Friday, December 28, 2012

The Trouble With Worst Lists

Posted By on December 28, 2012, 9:35 AM

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'Tis that time of year when arts journalists everywhere are making lists. But why exactly do we spend time cataloging what sucks? ---

In this week's City Weekly, I -- like film critics all over the world do for their respective outlets -- took time to praise my favorite films of the year just concluding. Because there's nothing that makes my job more enjoyable than pointing readers toward quality, it's an annual tradition of which I gladly partake.

But it's a different matter entirely when it comes to "worst of the year" lists. Many (if not most) critics supplement their list of praises with lists of pans, letting loose their spleens on movies that they, in all likelihood, already tore apart upon their initial release.

So, what's wrong with that? If it's okay for critics to use their bully pulpits to steer readers to greatness, why isn't it just as commendable to use it to steer them away from awfulness?

That's a loaded question, with a multipart answer. The first -- admittedly, very personal -- part of the response is that it perpetuates the idea that we professional critics love the bitchy, snippy part of the job. Perhaps some do. But if I took no joy in thinking about a worthless waste of two hours once, I certainly don't need to waste time or mental energy on doing so again.

Second, too many critics don't actually use their "worst of the year" lists to address those films they actually believe are the worst. They're more about axes to grind at films they deem "overrated" (like Entertainment Weekly's Owen Glieberman inexplicably including Rust and Bone among his bottom five) than they are about the year's true atrocities against cinema.

But the most significant reason is perhaps inextricably linked to the first: The job of an arts critic is never more important than when it's furthering the goal of encouraging discovery. Of course, it's an unavoidable part of the job to cover films over the course of a year -- some high-profile, some not -- that drive us nuts. And when that happens, we can take them on. How much more value, though, is there in using that end-of-year space to tout even more of the things you loved? Why a "10 best" and "10 worst" -- giving nearly equal time to ineptitude -- when one can surely find 20 worthy films, introducing readers to storytellers, ideas, performances and indelible moments to pop into a Netflix queue or add to a "wanna see that some day" list?

I respect the work of my colleagues, but I question the value of spending precious words hate-writing about failed blockbusters or limp awards-bait when, every year, dozens of wonderful films fly by beneath the radar of all but the most hardcore cinephiles. If we love the art of film -- or literature, or theater, or music -- we should devote ourselves to nurturing that love in our readers. Ask me what I loathe, and you may end up with a chuckle at the expense of a piece of crap. Ask me what I adore, and just maybe you'll find your way to something that will move you, delight you, amaze you. I'll have more of that, please.

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