When the Year-End Lists All Look the Same

Learning to like what you like, not what you think you’re supposed to like

CJ Green / 12.21.21

Watch the movie, they said. It’s the first film in twelve years by the best female filmmaker working today. It has Kirsten Dunst, it has Jesse Plemons, it has awards, it has vistas. Lots of percentage on Rotten Tomatoes, a God for our times. But five minutes into it, I’m zoning. To be fair, I suffer from chronic revenge bedtime procrastination, so I’m a little tired and foggy brained—but isn’t everyone?

It was difficult to pinpoint why I found The Power of the Dog so dull, especially because, oftentimes, I do enjoy the type of film it seems to be. And while I could take this opportunity to try to articulate certain issues, I think even that would not be worth the time, mine or yours. Suffice it to say, this film wasn’t “speaking” to me.

I think my real frustration had less to do with the film itself and more to do with a feeling of being bamboozled, because among sources I trust, there was a unanimous consensus that The Power of the Dog was something that needed to be watched; the result was feelings of alienation and self-reproach because I was clearly inadequate to the task of appreciating what demanded to be appreciated.

In the words of essayist Soraya Roberts, “My lack of connection to it suggested I was missing some substantial sliver of intellect, which is something I can’t abide as someone who never really feels smart enough.” She wasn’t talking about The Power of the Dog but instead Fiona Apple’s 2020 album Fetch the Bolt Cutters, another widely praised cultural artifact. Roberts didn’t “get it”—not only the album but the seemingly united front of critical acclaim about it:

If I just thought everyone had bad taste, or was dumb, I wouldn’t be tortured by disliking Fetch the Bolt Cutters. … I groped for a music critic to explain it to me. But if I felt alienated from this particular cultural event, critics didn’t seem too concerned about inviting me in.

When it comes to The Power of the Dog, I feel a similar sense of confusion, not least because it’s December, the month of the Year-End Lists, which have become a holiday staple more popular than eggnog. It’s not that I don’t like the lists themselves. Truthfully I enjoy a good scroll as much as the next person; there’s something weirdly soothing about swiping on the trackpad, down, down, down, perusing brief descriptions of movies/books/music I have yet to consume, and either want to or don’t. But you would be hard-pressed to find a list that doesn’t honor The Power of the Dog as a top-ten, many lauding it as number one, which is weird on a number of levels.

First, there’s the fact that no matter where you look “the best films of the year” often feature the exact same films, just in slightly different orders. I’m reminded of what B.D. McClay once wrote about the flattening landscape of culture:

…the paradox of a wide-open digital publishing field is that it has tended more and more toward consensus, with its two modes being the rave and the takedown, instead of diversity; even in terms of subject matter, culture verticals focus on the same things, instead of branching out. […]

The world is going to keep getting smaller. Opportunities in creative and intellectual fields are going to keep shrinking. Opinions will become both more binary and more homogenous, and about fewer and fewer things.

Which brings me to the second thing I find weird about year-end lists, which is what their purpose is in the first place. Is it to truly recommend what so-and-so liked, or are there more factors in play (there must be!)? Along these lines, I liked this paragraph from Justin E. H. Smith, about books, but you could sub in movies/music/TV:

To be honest I don’t really understand why new literature should be prioritized in any way. If it’s good now, it will be good ten years from now, so what’s the rush? And correlatively, given that the now is just an infinitesimal sliver when compared to the past, if what you are in search of is the good, is it not reasonable that the vastly greater part of what you read should be old? Otherwise, it seems to me that what the reader is in search of —what most readers are in search of— is not the good at all, but just something to chatter with one another about…

Partially, I think, there’s nothing wrong with enjoying to chatter about a new show or whatever thing you’d like to chatter about. But only as long as you actually like it. When it comes time to recommend things, might I recommend recommending what you actually like, and not what you feel you’re supposed to? Like all acts of grace, this may be more painful than you’d think. Because as the culture coalesces around certain work, good or bad, you begin to feel, as Roberts wrote elsewhere, that certain art is “dominat[ing] the discursive landscape.” It could be something as good as Ted Lasso, or as bad as The Power of the Dog, but when people everywhere are telling you what to do, you kind of start to want to do the opposite. The extent of this goes well beyond pop culture. Roberts again:

…people start saying things like, “Do I HAVE to watch [insert best movie of the year]?” and “feeling a lot of pressure to read sally rooney!” and “do i have to listen to the [best album of the year]?” This kind of coercion has been known to cause an extreme side effect — reactance, a psychological phenomenon in which a person who feels their freedom being constricted adopts a combative stance, turning a piece of art we might otherwise be neutral about into an object of derision.

If you have a Spotify account, by now you also have an auto-generated “Top Songs of 2021.” Have you looked at this? I have, and whenever I do, my heart sinks a little, because it is, more or less, reflective of what I have actually consumed and not what I would like to have consumed. For the same reason, I don’t really need software to remind me of the songs that I’ve played so many times I’m sick of them now. It’s true that there are a few genuine highlights that I wouldn’t mind proselytizing or playing again, but generally, I’m looking at guilty pleasures I’m already too familiar with.

Scripture says that “The Lord seeth not as man seeth,” though thanks to the Internet man seeth more than he probably needs to, at least I do. And what do I see but lists, lists everywhere, telling me what I should be watching and listening to. But whereas “man looketh on the outward appearance, the Lord looketh on the heart.” And what speaks to the heart? It seems like “driver’s license,” by Olivia Rodrigo, and a bunch of music from 2017.

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One response to “When the Year-End Lists All Look the Same”

  1. […] conventions for cinematic taste can be more than limiting. As CJ Green wrote last year, they can become a suffocating law, particularly for us viewers. Bad films, by […]

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