Five years ago, in an email newsletter, I wrote the following: “I wanted to write about my year in film, but 2017 was the year I stopped writing stuff down.”
That spring, I had started a job as a film critic for a newspaper, and was watching somewhere between five and ten films per week. Probably, I was overwhelmed; the sheer volume I was consuming made logging films feel like I was keeping a food diary – a moralistic record of my virtues and shortcomings. Each obscure screening I added to my public Letterboxd account, I felt, was indicative of my intellectual curiosity and good taste. But each rewatch of a Nancy Meyers movie revealed how willing I was to squander my spare time. As an experiment, I decided to opt out. I logged off, curious to see if it would change my habits.
When Sight & Sound magazine’s decennial poll of “The Greatest Films of All Time” was released earlier this year, it made headlines (“Film directed by woman picked as best ever,” wrote the BBC). I’ve been thinking about lists; best-of lists, end-of-year lists, the list of photographs and images I might refer to as a “dump” on Instagram. Lists, I have decided, are bad.
We think of lists as a glimpse into a person’s taste, but they’re more revealing of how that person wants to be seen. They’re less a way of sorting through and finding meaning in what we’ve consumed, and more about how we’d like a person to see our politics, our sense of humour, and where we locate beauty. The very act of list-making reorganises our personal encounters with art into a consumer guide for others.
It’s a human impulse to want to consolidate our experiences for posterity – but a list of movies I like today, I might not like tomorrow. Trying to figure out what films I might deem important, or interesting, in a decade’s time has never struck me as a particularly useful exercise.
In theory, lists are a tool for documenting discovery, but in reality, they simply encourage consensus. What we encounter is dictated by what we already know about, what we have access to, and what has already been preserved by both history and technology. In 2019, the film academic Elena Gorfinkel wrote in her excellent manifesto “Against Lists” that “lists of films will not reorganise how films gain and lose value”.
My year of not keeping a list did end up changing my habits. It reminded me to view films as experiences that I felt in the moment, instead of data I could analyse and share afterwards. It encouraged me to follow my own curiosities without performing them. Except I found that without the list I couldn’t always recall what I’d seen. I ended up reinstating the practice, this time for myself, as a note in my phone – where no one else can see it.