Let's take a look at several top ten lists.
Time magazine 1
Time magazine 2
Entertainment Weekly 1 and 2
I am not going to agree/disagree with these lists (how boring!), but I want to see if we can find some idea of the cultural logic that generates them.
Here's a summary:
Movies that were voted #1:
No Country for Old Men (4)
I'm not There (1)
Michael Clayton (1)
There Will be Blood (2)
The most common (composite) list would be, in no order:
No Country for Old Men, There Will be Blood, I'm not There, No End in Sight, Once, Zodiac, Sweeney Todd, Michael Clayton, Atonement, and Persepolis. (Possibly The Lives of Others and the Assassination of Jesse James would be in the last spot.)
The most interesting aspect is (you'll notice there is more than one list for each publication) how the lists from one publication mirror each other fairly closely. Time Magazine liked In The Valley of Elah, a film which appeared on none of the other lists; there is a near-consensus at the Onion on the top two spots.
But there is remarkably little agreement past No Country for Old Men and There Will be Blood: films I've never heard of, films I saw that were mediocre, films I saw that were horrible, films you couldn't have paid me to see, that strange breed of film that is only made to win Oscars, etc.
Here's what we'll want to think about:
* The difference between the critics' lists and the Oscar/Golden Globe lists.
* The kind of movie that only exists in the universe of these top ten lists.
* Why there are hardly any comedies on these lists.
Here are a few examples of films that seemingly exist only to compete for Oscars: The Aviator, Master and Commander, The Hours, For a Few Good Men, American Beauty, Apollo 13. (Possibly the best example in recent memory, though, is The Good Shepherd.) It seems incomprehensible that these films were extraordinary or watchable in any year. Let's be serious for a moment. I've seen all those movies. They are all garbage. And yet there appears to be something mystical about a certain class of movie--respectability, seriousness, the holy grail of "character development".
Let Michael Clayton stand in for this entire class. If you prefer, I think you could use Atonement (haven't seen it yet). In my mind, these films exist only to indicate whether people have any taste or not. Michael Clayton was an unenjoyable would-be "guilty pleasure" for me, and yet a "real" movie to critics. A quick look at Roger Ebert's list (which has Juno at number 1!!!!) finds a whole slew of these movies: The Great Debaters, Into the Wild, and The Kite Runner. Without having seen these movies, let me say: I HAVE SEEN THESE MOVIES.
But of an entirely different class are the strange movies that creep into top ten lists (Ebert's list being the exception): The Assassination of Jesse James got nearly universal "meh" reviews when it came out, and yet has pulled ahead (on reconsideration, I suppose) of many better-reviewed films; Superbad, Knocked Up, and Grindhouse all made it onto a list or two; Black Book (Paul Verhoeven, director of Showgirls) made it onto three lists!!
Here's the best I can do: when we are listing our favorites, we include some weird things we don't expect anyone else would like, and yet our collective imagination of what everyone will agree is the best is wildly boring and crappy. Perhaps a critic really enjoyed Black Book or Juno, but when we make the awards lists, Atonement seems like a better "use" of one's voice. Why throw away your vote?