THE OBJECTIVITY OF SUBJECTIVITY: A Defense of Making “Best of…” Lists

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I’ve got a little list…
               The Mikado, Gilbert and Sullivan


Every once in a while, or more often than that, a discussion will arise over what are the greatest movies ever made.
You’ve been there, I’ve been there. We’ve all been there. And we weren’t even drunk or high at two in the morning either (well, okay, sometimes, but, you know, not always).
This type of discussion especially comes about every time Cashiers du Cinema and BFI Sight & Sound release their list of the top films of all time.
Though the list isn’t always that controversial, it does raise rankles at times, such as when Vertigo took over the top spot from Citizen Kane in the 2012 Sight & Sound poll, which is carried out every ten years.
But for those who don’t agree with the lists (and I know some people who are obsessed with disagreeing with them while claiming that they, for the fiftieth time in a row, don’t care what these lists say), these naysayers often say the same thing: “Well, it’s all subjective anyway”.
It should be noted, first, though, that whenever somebody says, “It’s all subjective”, nine times out of ten what they’re really saying is, “I don’t agree with them because they haven’t chosen my personal favorites”. They don’t actually ponder the list or give it any real thought. They just look at it, don’t see the films they like (what, no Transformers?), and call it subjective.
Which, of course, is a subjective response in itself, but, in its way, as valid as any subjective response.
But the problem I have is with their conclusion: that these lists are, therefore, useless. And this I’m not so convinced of.
I suggest that the issue is far more complicated than that. Yes, any list begins with a large amount of subjectivity. But tempered with other factors, such lists eventually become more and more objective than subjective. In fact, I suggest that objectivity is time plus distance plus number.


citizen kaneIt’s the evolution, baby, do the evolution…

               Do the Evolution, Pearl Jam


First, I would to begin by exploring why we make lists in the first place.

Now, I have to be forthright here: I don’t know “why” for a fact. My suggestion is only a theory. But so far, it makes sense to me.

I believe we do this for the same reason we do most things: it grows out of an evolutionary imperative that is actually a part of our genes. It is something that we actually can’t not do (like using double negatives) and has helped us survive as a species (though I can’t say that that’s true of double negatives, but anyway…).

One of the aspects of being human that sets us apart from other animals is that we can retain knowledge at an incredibly high degree and can process it in ways that are only available to us.

I mean, it’s amazing the amount of knowledge we encounter on a daily basis and how much we store in our brain. Much of it, if not most, we never find remotely useful.

So because of this ability and biological necessity, we needed to develop ways to help us sort through this incredibly dearth of facts, figures and trivia in such a way that it would be easily available with more and more ease (I mean, it’s not like we do it only so we can appear on Jeopardy; well, most of us).

tokyo storySo we started making lists. It may not always be a simple way of storing data, but it is an amazingly efficient way.

And this is true for film as well. In order to keep track of our variety of experiences with the art form; in order to process what we see; in order to even remember what we’ve seen, we started making lists.

You may not like lists. But in many ways, that’s irrelevant. Like them or not, I suggest they have been integral, if not necessary, to our development and survival of the species.

And are here to stay.


rules of the gameThough this be madness, yet there is method in ‘t…

               Hamlet, William Shakespeare

Now, in making these lists, we use a variety of methods, approaches both subjective and objective.

But it should first be noted that no matter how objective or subjective a list might be, no list will ever be 100% pure. No matter how objective we try to be, there will always be some subjectivity to it, and vice versa: no matter how subjective we try to be, an element of objectivity will always worm its way in.

An objective approach would be a list such as every single movie ever made; every single silent movie ever made; every single movie made by such and such an artist; every single movie that won this particular award.

Again, as I’ve said, as objective as such a list is, even these lists may never be fully objective. One man’s comedy is another man’s tragedy (I still maintain that All About Eve is a comedy, but on lists, it usually ends up under drama).

This is especially true for something like film noir and giallo films, styles and genres of movies which at one time had more narrow definitions, but over time, have been expanded to include a larger number of titles (today, film noir has expanded to mean almost any movie with crime or thriller elements made between 1940 to around 1963; giallo films originally meant a particular style of thriller and crime movie, but today means almost movie in giallo style that also includes horror).

sunriseBut as human beings, we can’t stop there, we can’t stop with only making “purely” objective types of lists. These lists are for too unwieldy and unwieldy to such a degree they often become useless from a practical point of view. We have to find ways of refining such enormous inventories.

And so we started making “best of” lists, which, of course, are far more subjective.

It wasn’t enough for us to list the films of Alfred Hitchcock; we needed to list his top ten. The same for silent films and musicals. The same for foreign films, actors and other technical aspects of films.

But how do we determine what is the best?

And this is where the controversies begin, because whenever you try to make a list, someone always spoils the fun by saying, “Well, it’s all subjective”.

And you know what? They’re right. At least in the beginning. Because that’s how a list starts: with a subjective and more immediate response.

But I submit that can only go so far and eventually is self-defeating to our need to store knowledge and create lists.


2001It is hard for thee to kick against the pricks.

               Acts 9:5, The Bible

Think about the issue from this perspective: if a newbie screenwriter came to you and asked you for a list of the greatest movies ever made, what would you say? Note, he didn’t ask you what you personally thought were the greatest movies ever made, he asked you for a more objective list.

So if you were to answer the specific question he asked, would you a) give him a subjective list; b) strive for something more objective; or c) say I can’t give you a list at all because it’s all subjective.

Personally, I would strive for the second for no other reason than that is what he asked for. I wouldn’t go for a) because, well, it’s not what he asked for, and I wouldn’t go for c) because, well again, that’s of no help whatsoever.

So, for those who chose b), how do we get such a list? Where does it come from?

Well, in some ways it happens without a lot of control on our part. And for this, I’ll return to my original definition of objectivity in art: time plus distance plus number.

There comes a period when enough years have passed and you have enough critical distance to think less emotionally and more intellectually about a film and when enough people are in agreement. And what results from this equation is a list of the best of all time.

searchersWhat happens is we reach a point in time when there is so much agreement on a subjective response that it becomes objective, or as objective as is possible for something to ever be.

And there’s not a lot you can do about it. You can kick against the pricks (metaphorical or not), but like Ozymandias, you can’t fight time and you can’t get rid of distance when it comes to how you feel about a work of art and you can’t discount numbers.

You can try, but the more and more you do, the more foolish you look trying to stop a whirlwind.


man with movie cameraWhat do we do now?

               The Candidate, Jeremy Larner

So if lists are to some degree both subjective and objective, to what degree they are either depends on how the list is created (has enough time passed in order to have a more distanced and less subjective feeling toward a movie and is there a growing critical consensus), then what should we do with them?

Well, I don’t see the point of throwing tantrums on facebook and holding one’s breath until turning blue and claim everyone involved in making the list has no taste or doesn’t know what they are talking about.

Instead, I suggest what I believe would be a more beneficial way of looking at such lists. I suggest they should be read and studied not as something to reinforce and be used to judge your own standards, but as providing certain types of information.

For example:

If you want to know what the greatest films of all time are, the films that have endured, have influenced filmmakers since the time they were made, that still capture the imagination, the ones that still have a strong emotional and intellectual appeal, you go to such lists as Sight & Sound and Cashiers du Cinema

passion of joan of arcIf you want to know what the best movies are from a critical point of view at a certain period of time (without regard to time plus distance though with some number), you go to such lists as New York Film Critics, The National Society of Film Critics, the Los Angeles Film Critics, etc.

If you want to know what the best of middlebrow entertainment is at any particular time, you go to such lists as the Oscars, Golden Globes and similar awards in other countries (and even now, to some degree

If you want to know what the most immediately popular and effective movies are at any particular time you go to such lists as The People’s Choice Awards and box office records.

Basically, rather than passing judgement on a list, I suggest instead trying to understand what the list is attempting to say, or what train of thought it represents, or what type of information it can give you.

I think you’ll find the whole process easier and much more beneficial


8 1 2This list could surely go on, and there is nothing more wonderful than a list…

               The Name of the Rose, Umberto Eco

What would be more natural in an essay about lists than another list?

So in closing, I would like leave you with a few observations when it comes to making or pondering our topic:

  1. Just because you don’t like a film, that doesn’t mean that it’s not one of the greatest films ever made. It just means you don’t like it.
  2. You don’t have to like a film just because it’s great any more than you have to like a great book, painting or musical composition.
  3. Inversely, just because you like a film, that doesn’t make it one of the greatest films ever made. In fact, it doesn’t even automatically make it a good movie.
  4. There’s nothing wrong with liking a bad film. But I do think there is something wrong with claiming a bad film is good just because you like it.
  5. I am always reluctant to put a film on a list of the best until a certain amount of time has passed, especially until an artistic period has passed (the last time this happened in American films was in 1990, so I’m hesitant to add any film made after that date, though it’s impossible for me not to do it).
  6. Lists change for various reasons, but often not because of a change of taste, but often due to new information being provided (when Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon was a success in the West, it caused many film critics and theoreticians to take a second look at Asian films which influenced later lists).
  7. Lists can change due to taste to some degree (in the latest Sight and Sound poll, silent films were at times getting higher rankings than before and some attributed that to a new generation being introduced to silent films in film school).
  8. But as time goes on, it is less and less likely that a film will change its position significantly on any such list because of movie from the past.   As more and more movies are made, and more and more time has passed, new films may finally overtake films on lists today. But at the same time, it is unlikely that any film made before 1970 will replace a Vertigo or Citizen Kane or Rules of the Game in the top positions on the list. Though it could happen; but even so, it’s doubtful that any of those films would slip very far.

So the next time a list comes your way, take a series of deep breaths and try not to have an immediate subjective reaction to it, but strive to have a more objective view of it.


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