Occasionally, I fear that my taste has been curated. When dialed in, there’s a gnawing in the back of mind—do I really like this; or, have I been told I like this because it’s good and important and essential? Am I feeding a self-fulfilling hegemonic history? Maybe my knowledge is just the sum of various “best of” lists.
The dust has about settled on another year. It’s been summed and aggregated; it’s boxed and sealed for storage. We’re nearly ready to forget and move on to the new. Another round of best of lists—compendia whittled down and organized into subjectively quantified hierarchies—has come and gone and we’re in the process of moving from reflection to anticipation as we speak. In yet again hastily moving from one list generation period to the next, the stuffing is showing through the seams; we’re approaching some asymptotic singularity of nitpicking. Self-awareness has saturated the market while not diminishing the proliferation. Meta-commentary flourishes around these ventures with outlets feigning satire, gasping for help behind ground-tooth-grins, quick to point out the ubiquity of lists and their requirement in a competitive market space. Tongue-in-cheek lists about lists abound; think pieces (guilty) on our listing habits criticize; absurd incarnations cobbled together in a cold sweat attempt to delegitimize it all. Are we approaching critical mass, or is this slow unraveling the nature of a post-list world we’ve already entered? At this point, what’s the difference? They’re more reflex-responses than productive interventions, most essential as irony beacons in the haze of the modern wasteland.
Consider the granddaddy of them all: The BFI Sight and Sound all-time greatest movies list. Citizen Kane used to be the greatest film of all time; now Vertigo is. This changed in 2012, after fifty years. The arbitrary title and the shifts in favor over the years have come to be symbolic of the white-knuckle stranglehold of consensus. To a lesser degree, this albatross scourge tarnishes the reception of all films and media in the modern world, their reception, their rank, their superlatives precede them, and the absurdity mounts over time as repeated iterations contradict themselves ad infinitum. Some of this is due to the ravages of time—changing viewing habits, expectations, opinions, entrenched champions dying off. Through these eroding forces, the biases inherent emerge and take hold. Inconsistencies, and lapses, often glaring, open this process to scrutiny and reveal the innerworkings of aggregation in all their sputtering, hasty, desperate glory.
It’s not an even playing field, obviously. Familiarity is paramount, offering the opportunity for cultural metastasis to touch the subconscious. Dilapidations of memory play a part as our recall process vies with the tenor and timing of cultural crests and troughs. At the outer limits of short-term memory, we defer. The type and reach of a work dictates the nature and intensity of reflexive-response, calibrating the degree to which we laud or bash beyond all recognition. In all, the oblivion of permanent obscurity looms. These are not just measures of objective merit, but rather barometers of social swell, and cultural specificity is key. Consider, too, Bollywood and Nollywood, for example, accounting for hundreds and hundreds of films every year. And, China, too—after a long history as a major market for American films, 7 of the 10 top grossing films in the country were Chinese productions in 2015, including the highest grossing in history, Monster Hunt. If you’ve never heard of that movie, you’re not alone. But, you’d better believe these blind spots are built into our willful collective insularity.
Can we trust the depth and intricacy of information exchange to filter and sift indiscriminately, letting the muck pass through and catching all the gems? Signs are pointing to this process buckling under the pressure. Bizarro lists are becoming normative. The methods are bending over backward, gnarled into absurd, embellished forms—stretched beyond tenability or squeezed to triviality. List-making has exploded into an art form in itself. In some spaces, our desire to celebrate the best is warped into schadenfreude lust—to see the worst get spat on. Beyond this straight-out reversal, we craft lists that negate the idea of lists, celebrating/lamenting things that didn’t happen, giving sentience to durations of time, conflating extensively until all is just a single ungainly consciousness. And we love to write about the process as we go along because in compiling we come to face the manner, means, nature, and process of our own experience and have to reflect and reconcile our own biases and shortcomings and influences. It’s all the better for paralleling life events and media releases and keeping it all straight and orderly and interdependent. In the end, isn’t the ritual just highbrow clickbait, with the compulsions inherent firmly intact and the topsoil slowly washing away?
Really, this is a primer for larger, gaudier things to come. Considerations of achievements and merit are spun into fierce competition and backroom politicking. All this is bloodsport in essence—pitting artistic endeavors against one another in mortal combat. Grading systems get subtly scrambled and conflated and recalibrated. Slight-but-not-outlandish surprises keep us interested without undermining critical integrity too overtly. In this arena, these year-end lists achieve some modest dignity despite themselves, crafting a baseline against which the hubris and spectacle to come will be judged. Then, soon after considered praise is turned to lavish exhibitionism, “so far” lists will pick up, and the race to the finish will begin in earnest through the blockbuster season, the silly season, and the beginnings of prestige offerings—ramped-up itches to keep compiling and assessing and organizing, temporarily alleviated by ever-narrowing intervals of placeholder lists, will spread and we’ll eventually make our way back to the big purge. The real progression each cycle is the expanse and inundation that grows with each turn, and the acceleration of the barrage periods falling over each other, burrowing ever-deeper into molecular-level specificity.
There’s little denying the entertainment factor of the countdown. The implicit suspense of a ticker down to 1 feeds some of the fun and excitement of these lists. Some lists have tried to reverse and deflate this trend, striving for an air of refinement. Still, this only goes so far; there is an inherent inertia in the format, and elegance to the easily-followed linearity. It’s a format that all but demands short-form—the tried a true blurb—perfectly placating an ADD-addled mind. These are often lovely without saying much, rather fitting the works into the annum broad strokes and reinforcing auteur theory. Can we only embark on an article if we know exactly how much information it will feed us? The illogic of subjectivity and juxtaposition is cut by the regimented rationality and order that moves the reader smoothly from beginning to end. These can easily be read piece by piece without losing momentum and coherence.
They are reference logs, documents to pull up to refresh the memory and recall what was good at a particular point in time. We ride a narrowing current, from an ocean of material through a guided arrangement to a vanishing point where just a few conclusions remain. At that point, consensus is frozen. Measures of success and failure straighten into a clear path. Status trumps analysis. Modest scales duel with gigantism, solemn character studies face crackerjack entertainment; there are no handicaps, and incoherence gushes from laughable juxtaposition. We’re labeling for future recall, charting experience, relevance, and favor over time; and, bonus, Wikipedia loglines and trailer fodder are generated and exploited in the process.
Despite our best efforts to strain in the opposite direction, we find ourselves closer than ever to that which we sought to negate: the uncertainty of infinity. The intricacy and overlap casts an overarching capricious knottiness, to the point where nothing is delineated and nothing is actually definitive. It’s a Blair Witch-style scenario where you follow a compass in a direction and keep walking in circles. From infinitesimal minutiae to macro-historical collation, everything is ranked and filed and logged and eventually the myriad inclusions add up to a wired, byzantine cultural consciousness. Still, there’s a curious minimalist merit to it all, a way of clearing the mind of clutter to subsequently circumscribe some larger narrative to raw information—unheralded repetitions and tropes are revealed and are proven as the rule through anecdotal compilation that reaches deeper and deeper into the bowels of the media we routinely imbibe. Perhaps in some far off, enlightened future, we will reap the rewards of all this raw data. But, for now, we’re just having too much fun building odd shapes.
The true joke of year-end lists is that there is in fact delineation and a cycle, especially in the embarrassment of riches that is this oversaturated media culture of the current moment. Like Peter Fonda’s musings in The Limey, mostly, our conclusions are repeats of previous assertions, or imprinted half-nostalgic fallacies; though buzz of upheaval is often bandied, progress proves stubbornly incremental, or fleeting, or impermanent. In the supposed tumult, it inevitably all blends together over time, and even with these lists, we seem destined only to whittle down and remember a few grains—culture is parsed and parsed and parsed until, down the line, only the specter of consensus remains in the zeitgeist. It’s an ungodly mess so why make sense of it? It’s a façade of containment and comprehensive understanding—subjectivity and aggregated opinion doing battle. All is indicative of our desperation to keep our heads above water. Still, I have to wonder where our current existential nexus would fall on an all-time corpus; hopefully, we’d crack the top 10.
This article was written by Oliver O’Sullivan, a writer for dusk magazine.