The Logic - Or Lack Thereof - Behind Top 10 Lists

Read Chris Vognar's Dallas Morning News post, "Some Thoughts On Top Ten Lists."

Year's end always means a slew of top ten lists, the ubiquitous arbiter of the year's best films, books, albums and political stories. But Dallas Morning News film critic Chris Vognar has a confession: Those lists are not just subjective — they're often completely arbitrary.

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JENNIFER LUDDEN, HOST:

Now that we're nearing the end of the year, top 10 lists are everywhere. You know what we mean: the top 10 books or films or albums or whatevers of the year. And they're not just written by professionals anymore. Thanks to blogs and sites like Amazon and IMDb, you can now find these lists everywhere. But not only are they subjective, they can be downright arbitrary says film critic Chris Vognar. Chris is the film critic for the Dallas Morning News. And earlier this week, in a blog post or the newspaper, he said that writing top 10 list is, quote, "a fool's errand."

Chris Vognar joins us in a moment, but we'd also like to hear from you. When you write your top 10 list, what - tell us what factors do you consider. Call us at 800-989-8255. Our email address is talk@npr.org. And you can join the conversation at our website. Go to npr.org, and click on TALK OF THE NATION. Chris Vognar joins us now from member station KERA in Dallas, Texas. Welcome.

CHRIS VOGNAR: Hi, Jennifer. How are you?

LUDDEN: Good. So tell me about writing your top 10 list this year.

VOGNAR: Well, the fool's errand part may be a little bit harsh. It's kind of funny. We see so many movies over the course of the year. We see broad comedies. We see little intimate dramas, documentaries, everything. And then come end of the year, you're told, all right, now rank them from one to 10. And it's just funny because they're so different and posing one against another just becomes, as I said, kind of a fool's errand, it becomes very subjective.

LUDDEN: Well, and are you ranking what you liked or are you trying to rank what your audience liked or do you go by box office numbers? What do you - do you have a system?

VOGNAR: That's a great question. I'm ranking them how I like. That's the only way how I can rank them. It shouldn't really be seen as a these-are-the-best-10-movies of-the-year list. It should be seen as these are my favorite movies. And that is, as you were saying earlier, why anybody can do one of these lists. There's no objective standard as to what the 10 best are. It all comes down to what your tastes are and what you enjoyed.

LUDDEN: But as a film critic, a professional film critic, I mean, do you feel a need to throw in a documentary or two?

VOGNAR: I do, personally. I'm a big fan of documentary, and I think that's where a lot of the most interesting work is being done. So there's always going to be one or two documentaries on my list this year. They were two. I always want to put at least one international film on my list because I know I don't see nearly everything that comes out around the world as far as movies go. So yeah, I sort of - I have a way of saving spots for certain kinds of movies that I want to represent?

LUDDEN: What do you mean? Oh, oh, oh. So an international documentary.

VOGNAR: Yeah. For instance, if I see a documentary that I like, I'd say, yeah, I'm definitely going to put that on there because that's going to be one of my documentaries on my list. I guess you could call it a quota system on those for documentaries.

LUDDEN: So how else do you narrow things down?

VOGNAR: It's extremely arbitrary. I look back. I generally don't look at the reviews I wrote. I think there are movies that I gave a B plus two that made my list and movies that I gave an A or A minus 2 that didn't. I just look back and think about what I wrote about that year, make sort of a rough list. And then I start (unintelligible) them down. If you see something closer to the end of the year, it's often more prominent in your memory, and that makes it easier.

LUDDEN: Doesn't it seem fair?

VOGNAR: (Unintelligible) It's a very, very subjective and, as I said, arbitrary kind of process.

LUDDEN: So what are some examples from this year's list?

VOGNAR: Well, let's see, I saw "Hugo" two weeks before I did my list, and it ended up being my number one movie. I saw it on a night off. I wasn't reviewing it. I just went on as a civilian, and it charmed me to death. And I kind of knew that was going to be my number one movie. I saw a documentary called "Marwencol," which is about a man who is beaten nearly to death and recovers through his art. Well worth seeing. I saw it almost two years ago now.

And even then, I would say this is a pretty special movie, and I want people to see it. That's another thing. Sometimes you can draw attention to the certain film that you think otherwise might slide under the radar. You can draw attention to it by putting it on your top 10 list.

LUDDEN: All right. We've got a caller on the line, Dave in Nashville. Hi, there.

DAVE: How are you doing?

LUDDEN: Good. What's your top-10 list question or comment?

DAVE: Well, I write for a new online magazine called weepingelvis.com, and we are specifically a modern music content site, and we are getting ready to publish - actually, it's a top 30 for us, but certainly the top 10 is the time we - the thing we spend the most time on trying to figure out. And this year, we had six editors of the site, plus 14 other music industry professionals and just savvy listeners that we polled come with our top 30 albums for 2011.

LUDDEN: So you're not going to be the arbiter? You're going to let your audience pick them.

DAVE: Well, it's us, the six of us around, and then other people that we think their opinion is something that - whether we disagree with it or not, we think it to be educated and savvy. And some of them are just music listeners, just appreciators. But we feel that their, you know, tastes are good, and so we pick the list of those, and had those involved with us, as well. And it came to a list of 20 others that were voting for the top 30 albums.

LUDDEN: Any hot debates, or did it all work out OK?

DAVE: It actually amazingly worked out OK. We thought we were going to have some ties and there were going to be some arguments, but there weren't. I was a little - wanted us to be a little more broad. We ended up leaning a little bit more towards the alternative and indie scene. I would have liked for us to spread out a little bit more into country and hip-hop and hard rock, but we ended up with a great list of 30 great quality records that I think that people would enjoy. And so, no arguments and we didn't have to have any tiebreakers, and people saying while they thought one was better than another. And for the most part, our taste was reasonably down the line.

LUDDEN: All right, Dave. Thanks for the call. Chris Vognar, do you - Dave brings up a point there. Do you consult peers? Or do you have an editor who kind of has to approve your list? What's the process there?

VOGNAR: Not really. I mean, I have an editor who edits my copy, but it's my list, at the end of the day. Look, I really - I enjoy top 10 lists as a reader to a great extent. In fact, I enjoy them more as a reader than I do as a compiler of the lists.

LUDDEN: Really? Why is that?

VOGNAR: So - because I think these lists really are for readers. And when you're looking at somebody's list, you don't feel that sort of sense when you're compiling the list of why am I picking this movie instead of that movie and what's - what will people, perhaps, think about the fact that I'm - you know, maybe people don't like documentaries that much, but at the end of the day, it has to be your list. I have one sort of funny story. I have a very smart friend who saw my list, and I have "Bridesmaids" - the comedy that came out last year - on my top 10. And she was like, well, I really liked "Bridesmaids," but is it really better than "Tree of Life"? And, of course, "Tree of Life" is this very esoteric, sort of experimental film that I really liked. I just enjoyed "Brides...

LUDDEN: Hard to compare.

VOGNAR: Yeah, exactly. So what other context or conversation would one be comparing "The Tree of Life" to "Bridesmaids"? It's just a funny thing.

LUDDEN: So you said that you sometimes do want to push maybe a lesser-known film. You think people should see it, and this is an opportunity.

VOGNAR: Yeah. I think part of the critics' role is to be a curator of, you know, films or works of art that they find especially important that might otherwise go unnoticed, and to be an advocate, even, for certain films that, you know, really somehow touch you in a certain way, that you think people might otherwise miss out during the course of a year.

LUDDEN: All right. Let's take another call. Madeleine is in Fort Wayne, Indiana. Hi, there.

MADELEINE: Hello.

VOGNAR: Hello.

MADELEINE: Thank you for taking my call.

LUDDEN: Go right ahead.

MADELEINE: Yes. I'm calling to share as to why I select particular movies, especially those like "Midnight in Paris." It's due to the message in the storyline, a moving plot, captivating characters and the scenery, which tends to be many times awe-inspiring, and I just loved that particular film. But "Hugo" is also good.

LUDDEN: So make your own list, Madeleine?

MADELEINE: Well, I don't always make a list, but those are the many kinds - those are the elements that I select as to why I'm attracted to a film, and will then go out and buy the DVD and watch it many times at home.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

LUDDEN: All right. Well, thanks so much for sharing.

MADELEINE: You're welcome.

LUDDEN: All right, Chris, so excellent storyline and scenery and plot.

VOGNAR: Sure. I mean, those - all of those things are great reasons to like a movie, but we all have different criteria at the end of the day. I mean, that's a very sort of democratic thing. Anybody can make a top 10 list. It's one of the great things about them.

LUDDEN: Well, and it seems like more and more are - you did say that you kind of enjoy them more as a reader. But I was wondering, since so many people are getting in on the act in writing their own lists, is there some personal satisfaction or some benefit other than for the benefit of others? Is there some self-benefit in writing these?

VOGNAR: Yeah, it's kind of fun. It gives you - I mean, it's funny. These lists often come with essays that kind of look back at trends or, you know, plotlines, if you will, for a certain year of movies. I find that part more satisfying than the actual list, because it gives you an excuse to sort of account for a year. We like breaking up life and works of art into different years and saying that was a great, that wasn't such a great year. That part of it, to me, is satisfying, just sort of that taking account of what you've seen over the last 12 months.

LUDDEN: Tell us about your top 10 list and how you put it together. Call us at 800-989-8225, or email us at talk @npr.org. Chris Vognar, what do people think when you put out your lists? What kind of reaction do you get?

VOGNAR: Sort of that - you know, I mentioned the reaction that my friend had about "Tree of Life." It's often what about this movie or what about that movie, and more often than not, my response is that's a great movie, or that's a very good movie, easily could have been on my list, just didn't make it this time. Or perhaps I didn't really like that movie that much, but, you know, viva la difference. I mean, that's kind of what it comes down to.

LUDDEN: And you say you enjoy them as a reader. What do you think when you read other people's lists?

VOGNAR: I like comparing people whose taste I respect. I like comparing the way they think to perhaps the way I think. I like circling films that maybe I missed. Even as a movie critic, I don't get to see quite everything. So there are times when I say that's one I need to check out. At the end of the day, I am, you know, a consumer of movies and a watcher of movies, as much as I am someone who gets paid to write about movies. So I enjoy reading critics and people who have interesting things to say in provocative lists as much as the next person does.

LUDDEN: So after you put your own list out, did you find someone else's and, go, uh-oh. Forgot that one.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

VOGNAR: Yeah. Sure. Yeah, every time. No doubt about it.

LUDDEN: Like what? Tell us, what should we go back and watch now?

VOGNAR: That wasn't on my list?

LUDDEN: Yeah.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

VOGNAR: What did I absolutely leave out? I did an honorable mention list this year, as well, which is alphabetical: Errol Morris' documentary, "Tabloid," which I love. I think his one of the best moviemakers around, not just in the documentary field, but anywhere. He did not even make my honorable mention list. It slipped my mind somehow that just - these kinds of things happen. Luckily, I gave it a great review when I wrote about it.

LUDDEN: Phew, let's get another call - another call in here, Jed from Roosevelt, Utah. Hi, there.

JED: Hello, there.

LUDDEN: What...

VOGNAR: Hello.

LUDDEN: How are you? Go right ahead.

JED: All right. Thank you. I actually was listening to this, thinking about all the experiences I've had talking to different genders, male and female, that make different top 10 lists. And I found, in my experience, that I'll share a top 10 list with a female and she'll say, oh, well, I don't have any top 10 lists. I don't put any movies or music in any ordinate list. And that really struck me. I was wondering if you had any experience with those kinds of things.

LUDDEN: Ah. Is there a gender-divide on list-making?

VOGNAR: That's a great question. I mean, there are - some of my favorite critics are female, and they've, you know, some of my favorite lists have come from female critics. It's a funny - it makes me think of the Nick Hornby novel, "High Fidelity," which is sort of about the male obsession with categorizing things and putting them in top five lists.

In that case, he's doing it with his own life. It was also made into a movie, appropriately enough, with John Cusack. So is there a gender divide with the impulse to make the top 10 lists? I don't know. That's a really good question. I can say that, you know, critics like Manohla Dargis or Lisa Schwarzbaum, who I really respect, make great lists that I devoured this year.

LUDDEN: All right. Thanks for the call there, Jed. Any other lists that you look for when you are - or do you cheat and look at other people lists when - before you need to file your own?

VOGNAR: I try not to. I'll probably take a peak every now and then. In a way, it's useful just to have your memory jarred.

LUDDEN: And do you feel like your list has to be different, or do you like, oh, I can't, you know, missed out and not put down what everyone else is putting on?

VOGNAR: That's actually a really good question, because these lists do often recycle at least some of the same, say, five or six movies, just in different positions. So there's a little bit of self-consciousness about, do I really want to say this is the best movie, when everybody else is saying this is the best movie? And I think that gets back again to how arbitrary it can be, because my number five movie could have been my number one movie. My number three movie could have been my number 10 movie. So I think - in a way, I think the way it goes is to do it alphabetically, and just to say these are the - it's funny, because as a reader, I think that's a copout. And as the list-maker, I think it's a very attractive copout.

LUDDEN: Back to the theme of it's all arbitrary.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

VOGNAR: Yeah.

LUDDEN: Josh is in San Antonio, Texas. Hi, Josh.

JOSH: Hey, hey. How's it going?

LUDDEN: Good.

JOSH: Hey. I just wanted to make a quick comment. I'm a community writer for a videogame website Bitmob. And a lot of the times in the videogame community, we also find ourselves making top 10 lists. One of the interesting things about top 10 lists, though, is that it is arbitrary, and no two lists are really going to be the same. That said, it's kind of a tool that, a lot of the times in my particular medium, we use to generate controversy and discussions and essentially drive traffic to our posts and just, in general, generate some sort of discussion.

LUDDEN: Mm-hmm. OK. Chris Vognar, do you - are you driving people to the Web with your list, here?

VOGNAR: I hope so. I try to. Yeah. I mean, you want to generate interest. And you generate a little more interest when you're not just throwing out the exact same movies that it seems like so many other people are throwing out. So, yeah, I enjoy - if I have a movie or two that very few others have on there, I kind of like picturing somebody scratching their head and saying: What in the world is that? And maybe going out and seeing it. So, yeah. I think these things can be very useful for generating discussion. I think that's what it's all about, in the end, is generating discussion.

LUDDEN: All right. Josh, thanks for the call.

JOSH: My pleasure.

LUDDEN: Chris Vognar, before we let you go, I guess we should ask, even though you've now told us it's really meaningless. What is the number one movie on your top 10 list...

VOGNAR: It's not meaningless.

LUDDEN: ...movie list for 2011?

VOGNAR: Arbitrary, not meaningless. My number one movie was "Hugo..."

LUDDEN: That's right. I saw this.

VOGNAR: ...Martin Scorsese's - yeah. It's Martin Scorsese movie about a kid living in a clock tower in Paris. It's really about movie love, though. And this is actually a pretty good example, because I probably love movies and obsess over movies more than many average moviegoers. And so it makes some degree of sense that I really liked this movie, which is about the love of movies.

LUDDEN: All right. Chris Vognar, the film critic for Dallas Morning News. He joined us from member station KERA in Dallas. Thank you so much.

VOGNAR: Thank you, Jennifer.

LUDDEN: Tomorrow, TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY looks at how scientists do research in Antarctica. And Neal Conan will be back here with you in the New Year on Monday. This is TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. I'm Jennifer Ludden, in Washington.

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