What Makes a Good "Top 100" List

by phil on Friday Dec 4, 2009 11:04 AM

It's coming near the end of the year which means that writers will dust off their "best of" lists that they've been accumulating for the year, and submit it to their editors just before they leave for vacation.

I will use this as an opportunity to analyze the art form by comparing these two lists:


Decades ago, it was fashionable to take a list of the Top 100 Great Novels and try to read all of them before you die. Some companies even sold the entire set as a single package, much like Encyclopedias were sold. Since the vast majority of those attempting to finish the books don't even come close, the bookset has served more as a monument to our aspirations than to our achievements.

I believe that the modern corollary has become to queue up the entire AFI 100 Years, 100 Movies collection or the Top 100 Movies category on Netflix.

While this may be actually more achievable than the Novels project, I want to take this opportunity to suggest an even better list: The National Film Registry.

Just look at the criteria:

The National Film Registry preserves up to 25 "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant films" each year, showcasing the range and diversity of American film heritage to increase awareness for its preservation. To be eligible for inclusion, a film must be at least ten years old.
Compare this with the AFI criteria:
The 100 best American movies, as determined by the American Film Institute from a poll of more than 1,500 artists and leaders in the film industry who chose from a list of 400 nominated movies.
I have a lot of problems with the AFI list. For one, the list changes. Which begs the question, why would a movie that was good last year lose it's "goodness" a year later? To counteract this, the curators of the NFR only pick films at least 10 years old. The AFI list has three movies that were within 10 years of the list's publication:
  • Saving Private Ryan
  • Titanic
  • The Sixth Sense
The NFR may include all, some, or none of them. Saving Private Ryan may be included because of its contribution to the war film genre, which gave rise to Band of Brothers, but it will depend on how much of a contribution that was. Titanic may be included because of its peak blockbuster status, but is it as meaningful as the other peak blockbusters, like Wizard of Oz or Gone With the Wind? And I think The Sixth Sense is likely to not be included just because.

The big picture is that the whole premise of creating a "best of" list is inherently flawed. There is no such thing as "goodness" by which you can measure movies. Instead, listmakers should try to do what the NFR does, which measures meaningfulness, relevance, and notability.

There is so much more that can be done with a Top 100 list to make it extraordinary. For example, see if you can avoid the temptation to rank the items. In the case of a list of the 100 best songs, don't order them from best to worst. Because if I download and listen to the entire list, why would I want my listening experience to start great and then get progressively worse? Instead, organize the list so that it flows well from one song to the other.

If you're going to rank them, make them based on something meaningful or don't rank at all.

Creative Commons License