As the end of the year approaches, film critics publish their yearly reflections on the motion pictures released in the past twelve months. This most frequently takes the form of lists enumerating each critic’s picks of the best and worst films of the year. These lists are inevitably provocative but when Variety critics Peter Debruge and Owen Gleiberman released their lists of the worst films of 2019 the authors were raked over the coals on social media. But the backlash against the Variety critics’ worst of 2019 list didn’t just take exception to their choices. A number of respondents questioned the purpose of worst-of lists at all.
The pushback against Variety’s worst films of 2019 list was somewhat predicable. These sorts of compilations, whether celebrating the best or condemning the worst, are intended to provoke a reaction. And when revenue is fueled by clicks which in turn are driven by outrage, authors are incentivized to make outrageous or contrarian statements. But the Variety backlash also happens at a time when democratic values are misapplied and used to marginalize expertise. We are in a cultural moment when meaningless slogans like “live your truth” and “let people enjoy things” have become epitaphs and legitimate criticism is dismissed as the work of “haters” and “elitists.”
Worst of the year lists are a legitimate critical activity and I’ll explain why shortly. But I have to start by acknowledging that best and worst lists are subjective and at least somewhat self-serving on the author’s part. This is inherent to all criticism. But subjectivity does not render an opinion invalid. The value of an opinion rests in the integrity, independence, and expertise of the person making it as well as in the substance of the argument. Not all opinions are good or equally valuable and a film critic who knows the mechanics and history of cinema has a better opinion than someone who doesn’t.
But that does not mean we should blindly accept the decrees of critics whether they are made by individuals or by consensus. To do so misses the point. Criticism, whether it is of movies or music or food or fashion, is never about giving the final word. It’s about starting a conversation or participating in one that is in progress. A review or a year-end list incites that conversation. Ideally, the critic makes the viewer think about a film in a new way and viewers then carry that epiphany into their encounters with other movies.
Year-end lists provide a summary of the past twelve months and in that respect they also provide a sense of closure. Human beings are disposed to understand the world narratively; we create meaning through stories. Like the New Year holiday, best and worst lists allow critics and audiences a chance to reflect on what they saw and experienced over the past twelve months and draw conclusions about what it all meant. That necessarily means accounting for the best and the worst the year had to offer. And since art—and in this case cinema—is so intertwined with the times, analyzing the best and worst films can reveal the better and worse parts of ourselves and our culture.
For my part, I’ve long felt that worst-of lists are reserved for films that are toxic or insultingly stupid. That is, movies that weren’t just mediocre or uninteresting. A worst of the year list ought to point out the movies that were sloppy or pretentious or dishonest or were sexist, racist, and homophobic or reveal contempt for the audience.
That’s what is so strange about Peter Debruge and Owen Gleiberman’s lists. Their picks and rationales for the worst films of 2019 rarely fit that criteria while so many other films do. Debruge named Disney’s remake of Dumbo as the worst release of the year when he could have picked The Lion King which did everything Debruge criticized Dumbo for and did it more egregiously. Gleiberman named Men in Black: International the worst film of a year that offered sequels like Dark Phoenix and Rambo: Last Blood. Gleiberman also added “the last thirty minutes of Once Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood” to his worst-of list for “rewriting the history of Charles Manson’s crimes” while ignoring films like The Manson Family Massacre and The Haunting of Sharon Tate. And neither of these critics mentioned The Goldfinch, The Dirt, or What Men Want. Debruge and Gleiberman’s worst of 2019 picks reveal that they either didn’t watch many movies this year or they have questionable judgement.
And this is one of the important and underappreciated functions of year-end lists. Filmgoers don’t just consume movies. They are also consumers of reviews and all the discourse around cinema. And, just as we do with news outlets, consumers have to judge whether or not an opinion is credible. Finding a film critic who we always agree with is impossible and even if it could be done what would be the point? The goal for consumers must be to find critics whose commentary they find invigorating and insightful whether they agree with it or not.
Year-end lists are valuable short-cuts for consumers to judge critics. These compilations say something about the movies but, like a music playlist, they also reveal a lot about the person who put them together. These lists reveal what the critic thought was most worthy of praise and most deserving of scorn and that speaks to the critic’s integrity, knowledge, and judgement. Best and worst of the year lists are the fastest way for consumers to assess this.
Debruge and Gleiberman’s worst-of-2019 list got them into trouble because it showed bad judgement and limited knowledge—at least of movies released this year. That’s not cause to throw out these kinds of articles. The backlash against Variety’s worst-of-2019 list shows that the article functioned exactly as it was supposed to.