Coming Soon: The Best Films of Last Year

December 6, 2012 by Simon Kinnear in Opinion with 1 Comment

Jed Leland ends his career as a critic in Citizen Kane

It’s nearly the end of the year, and every single film critic in the world is compiling their Best Of lists. Except me.

There’s a good reason for this.  My daughter was born in October, effectively curtailing my ability to go to the cinema without incurring the wrath of a family who needs me around.  I’ve managed it once – to see Skyfall – and the first words from my wife when I got home were “too soon.”

So there’s little point in my doing a Top Ten that effectively ends with a quarter of the year still to go, especially as said quarter sees the endless jostling and jockeying for position of the awards season front-runners.  It’s quite possible that there’ll be a critic out there whose Best Of choices exactly match the list of films I’ve missed in recent months.

But that’s got me thinking.  Surely it’s not just new fathers for whom it is “too soon”?  Everybody has become accustomed to the arbitrary cut-off of December 31st, to the point where nobody stops to wonder whether it’s a good idea to try and evaluate films so quickly.

The fault lies in the lopsided release pattern created by Hollywood studios, who save up their prestige productions in the hope of Oscar glory.  The result, according to most critics, is to create a bountiful harvest for a few months, which is followed by the fallow period of Spring when the also-rans are released, followed by the blockbuster season, followed by the next batch of awards wannabes… and so on and so on.

More accurately: this cycle creates the perception of a bountiful harvest, which is how films as dreary as The King’s Speech win awards and acclaim.  After a while, the pattern has been repeated enough that it becomes second nature to assume that nothing good will be released until the clocks change.

The pressure on critics must be astronomical.  It cues up a collective rush to judgement that means the classics – and the duds – have been decided in a whirlwind tour of hyperbole and second-guesswork.   I know of fellow bloggers who have done a provisional Top Nine, saving a space for a heralded art-house hit in the assumption that they’ll like it as much as the next man.

That way, madness lies.  Even if I was able to leave my baby in the cot for a day or two in order to catch up on 2012’s finest films (and even then I’d be worryingly reliant on Rotten Tomatoes), it wouldn’t be worth the effort because the films would quickly blur into one big blancmange of cinematic taste and refinement.  Endlessly filing in to see the over-hyped big-hitters soon becomes a chore and a duty.  I much prefer the excitement of being caught off guard by an unheralded gem.

Worse, this parade turns the critical consensus into something resembling The Crucible.  “How can you claim that these are the Best Of The Year when you haven’t even seen this?”  If anything, the art-house intelligentsia are even worse than the fanboys.  Nobody’s going to mind, really, if you don’t put The Avengers in your Top 10, but ignore the latest films from Michael Haneke or Paul Thomas Anderson and you’ll be labelled a heretic.

This insanity only seems to plague film critics who, uniquely, are required to see every single work in their art-form.  You don’t get this behaviour from music critics, who have long specialised by genre to avoid the Sisyphus-esque insanity of trying to listen to every record ever released.  Yes, the NME will run a Best Albums of the Year, but it will be vastly different to those in the jazz or classical press.  Likewise, with literature, where newspaper editors sensibly run the personal recommendations of individuals rather than an all-conquering, carved-in-stone list of non-negotiables.

The truth is, more and more films are being released every year, from rom-coms to horror to kids’ animation to documentary to three-hour Turkish police procedurals.  It’s like comparing apples and oranges, which is why most Best Of Lists read like a shopping list.  1) Apple; 2) Orange; 3) Pomefuckingranate.  [Besides, despite the self-aggrandisement of most critics, I know of only one person genuinely attempting to see every film in 2012 – and, by his own admission, he’s going mad in the attempt.]

Which is why I’m not playing along any more.  December is “too soon” to properly evaluate a period of time that includes December.  Very probably, January or February or even June will be too soon – it’ll take me that long to catch up with even the most lauded offerings of 2012.  Realistically, you’ll be getting my 2012 choices at the end of 2013.

On the plus side, that means that while every other critic is racing around trying to nail down those elusive last screenings for their 2013 lists, I’ll be putting my feet up with my family, comfortable in the knowledge that I have a whole year to get my shit together.

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One Comment

  1. A list of reasons why I don’t like lists – The Nuge.Jan 3, 2013 at 2:54 pmReply

    […] Kinnear has written far more eloquently on this problem than I ever could, but broadly speaking I see five major problems with the concept of “the ten best of XX […]

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