'Pearl Harbor is definitely my film of the year'

Only joking, of course. No critic would dare to choose such a shameless blockbuster for their annual highlights. Ryan Gilbey explains why
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The Independent Culture

Any critic who claims not to look forward to the end of the year, and the opportunity to compile "Best Of" lists, is a liar. I know people who have tried to land critics' jobs over the festive period just so they can have their lists published, before going back to work as dental technicians for the rest of the year.

Any critic who claims not to look forward to the end of the year, and the opportunity to compile "Best Of" lists, is a liar. I know people who have tried to land critics' jobs over the festive period just so they can have their lists published, before going back to work as dental technicians for the rest of the year.

The motives behind the "Best Of" list makes for a list in itself. It is a way of taking stock, of measuring and comparing pleasures, and of insulating those pleasures against the threat of time, just as the plastic sheets in your photograph album keep the snaps from getting tatty. Your "Best Of" list freezes where you're at and who you are at any given moment as keenly as that picture of you looking wet and suicidal in Camber Sands circa 1979. The list also gives a fair indication of the real you, or what you would like people to think is the real you. Perhaps you have parted your hair in that unusual fashion because you want to be regarded as a bit of a freethinker, a bit devil-may-care. Perhaps you have put Pearl Harbor in your top five for the same reason.

One of the most attractive things about the annual list is that it gives you a chance to prove to your readers, or your friends and family, that they are actually snivelling wretches who have been going to all the wrong films/ plays/ restaurants for the past 12 months. You adored Bridget Jones's Diary? Oh you poor dear fool. You really should have been at the ICA for the season of wedding videos shot by the brother-in-law of Kiarostami's cousin's judo instructor.

The real test with these lists is actually keeping this breed of snobbery out of the equation, while jealously guarding those selections that are intrinsically "you". There used to be a very public rivalry between the film writers on my old university newspaper – one week I would rave about something horribly austere and gruelling, and the next issue there would be a riposte from my counterpart in the form of a feature on Great Forgotten John Hughes Movies or a snide quip about three-hour Hungarian movies. It all used to be terribly thrilling, and I think we were doing each other a great unspoken service: defining ourselves based on our differences; impressing our uniqueness upon one another; working out who we were, and who we weren't.

The tradition of winter lists makes all this possible in an instant. For example, I couldn't help feeling both outraged and delighted that my own favourite film of 2001 – François Ozon's Under the Sand – had been excluded from the end-of-year report in a popular magazine. My first reaction was: how could they ignore something so wonderful? My second was: ooh, aren't I cool? – which immediately disqualified me from coolness. I was very excited too when it came to compiling for a newspaper my 12 favourite films of the Nineties, but what would stay and what would go? (The question "...and who would care?" being conspicuous by its absence.) I had a sleepless night about Straight Talk, the Dolly Parton/James Woods screwball comedy. Was I just including it because it was underrated, or because it looked so darn swell snuggled up alongside such highfalutin bedfellows as La Belle Noiseuse and Thirty-Two Short Films About Glenn Gould? Come to think of it, were all those titles only on the list to show how eclectic I can be? Look at me, I can take my Chateaubriand at the same sitting as my rum baba. Heck, I can take it in the same bowl.

Like everything that our silly species does – and I mean human beings, not just film critics – that phrase, "look at me," is at the heart of list-making. The truly honest list would be written as a stream-of-consciousness, without a pause to consider whether the films sit well together – do I have a Michael Haneke to balance out the teen-slasher movies? – or whether they will convince that man or woman over there that you're just adorable. In other words, the really truthful list would be written in private, in invisible ink if need be, and never shown to another person. Only then could you know for certain that it would be liberated from vanity and contrivance.

But in the absence of such implausible modesty and purity, let me just say that my 2001 list also includes three fine British films ( The Low Down, The Claim and Goodbye Charlie Bright) and one title that I might possibly have accommodated partly because most people hated it ( Bamboozled). I have also excluded one on the grounds that it's-boring-because-everyone-loved-it ( A One And A Two).

How much more honesty do you want?

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