Under the title “List! List! O, List!” a quotation from Hamlet (as what isn’t?), I checked in at New York magazine December 22, 1975, against Ten Best Lists, which I abhor. Here goes again, more compellingly I hope.
Reviewers at year’s end are necessarily less clear about what they wrote early on in the year. This may work to a play’s or film’s advantage if memory embellishes, or disadvantage if it fails. But that is the least of it.
First of all, why ten best? Why not five (more realistic) or twelve if it was a good year. I myself think that the tally is seldom that high; how often is there an exceptional year?
But there is an obsession with the number ten, whether from the biblical Decalogue, the metric system, the decimal system, or the fingers of one’s hands, even if they are all thumbs. We have a sentimental attachment to ten. A smashing woman is a perfect ten. A common reprimand is, “I’ve told you ten times!” There are, or were, such things as "Ten Cents a Dance" and “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” And surely many more. But there is no earthly reason for there to be ten best films or plays. By the time you reach six, things become very questionable.
Still, the problem goes deeper than that. Let us assume that #1 is clearly tops. Yet how sure can we be about #2 being better than #3? How does one calibrate these things? In a horse race or in football scores you know exactly the order or ranking. But shows or movies? If anyone confronted the list-maker with exactly why that order, he would quite likely be at a loss, or forced to come up with some highly specious criteria.
Then there may be readers with long memories or ample files who will protest, “But you gave X a much better review than you did Y, so how come it’s lower on the list?” Furthermore, some readers may be incensed by finding something on every other list but yours. Even though you may tell yourself you don’t care, you might want to reconsider when it is already too late.
Let us, however, look closer yet. Something on a ten-best list assumes a special status. It is, as it were, on the books, as a mere review is not. Here the Decalogue comes in again. You are, so to speak, decreeing respect, in a way a mere review does not. (Or if it is a ten worst list, the same thing applies in reverse.) The list cannot be amended, as a review can elicit a re-review.
And heaven help you if, out of an excess of fairness, you offer a runner-up list. Then any number of readers will be reminded of movies or shows that strike them as surely worthy of the top ten, and they might have a point. Or are you to make it, like the wretched Oscars, the top twenty? Again, you may not care for anyone else’s opinion, but just perhaps you should.
All this applies more if you and your editors perceive you as a reviewer and may seek mass appeal. If they and you see you as a critic, full speed ahead without looking over your shoulder. Yet if you are a critic, it should be part of your mentality and mandate to have no use for lists in the first place.
Such matters, however, may have become academic in our age of dumbing-down, which sees to it that criticism—especially of theater and classical music—is irrelevant and discontinued as critics are fired almost wherever you look. And a good deal of so-called criticism that remains could pass for advertising. It may be a way of ridding us of the ten best lists, but hardly the desiderated one.