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Criticwire Survey: How to Make a Top 10 List

Criticwire Survey: How to Make a Top 10 List

Every week, the Criticwire Survey asks film and TV critics two questions. (The answer to the second, “What is the best film in theaters right now?” can be found at the end of this post.) Send suggestions for future questions to sam at indiewire dot com.

Q: This week, we’ll see the results
of critics polls from Indiewire and the Village Voice, following those from Film Comment and Sight & Sound,  Film Comment, along with as many more individual Top 10 lists. What’s your process for
making a Top 10? 

Dan Kois, Slate

I take it absurdly seriously considering I am only an occasional critic so my moviegoing is incomplete and sometimes embarrassing. But I try to jam in a lot of screeners between Thanksgiving and early December, and then make the list at the last possible moment before deadline. I embrace the notion that the list can vary based on mood/further consideration, which is why I so far have filed three different lists to three different polls. Listmaking is one of my favorite parts of being a person who cares about culture — it’s so satisfying — and so I hope I will manage to continue to do it every year, even as I get older and manage to cram less and less in.

Farran Smith Nehme, New York Post, Self-Styled Siren

When it comes to lists, I am like the constant dinner-party guest who never issues reciprocal invitations, because she can’t cook. I enjoy other people’s lists, mostly for the way it lets me see inside their minds, and sometimes because it prompts me to seek out something that had escaped my notice before. But I am terrible at compiling ordinal best-film lists. Sure, I think there are obvious gradations of worth, but if a film pleases me, it’s painful to declare “Yeah, but it wasn’t quite as good as THIS one over here.” What I’m trying to say is that my lists should not be taken as my final word. They should be viewed more like clumps. I did a Top 20 for Film Comment, and I gave the films numerical rankings only because Film Comment’s methodology means the film’s ultimate score could benefit that way. That in turn could mean that a film I like has a slightly greater chance of getting more attention. So I hemmed and I hawed and I ranked. But on a fundamental level, I am not very good at lists. I would rather write about movies than shuffle them into rankings. If I list a film, I liked it.

Carrie Rickey, Philadelphia Inquirer, Yahoo!

Process? One question: Will audiences enjoy/be enlightened and as impressed by the film’s artistic values in 50 years as I am today?

Richard Brody, New Yorker

This is a good question, because I’ve never thought about the process before. I improvise. Usually, in November, around the time I notice talk heating up about the dates of screenings for critics’ groups that vote early, I jot down a list that spontaneously comes to mind of the year’s movies that I love madly, passionately, a lot, a little, not at all. Then I look through a few lists of the year’s releases (especially Mike D’Angelo’s and the one issued by Film Comment, which also includes festival programs) to see whether there are any I’ve forgotten and to make sure of the officialness of a release (an artificial criterion that’s in need of revision but that I follow for the sake of common ground). Then I wait to see as many year-end movies as possible and go back to see movies I regret having missed, and make additions as needed. Every year is different; some years, I have to negotiate at length with myself over the order of the list and the inclusion or exclusion of certain titles; in other years (such as this year), I was able to make a list very quickly that represented my feelings to myself recognizably. A list is not a game; it’s an image in words, as if Chuck Close were making a self-portrait with film stills. That’s why it’s so much fun to read lists — they’re peculiarly personal and self-revealing — and why it’s good that they only come out once a year.

Drew Hunt, Chicago Reader

I try not to think too hard. Year end lists are fun to read and fun to make, but their significance is way, way overvalued. And they’re really not that different, list to list. We’re all basically picking from the same pool of 50 to 75 films, so what’s included and the order in which they’re arranged is pretty arbitrary. But like I said, they’re fun. I simply pick the ten films that most moved me during the year, then order them based on preference, though that’s a fluid situation — ask me in a week, and I might swap #2 for #4 or #1 for #9. The point is I liked them. I don’t bother with keeping a running list — again, it’s important not to think too hard — and I rarely feel the need to play catch-up or cram anything in last minute, because if I consider something worth watching, chances are I’ve seen it already, and even if I miss something, it’ll surely be on another critic’s list, so problem solved! The one “rule” I do follow is the one-week, NYC theatrical policy. I don’t include festival films or films without distribution. Just seems more fair that way.

Josh Spiegel, Movie Mezzanine

I don’t really have much of a process for making a top 10 list, aside from needing to refer to a massive list of the year’s releases to jog my memory about some of the films I saw that might merit consideration. This year, as with most years, the very top of my list has been solidified for a while — since July, I’ve had the same three films in the same order. The rest of the top 10 may jockey for position somewhat, and arguably, my opinion might change depending on my mood. I try not to create a list until it’s absolutely necessary (such as when voting for awards or taking part in the Indiewire list, among others), in part because I know I haven’t seen all that I could yet. (This year, partly because I’m now a new father, I probably won’t see all that I could from 2014 releases until well into 2015, if not later.) Honestly, this is how I treat listmaking: I do so only if it’s absolutely necessary, not on a continual basis. Watching films and debating about them is far more rewarding to me than making a list that I won’t remember a month from now.

Kevin B. Lee, Fandor

It's been a terrific year for movies, the downside being the arduous task of narrowing the list of outstanding films down to 10. Going into the past week I had about 20 titles under serious consideration. I looked at these titles and asked myself what I really had to say on their behalf. I'd write a sentence for each, and in some special cases, I'd find myself writing more than a sentence. There's nothing like having to account for one's choices to help get to the bottom of what one really thinks — not just about a movie, but about The Movies, and what one really wants out of them. It can be a self-exposing process, clarifying one's cinematic values. In this regard, I think the list I came up with this year has been more personally satisfying than any of my previous iterations of this annual ritual.

Liz Shannon Miller, Indiewire

You know the song “Tubthumping,” by the band Chumbawumba? My process is a lot like that.

In seriousness, the key thing I think about is the distinction between Important and Favorite — and when in doubt, when making a list for myself personally, I often lean towards favorite. For me, writing about pop culture isn’t any fun if you don’t connect with it personally. This doesn’t mean I’ll put a really guilty pleasure on a Top 10 list over something across the board more deserving. But I’ll 100 percent prioritize a show that I connect with emotionally over a show that I recognize is extremely well made, but leaves me cold.

Sam Fragoso, Forbes

I close my eyes and imagine. 

Jason Shawhan, Nashville Scene, Interface 2037

For tax and organizational purposes, I keep a log of every movie I see (Title, year, director, exhibition format, and location the film was viewed in). Anything with an asterisk to the left of its title means it’s a 2014 release (or something I saw at a festival which is somehow in play for the year). If there’s a performance, or sequence, or line of dialogue, even, that strikes me in a certain way, I’ll make a note of it.

So when year end consideration time (that is, the month and change out of the year where I feel valued) rolls around, it’s a little easier to go through and pull some contenders for categories. For 2014, I’m voting in three polls: Indiewire, SEFCA (my critics’ guild), and the Muriels. Since Indiewire was first, it required the most consternation. There were lots of films that I simply never had a chance to see, so I just went with my gut. SEFCA requires a lot of hemming and hawing and trying to be strategic, even though there’s none of the in-person skullduggery that I hear of from folk whose critics’ guild is all in the same city. The Muriels is the most fun to contribute to because it’s after the meat market phase of awards season. Also, because it’s at the beginning of next year, I’ll generally have been able to see everything I wanted to by then.

I love making hierarchical lists, partially because they are so subjective and mercurial. Every critical proclamation is based on who you are at that moment and what experiences you’ve had up until that point. So they change, and that’s okay. It’s all a weird game of timing and emotional waveforms, and I’m sure a scientist could do an in-depth dissection of the process that leads to the discovery of shocking trends in collective evaluation. But I love the year end awards crush, because I feel somewhat respected and because I have a wild-and-wooly work schedule that has me bouncing around the city to screenings, or power viewing the screeners I get sent.

Neil Young, Hollywood Reporter

Anal as I am, I scrupulously maintain running lists of top films (features, shorts, new, old, whatever) throughout the year, so when it comes to “polls time” I go through them and filter according to the askers’ criteria. Occasional tweakings and twerkings may occur. Cramming and jamming, meanwhile, strikes me as antithetical to the process, and also unduly kowtows to the “released in territory X within calendar year Y” aspects of these shenanigans.

I also don’t subscribe to the “tomorrow I could give an entirely different list” theorem, especially when it comes to year-end surveys where part of the point is seeing which pictures have remained vivid in the mind for months on end, and the tricky part is comparing something seen in mid-December, say, to something seen in mid-January. This is where I find my patented Jigsaw Lounge ratings-scales come in handy — 1-28 for features and mid-lengths; 1-13 for shorts. Anal as I am.

Nell Minow, Beliefnet

I don’t take top ten lists very seriously and I do not spend much time on them. It’s a random number and ranking is a random process, especially when there are so many different genres, so many different aspirations, and so many different ways to be “best.” A screenplay? A performance? A moment that made me think of the world in a larger way? Or just a movie that satisfyingly delivers everything it promises, even if all it promises is to be entertaining? Any of those seems a good reason.

Yet, I enjoy reading other people’s lists. I often apply Jan Struther’s line and call them “indefensible but irresistible.” I usually end up with a strong sense of the film I think is the best of the year (for me, this year, it’s “Selma”), and then consider everything else tied for second place. And then I like to write about what really stood out for me most. This year, it will include performers like Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Chris Pratt, who were each outstanding in two very different films in 2014, and some weird themes that kept recurring (three different movies had scenes where it was supposed to be dashing and adorable that couples ran out on a restaurant check, and one had a couple jumping a subway turnstile and none of it ever worked for me). What I enjoy more is my ten worst list, though if Adam Sandler has made a movie that year, everyone else is just playing for second.

Q.V. Hough, Vague Visages

To Letterboxd or not to Letterboxd? Last year, I managed to keep my viewing experiences organized, but I found myself thinking more about numbers and less about each individual film. It’s important for me to initially refrain from browsing “popular” Top 10 lists and contemplate the works that truly affected me. This must be done in complete silence and in the style of Rodin’s “The Thinker.” Seriously, Richard Linklater’s “Boyhood” was not high on my list and that’s ok. Right?

I believe it’s important for critics to share their Top 10 lists, because it opens up the eyes of casual moviegoers and sheds more light on films that could linger in Netflix Queue Limbo for months. Plus, it’s fun! Personally, I used to live in the heart of Hollywood, but I now reside in Fargo, North Dakota and haven’t been able to see Jean-Luc Godard’s “Goodbye to Language.” My anticipation level is out of control right now. The Top 10 lists allow for a wild December scramble of binge-streaming and help critics psychologically prepare for the films they’ve been waiting to see.

Mike McGranaghan, The Aisle Seat, Film Racket

Some people might say I take the process of making a Top 10 list way too seriously, but I believe it’s a chance for critics to step up to the plate and ring the bell for outstanding films one last time. Readers pay attention to Top 10 lists in a way they don’t always pay attention to individual reviews. I typically hold my list until the very end of December, just to make sure I have time to see everything I need to. (For example, “Selma” has to be viewed before list-making; it’s probably okay if I missed “Ouija.”) From there, it’s a matter of choosing the ten films that meant the most to me, or impacted me to the largest degree. The hardest part, really, is ranking them. Rankings often feel arbitrary. How do you decide one great film is slightly more or less great than another great film? I find that identifying a “theme” for the year helps. Sometimes I go by how personal my reactions to the movies were, and other times by how well they spoke to life in the twelve months that have just passed. Of course, some years have one movie that clearly stands head-and-shoulders above the rest, and some have four or five titles that could easily lay claim to my #1 slot. There again, identifying some sort of criteria makes the task a tiny bit easier. No list is perfect, but at the end of the day, I try to have one that contains a nice balance of films from different genres, all of which I feel passionately about.

John DeCarli, FilmCapsule

The best way I’ve found to compile a Top 10 list is to keep track throughout the year. Not only does it make it easy to remember everything you’ve seen, but it’s the perfect release for a compulsive list-maker like myself. Of course, the list itself is unscientific and I tinker with the order every chance I get, but having a list of all the 2014 releases I’ve seen ensures I don’t forget anything.

Joey Magidson, The Awards Circuit, First Showing

I keep a running list of what I see throughout the year, separated by the star rating I gave it. That way, when I organize a Top 10 list, I sort of already have it narrowed down to what’s gotten four stars or at least three and a half from me. Then, it just becomes a matter of figuring out the best of the best. I do try and go right down to the wire, usually seeing somewhere in the area of 315 films a year, in an effort to not miss some of the smaller gems that might otherwise slip away. In the end though, it’s just a gut feeling about what looks right as a summary of the best of the year to me.

John Keefer, 51 Deep

I have never needed to compose a top ten list so I do not have a process in place. But if a gun was placed to my head then I would start with my favorite film at #1 and then randomly jumble 2-10 and make the concession that I was unable to choose and admit there is no point in ranking films other than to appeal to the ‘who won’ sports’ mentality of our great nation. I still do not know what value there is in a top ten list other than maybe provoking a conversation but people tend to concentrate on, “How could you put this at 3 and that at 9?” and that leads to nothing of value being exchanged. And considering the same films end up on just as many ‘best of’ and ‘worst of’ lists it seems the main value of these lists is to turn the volume up on the echo chamber…and to fill content-space.

Piers Marchant, Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, Philadelphia Magazine

Sometimes, we get lucky. I usually know when I’ve seen the best film I will get to see in a given year, or at least a top-three possibility. As for the rest, I guess I start by pouring over my archives and sorting films out by my current impressions of them. Sometimes, a film that seemed great in the moment will fade a bit by the end of the year, or, happily, quite the opposite, and a film you’d sort of written off ends up really standing out over time. As for the thoroughness of my viewing, I try to see everything that sounds promising, but there are inevitably titles that frustratingly slip through my grasp for one reason or another (this year, to my enduring agony, it’s goddamn “Inherent Vice”), and they plague me for weeks after I put in my vote. Ugh. I take it fairly seriously, I suppose, because it’s really a condensed take on my entire year’s worth of viewing. I’m also fascinated by other critics’ lists, if only to further agonize over titles I’ve missed.

Joanna Langfield, The Movie Minute

Ah, the Top Ten list: the bane of my end-of-year existence! OK, maybe I’m exaggerating. A little bit. But I do look at this compilation as a rather big deal and, thus, a big responsibility. A lot has changed in the many years I’ve been writing these. In the beginning, there were far fewer movies that, therefore, it was conceivable to have seen almost every release. Calling it The Top Ten was an ego driven folly based on complete research. Now, with the myriad releases each week, it’s just about impossible to see everything. I’ve changed my title from The to My Top Ten, in an effort to fess up that there could be some great stuff out there I just didn’t get to. From there, I review my calendar, notes and reviews and keep my ears and eyes open for tips on any great stuff I can cram in before making The Big Decision. Then I make a list, play incessantly with it and wait until some deadline or another insists I stop it already. Perhaps my individual list isn’t going to change the world, or the industry’s view of a particular piece, but I do like to acknowledge fine work and this Best Of gimmick is an accepted way of doing that. Plus, I have heard from audiences over time that they like me to prioritize, as it gives them an automatic list of films they will make it a point to see.

Gary Kramer, Gay City News, Philadelphia Gay News

When I create a Top 10 of the year, I tend to reflect on those titles that have stayed with me since I first saw them. I craft my list on what I’ve seen when asked. Yes, there are 2014 films I won’t see until perhaps 2015, but I saw at least one of my 2014 titles at festivals last year, before they received theatrical release, so I feel it balances out. Besides, it’s a personal, idiosyncratic list based on what I saw, not what I still plan to see. My process is to select films that were especially memorable. I tend to lean towards films that flew under the radar. I still can’t quite shake “Ida” and “Heli,” and “Memphis” which are 3 of my Top 5. There are images in these films — of defenestration; a man’s genitals being set on fire; or a car window slowly crumbling — that are forever seared in my memory. And this is why “Wetlands” rounds out my list at #10; it is full of vivid sequences that distinguish it from most of what I saw this year. The strong, impassioned emotions I had after seeing these films secure them a spot on my list. Likewise, “Point and Shoot,” arguably, the year’s best documentary, took me to a place I never expected to go. Is that not the purpose of cinema? A Top 10 should celebrate the most unforgettable films of the year. Alas, I wish I didn’t have to stop at 10. I still can’t seem to shake Jeremy O’Keefe’s “Somewhere Slow,” a little film that has haunted me since I saw it early in the year. It would have been my #11.

Anne-Katrin Titze, Eye For Film

I look at polls as an opportunity to give films recognition. Patterns and trends come as an afterthought. Only after compiling my Indiewire 2014 Year-End Poll, did I notice that seven out of the ten “Best Undistributed Films” were directed by women, and ten out of ten “Best Films” were directed by men, although most have strong female lead characters. In addition, four out of the five “Best First Features” were directed by women. There are extraordinary achievements in the “Best Undistributed Films” which would deserve a spot on many of the categories for best of the year. Once you have eliminated films from consideration to be named in any of the categories, the process becomes manageable and the poll begins to fall into place.

Scott Nye, Battleship Pretension, CriterionCast

I
take at once a thorough and freewheeling approach to my top ten. I
refuse to start crafting it until I’m nearly done with my viewing for
the year (usually on some arbitrary date decided by either myself or my
editor), at which point I scroll gradually through my list of the year’s
viewing (usually around a relatively modest 150 films), and pluck out
anything that I think could reasonably be included. That usually leaves
me with twenty or thirty outstanding films that, outside of the top 3-5,
could pretty much be arranged in any order and produce a satisfying
result. From there, I pick those I feel really need the attention,
either looking at an angle I feel has been under- or misrepresented, or
just emphasizing the importance of a film that hasn’t received its due
evaluation. This final list would definitely change from day to day, yet
gets agonized over for at least a full week, to the benefit of few. I’m
not saying it’s the most scientific approach, but a little volatility
in arts appreciation does seem to make it more fun.

Marc V. Ciafardini, GoSeeTalk, The Film Stage

The way I see it, these lists serve two purposes. They
cast light on films that have really stuck with you (allowing further
praise for things you hyped up months or just weeks back), and, perhaps
more importantly, they simply get people talking. Given that it is
almost impossible for us to see every film released in a calendar year
(and pay full attention to each while doing so), lists are always going
to be subjective. Even if we could, we’d still have different takes on
what we saw.

So, lists are open-ended, opinionated, and, therefore,
anything but definitive. Yet that’s half the fun of making them anyway –
getting to discuss and defend your choices. My Top 10 lists are
populated with the films I loved and have thought a lot about after
leaving the theater. However, I have never been concerned with their
placement. The important thing is that they have a spot at the end of
the year. As the number of films we see on a weekly basis keeps growing,
it’s getting harder impress us. So, obviously, for a film to stand out,
it really has to be something special.

My criteria is simple, and it’s somewhat fueled by the
collector side of me. Sure, I may have thought the world of a film, but
for it to make my Top 10 list this time of year I have to answer a
resounding ‘yes’ to these two questions: 1. Would I want to see this
again? and 2. Would I want to own this? (I usually try to ask/answer the
last one about halfway through the films I watch).

M. Leary, Filmwell

You may have read the old tale about the guy who eats M&Ms by
smashing pairs together and saving the one whose shell doesn’t crack,
eating the other. He does this with the entire bag until he has one
uncracked M&M left, which is then declared the victor. My annual
listmaking process is similar. I am always looking for the films that I
may be thinking about for years to come because they point toward
something vital happening in cinema. Then I pit those films against each
other in a spreadsheet battle during which strengths and weaknesses
emerge. I hope that by the end of this process my top ten is the kind of
list that will help others engage what I thought most affecting and
promising about the past year of cinema.

Danny Bowes, Salt Lake City Weekly
1My process for compiling a top ten has changed every year, mainly
because I haven’t been keeping formal lists for very long. This year (as
I’ll continue to do in future years, I think, because it worked quite
well this year) I kept a running list over the course of the year, with a
#1 pick that held the spot from April until December.
Beyond that, the rubric for what gets ranked where is fuzzy. How do you
compare “The Tale of Princess Kaguya” with “The Raid 2”? “Goodbye to
Language” with “Pompeii”? Rather than dwelling on this, I choose to think
of top tens (or top twenty-fives, as I’m in the habit of keeping) as a
document of what specific movies with a US release date of x year meant
the most to me personally. Box office statistics are there to determine
what was most popular, Oscars are there as a marker of what old people
in Los Angeles liked, but a best-of list is a chance to say yes, “Attack
the Block” was the best movie of 2011, come at me.

Jeff Berg, Las Cruces Bulletin

For years
and years, I’ve kept a list of all titles that I watch on a calendar.
Each day that I see something, I write down the title. If it was
exceptional, then I will make it w/ an asterisk as a reminder that it was
something exceptional. At the end of the year, I go back through the
calendar and through the reviews I’ve written to make up my list. I
really wish I had the old note pads that I used to track titles from
when I first started doing this.

Q: What is the best movie in theaters?

A: “Inherent Vice”

Other movies receiving multiple votes: “Top Five”

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