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I don't really understand the persistence of the end-of-the-year tradition of Top 10 lists. I find them worthless, for the most part, especially these days, when they seem like just another extension of the ga-ga celebrity culture, and not even a half-hearted attempt at separating the wheat from the chafe.
Of course, I do understand why these lists of the best and the worst cultural events of any particular year continue to fill our newspapers, magazines and broadcasts of all kinds. They are tremendously popular with readers. I would bet, in fact, that they're most popular with people who don't even go out and see that much true culture -- popular or otherwise -- in any given year. But these compilations give them instant info to pull out at cocktail parties, and thus permit them to seem very much in the know.
I don't remember New York magazine ever running such lists before; but over the past year, the magazine's revamped its roster of critics, so perhaps the new blood on the masthead insisted on dedicating the Dec. 18 issue to "All the very BEST and a little of the WORST of 2006," as the cover headline announced, with that exact punctuation.
The anonymously penned introduction set the tone: "This year, when YouTube could broadcast the culture's every laudable, laughable move, we were delighted to see the brilliant (Helen Mirren, Spike Lee, the cancellation of O.J.) make such a valiant stand against the despicable ('I mean, what if they had done it?'). And it's in that celebratory spirit that we present the top 10 things we loved -- or were deeply in favor of -- in movies and art, pop and classical, books and theater.
"These lists, which go from the great (No. 10) to the greatest (No. 1), are as eclectic as they are impassioned. We found ourselves enthralled by Ryan Gosling and Maggie Gyllenhaal and Beyoncé (her record anyway), as well as by Sir Norman Foster, the 'sound of swoosh,' and a book on mathematics and destiny. ... And because the good rarely comes without the bad, we paid unloving tribute to a number of bona fide stinkers. As for our own choices? Get ready to pounce."
Pounce I did, since the actual lists exhibited everything I dislike about such rankings. When it came to movies and books, especially, the choices were all predictable -- the works that were most visible everywhere in the media and that had garnered the most praise from everyone else. Not one independent thought went into any of these choices, except that in both cases, there was one quirky unexpected item (that math book, for one).
In the theater listing, there was the predictable run of titles, but with bizarre little twists thrown in that would mean nothing to anyone who lives several feet outside of Manhattan. Who cares about Bill T. Jones's choreography in the musical "Spring Awakening"? And what in God's name is the nightmare scene in Will Power's "The Seven"?
I guess we're just not cool and downtown enough to know.