of Life, and Whiplash all come to mind without much hesitation. I could add to that, after a moment of thought, The Social Network. Those are the five best of the decade, I conclude after surveying my thoughts on the last decade of film.

But we then arrive at a problem of language. Conventions of the “lists” genre almost always offer up ten films as a reflection of our base-10 numbering systems, and that’s fine. I can find five more films. But while these lists usually convey the “best” films of the decade, sometimes they contain the “top” films of the decade. Other times “my favorite films” and other more subjective language is used. But before we can proceed, an understanding of best vs. top vs. favorite needs to come into play.

For the sake of my list (subjective), I one dearly eliminated favorite as the key adjective, as it is totally subjective. And while some opinions carry more weight than others, there is also an objective value and truth to art which I cannot deny. I’d like to think my top / best / platonic list of films will reflect films which evince objective quality.

Likewise, best seems almost too purely objective. A film can be made by master craftsmen from a perfectly structured script and still fail to make any sort of emotional impact on the audience. Sometimes, the less formally perfect films speak with a louder voice. (You could argue this both ways on something like Borat, but I’m even looking at the original Star Wars).

So the consensus of the crowds appears meritorious; top is most common and also most appropriate. (Unless I went with the “films that most perfectly embodies the platonic ideal of movies”).

Top, then, needs to reflect narrative potency (almost always derived from an intentional adhesion to and rebellion from standard scriptwriting norms), formal accomplishment (encompassing production design to sound mixing and everything in between), appeal ( in this case, a semi-neologism used to describe both an understanding of the zeitgeist and an appreciation for timeless and culturally transcendent themes), plus an emotional resonance with the list-compiler. I’d say we’re looking at a ratio of about 70-30% objective vs. subjective.

So, we have the title of the list: “Top 10 Films of the Decade.”

But I haven’t seen every film made this decade. I have seen the majority of “top films” each year, but only within the United States. In fact, I’ve only seen a handful of foreign contemporary films in all of 2019. Don’t get me wrong, I watch more non-American films than American films, but those are almost exclusively “great” films of foreign cinema, canonized through time and a number of decades old. Any top list of the decade would have to include some foreign films, but I simply haven’t seen enough to be a fair judge. So the list will have to be “Top 10 American Films of the Decade”

At least we’re approaching some clarity. So the brainstorming begins again, and I wind up with these semi-finalists: The Master, The Social Network, The Tree of Life, Silence, Steve Jobs, Whiplash, Silver Linings Playbook, Dunkirk, Mission: Impossible Ghost Protocol, Nightcrawler, Short Term 12, and You Were Never Really Here.

I considered The Other Side of the Wind, as it was finished and released on the 2010-2019 decade, but it was primarily finished in a previous decade, and I‘m still not sure if it’s genius or not, so I passed.

The next concern is that I’m not sure You Were Never Really Here belongs, but it’s the only film directed by a woman, and while I abhor the idea of affirmative action inclusion on a list like this, it is a great film. I just don’t think it’s top of the whole decade. This is a tough one.

On the flip of that, I also think A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood might merit inclusion, because while it’s not perfect, it’s incredibly powerful. But I only saw it two weeks ago; is that enough time? Would I be saying the same think if the film was directed by a man? I doubt it. I think I’d leave it off. Same with YWNRH.

I’m also not totally sold on Dunkirk, Short Term 12, or Silver Linings Playbook. On the other hand, excluding them almost viscerally hurts me. I’m not sure they’re on the level of the other films, but they are genius.

Perhaps the difference, which I haven’t accounted for, is that all of those films, including ABDITN and YWNRH, have stuck with me emotionally.

So that brings my list to 13. I suppose I could cut Dunkirk, Beautiful Day, and YWNRH, but that just feels … wrong? Perhaps a “top” list need not be constrained by our base-10 numerical system. Perhaps 13 works just as well.

And then again, perhaps anything works just as well as anything. 

(And then an early 2020 binge-watch session showed me “The Farewell” and “Just Mercy,” both of which belong on lists of excellence. I guess that takes us to a 15 film list.)