I don’t usually watch a lot of movies. I tend to get to one a month, if that. But in the past few weeks I’ve taken time out for Zodiac, In the Mood for Love, and Capturing the Friedmans. After that I’ve got Synecdoche, New York and 25th Hour on the docket. This isn’t random. All of those were either on Roger Ebert’s or (more influentially) the AV Club’s decade-end lists. I had heard of them all before, but the lists were an essential reminder and made them stand out from the rest of the nearly endless “supposedly great movies I should get to sometime” list in my head. The result was that I watched at least three great (I trust AV Club and Ebert for a reason) movies that I wouldn’t have otherwise seen.
All of which is to say that Alyssa and Matt really miss the point in their condemnation of cultural listmaking. I suppose in an epistemological sense they’re right that it’s impossible, for reasons of personal subjectivity and time scarcity, that it’s impossible to have a “best albums” or “best movies” list that’s “correct” and reflective of anything other than personal taste, that’s not really interesting. Of course no list is going to be perfect. But almost everyone reading a given list is not going to have accessed one or more of the items yet, or have not watched/listened to it for years, or not heard it in the context of being art as opposed to cinematic fluff or mere dancehall fodder. That’s useful; that leads to (largely) positive experiences with culture that otherwise would not have occurred. Whether the list is “right” is more or less irrelevant. As long as it serves the purpose of exposing people to new culture, or experienced familiar culture in a new way, a list is performing a useful service. I have plenty to beef over in Pitchfork’s year-end song list but it got me to listen to The Big Pink, so it did its job. It wasn’t before their 2000-04 best-of that I listened to “Crazy in Love” outside of a middle school dance, which was more than worthwhile.
Of course, there are other ways to introduce people to culture, ones that don’t employ devices as reviled as lists. But the fact of the matter is that most people don’t have time or sufficient interest to slog through New Yorker-length treatises on underappreciated filmmakers or artists. We can spend our time bemoaning this as a symptom of cultural decline or embrace adaptations, like lists, that further cultural appreciation. One of these paths is more productive than the other.