Filthy Secrets of the 10-Best Movies List

A critic comes clean about his Declaration of Principles... he means Prejudices... he means Pleasures. Which must explain why Fast Five is on the list.

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From Left: Indomina Releasing; Everett; Paramount

Eight fleeting thoughts on the business and pleasure of making a Top 10 list:

1. That kind of a year. For any critic — naaah, let’s just say for this critic — compiling a 10 Best list is a chore, a game and a declaration of principles. A chore because I want to be judicious in balancing my first impressions of a film with my appraisal of it many months later (which means second viewings of the contenders). A game because, in the long run, none of this matters. And a statement of principles because a list of the year’s favorites should indicate either the breadth or the concentration of certain kinds of good films. “Breadth” mandates including the best independent, foreign-language, documentary, animated and experimental films. “Concentration” means choosing a higher number of the same kind of movies, thus making a statement about the state of cinema.

This time I said to hell with Breadth and concentrated on Concentration. For the past few years I’ve found that mainstream movies of the action variety have revealed more narrative and technical ingenuity than indie or foreign art-house films, which, with important exceptions, are going through a static or mopey phase. And after some patchy early attempts, directors have learned to use the 3-D format as a revelatory artistic tool. My 2011 list clarified those positions by assigning eight of the 10 slots to either action films (Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame, War Horse, Super 8, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Rango, Fast Five) or 3-D movies (Hugo, Cave of Forgotten Dreams). It was that kind of a year.

(READ: Corliss’ Top 10 Best Movies)

2. “Fast Five!?” I hear you saying. I heard me saying it too, for it’s exactly the kind of film that I enjoy watching but which gets pushed down the year-end list, and then off, to make room for some worthy Iranian entry. (Sorry, A Separation.) Fast Five had no special provenance (for the record, the director was Justin Lin), no exceptional performances, no memorable dialogue. Yet it did what movies should do: move. Hence my praising of it as “the first great post-human movie”— a money quote the studio didn’t use. And I esteemed the film as highly the second time I watched it. So there it is at No. 10. More than ever, my declaration of critical principles this year was a declaration of one moviegoer’s pleasures.

And if you’re wondering why my list has the seemingly redundant name of “Top 10 Best Movies,” it’s because Mary Pols contributed a “Top 10 Worst Movies.”

(READ: Mary Pols’ Top 10 Worst Movies)

3. Pairing pictures. Figuring that the text of a 10 Best list should flow organically, I occasionally rank films in consecutive slots to emphasize their similarities. This year, both The Artist and Hugo were splendid evocations of silent movies. So they became Nos. 1 and 2. (Why The Artist first? Very nearly, but not quite, a coin toss.) Steven Spielberg’s War Horse and JJ Abrams’ Super 8, a film inspired by Spielberg’s early work, also accommodated pairing. Linking them was meant to suggest a paternal kinship, the passing of exceptional storytelling techniques from one generation to the next.

Twinning is an old habit with me. In 2004 I linked a pair of highly charged films about politics and faith — Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 and Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ — in part for the fun of imagining the two directors being forced to sit next to each other on some imaginary honors platform. And two years ago, to make a point about the creative dominance of animation, I filled my top three slots with features in different formats: one traditional hand-drawn (The Princess and the Frog), one CGI (Up) and one stop-motion (Fantastic Mr. Fox). Many reviewers don’t share my admiration for animation, as indicated by this year’s New York Film Critics Circle decision not to vote a prize in that category. Constant readers will note that this is the first year since 2007 that an animated feature did not top my list.

4. Ten of one, a half-score of the other. I also compile a 10-pack of Best Movie Performances; and often the films on that lists were finalists for Best Movies. This year, for example, Of Gods and Men, The Interrupters and Life, Above All would have been plausible Best Movie selections. Instead, I acknowledged these films by honoring the superb performances of Michael Lonsdale, Ameena Matthews (yes, a “performance” in a documentary) and Khomotso Manyaka. In my mind, you’re all winners.

(READ: Corliss’ Top 10 Movies Performances)

5. “The Werner Herzog slot.” That’s how someone described my year-end choice of a documentary. It’s true that, in the past seven years, three Herzog docs have made my top 10: The White Diamond (topping the list) in 2005, Encounters at the End of the World in 2008 and Cave of Forgotten Dreams this year. But I’ve also chosen two docs by Charles Ferguson (No End in Sight and Inside Job) and two by Michael Moore (Bowling for Columbine and Fahrenheit 9/11). Looking back over my lists, I see a tendency to favor documentaries made by directors, like Terence Davies (Of Time and the City) and Guy Maddin (My Winnipeg), who had previously beguiled me as makers of fiction films.

(FIND: Werner Herzog on the 2009 TIME 100

6. Listmaking is the organizing principle of a sloppy mind. My movie listmaking goes way back; I can recall the kid version of me compiling a 1959 top-five of The Seventh Seal, Some Like It Hot, North by Northwest, Anatomy of a Murder and Imitation of Life. (It was a great year, back then; and I had a great eye for movies, back then.) My published lists started at National Review, for which I wrote movie reviews in the late ’60s. The 1969 Top 10 includes Midnight CowboyMy Night at Maud’s, Orson Welles’ The Immortal Story and R.L. Frost’s sexploitation Western Hot Spur. (My tastes were nothing if not catholic.) The following year National Review printed my 10 Best of the decade, which included Russ Meyer’s Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, scripted by Roger Ebert. (Roger has wondered about that choice ever since.) Some lovely person with too much spare time tracked down lists of mine appearing in National ReviewFilm Comment and TIME. The curious can find them here.

Back when Richard Schickel and I shared the TIME movie reviewing job, each of us got five slots on the 10 Best list; so one year his favorites would be Nos. 1, 3, 5, 7 and 9, the next year mine. In 2001, when became an unignorable force, we compiled our own lists of 10 Bests, plus a Worst. (One of my Bests, Moulin Rouge!, was Schickel’s Worst. We were such a cute couple.) And for perhaps a decade, I assembled a slightly different list for TIME’s International editions, comprising films that I had seen at various festivals or in movie houses in New York’s Chinatown. That’s where I first caught the Int. 10 Bests Jackie Chan’s Drunken Master 2 and Peter Chan’s Comrades: Almost a Love Story. So hail and farewell to the Music Palace Theater on the Bowery. It closed in 2000, by which time everyone in the neighborhood was watching movies on video.

7. The when of movies. A movie critic who goes to the big festivals — Cannes, Venice, Toronto, Sundance — will see many pictures far ahead of their U.S. release dates. I saw The Hurt Locker in Sep. 2008, in Venice; the film opened in Jun. 2009 and appeared on my 10 Best list in Dec. of that year; it won the Best Picture Oscar in Mar. 2010. Each year there are some films a critic will wait to review until they get U.S. distribution.

I can tell you right now the names of two films that will almost certainly appear on the 10 Best of 2012: Todd Solondz’s Dark Horse (which I saw at this year’s Venice Film Festival) and Terence Davies’ The Deep Blue Sea (which I saw at Toronto). The directors’ names wouldn’t surprise anyone keeping tabs of my lists, since Solondz’s Happiness and its quasi-sequel Life During Wartime were choices in 1998 and 2010. Davies’ Distant Voices, Still Lives and its sequel, The Long Day Closes, graced the 1989 and 1993 lists; and his Liverpool love essay Of Time and the City was there in 2009. I’m not a doctrinaire auteurist, and I was not expecting to be swept away by either of these directors’ new films, but I was. So unless 2012 is the greatest year for films since 1959 (see item 6), the Solondz and Davies will be on next year’s 10 Best.

Some films made my TIME or Film Comment lists decades after they were first shown: Abel Gance’s Napoleon (in the Kevin Brownlow restoration), Louis Feuillade’s Les Vampires (belatedly available on DVD), Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep (resurrected by Milestone Films four years ago). It’s never too late to pay tribute.

(FIND: Killer of Sheep on the Top 10 Movies of 2007)

8. The what of movies. Critics typically limit their lists to films that played in a commercial movie house in that calendar year. But that’s not nearly the totality of moving images. In 1988, some critics persuaded Fabiano Canosa to play Dennis Potter’s BBC miniseries The Singing Detective as part of the Public Theater film series, precisely so we could include this magnificent, filmed program on our 10 Best lists. My Film Comment selections ranged even wider: for five consecutive years in the ’90s, The Simpsons (animation) was cited as a 10 Best; episodes of Mystery Science Theater 3000 (cheesy old movies) made the list in 1994 and 1995. On his own Film Comment list one year, my esteemed friend David Thomson included a basketball game: could it have been Game Six of the Lakers-Celtics in 1987? David argued that that game had a kinetic power most movies lacked.
In 1989, for TIME’s Best Films of the 1980s, I proposed Emil Radok’s Universe of Energy pre-show at Walt Disney World. (A primitive version of the film can be found here.) An eight-min. documentary presented on 100 revolving cubes, this “Kinetic Mosaic” brilliantly indicated where movies might go. The Arts section’s top editor thought that selection should go in the wastebasket, so we chose something else. But now TIME has Top 10, or 10 Best, lists for all forms of visual communication: TV ads, sports moments, creative videos, viral videos — and action movies like Fast Five.
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