Every ten years since 1952, the British film magazine Sight and Sound has polled critics and historians on the best films of all time. I’m pretty sure this used to be of limited interest to anyone other than Sight and Sound readers (a small group, needless to say), but given changing times, the Internet was all over this year’s iteration (the results of which, for instance, were live-tweeted). Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane had been in first place since 1962, but I think most people expected a change, and so it came to pass: the quasi-official best film of all time is now Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (which was second last time). Here’s the entire top ten: Vertigo, Citizen Kane, Tokyo Story (Ozu), La Regle du jeu (Renoir), Sunrise (Murnau), 2001: a Space Odyssey (Kubrick), The Searchers (Ford), Man with a Movie Camera (Vertov), The Passion of Joan of Arc (Dreyer), 8 ½ (Fellini).
No Play Time
Naturally, there were as many reactions to this as there were people reacting. My own reaction was that apart from some internal shuffling, the list was surprisingly similar to last time: seven of the ten were unchanged and two of the new entries had been on the top ten in past decades, the only “new” entry is Man with a Movie Camera, made in 1928! Having said that, I couldn’t have thought of too many other films that seemed likely to make it up there. If I’d had to make a guess, I might have put some money on Jacques Tati’s 1967 film Play Time, but that was at number 42, so I was way off.
And yet, maybe not so far off. Play Time received 31 votes, which sounds meagre when you know that 846 people voted (each submitting a list of ten). But the tenth film, 8 ½, only received 64 votes, and Vertigo took the crown with 191 votes, representing just 22% of the participants. So there’s really little consensus here on anything, beyond the enormous depth and richness of cinema history – over 2,000 films received at least one vote.
Of course, I’m far too minor a figure to have participated, but I played with this subject in an article a couple of years ago. Although I’m sure the list I came up with would change every time I thought of it (I’m not sure how I left Rivette and Bresson off there, other than just the hellish constraint of keeping it at ten), this is still a pretty good snapshot of my view of things: F For Fake (Welles, 1973), The King of Comedy (Scorsese, 1982), Late Spring (Ozu, 1949), Love Streams (Cassavetes, 1984), My Night At Maud’s (Rohmer, 1969), My Sex Life…or How I Got Into an Argument (Desplechin, 1996 – this is my sole pick that really goes out on a big limb), The Passenger (Antonioni, 1975), Play Time, That Obscure Object of Desire (Bunuel, 1977), The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (Demy, 1964). Of those, Late Spring was number 15 in the new poll, and Play Time as I mentioned was at 42; the others just got a handful of votes, if any. But lots of voters were far more iconoclastic than I would have been. After all, my list illustrates one of the insurmountable problems – I probably wouldn’t have voted for Citizen Kane, but only because of another Welles film I like even more. From a tactical point of view, list-wise, it’s way better for a director to have one preeminent achievement than to divide admirers between too many masterpieces.
Vertigo versus Kane
So it basically seems hopeless to me to probe the list for any broad meaning. Still, as I mentioned, all kinds of people had a good time with it. For example, Aisha Harris in Slate advanced three theories: that “Vertigo can be seen as more closely aligned with today’s cultural climate than Citizen Kane’s largely male-centric realm,” that “any overwhelmingly lauded figure or work of art is going to eventually face backlash,” and that “while Welles’ classic is technically innovative, it rings hollow emotionally.” But this all implies a much more conscious and unified judging process than actually existed, as if Vertigo and Kane were facing off before the Supreme Court. Actually, given the expanded voting pool, Kane received more votes than last time, regardless that Vertigo received even more more votes. Elsewhere on the Slate website, Alyssa Rosenberg noted the absence of female directors and opined: “women directors are working in genres that are simply never given the same critical respect as male-dominated genres…Nora Ephron's best movies may live in the hearts of audiences forever, but I'd be surprised to see the Sight & Sound critics give her space on their ballots.” Well, there are plenty of reasons why Sleepless in Seattle didn’t make the list, but gender-driven snobbery isn’t one of them: Avatar, The Dark Knight Returns and Porky’s didn’t make it either.
Which makes the point that although voters were allowed to apply any criteria they wanted, the group wouldn’t have put much emphasis on popular acceptance. I find everything in the top ten completely entertaining, in the sense that watching them is a completely enveloping and satisfying experience, but I’m not sure that was true for all of them on first viewing. As reactions to The Artist illustrated, silent cinema – which encompasses Sunrise, Man with a Movie Camera, and Passion of Joan of Arc - is unknown territory for many. Ozu is one of my favourite directors, but it takes time to ease into his worldview. Even Vertigo used to be widely regarded as one of Hitchcock’s lesser films (judged purely as a narrative machine, it might seem to dawdle) and I can imagine many viewers being rather mystified by it. But if you have any inclination to acclimatize yourself to cinema as art, and time to seek out writers and commentators who can facilitate your reactions, these ten films form a terrific place to start.
In one sense at least, we’re living in wonderful times: when I first became aware of this exercise around 1982, the listed films were just names – unless they happened to turn up on TV (and most of them wouldn’t), you could only dream of them. But this time, I already had eight of the ten on DVD, and I’d watched a ninth just a few months earlier on cable; this prompted me to order the odd one out (Man with a Movie Camera – and even then, it’s not so long since I saw it); I owned thirty-five of the top fifty, and I don’t believe any of the fifty is unavailable. Really, for people who love cinema, this poll might provide enough new ideas and intentions and desires to rewrite their schedule for the rest of the year.