Donald Clarke

Whingeing about cinema and real life since 2009

On the Guardian’s list and lists in general.

One of the selling points of Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity was the author’s investigation of the contemporaneous urban male’s obsession with best-of lists . Fifteen years after that book emerged, the observation seems so banal it is hardly worth articulating. …

Sun, Oct 24, 2010, 18:49


One of the selling points of Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity was the author’s investigation of the contemporaneous urban male’s obsession with best-of lists . Fifteen years after that book emerged, the observation seems so banal it is hardly worth articulating. Every second website now includes some chart detailing the 10 best monkeys, the 20 worst mustards or the 100 most amusing limericks. But, strange to relate, nobody had noticed this before. I guess that I am the same generation as Hornby — about seven years younger — and it was, for some weird reason, our mob that first became totally obsessed with such things. It was, perhaps, to do with the fact that no previous gang of saddos had quite so much popular culture to process. Keith Richards talks amusingly about travelling for miles just to look at an obscure blues record. Our lot (though starved in comparison with the internet set) had hundreds of albums, TV shows, films and comics to manage. The list became an essential tool for making sense of promiscuous consumption.

There had always been huddles of Listmania in various corners (jazz fans, for example, loved their “poll winners“), but, until the mid 1990s, the best-of list remained a rare pleasure that brightened up December and, on special delirious occasions, other less end-of-yeary parts of the calendar.

I can well remember (sad, sad bastard) opening up the Christmas NME in the mid-1980s in a state of dizzy, distracted excitement. Would the writers’ poll tally with my own informal list? They would surely pick The Smiths’ The Smiths or Scott Walker’s Climate of Hunter as their favourite album. Wouldn’t they? Hang on. What’s this? The Poet II by Bobby Womack? Oh, yeah. I was really into that. I dig Womack all the way. It’s the best album of 1984 by a long shot. (Cue hurried trip to Freebird or Liffey Street Golden Discs)

Meanwhile, a hushed aura grew around the British Film Institute’s poll of the ten best films of all time. That chart, initially involving just critics, now taking in film-makers as well, remains an extraordinary record of waxing and waning critical reputations. Consider, for example, that, in 1962, just two year’s after its release, Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’Avventura was installed as the second greatest film ever. Intriguing. Isn’t it? Antonioni is still very highly rated, but the notion that L’Avventura might be the film to challenge Citizen Kane’s apparently unshakable hegemony now seems slightly preposterous. Maybe a Michael Haneke film will sneak its way to a similar spot when the next chart comes out in 2012. Who knows?

Here’s the 2002 critics’ list:

1. Citizen Kane

2. Vertigo

3. La Règle de Jeu

4. The Godfather/The Godfather Part II

5. Tokyo Story

6. 2001: A Space Odyssey

7. Battleship Potemkin

8. Sunrise

9. 8 1/2

10. Singin’ in the Rain

Yes, the thing about the BFI poll is that it only comes along once every 10 years. As a result, it still retains a degree of respectability. Just a degree, mind. Since Hornby and his generation (Hem! Hem!) let the genie out of the bottle, best-of lists have become so ubiquitous that they barely carry any meaning. You can be fairly certain there’ll be one in this week’s Mojo, this week’s Empire and, likely as not, this week’s Screenwriter.

Anyway, all this was triggered by The Guardian’s recent, genuinely weird list of the best ever films. As we mentioned last week, there were some very odd decisions regarding genre. The print supplement listing “Arthouse” films included The Godfather and The Graduate. The online version of that chart may have added “drama” to the definition, but that still leaves The Graduate — a comedy, surely — in the wrong race.

At the end of the exercise, the paper voted on the winners from each category and deduced that Chinatown was the Best Film Ever. I suppose it’s as good a choice as any. But the reductive nature of the list does really render it more than usually pointless. Still, that doesn’t mean I haven’t been arguing about the thing with my blasted associates every time we attend a press screening. They are a terrible drug these lists. I don’t know just where I’m going.

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