The problem with “top 10” and “best of all time” lists

Today, we’re going to talk about a little pet peeve of mine: lists. Not just any kind of list, no, I’m talking about lists that purport to name off the best films of all time.

I’ve complained about lists before, specifically how “Top Silent Films” lists tend to draw from the same pool of about twenty movies that, coincidentally, are also the viewing list for Film History 101. This time, I am setting my sights on a broader target: general film lists that promise more than they can deliver.

A top film list without Mary Pickford? Inconceivable!
A top film list without Mary Pickford? Inconceivable!

If you type “top movies of all time” into any search engine, you will get an abundance of results. Why not? The title is nicely dramatic and it makes the author look like an expert. I have three problems with these kinds of lists.

(Quick Disclaimer: I know that I am generalizing tremendously and there are exceptions but these observations are just patterns I have noticed. This is purely anecdotal, is my point.)

1. How do you measure art?

This is my biggest problem with “best” lists. When I list off my top films, I am careful to say that these are my personal favorites. Are they objectively better than other pictures? Who can say?

See, the art of moviemaking has technical elements but there are also artistic elements that are a matter of perspective. Further, there is this little spark, this tiny little oomph that turns a good or great film into a beloved favorite. Who can measure that? It’s different for every person, I dare say, and that’s why it’s fun to learn which films other people pick. I love hearing about other people’s favorite movies but when they start claiming that their picks are the bestest in the westest, I have my doubts. They’re the best to you. Accept that and we’ll get along fine.

2. So the movies started in 1962?

When a list claims to show the best “something” of all time, one takes it for granted that they mean of all time. Not so. In list after list, I see that most of the selections are from the past 30 years. Oh, there may be a title from the 1960s or even the 1930s but generally, the list is comprised of titles from the reviewers lifetime. The silent era? Never happened. You can imagine how happy this makes me.

red-mill-sulking

3. So you’ve seen every movie in the history of ever?

This may seem pedantic but I have a problem with the whole “of all time” thing. It just seems a little arrogant to proclaim yourself able to judge certain films as being worthy for such a title unless, you know, you’ve seen every movie ever made. We can only judge based on our own viewing experience, which is limited by the tiny fact that our lifespans are limited to 70-115 years or so.

In general, the more an author qualifies their opinion, the more respect I have for that opinion. I am far more likely to give my attention to an author who lists “ten of my favorite romantic comedies” than one who says “these are the best romantic comedies ever and anyone who disagrees is a big dummy” or something like that.

The best? Ha!
The best? Ha!

Lists can be a fun way to spread the word about favorite films. Heck, I’ve written my share. However, the pursuit of clickbait article titles has led some movie critics and bloggers to promise something that cannot be delivered. The AFI’s 100 Years… 100 Movies list is a perfect example of all these complaints. No films prior to 1915? Check! Limited silent selection? Check! Claims that these are the 100 greatest films? Check!

What’s the point of all this? A little less hyperbole and a little more outside-the-box thinking would be wonderful. Better lists, better choices, everyone wins.

28 Replies to “The problem with “top 10” and “best of all time” lists”

  1. YES! THANK YOU! These “best” lists also lack animated films as well, like AFI had a few, but probably the same number as silent films on their list. *Sigh* They also rarely take foreign into consideration, like they’re say “oh yeah every good film was made in america woop woop”. Best lists and top 10 lists are dumb.

  2. THANK YOU!! The thing is, I have a love-hate relationship with these things. I love reading these lists, but at the same time, they make me so bloody angry. And I completely agree with you that ‘of all time’ usually means post-1970 or so with these things. Argh.

  3. So so true ! I once got some measure of revenge against “ten best of the year” listers. Back in grad school my fabulous teacher William K. Everson taught a course titled “1939” about that amazing year, when a inordinate number of so-called classics (we think now) came out of the studio factories. He gave us total leeway to choose the subject of our term paper, so I delightedly did one called “The Ten Best of 1939” – and they were MY choices. Boy, did I have fun writing that one. I put “Gone with the Wind” as number 10, the bottom of the list (I didn’t feel I could honestly leave it out based on its size, production values and sheer entertainment value but it was my least favorite). I won’t bore you with all the rest of my list except to say my top #1 pick was a little gem titled WE ARE NOT ALONE, which blew me away when I saw it. Why it isn’t better known is a mystery ! And which proves your point, we all have our own opinions.

    1. Ha! Great project! Yes, the famous “great films” lists are so limited that it’s almost laughable. Stepping off the beaten path is ever so rewarding. (Or the list’s author can say that they are limiting themselves to mainstream Hollywood output.) So many great films waiting to be rediscovered!

  4. In general, I agree – and if you really want to annoy your inner librarian, google “best books of all time” someday (ever heard of nonfiction? These writers haven’t!). I do make an exception, however, for AFI and the Silent Era and some other similar lists with a clear methodology. In the case of AFI, they collected the votes of 1500 people who have real credentials in the field and reported the results. So far as I am concerned, that’s a reasonable sample and a reasonable list of “important” films. Nowhere have I ever seen them assert that they are “the MOST important” films, but they are films which are consistently cited by critics, historians, and industry workers as influential. In the case of the Silent Era, what they do is take votes from everyone that visits. It’s a pure popularity contest, but in that sense it is interesting to see what is most well-known from our relatively obscure field. Again, I don’t take this as an assertion that these movies are “more important” or “the best,” simply that they are more well-known. I find both of these lists to be useful markers, although I can’t imagine that anyone would let a list from any source dictate to their personal taste.

    1. My problem with the AFI list is that it was not billed as a “sample of most important films” but the GREATEST AMERICAN FILMS, full stop.

      AFI

      1500 people, 1500 opinions thrown into the blender but that doesn’t make it a particularly good list. Once again, the intent of the list is undone by its pretentious title and its grasp exceeding its reach. There’s a saying that a camel is a horse designed by committee. The AFI list is most certainly a camel.

      Silent Era’s list, on the other hand, never purports to be anything other than a loose poll of its readership. I consider it a much more honest list as it promises nothing that it cannot deliver and it doesn’t purport to be an objective ranking. (Such a thing would be impossible.)

  5. I so agree!
    I like reading lists, they are fun, but the limit is obvious and we – as well as the author – should be aware of that.

    I normally take for granted that the title of those list (“best films ever” or similar) are just for pumping up the title of the blog, like “the ultimate 10 tips for” whatever have you. I’ve read tens and tens of “ultimate tips” of pretty much anything and never thought they were the ture “ultimate”.

    Personally, even if I know absolute titles of this kind are good for attracting readers, I don’t normally use it, because I know I’m not that knowledgeable. I try to be tollerant of others 😉

  6. I like the idea of “Best of…” lists, but I do think one has to take them with a grain of salt. I mean, they are always going to be largely subjective. As you point out, “How do you measure art?” Anyway, no. 2 is the one that always gets on my nerves, not only with respect to film, but television as well. I can’t begin to name the number of lists of “greatest TV sitcoms” I have seen and the only shows made before 1980 are I Love Lucy and MAYBE The Dick Van Dyke Show!

    1. Oh good heavens, yes. Why they don’t just say “Best Sitcoms from the 1980s on” baffles me. I mean, they clearly do not like classic TV & that’s okay but don’t pretend the list is “of all time”

  7. I find that if I try to compile a top ten of my own favourites, never mind what wiser heads try to tell me, I can come up with about twenty titles and still be re-shuffling the order. When asked, I always give “The Bitter Tea of General Yen” as number one; that puts most people off straightaway😀

    1. Way to go Keith ! That is one of my top picks of personal favorites – I always put “General Yen” in my top three and have gotten bewildered stares of response.

    1. Humor is one of the most personal things in the world. For example, I think Ian Frazier’s Brandy by Firelight is the funniest thing ever but everyone else who reads it just looks confused. Oh well…

  8. Half the time I take these lists as more recommendations rather than the actual best because I don’t think there really is such a thing as an objective “the best” of anything. Art is subjective, after all. I know more than a few people that scoff at Citizen Kane’s moniker as the best film of all time and give their recommendations of the best films. I enjoy Citizen Kane, but I can see where they’re coming from. And like you said, silent films are grossly misrepresented, especially pre-1920. Once somebody puts down something other than Charlie Chaplin, D.W Griffith, and the token German film maybe I’ll take their list into consideration. (That’s not to say I don’t like Chaplin or Griffith or German films, but I see these types on every list!)

  9. You are so right even though that doesn’t stop me from reading lists and making my own but I always say these are my favourite not these films are the best and if you don’t agree with me you’re an idiot. People don’t even think about silent films unless it is Birth of a Nation, Charlie Chaplin, Nosferatu and snippets of Mary Pickford films…they never show one film. You know GWTW will always be on the list even though you shake your head at the fiddle-di-di crap and, am I the only one, or wouldn’t you also like to trip Melanie. Everyone praises Goodfellas but I just can’t stand that movie…..ok I digress. Anyway, it really is subjective when it comes down to it.

  10. In total agreement. The broader the list’s claim, the more it will be lame, or somesuch (lame) rhyme.

    Perhaps there’s a gene for hierarchical lists—so many people really love them. Agreeing with them, hating them, pointing out what they left out… I worked in magazine publishing for a lot of years, and whether it was a lifestyle mag, or news, or finance, the most popular issues of the year were list issues.

    But with claims that are in the end absolutely personal and subjective, it’s just silly. I myself adore Kane but will not think the less of you if you see it differently. Or I may judge you but will keep my mouth shut…. I also don’t understand why people feel there needs to be a GREATEST ____ ever, in any area of human endeavor.

    And because lists are so popular, I suppose, they generate lots of silly discussion. That last Sight & Sound poll, where Vertigo nudged Kane out of the top spot? How many times have you seen it referenced? Are people really able to work up much indignation over this, in our Age of Outrage?

    Also, like you, my favorites change constantly.

    I guess asking us movie geeks what is our favorite movie is just a friendly question by people who aren’t movie geeks. I don’t ever know how to answer, but it doesn’t bother me. But the fanboy arguing and posturing about ridiculous comparisons? Boring. Plus, life is too short.

    1. Exactly so. Comparing movie notes and favorites in the spirit of curiosity and friendliness is always a pleasure but posturing over whether a film deserves to be #16 or #17 is something best left to the people who seem to enjoy it for some reason.

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