The Ghost of Top Ten Lists Past: Part One (2000-2004)

This week I was reading Slate’s annual Movie Club, a back-and-forth between a group of critics about the year in film, and one of the participants made a point that really resonated with me.

Matt Zoller Seitz wrote, “I bet almost everyone who makes Top 10 lists looks back at them years later and wonders why they put a certain movie on a list when they can barely remember a thing about it.”

Boy, is he ever right. I’ve often said that I don’t really know how I feel about a movie until much later, and preferably after seeing it again (and, in some cases, again and again). But the nature of the ranking business has us assigning a position to a film usually based on one viewing within the past day, week or month.

Rather than compile a top ten list at the end of each year, I rank every movie I see as I see them. This is partly because I’m a deranged and anal person, but also because I like to see how my opinions of those films change as the year goes on.

Often a movie will start near the top of my list and slide down as the months pass, not just because I see other films that I like better but because I decide I like it less and less each time I revisit the list.

Other films go in the opposite direction. Just this week, I found myself moving The King’s Speech from 7th to 4th after mulling it over for a few days and thinking back fondly on several of its scenes. But that’s also the movie I watched most recently, so I wonder if The Town or Inception might muscle back ahead of it should I watch either of them again.

And those changes are just in the weeks and months following my first exposure to these films. How will I feel about them in a year? In 5 or 10 years? That’s the true test, ultimately.

Often I read people, in defense of one movie over another, write things like “The Social Network will be talked about in 20 years long after The Kids Are All Right has been forgotten!” Good lord, I don’t even know what I’ll think of either of those films years from now, let alone what popular culture will make of them.

And even if you can make a strong argument that a film will be remembered by society as a whole, does that really have any bearing on your own opinion? I adore movies that have been unfairly lost to the world over time, and perhaps I adore them in large part because they have been lost.

At any rate, I thought I’d use this opportunity to look back at my movie lists from the past ten years (not counting this year) and figure out which of those films stuck with me and which I can barely remember.


Not a very strong year overall. Glancing at the list of 49 movies I saw that year, the one that leaps out at me as something I treasure to this day is O Brother Where Are Thou? I ranked that movie 5th at the time, topped by four films I still consider wonderful but haven’t watched or thought about much since I made the list: Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, You Can Count On Me, Almost Famous and Traffic.


Now this was a stellar year, one that delivered a handful of films that very much stick with me to this day. Topping the list was The Royal Tenenbaums and I can’t say I’d revisit that placement ten years later. I would, however, move Mulholland Dr. from 4th to 2nd, leap-frogging Amores Perros and Memento, not because those two films aren’t brilliant (they are) but because Mulholland has deepened for me every time I’ve seen or thought about it since.


An average year, and another batch of films that haven’t changed much in my estimation since I made the list. Y Tu Mama Tambien and Adaptation fill the top two spots and would remain there if I reworked the list today. I would move Kissing Jessica Stein up from #9, though. That’s one of the few recent romantic comedies that fired on all cylinders for me and it has stuck with me more than titles such as Far From Heaven and Sunshine State, which topped it at the time.


A pretty good year. This one has a good example of a celebrated film that just didn’t click for me at all. Clint Eastwood’s Mystic River, which earned a bunch of Academy Awards and critical accolades galore, sits at #34 on my list of 57 and if I were to re-rank today, it would sink even farther. Certainly lower than Identity and Laurel Canyon, two perfectly respectable movies that currently sit below it.

I think I allowed myself to get caught up in the prestige factor and convinced myself that, even though I disliked it, the performances of Sean Penn and Tim Robbins somehow earned the film an anchored position on the middle of the list, looking at it objectively. But screw objectivity! Send it to the bottom, where a movie I actively dislike (for whatever reason) should be looking up at movies I care nothing about.

City of God was my #1 film in 2003 and it wouldn’t budge if I were to rework the list today. I would lower 21 Grams (which came in at #2 at the time) below such films as Whale Rider, Finding Nemo and School of Rock. This was a year with a lot of films that had a big impact at the time but haven’t stuck with me all that much over the years: Lost in Translation, In America, Big Fish, even Pirates of the Caribbean.


A strong year, though I’ve noticed that even the best years taper off after six or seven titles. Maybe a top ten, though it’s a nice round number, is too ambitious. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind topped my list in ’04, and it’s my quick answer to the old “What’s your favorite movie of all-time?” question, so it would certainly retain that spot. Number two was Before Sunset and again, no argument there.

I had The Incredibles at #5 that year, and I’d definitely move it up to #2 or #3 if I were revisiting the list today. I’ve noticed that many of the films I’d bump up in retrospect are family films, and the reason is surely because I’ve seen them countless times and come to love them for countless reasons, as opposed to some drama that I saw once six years ago and has since faded in my memory. Perhaps that’s an unfair advantage, but on the other hand, if The Aviator was destined to be one of my favorite movies years after its release, I’m sure I would have revisited it many times since I first saw it (as I have with a film like Before Sunset).

Looking farther down the list, I see I have 13 Going On 30 and The Notebook at #21 and #26, respectively. I would definitely bump up both of those films, which I’ve enjoyed many times since 2004. The same goes for Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (currently at #12).

The emerging trend, then, is that the lighter and more re-watchable films are moving up, with a few exceptions of more serious fare that really struck a nerve. I wonder if that’s a lesson in how to compile a list for the current year. If this exercise suggests that How to Train Your Dragon, say, will outshine 127 Hours in five years time, shouldn’t I go ahead and make that change now?

But that doesn’t feel right. 127 Hours is fresh in my mind and in my heart. It feels like it belongs right where it is, if not higher. So what if that might not be the case five years from now? I’ll worry about that if and when it happens.

To be continued, with a look at my lists from 2005-2009…

7 thoughts on “The Ghost of Top Ten Lists Past: Part One (2000-2004)

  1. Amy says:

    Interesting exercise indeed. I think what you’re discounting so far in this process is the single most important element of the equation – how have YOU changed in the subsequent years since first seeing, evaluating and ranking a film?

    During the first two years of this decade, you weren’t a father at all! In 2004, when The Incredibles was released, you were the father of a 2 year old. When you watch that film in 2010, you’re not only seeing how it holds up six years later, you’re seeing it through the eyes of a father of a family of four, with sibling dynamics to rival those between Dash and Violet, who can appreciate the humor in so many of that film’s best moments and lines in ways you probably could just begin to when it was first released.

    I know I made the case again and again at the time that Finding Nemo couldn’t help but resonate more with and more deeply implact a parent who could empathize with Marlin’s age-old struggle between giving his “little Harpo” the fun and freedom he deserved yet desperately wanting to keep him safe.

    Perhaps, then, this exercise brings together all the various theories we’ve explored throughout the years – the “expectation” theory, the “spousal influence” theory, and now the “moment of impact” theory. Does a film that “hits” you just as it most powerfully ever will when you FIRST see it have a better chance at holding its top spot than a film that has been experienced on another level before having a chance to make that impact?

    Anyway, how you have changed between viewings is what I’d like to see you focus more on exploring in part two, please 🙂 And go watch Finding Nemo again! Stat 😉

  2. Clay says:

    Oh, I’ve seen Nemo plenty, and I love it, but I still don’t think it stacks up to the best Pixar films (which is a high bar indeed).

    And yes, how I have changed is certainly a factor, though I don’t know that it was much of one in any of the examples I saw in the first five years of the decade.

  3. Dana says:

    I think Amy’s observation is a good one, but, just as Clay eschewed looking at his own internal and social factors that comprised his top 10 singers, he similarly discounts that factor when analyzing his movie rankings or, in this case, changes in movie rankings.

  4. peg says:

    Interesting discussion. I know that at my old age :), I still say Moonstruck and The Godfather 1 & 2 are my favorite movies ever; and we all know I watch a lot of movies. I do think where you are in life means something in how a movie affects you. Lastly, what do you have against Sean Penn?

  5. Clay says:

    Dana, I’m perfectly willing to look at internal and social factors in this exercise… that’s one of the reasons I’m doing it. But I just haven’t come across too many yet. If you have a theory on the personal factor that has me valuing Kissing Jessica Stein more than Far From Heaven nine years later, by all means let me know!

    Certainly the rise of the family films is tied to the fact that I watch them quite often with my kids and enjoy the experience of watching them as much as the films themselves.

    Peg, I have nothing against Sean Penn. I consider him one of the finest actors working today. But Mystic River was a turkey!

  6. Dana says:

    Well, I think you, and then Amy, hit on most of the theories I would have. The only thing I would add by extension is that, over time, you probably return to the lighter fare–those romantic comedies, comedies and family films that are usually written off as less serious, less Oscar worthy fare at the time. So, in other words, when you see a film, are aware of the buzz, and have a feeling from all the critical acclaim that this is a film you are supposed to like or, because of it’s subject matter, pedigree, whatever, you are supposed to like, you place it higher on your list over the more guilty pleasure. But, over time, you really have little to no use for those more serious critically acclaimed films–you just want to pop in the Nemo or the Stein or whatever.

    I might also add that, in earlier years, you may have been more influenced by those critics or by what you were supposed to like, whereas, because of the dynamics of family viewing, date night, or just being more comfortable in your personal opinion as to what you love and don’t love, you are more willing to elevate the comedy, lighter film, etc in the first instance. I have noticed that trend in your lists in the last few years. When I raised that theory before, though, you argued vociferously that comedies have just gotten better, light films have gotten better, etc….I submit that, while that may in part be true, it may also be true that you are more receptive to them–or at least more willing to put them higher on your list over the Oscar.critics choices because of the reasons discussed above.

    Oh, and as for Mystic River, while I’m not going to stand on a soap box lauding it as the greatest film–and I can understand the notion that it should not have been a best picture pick–I think your disdain for the film is WAY over the top. The film was quite fine, and the acting very good. You obviously have no interest in seeing the movie ever again, but I bet if you did watch it, you would realize that your negative feelings have become distorted beyond all reason.

  7. Clay says:

    I think all of the things you write play a role in one way or another. I also think (and this is probably related to the critical reception theory) that when I first make a top ten list, I try to consider each film’s success in various criteria: acting, editing, cinematography, directing, etc.

    Years later, though, it’s far more likely that a film will stick with me because it made me laugh or cry than because it was technically perfect. Obviously the films that do both will remain at the top of the list, but the more emotionally satisfying film that has a few flaws will rise up in retrospect.

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