I don’t do year-end lists. (I don’t do New Year’s resolutions, either, for different reasons.) It’s extremely popular, and even Roger Ebert was still doing it even though he hated to, but even after I got really into film, and started writing daily reviews, and all of that, I still didn’t do the year-end list. I’m seldom even tempted; the closest I might get is “this is the movie that moved me most this year and why you should seek it out.” But a top ten—or even a bottom ten? Not a thing I do.
Frankly, the first reason for that gets into the economic conversation we’ve had in this space a time or two. I haven’t seen most of the Oscar contenders for the year yet and won’t until the nominations get announced. I can’t afford to go to the movies very often, especially given that it now entails a babysitter. If you leave out Rifftrax, which you probably ought, I’ve seen nine movies that came out this year. (Letterboxd counts Citizen Koch as last year, though.) One, I saw on DVD. One, I saw on DVD and it’s made-for-TV anyway. Citizen Koch, I saw streaming. Four have superheroes in them. One, I didn’t like. One, I liked, but I don’t think I’d say it was great. You can’t make a top ten list out of that, even leaving aside that it’s only nine movies. I could get up to ten by using Netflix; the year isn’t quite over yet. But you get my point.
But a bigger issue to me is that I think it’s hard to know what films will stay with you for good or ill. I know I’m going to remember those Rifftrax as a positive experience, but that’s as much because it’s the only time I spend with one of my college friends, and I like hanging out with her regardless of circumstances. But if you’d asked me in 2002, I probably would have said that Star Wars Episode II was such a bad experience that I’d long remember it as one of the worst movies I saw that year, and now, I literally have no memory of the experience. It didn’t stick with me; I read through the entire Darths & Droids sequence and couldn’t place any plot. Such as it is. There have also been movies I loved that I didn’t even have to see again to know weren’t as good as I’d thought.
This also ties in to why I don’t believe there’s any such thing as an instant classic. A classic, to me at least, requires staying power. My minimum for “classic” is twenty-five years. (A depressing thing about getting older is how old I was when movies came out that I now consider classic. This goes beyond having seen Raiders of the Lost Ark at the drive-in when I was probably too young to watch it. Or, you know, definitely too young to watch it.) There are a lot of movies that people thought would be classics that have faded over the years and are barely remembered at all. This isn’t a backlash thing; that’s a different category. I’m more thinking things like Ordinary People, which is not a bad film but came out in the same year as things like Raging Bull and The Elephant Man. I don’t think Ordinary People is a classic, and I don’t think that’s a controversial statement.
Okay, so I don’t think my opinion that 12 Years a Slave is the best movie I saw in the theatre in 2014 will change. I am curious to see if my eight-out-of-ten for all four of those superhero movies will hold up in ten years, but that’s a lot of superhero movies down the road, even for someone who loves them as much as I do. But I am also curious about movies I didn’t feel passionately about and that aren’t in a preferred genre. Will I still mostly like American Hustle? Would I still feel All Is Lost is an interesting experiment but not, ultimately, all that moving? And so forth. And, of course, there’s the “the more you know” problem—the more I learn about a subject, the more critical I am of movies about it, even ones I formerly liked. This is considered by many people I know to be a character failing, but it is something I do. So if I actually learned about ABSCAM, what would that do to my mostly liking American Hustle?
There’s one other thing. The last time I discussed this subject, it was with an observation that most of the movies I see in a year are not new, and this is obviously still true. I probably saw upwards of 300 movies total in 2014, though I didn’t review all of them. So that’s about 290 movies that came out in previous years. The last time I wrote about this subject, the best movie I’d seen that year was Ikiru, which came out in 1952. If I watched it today, it would stand a decent chance of being the best movie I saw in 2014. I saw Gone With the Wind in the theatre this year. It came out in 1939, but it would still make my top-ten list for movies I saw in the theatre in 2014. However, I’m not supposed to count that, and it feels wrong to me. Even if you eliminate movies I saw before, when I see a movie for the first time, it’s new to me. I think it’s that we still think of film as a transitory medium when it isn’t. You can tell, because I watched a seventy-five-year-old movie in the theatre this year.