The Only Winning Move Is Not to Play

The end of the year brings with it lists and rankings for movies, books, albums, and more. Critics and outlets list their picks for best/worst of the year, critical organizations start announcing their annual awards, and people start to handicap Oscar races. Such pieces are usually pretty popular with readers, and there are cottage industries that do nothing but spend 12 months a year guessing at potential Academy Award winners.

I thought about this a lot while I watched Wreck-It Ralph the other day. I really enjoyed it. It’s a fast, fun movie with a great voice cast, and the creative team’s credits include “The Simpsons” and “Futurama.” But I also enjoyed ParaNorman, a grim, bittersweet story done in stop-motion. At the broadest level, the movies deal with the same themes of acceptance and growth that define all great kids’ movies, but they’re totally different when it comes to goals and execution. I don’t want to be forced to pick one of them over the other for best animated feature of 2012. I liked them both a great deal, and I think they’re both good movies.

Choosing one as a winner, though, means declaring that one is somehow better, or that it’s more deserving of praise. The problem with this is that it ignores the fact that almost every movie is a mix of good and bad, hit and miss. Despite what Rotten Tomatoes would have you think, no movie is ever 100% anything. There are ways that ParaNorman is better than Wreck-It Ralph, and vice versa. The point here isn’t to get into them, or to weigh them against each other, but recognize that choosing one to be the winner in an arbitrary contest does them both harm. The victor gets hyped, the loser gets ignored, and two good movies become answers to trivia questions.

What gets missed in all this is nuance. I absolutely believe in a difference between good art and bad art, but I think it’s impossible to assemble that good art into ordered ranks of greatness. Good and bad movies exist along a continuum, and once you get into the cluster of good movies, it’s fruitless to try and pick one that’s “better” than any others. On another front, I thought Zero Dark Thirty and The Master were two of the best American movies of the year (and both, in their own ways, so quintessentially focused on the question of what it means to even be an American). I think they’re both better than some other movies that came out in 2012, but I don’t want to choose between them to say one is “better.” They’re both great.

I don’t see an end to the problem, though. It’s not like all critics love lists or awards, either. Rankings and awards are editorial concerns, created to fill an expectant void with readers and commenters. Awards are how a lot of people get a handle on the year and put it in perspective. They wrap up the year, organize its releases, and move on. The problem, though, is that after a while you start to view movies solely as entrants in an endless contest, and not as stories or works of art in their own right. I don’t want to forget why I’m doing this in the first place.