GREAT FILM CRITICISM, like great moviemaking, requires something of a child's gaze, an untrammeled sense of wonder and excitement at fresh possibilities. No art form more closely resembles the ritual of the bedtime story than sitting in the dark, looking up at people much larger than yourself, and believing implicitly in the fantastical, improbable adventures they have. This perhaps explains the fascination with lists that invariably descends upon critics this time of year, when they act like six-year-olds who enjoy playing with their favorite dolls or cast-metal cars rather less than they do organizing and categorizing them, endlessly rearrang-ing them upon the bedspread in order of preference.

The childishness of such constant tallying was demonstrated, just this side of obnoxiously, in High Fidelity (which ironically will probably wind up gracing more than a few "Best of" lists). Yet it's hard to think of many critics, mass-market drones or rarefied cineastes, who don't use the year's last edition of their publication to set forth a choice of the highlights since the previous January, usually sticking to the habitual 10. And why not, when it's all in good fun? I'm currently engaged in the enjoyable process of selection and winnowing myself, in preparation for an annual party thrown by a friend of mine. But the game is only pleasing because it is so meaningless; it is an essentially vacuous exercise that actually requires minimal mental effort but somehow mimics a stimulating, intellectual pursuit, like solving the Sunday crossword or watching PBS.

To take seriously any effort at arranging a rigid hierarchy of the year's best movies, pinning them down into neat little ladders as if they were specimens in some Linnaean taxonomy, means sacrificing the feature that art most shares with life: its fluidity, the way it can shift into something completely different even when you're in the midst of it. However much I was captivated by the serene vistas of Beau Travail or The Wind Will Carry Us, however unarguably I consider those two of my richest movie experiences of 2000, the fact is that my favorite memories of any film year are the pockets of unexpected grace that bubble up after all hope has been lost: Mike Tyson slapping Robert Downey Jr. in Black and White and momentarily making that silly film as fearless and harrowing as it believes it is, or the marvelously self-absorbed little dance with which a previously unseen and wholly minor character introduces himself in the otherwise muddled A Room for Romeo Brass. Richard T. Jameson and Kathleen Murphy, formerly of Film Comment (welcome back, you two) used to get around the conundrum with their "Moments Out of Time" feature, a lengthy evocation of just such gems alongside which would run the various Top Ten lists the magazine assembled.

Without such context, any rundown of the year's best films strips away a sense of the interplay and give-and-take of a good movie discussion and leaves only a monolithic endorsement. (Another reason I look forward to sharing in a party atmosphere something I've no interest in writing up for this paper.) Which is precisely what the film companies want. Top Ten lists can be amusing to read, and a joy to argue with, but in practice they are little more than a marketing tool. Despite an ever more conservative foreign-film market in this country, which happily imports Miramax-ready crowd pleasers but lets masterpieces deemed insufficiently audience-friendly languish on shelves, older films are discouraged--even works as remarkable as Victor Erice's Dream of Light, which had to wait eight years before reaching America, or Kurosawa's Madadayo, which rushed over in merely seven. More egregious, it's an accepted rule of play that a film only counts for consideration once it's actually been released. I've seen no film all year as lovely and transporting as Wong Kar-wai's In the Mood for Love, but since it won't make it to our theaters before early 2001, it's off limits for year-end praise. So much for even the notion that a Top Ten list can be used for advocacy. (Just to make things more confusing, In the Mood for Love is actually a 1999 feature--as are the Claire Denis and Abbas Kiarostami films mentioned earlier.)

Chicago Reader critic Jonathan Rosenbaum has pointed out how the timing of Top Ten lists coincides rather nicely, to the film promoter's eyes, at least, with the Academy Awards. As a result, "critics who play the ten-best game or collectively give annual awards are generally obliged to become part of the Oscars campaigns--months in advance of Oscars night--whether or not they want to be part of that nonsense." However much fun the game is, critics are playing into someone else's hand. Of course, Rosenbaum made this observation before rattling off his (quite fine) choice of the 10 best films of the '90s. Try telling any child to refrain from an entertaining activity just because it's bad, and see how far you get.

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