Sydney Lumet, the luminous director of "Network", "Dog Day Afternoon", "The Verdict" and many more great works, said that a good film story does two things that seem contradictory: it consistently surprises and yet it feels inevitable. Look at the two lead characters in "Dog Day". Turns out they are less than competent at robbing banks, to be kind, that the lead robber played by Pacino is robbing the bank in order to get a sex-change operation financed, and when asked which country he'd like to fly to in making their escape, the number two man Sal, played by John Cazale, replies "Wyoming." If you hadn't seen the film, you'd swear it was a comedy. Far from it. The film is funny, but the lasting feeling is powerfully poignant, Lumet's sage advice would be my foundational criteria for any meaningful top ten film list for this or any year.I'd also take into account any stand-out work; a performance, a director, even cinematography or a score that stood out indelibly and demanded to be seen. The performance by Marianne Cotillard as Edith Piaf in "La Vie en Rose" was so powerful and true that even if the film hadn't been as well directed as it was I'd probably have included it.
Then I'd take a look at the critics I admire, who have a body of serious critical work because they're smart and they love movies, and regard how they saw the top ten film list for the year. There are old school guys like Richard Schickel, Pauline Kael, Vincent Canby and so forth. Times have changed, but there's still some very perceptive list makers who are both educated and consistently on the mark.Lastly, I'd consider something that will no doubt be felt as a hoi polloi stench to the effete: I'd consider the box office. It's last on my list for a reason, but if a film grosses a billion dollars world wide - before DVD sales - attention should be paid as to why. "Titanic" is a good example. The film is an astonishing technical and special effects zeitgeist of a tragic event and the essential story is wonderful. However, as a screenwriter, James Cameron's ego is writing checks his talent can't cash.
The film has more than a few moments of such cringing, cliché-riddled dialogue that I almost wished I'd bought a giant soda to hurl at the screen and was bad enough for me to bounce it automatically out of any top ten list. However, we're talking a rare kind of box office mojo. The film made nearly $2-billion at the box-office - as in going to a real movie theatre - worldwide and that is a lot of people saying they disagree. It struck a nerve. So, script takes a backseat to story and may I have the envelope, please, whether you like it or not.
A final words about top ten film lists in general. There may be bad ways to do it, but there's no best way. The public has its own way of deciding what's best, and a lot of the time, they're right.
Good question. Thank you.