Are “best-of” polls bad?

An article by Bim Adewunmi in Wednesday’s Guardian,“‘Best of’ lists – what are they good for? Absolutely nothing,” takes issue with the British Film Insitute’s list of greatest films (see my post on this poll from yesterday).  The article seems a tad tongue in cheek, so it may be a parody, but I don’t think so. If it’s serious, then Brown sees such polls as counterproductive for several reasons (I quote from the piece):

  • They remove originality of thought. Have you ever tried to compile a list of the best books of all time? Have you automatically written down any or all of these usual suspects – Dickens, Nabokov, Austen, or Woolf – without even realising? We’ve all done it. These authors and their many works are undoubtedly excellent, but is that the only reason they came to mind? No, they’ve been “normed” into your life.
  • They kill joy. We’ve all used the clapping Orson Welles gif to punctuate Tumblr posts, sure, but have you ever watched all of Citizen Kane? All my life, I’ve been told it is the best thing my eyes will ever see. I have Citizen Kane fatigue. This is what lists do – when the hype gets too much, all joy is extracted from the endeavour.
  • They confirm your most depressing fear: you are desperately uncool. By definition, lists are exclusionary, separating the wheat from the perceived chaff. And while we all have views that might be considered a bit left field, we imagine those mark us out as cool mavericks, not social pariahs. But imagine the explicit confirmation that you’re wrong about everything – your favourite film, your most treasured book, your most beloved album. All wrong.

A few readers have echoed similar sentiments, but I am a strong advocate and follower of “best-of” lists.  Yes, sometimes I’ll label my own posts as “best-of,” but it’s clear that these things are pretty subjective.  What I mean is “Jerry thinks these are the best.” I think it’s unproductive to use such lists as a barometer of how “sophisticated” one is, or to feel inferior to those who make the lists. It’s better to think of them as learning tools, or guidelines for growth.

To me, the lists let me know about books or movies that might be worth watching or reading, and have been hugely valuable in that way. While taste is subjective, the taste of people who are regularly exposed to film and books, and think about them, tends to run along concurrent lines, and so it’s worth paying attention to their suggestions.  Some of the lists I like include film ranking like the BFIs, the New York Times‘s annual list of the year’s best books, and the Modern Library‘s list of the 100 best novels, which is really good.  Such lists can acquaint you with great literature that you’ve never even heard of.  (Have you read, for instance, A House for Mr. Biswas, by V. S. Naipal? If not, you’re missing a fantastic book).

I also like to look at the lists of contenders for Pulitzer Prizes and, especially, for the Booker Prize. It was the latter that turned me on to Pat Barker’s Ghost Road Trilogy, a fantastic series of books about the First World War, The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga, Life of Pi by Yann Martel (yes, I know it has religious overtones, but I still loved it), and The Bone People by Keri Hulme.  I enjoyed the hell out of those books, and wouldn’t have known about them save for the Booker nominations.

The notion that lists are useless is belied by an article by Mark Brown appearing on the same site on the same day. It recounts the reaction of Nick James, editor of Sight and Sound magazine, which publishes the BFI polls, to watching one of the top films:

Third in the critics’ list is Yasujiro Ozu’s Tokyo Story, the 1953 Japanese drama. “I watched this film just three days ago and I couldn’t stop crying,” said James. “It tells you more about family life than any recent Hollywood film, I would suggest, even how we live today. It is very poignant and sad and heartbreaking and fabulous – it is a masterpiece.”

He’s right on the mark here; that film is fabulous. And how would a reader even know about it if there weren’t such lists?


  1. Lynn A.
    Posted August 3, 2012 at 8:37 am | Permalink


  2. E.A. Blair
    Posted August 3, 2012 at 8:48 am | Permalink

    Whenever I see a “best of” list, be it books, music, movies oe whatever, probably the first thing I do is look to see what items on the list I’ve read, seen or heard. Sometimes I agree with the list, sometimes I don’t. But there are a number of subtext questions that always come up for me with these lists. Some of those are,

    Do I like it because it’s good?
    Is it good because I like it?
    Is it on the list because it’s good?
    Is it on the list because the person who made the list likes it?
    Am I supposed to like it because it’s on the list?
    Why should I like something just because someone else says it’s good?

    For the record, I think Citizen Kane is somewhat dull and pedantic, but that’s because I watched it strictly out of a feeling of obligation, the way most people read Moby Dick.

    • Posted August 3, 2012 at 2:46 pm | Permalink

      Most people don’t read Moby Dick.

      (OK, you meant, most people who read Moby Dick read Moby Dick. Is it a set work in US schools? Was it once?)

      Come to think of it, if I ever read Moby Dick, that will be largely why I read it. But isn’t there a difference between “This is a great classic and you ought to read great classics because all educated people have read the great classics” (Like those ghastly matched sets of “Great Books of the Western World” whose presence in the bookshelf, unread, is the sure sign of a poseur) and “This is a great classic, let’s see what all the fuss is about”?

      • E.A. Blair
        Posted August 3, 2012 at 2:57 pm | Permalink

        Well, okay, amend my statement to say, “the way most people who have read Moby Dick read it.”

      • Filippo
        Posted August 4, 2012 at 4:16 am | Permalink

        ” . . .(Like those ghastly matched sets of “Great Books of the Western World” whose presence in the bookshelf, unread, is the sure sign of a poseur) . . . .”

        “Ghastly” only if “unread”? Somewhat “ghastly,” somewhat a “poseur,” if somewhat unread (within a certain time frame, varying according to personal opinion)?

        A “ghastly” matched set of “Encyclopaedia Britannicas,” especially a gem of a set perhaps bought at a bargain at an estate sale?

        Or a dozen or so excellent NON-FICTION books by several authors (including Dawkins, A.C. Grayling, Richard Feynman, Garry Wills, Daniel Boorstin) at a book store going-out-of-business sale? (Y’know – “Git it while the gittin’s-good.”)

        How many readers here have made such purchases? With which book should one start? Seems I should start in on a collection of Gore Vidal’s essays, and there’s the continuous tug of The Hitch. Seems I’ve done myself an injustice not having already taken in at least one Thomas Paine book.

        I’ve read, and underlined and commented in the margins, Martin Gardner’s “The Whys of a Philosophical Scrivener” a minimum of three times. Perhaps once should have been enough and instead I should have pressed on through 3-4 other worthwhile tomes?

        Is it being something of a “poseur” to bounce among 3-4 books at a time (when not otherwise occupied with also trying to fit in among the activities of daily living getting through Free Inquiry, Skeptic and the N.Y. Times – and enjoying doing so – not to mention the occasional pearls here on WEIT)?

        (As an aside, how is it that a given specific novel is “taught” at the university level for academic credit? Seems a bit of a conceit to me; no doubt I’m something of a Philistine for thinking so.

        Is that the goal – and benchmark of literary legitimacy – some famous author sets for himself in his pre-famous days – to get hisself “taught”? Does one get any less from a novel by reading it for enjoyment and not having to be “tested” on it – the reading itself an osmosis allowing one to grasp the organizational essentials of the novel writing process?

        I did the duty imposed on me, slogging through “Silas Marner” in high school, but from what I’ve learned since then I gather that I would have been much better served by at least a few essays by George Eliot.

        Right now, someone would have to hog-tie me to get me to read fiction.)

      • gravelinspector
        Posted August 5, 2012 at 5:49 am | Permalink

        (Like those ghastly matched sets of “Great Books of the Western World” whose presence in the bookshelf, unread, is the sure sign of a poseur)

        It is perfectly routine for books to appear in the second-hand market with several owner’s marks in the inside cover, but when you go through the book you find many places where pages haven’t been “cut”. (This doesn’t normally happen in more modern books, where after folding and stitching the printed sheets, they’re put through a guillotine to trim off the folds. But older printing chains don’t do that.)
        My father, rather more of a bibliophile than I, has a 1720-odd atlas of our home-county with some un-cut pages. I’ve found several 1860-odd books which were un-cut (I was inspecting a 4th edition of Origin in a bookshop in London (for Dad’s birthday), and pointed out some un-cut pages to the bookshop owner ; he put the price up by about 30% because he’d not noticed them himself.)
        I know the poseurs you mean ; but some people just don’t get time to read all the stuff they want to.
        I believe, though I’m not certain, that the monograph which Gregor Mendel sent to Darwin was found in Darwin’s papers, “uncut”.

  3. Claimthehighground
    Posted August 3, 2012 at 8:51 am | Permalink

    Let’s take a poll and find out.

    • HaggisForBrains
      Posted August 3, 2012 at 10:15 am | Permalink


  4. Posted August 3, 2012 at 9:03 am | Permalink

    Polls and lists are useful for getting recommendations and gauging the perceptions of where they came from, in this case a wide swath of people in film culture and filmmaking at the present time. Nothing’s definitive, nothing’s “best,” so as long as people don’t assign undue importance, they can be both fun and edifying.

  5. Dermot C
    Posted August 3, 2012 at 9:07 am | Permalink

    You could always reply with your list of the top 10 lists; Franz would make it in, the Leaning Tower of Pisa, Jesus’ genealogy in the NT (2 entries for Matthew and Luke), that’s 40% completed right there.

  6. Posted August 3, 2012 at 9:26 am | Permalink

    I think they can be useful and interesting for the reasons you mentioned, but *only* if they are restricted in some way. The trouble with “Best Films” or “Best Novels” is that they become invariably biased towards older material – films like Citizen Kane and Vertigo, and people like Shakespeare and Dickens have had enough time to become mythologised or even deified, but it would be simply ridiculous to say that nothing just as good as CK has been made in the intervening decades, or that nothing written since Shakespeare has been as good. Putting them at the top of our lists is nothing more than a self-reinforcing tradition.

    The kind of lists I’m interested in, then, are more specific: “Best Films of the 1970s” or “Best Romantic Poets” or “Best of the New Millennium” – that way, you end up with a more level playing field, with competitors being like-compared-with-like instead of the same tired old gods being trotted out in the same predictable order.

    • Posted August 3, 2012 at 10:48 am | Permalink

      Totally agree. This ossification of the “same tired old gods” on best-of lists will only become more pronounced in the coming decades, even centuries.

      Honestly, would the usual suspects STILL deserve their predictable rankings after another, say, 1000 years of new cultural creations?

  7. Occam
    Posted August 3, 2012 at 9:32 am | Permalink

    Jerry asks, on the subject of Tōkyō Monogatari:

    And how would a reader even know about it if there weren’t such lists?

    That’s the essential question. Do lists help? For some, they do. For some, they don’t. No quarrel with that. But the right answer to Jerry’s — I’ll repeat: essential — question is: advocacy. That’s what critics are for. A well-written, well-argued review can do a lot more to promote a work of art than a third place on any list.

    There is another, more subtle danger of lists: averaging. Are the top spots the result of convergence, or of in-group cohesion? I’d rather the critics slug it out. Retrospectively, I find that I was far more often in agreement with Andrew Sarris than with Pauline Kael. But I sure enjoyed Kael’s venom. Average the rankings awarded by those two, and what would I have watched? Mildly uninteresting pablum, mostly. Or take The New Yorker in recent years. I find that my tastes agree more with Richard Brody, but the real surprises came from films endorsed by Anthony Lane (whose prose I also prefer). Average the rankings of Brody and Lane, and what do you get?

    I’ll readily concede that lists make a good talking point; again, I must thank Jerry for bringing up the topic. But what’s really needed, before and after the lists, is knowledgeable, articulate, passionate advocacy.

    • Posted August 3, 2012 at 9:44 am | Permalink

      Well, to counteract the “averaging” problem, S&S will eventually post the directors’ and critics’ individual ballots on their site, or you can pick up the issue when it’s published. But people who’ve already gotten it reveal some surprises, like director Michael Mann (“Heat,” “The Insider”) choosing “Avatar”!

  8. Nom de Plume
    Posted August 3, 2012 at 10:16 am | Permalink

    I agree with Jerry. Such lists help me narrow down what I want to see, or read, or listen to, or whatever. At least 90% of everything is crap (probably closer to 99%), and I have a finite amount of time. I am certainly not going to watch every movie that’s released in the hopes that I might stumble across a classic. I already did that when I was young, with the result that I watched a lot of crap.

    • Occam
      Posted August 3, 2012 at 11:53 am | Permalink

      That’s the relative advantage of cinema over religion.
      Be into movies, watch a lot of crap for much of your life; be into religion, believe an infinite amount of crap all your life.

  9. Posted August 3, 2012 at 10:58 am | Permalink

    Bad for whom or for what?

    They’re clearly good for encouraging debate!


  10. gillt
    Posted August 3, 2012 at 11:18 am | Permalink

    Both “A bend in the river” and “House for mr. biswas” are in the modern library’s list.

    The only person I’ve heard of who is working their way through the Modern Library’s List of 100 Best Novels is of the opinion that the list is a mixed bag and not always representational of the author’s greatest work.

  11. Posted August 3, 2012 at 11:19 am | Permalink

    I think these lists are interesting as long as the people compiling them don’t think they have some sort of objective handle on what is “best”. They are subjective opinions. That’s fine, though, and if I like a lot of things on the list then I definitely like to look up the ones I haven’t seen/read/heard.

  12. docbill1351
    Posted August 3, 2012 at 11:28 am | Permalink

    Best cat in the world? Kink!

    Why? Because I say so.

  13. mb
    Posted August 3, 2012 at 11:34 am | Permalink

    If Charles Dickens isn’t on anyone’s list of top English writers, im(nsv*)ho, they haven’t read enough. Saying Dickens has been “normed” as exemplary of good writing is like saying inhalation and exhalation has been “normed” as the best way to breath.

    This is not to say that list makers aren’t lazy sods who have no idea what they are doing. Surely list makers are among the top three problems with the current state of our culture. I’d list the others but I do not want to perpetuate the madness.

    *not so very

    • Posted August 4, 2012 at 8:39 am | Permalink

      I don’t agree about Dickens, and I don’t think it’s possible to generalise that any individual writer ought to be considered good by EVERYONE. Now, you could say that everyone ought to rate *some* Victorian literature because of the variety, but it’s a simple fact that Dickens will not do it for everyone, and there’s no reason why he should – taste is not objective. I’m one such person who dislikes Dickens – I don’t think the fact that he was originally serialised translates well into the novel format, and, though his ideas are often marvellous, I don’t like his overbearing description.

  14. Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    Posted August 3, 2012 at 11:45 am | Permalink

    Depends on your motivation.

    If you want to improve your taste or the genre, you can use statistics. But in some cases noise contains the dominant part of energy in the signal. Media is like that.

    So instead you can use weighted filtering. Qualitative rankings is one simple way among possible others that are more contrived.

    But mostly I think, contra Adewunmi, that lists are inclusionary social tools. Individual taste differs, and that is a strength for society. (What if we all ate the same poisonous meal, or had the same type of immune system?)

  15. JonLynnHarvey
    Posted August 3, 2012 at 12:51 pm | Permalink

    Four notes on why polls are ambiguous (though useful).

    1) Some comparisons are like apples and oranges. That’s why the Golden Globes has a !*separate*! award for “best comedy or musical” and another for “best drama”.
    Trying to compare “Citizen Kane” with “Singing in the Rain” is like trying to compare Prime Rib at the Outback with Haagen-Dazs ice-cream.

    2) There is a constant temptation to confuse influence (or genre-defining) with best. Surely the most influential detective stories of all time are the Sherlock Holmes stories (with Hercule Poirot a distant second.) Are they actually the best? I think not. “The Maltese Falcon” is better than any of the Holmes, even “Hound of the Baskervilles”.
    Likewise, the two most influential drama-defining bodies of science-fiction work are the novels of Isaac Asimov and “Star Trek”. Are they the best? I think not. The revisioned “Battlestar Galactica” and “Babylon 5” TV series are better than Star Trek, and I honestly think Frank Herbert (“Dune”) is a better writer than Asimov.

    3a) There are demographic differences in taste. New York critics consistently gave Stanley Kubrick his worst reviews. Woody Allen films do far far more business in Europe than in the United States. (This has been true since the mid-1980s). Likewise, in England and Europe the TV series “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” is a mega-phenomenon, just about the biggest thing since James Bond and the Beatles. It’s got a substantial and enthusiastic fanbase here, but nothing like the enormity of across the water.

    3b) Tastes change in a retro-active way over time. The science-fiction film “Blade Runner” was widely panned on initial release and is now regarded as a major classic.
    Most of Clint Eastwood’s early films were panned on initial release (largely due to being politically incorrect- although that phrase didn’t exist in the 60s/70s). It became undeniable that Eastwood was a serious artist when he did a jazz biopic of Charlie Parker and did the Western “Unforgiven”. AFTER these movies critics looked back at his early work and recanonized early stuff like “Hang ‘Em High” as classic Westerns although they were heavily dismissed as junk at the time.

  16. ladyatheist
    Posted August 3, 2012 at 1:45 pm | Permalink

    Rolling Stone best-of lists include Bob Dylan, sometimes more than once on a list. ’nuff said

    • Trina
      Posted August 3, 2012 at 2:28 pm | Permalink

      I couldn’t finish Citizen Kane. Started it, got so bored I started reading the newspaper, eventually couldn’t even tolerate it as background noise. On the other hand, I started reading ‘War and Peace’ expecting it to be boring and found it extremely compelling.

      • Andy Dufresne
        Posted August 3, 2012 at 3:20 pm | Permalink

        It’s a delicious twist that you shut off Kane in favor of a newspaper. This would have pleased Charles Foster Kane (so long as you were reading one of his papers!).

  17. DrBrydon
    Posted August 3, 2012 at 2:32 pm | Permalink

    I think they have a place, when they are done by someone who is knowledgeable and thoughtful. Roger Ebert’s list of 100 great movies is one I go back to. What I find annoying is that, in many cases, the lists of books, films, music, or whatever seem to be heavily weighted towards recent works or artists. In the case of sci-fi or horror movies, one could certainly argue that both genres were revolutionized in the 70s, and that it’s right that films after that time predominate. For comedies or dramas, though, a list weighted to post-1980 productions shows me a lack of perspective (or a love of swearing).

    In literature I find best/top lists almost useless; there always seems to be a bias towards recent work. What I like is finding old lists of best/top. It is perhaps unavoidable that as the our libraries of music and movies grow, and generations of listeners pass on, it will be difficult to maintain perspective on older work.

    • litchik
      Posted August 4, 2012 at 9:08 am | Permalink

      Looking for older works? Have you checked out the Lost and Found section of Tin House Magazine? Great for finding out of print/newly in print(sometimes) books. One of the columns helped get Stoner back on bookshelves (great read, that.)

      • DrBrydon
        Posted August 6, 2012 at 6:45 pm | Permalink

        I hadn’t seen Tin House before (in truth I am more of a non-fiction person), but it looks very interesting. I’ve found the Lost and Found, and it looks like I have some reading to do. Thanks, litchik!

  18. MikeN
    Posted August 3, 2012 at 6:54 pm | Permalink

    So how about a list of the Top Ten atheist/skeptic movies? A few suggstions:

    Inherit the Wind
    The Invention of Lying
    Life of Brian

    • Dermot C
      Posted August 3, 2012 at 7:28 pm | Permalink

      Bit of a tricky, maybe even nebulous, concept, Mike; for instance, were Dickens, Shakespeare,Hitchcock, Keaton, etc. sceptics? And how does scepticism come through in their art? But natheless, a happy idea, I think.

      I don’t think ‘atheism’ works as a category; surely non-belief is too narrow a genre and lends itself to propagandism rather than drama?

      On scepticism in film, which I would posit as referring to the human condition without an overtly religious salvation for our ills – and therefore excluding most films ever made – I would hesitate to nominate.

      • Dermot C
        Posted August 3, 2012 at 7:31 pm | Permalink

        including, not excluding, d’oh

    • Occam
      Posted August 3, 2012 at 9:44 pm | Permalink

      “Inherit the Wind”, pretty much all versions, starting with the Lawrence/Lee play, but especially the Stanley Kramer production, is the typical “appease the goat and shelter the cabbage” milk-and-water liberal attempt at even-handedness.

      It’s wrong on so many counts that it would deserve a whole discussion thread to analyse it. The intellectual failure starts with the wrong premise: that McCarthyism was in any way comparable to fundamentalist creationism, and that one could serve as a parable for the other. The final scene, Henry Drummond weighing the bible and The Origin of Species, and taking both under his arms, should forever serve as the cinematographic icon of accommodationism.

      Had H.L. Mencken possessed a theatrical vein among his many literary gifts, “A Religious Orgy in Tennessee” would have been that skeptical play, which “Inherit the Wind” never was.
      But then, Stanley Kramer would hardly have produced a film based on it; and if he had, it’s a safe bet he would have buffered Mencken’s acerbic wit down to pH 7.

    • JonLynnHarvey
      Posted August 4, 2012 at 12:16 am | Permalink

      Best atheist movie ever!!!

      The Ruling Class with Peter O’Toole.

  19. Filippo
    Posted August 3, 2012 at 10:27 pm | Permalink

    While we’re at it, is any thang “cool” jest cuz Time or Newsweek says so?

  20. Posted August 4, 2012 at 1:05 am | Permalink

    At some point in time, the epos of Gilgamesh was pretty much the best read in the world.
    It’s still fine for killing time, but most of its value is historical.

  21. litchik
    Posted August 4, 2012 at 9:00 am | Permalink

    I like “best of lists” for exactly the reasons you state. The only real problem is that it makes longer my own list of books I want to read and movies I want to see.

    I suspect some of the unease and insecurity that might arise from perusing these lists can be avoided if only people over 30 read them. There comes a point where you stop worrying about being cool, realize you really are going to die and screw it I’m going to enjoy my time here no matter what Mr. Arbiter of Coolness thinks. (and you realize no one trying to be cool looks like they are having fun.)

    I do want to point out that Yann Martel’s story was stolen from a brilliant story by Brazilian writer Moacyr Scliar, “Max and the Cats.” If you are unfamiliar with Scliar’s work, add it your list of great writers to discover.

    • Filippo
      Posted August 4, 2012 at 9:23 am | Permalink

      “There comes a point where you stop worrying about being cool, realize you really are going to die and screw it I’m going to enjoy my time here no matter what Mr. Arbiter of Coolness thinks. (and you realize no one trying to be cool looks like they are having fun.)”


      Is it still – what’s the word? – “cool” to wear sunglasses at night on the town?

      Will it ever be not “cool” to wear pants below ones drawers?

      (Seems I’ve read somewhere where the change of gait that necessitates is starting to cause hip problems among young males beholden to this fatuous conceit.)

      Whenever I have occasion to take a vote of elementary grade schoolers, I admonish them to vote their individual desires and not be looking around to see who is voting how, as if that should possibly make a whit of difference.

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  1. […] Jerry Coyne links to an article by Bim Adewunmi in The Guardian slagging off best-of lists – such as a recent list of greatest movies issued by the British Film Institute (it gave first place to Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo). […]

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