Having succumbed to this "silly editorial game" myself, on two occasions for Senses of Cinema(2), I am more than willing to eat crow. Looking at just about anyone's list of Top Ten Films - of the year, the decade, or even "of all time"(3) - inspires expressions of incredulity, like sez you, what was he smoking? or pull the other one. My own favorite is and then you wake up. Some of the lists include films that are so obscure it can only mean that the critic either has a very narrow range of films to choose from or that he is trying to foist his agenda on us. I will not argue that any agendum that is not an aesthetic one has no business in criticism, but I would insist that a critic state his agenda beforehand, assuming he is aware of them.
I have already made it clear in a prior post that I have a blind spot when it comes to American films. But because it is deliberate on my part, as a consequence of how long it took me to discover that a film could attain the stature of art (which blame I place squarely at the feet of Hollywood), it has not prevented me from considering American films individually, even while condemning them collectively. Citizen Kane was an historical event and not just a miraculous film achievement. It was also almost wholly unappreciated (even by the great Otis Ferguson) when it was released . It is utterly anomalous among Hollywood films of the period, and it took fifty years for an American film to even approach it in stature, despite a comparable amount of controversy.(4)
Most critics are little more than fans - incapable of distinguishing between what they like and what is good, which requires intellectual detachment. Geoffrey Nowell-Smith, author of a "definitive" study of Luchino Visconti (and who has the stomach to challenge him?), wrote recently in a letter to Sight & Sound: "Acts of judgement (in the sense of 'this is' not in that of 'this is better/worse than that') are intrinsic to the encounter with a work of art and equally intrinsically subjective. There is no court of appeal against them, except at the notoriously fickle bar of public opinion. No amount of ancillary fact (about budgets, or on set love affairs) or theorizing (about genre or gender or the Unconscious or whatever) can substitute for the encounter of subjectivities around a shared aesthetic object."
Even subjectivities can agree. And trusting in the power of one's aesthetic judgement is as important, if not more so, than trusting in one's subjective reactions. However much the former may be "learned" and the latter "instinctive", for a critic the one is useless without the other.
1. The latest Sight & Sound poll can be found here: http://www.bfi.org.uk/sightandsound/topten/
4. I mean Schindler's List, which several academics refused to take seriously because it was made by one of Hollywood's greatest showmen: Steven Spielberg. Dr. Strangelove, another film to rival Citizen Kane, is really a British film.