Critics Gone Wild: The Top 10 of Top 10 Lists of 2008, Part I

The Top 10 mania that grips year-end film culture provides some of the most vulgar oversimplifications, abstractions, nonsense, critical self-regard and hype known to man. We've read the worst so you don't have to.

As enumerated since 2005 at this Defamer editor's alma mater, the annual survey of Top 10-list transgressions aims to improve both critical rigor and reader experience, all while helping save cinema from those who would rank it for no other reason than to see how much more profoundly their superlatives might resonate among those of their peers. Worse, the Top 10 impulse generally rewards the same rotation of 30-35 movies that such circle jerks — cheered on by high-rolling studio publicists — remind us are OK to single out from the 600+ released each year.

We can do better, as can the 10 critics comprised in this year's Top 10 of Top 10s. For their varying permutations of laziness, decontextualization, overstretching, vagueness, self-importance and all-around bad writing, we bestow the accompanying trophy, colloquially known around the Defamer office as the "Listy." May its autofellating icon (NSFW version here) remind the winners every day of their valued service to criticism and cinema in general. Let's hand out the hardware!

10. Anthony Lane, The New Yorker

As the court jester to David Denby's sulking imperial hack, Lane often enlivens The New Yorker's film criticism with much-needed bursts of wit, enlightenment and contrarian panache. But when he drunkenly crashes to bed at the end of each long year, ensuing depressions like "The Ten Best Films of the Year" qualify little more than whatever his editors appear to have overheard him muttering in his sleep. By our count, Lane endorses only five of the 10 films on his list — not even a list, really, but rather a stream-of-consciousness blog screed deploying the words "confused," "stuttering" and "compromised" to describe We Own the Night, Quantum of Solace and I've Loved You So Long, respectively. By the time he anoints WALL-E the year's highlight, his preciousness reasserts its will over his process. And just like that, it's 2009, and the cycle begins anew.

9. Michael Wilmington, Movie City News

A critic's Top 10 contrarianism is less a criterion for our consideration than is his or her ability to write engagingly, persuasively or at least logically about the year's picks. No one cares that Wilmington chose Shine a Light as his No. 1 film of 2008; it's troubling, though, to see him effuse about Mick Jagger, "He's the Stone that, like Sisyphus' rock, never stops rolling." Of course, Sisyphus's rock was his eternal curse for cheating the gods, which leaves us wondering if Keith Richards represents the wily Greek in this equation or simply the craggy, calcified hill over which poor, asthmatic Martin Scorsese pushed Jagger for two interminable hours. Such confusions litter Wilmington's lengthy copy, but he deserves bonus points for his description of Australia's "magical artificiality," the best euphemism we've yet heard for "gold-plated bullshit."

8. Brian Orndorf, eFilmCritic

eFilmcritic has earned its reputation as The Authority on critical abuses, from its comprehensive attacks on blurb whores to its assiduous attention to Ben Lyons' every misstep. But it could stand some housecleaning — particularly in Orndorf's room, cluttered with abstraction ("A fitting new chapter in the life of the big screen’s greatest hero, [Indiana Jones and the] Crystal Skull presented a buffet of amusement and thrills to be gorged on with as much repetition as possible"), obviousness ("A Swedish horror production with enthralling, unnerving romantic overtones, Let the Right One In is not a simple film to summarize or absorb") and overripe portent ("Revolutionary Road made for a spellbinding sit ... Not an easy sit by any means, Road nevertheless stuns with its dedication to the gnarled core of hope"). Orndorf's work is the list equivalent of that marginal American Idol dreamer dispatched with a "Pitchy, dawg" and Paula Abdul's sympathetic admonitions to try again next year. You are not going to Hollywood.

7. Marshall Fine, Hollywood and Fine

Anyone can make a Top 10 list, but veteran critic Fine infuses his with an unusual cross-breed of entitlement and boredom, rotely inflating the same late-year films (Revolutionary Road, Benjamin Button, WALL-E, etc.) as pretty much everyone else. It's an "I don't give a shit, but you should" blog-fart that hardly seems worth the effort, such as in Fine's praise of Button: "Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett strike sparks as destined lovers who take years to actually find each other." "Strike sparks," Marshall? Really? Extra-super-bonus points for his take on fifth-worst film My Blueberry Nights: "For the first time, critics noticed that the over-praised Wong [Kar-wai] had nothing to deliver, perhaps because there weren’t subtitles to distract them." Sophisticated!

6. Ed Gonzalez and Nick Schager, Slant Magazine

Speaking of sophistication — like, to the point of impenetrability — Slant's two-headed Gonschager hydra is approaching lifetime-exemption status on the Top 10 of Top 10s. Where in previous years it was fun to play "Who Said It?" with the duo's dense, overlapping favorites, their lists differed almost entirely in 2008, affording only the opportunity to play "They Said What?" with their unfavorable descriptor-to-noun ratio:

Gonzalez: Built on sensuous interplays between people and objects, reality and representation, José Luis Guerín's rapturously alfresco In the City of Sylvia uses a voluptuous language of spatial-temporal equations to conflate one's love of people with one's love of movies.

Schager: Hype and haters be equally damned, Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight is a complex contemporary morality play filtered through DC Comics's iconic cowled vigilante. Visceral and vital, this über-blockbuster is both cultural touchstone and preeminent example of the superhero spectacular's expansive potential.

We herewith predict: If ever a sixth inert gas is to be discovered, Gonzalez and Schager will find it.

Tomorrow: The top five!