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The Sight and Sound Poll

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by Peter Bogdanovich
August 10, 2012 7:23 AM
41 Comments
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Every ten years, the much-respected British film magazine, Sight and Sound, polls critics, filmmakers, professors, etc., for their choice of the ten greatest films ever made. This year Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane, a long-time winner, was dislodged from first place by Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo; Kane came in second. The magazine asked me to contribute my choices for the poll, and I tried, but found the exercise impossible to complete. I submitted my reaction and the editor asked if I could elaborate on my point: that the whole thing was not a very good idea in the first place; I believe they’re running my piece in their poll issue. My comments for them follow this brief preamble.

Of course, I didn’t know at the time that Vertigo was going to win. Personally, it has never been my favorite Hitchcock, nor was it a popular success in its initial release. I think Jimmy Stewart’s performance is quite extraordinary, and his final moments are among the finest of movie acting, but I prefer other films by Hitch much more: Notorious, for instance, or Rear Window or North by Northwest are pictures I return to with much more enjoyment than Vertigo, which is profoundly depressing. Maybe that’s why it’s suddenly so popular among tastemakers: it fits our depressing times; happy endings are out, miserable conclusions are in. Citizen Kane is no more cheerful, certainly, though there are at least a few laughs in it, but perhaps things have to be bleak to get on the critical radar these days.  Which is not to say that I don’t like Vertigo, but only that there are many better pictures: at least five I can think of by Jean Renoir, for example, including The Rules of the Game (which came in fourth) and Grand Illusion. Anyhow, here’s what I wrote for Sight and Sound:

SIGHT AND SOUND TOP TEN PICTURES POLL 2012

After struggling with a ten best list for quite a while, I have decided that for me it is an impossible task. I could maybe---at gunpoint---narrow down a list of directors to ten absolute ultra-greats, but then to name each of their best works becomes daunting. Take Jean Renoir, for my money the best director of all time in the West: How to choose between Grand Illusion, The Rules of the Game, La Bete Humaine, or even French CanCan, The River, or Le Crime de M. Lange? I’d have to put at least three Renoir pictures on the ten best list, and then where are we?

Rules of the Game (1939)

Or take John Ford, arguably the best American director: Do we honor his Westerns, My Darling Clementine, The Searchers, Stagecoach, or his memorable family sagas, How Green Was My Valley, The Grapes of Wrath, or his most personal film, The Quiet Man, or his essential war drama, They Were Expendable?

This dilemma holds true for all the finest filmmakers: Howard Hawks (To Have and Have Not, Only Angels Have Wings, or Rio Bravo), Alfred Hitchcock (Notorious, Rear Window, or North by Northwest), Orson Welles (Chimes at Midnight, Citizen Kane, or Touch of Evil), Ernst Lubitsch (The Shop Around the Corner, Trouble in Paradise, or The Merry Widow), Buster Keaton (The Navigator, The General, or Steamboat Bill, Jr.).

And what about D. W. Griffith? Probably the most influential and indeed essential director of all time; how to choose between films like Orphans of the Storm, True Heart Susie, or Broken Blossoms, or even Isn’t Life Wonderful?

Or take the finest Eastern director, Kenji Mizoguchi: virtually all his pictures are masterworks, so how to pick between such extraordinary Japanese scrolls come to life as Ugetsu, or Sansho the Bailiff, or The Life of Oharu?

Grand Illusion (1937)

And what to do with individual classics that are certainly among the best of all time: pictures like King Vidor’s The Crowd or The Big Parade, or Otto Preminger’s Anatomy of A Murder?  Or Carol Reed’s The Third Man?  Or Vincente Minnelli’s Some Came Running? Or Rossellini’s Open City? Or Fellini’s I Vitelloni?  Or John Cassavetes’ A Woman Under the Influence, or Faces?

This still doesn’t really do more than scratch the surface of the classics. As usual, comedies get short shrift: Leo McCarey’s The Awful Truth, for instance, or Preston Sturges’ The Lady Eve, or The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek, or Mr. Hawks’ own His Girl Friday, or George Cukor’s Holiday? And we haven’t yet mentioned Charlie Chaplin.  And all the musicals?  Or Jo von Sternberg, either, or Erich von Stroheim or Frank Borzage or F.W. Murnau or Fritz Lang or Allan Dwan, or Raoul Walsh, for that matter, or Max Ophuls.  In fact, rarely remembered now is most of the amazing silent era (1895-1928), the basic foundation of the moving picture art of telling stories visually. As Chaplin put it at the coming of full sound (1929): “Just when we got it right, it was over.”

No, this is not possible. All these films and so many more should be seen by every civilized person on earth, and the whole rating idea is anti-artistic, anti-film culture, just absurdly reductive: There are so many wonderful pictures to see, that to reduce them down to a Top Ten is a disservice to all the great work that has been done with that haunting 20th century medium of humanity, born just at the end of the 19th century: a now nearly mythical visual history of more than an entire 100 years of life in the world.  The first century in history.  We currently have a lot to live up to; a lot more than ten.

                               
    
                                       
        
 

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41 Comments

  • Barry | September 7, 2013 7:41 PMReply

    Had Vertigo been made by Lew Landers with Chester Morris and Wendy Barrie, coming in at 72 minutes, then I would have had some respect for Sight and Sound. Instead, we have a picture that is a dry run for Last Year at Marienbad. Eeeech!

  • moving pictures | June 18, 2013 12:55 PMReply

    Hi, I wonder if anyone can clarify a quote for me. I will paraphrase what I remember...'.The idea with cinema is to tell a story with moving pictures...so why?...is everyone talking all the time?. ' As I recall the quote was attributed to Peter Bogdanovich. I often think of this quote and would like to post it for someone but the source is just as important.

  • sff | January 22, 2013 6:26 AMReply

    I saw most of these great movies because of this list. Without some kind of measure we'd basically be watching movies at random, which is fine if you live a couple hundred years but if you want to see great movies in a reasonable amount of time it helps to know what other people have found to be great movies

  • Alessandro | January 7, 2013 7:33 AMReply

    Dear Peter,
    you wrote this:
    Added 1965: (What a daring and uncompromising film this is: [..]. Certainly it is the most romantic and mystic story of love ever put on the screen, new levels of understanding opening on every viewing. [..] Among the great films of all time.)

  • Geir Olsen | January 10, 2013 2:50 AM

    So what if he wrote that? He has givien an excellent reason in the article above to explain why he still wouldn't feel comfortable calling it the BEST film of all time, or why he doesn't feel comfortable about ranking movies in such a manner, period.

  • Renee | October 1, 2012 4:58 PMReply

    Couldn't agree more, Mr. Bogdanovich, on so many points. How on earth could The Third Man NOT have been on the Sight & Sound list?? OF COURSE Notorious is a better movie than Vertigo (I am completely puzzled as to why it seems to receive short shrift in recent years)! The Awful Truth is the funniest movie ever, and yet no mention of that, OR The Lady Eve? As for Hawks' comedies, don't forget Ball of Fire. Sigh ...

  • Genee Alyse Coreno | September 28, 2012 12:45 AMReply

    Dear Peter,
    I had the opportunity to listen to you this evening at Purchase on the subject of Kane. I was even able to gush about how much I loved What's Up Doc? afterwards. I was so overwhelmed I wasn't able to say half of what I wanted to say. While watching Citizen Kane, I was able to find some theatrical directing techniques used in the film. Two being depth and use of triangles. But the story itself reflected Ibsens epic, Peer Gynt. Kanes flaw and Gynts seem to be of the same nature. Kanes relationship with his second wife reflects Gynts' relationship with Solve. Gynt begins as a boy rooted in a snowy, wooded country who has an unshakeable connection to his mother as does Kane. And I think most significant is the hollowness and insatiable nature of Gynt and Kanes ambition. These connections could be coincidental, but being that Welles had such a strong theatrical background it was hard for me to ignore.

  • PB | September 17, 2012 9:32 PMReply

    Well, David, I think you're the first to notice this numerological secret. Certainly, I've never heard of it before. But knowing Hitch's perversity, I can imagine a thing like that would have amused him no end: 13 being considered bad luck, and most people don't even know why. It's because the most ancient calendar had 13 months, and the last month was considered unlucky since it was known as the death of the year. Thanks for pointing this out!

  • David D. Oakey | September 7, 2012 10:15 AMReply

    Speaking of lists, does anyone out there know about the Hitchcock "13"? I first saw it in Psycho when Marian Crane's second car's license plate was clearly seen, with the digits 418 which I recognized added up to 13. And next time I saw the movie, I saw that the car dealer's street address was 4270. In the earliest film I noticed this in, Foreign Correspondent, the assassin's license plate was 1057. In North by Northwest, Eve Kendall's train car was 3901, her Chicago hotel room was 463, & after Roger's escape from the auction in the police car, the policeman radioed in Code 76. In Vertigo, Madeline's car odometer read 94 miles. In Family Plot, the pipe-smoking detective owed the gas station $2.47. Am I the last person to discover these, or the first?

  • Ghijath Naddaf | September 7, 2012 3:37 AMReply

    Lists can be great fun.If they are truly individual,and we have the chance to find some minor
    or obscure Films worth checking out.
    But there are only few such lists in the sight and sound Poll.
    It is mostly White Elephant name dropping.Hitchcock,Renoir,Ozu,Dryer etc. etc.
    A little more personal taste would be nice.

  • Thomas | September 12, 2012 10:08 AM

    I don't get this. Who says that these lists aren't personal? These films got to be part of the canon because a lot of people loved them. I doubt very many people included, say, "Man with a Movie Camera" because they felt obligated to - rather, most who included it probably included it because they love watching it and it had a big impact on them. I don't think people should be dishonest about their opinion simply because they could be accused of "White Elephant namedropping."

    My own personal list would likely include two or three of the films that made the S&S top ten, along with some slightly less universally beloved films like "The Son," "Begone Dull Care," and "The Umbrellas of Cherbourg."

    All actually represent the ten films that had the greatest impact on me.

  • Neve | September 6, 2012 1:42 PMReply

    "All these films and so many more should be seen by every civilized person on earth, and the whole rating idea is anti-artistic, anti-film culture, just absurdly reductive"

    Absolutely. "Top 100 movie" lists are for people who don't even get why it's pointless to try and compare Hitchcock to John Ford or Walsh to Lewin. So they're basically for people who don't get anything about movies at all.

  • Pedro Verdugo | September 4, 2012 9:16 PMReply

    I understand that these lists would not seem to make sense for some of you that have already seen a lot of the great movies of all eras, but most normal persons just watch new movies, and so these lists at least serve as a starting point for the ones that get really interested in great cinema, i mean that is at least how i started, first you like a modern movie, then you see it next to some older movies in a top list of some sort, and so you get interested in seeing those other movies too, or it is by certain director and continue from there, according if you liked it or not.

    I guess it would be better if the list just was without rankings, if most critics have already agreed that these are great movies then that would be the only thing that matter, not which one is better.

  • Patrick | August 29, 2012 7:17 AMReply

    I think it's possible to have a favorite film - we all have a film or two that's special to us because of the subject matter or the time and place we saw it, etc.

    However, picking our 10 favorite is a daunting and pointless task. When people visit The Lourve do they assemble their list of 10 favorite paintings?

  • Jesse L | August 21, 2012 10:34 PMReply

    I whole-heartedly agree with you Peter. The sad truth is: people like lists. Whenever anyone asks me what my favorite film is I say, just one? In which genre? It's impossible for anyone who has seen more than one film.

  • Peter | August 16, 2012 1:59 AMReply

    Was delighted to see Elaine May's wonderful "A New Leaf" get a mention in the poll. All her films are excellent.

  • Peter | August 16, 2012 1:52 AMReply

    At least Ermanno Olmi, one of the greatest directors ever, managed to garner a few votes in the poll. If I were making a top ten I would probably include a number of his films.
    Frank Capra, another great director, seems to have vanished. Give me Capra over Kane any day.
    The Last Picture Show is a beautiful film.

  • Patrick | August 13, 2012 7:29 AMReply

    The thing I dislike most about these silly lists are the attacks on these films which I revere as works of art. For the longest time it was fashionable to attack Kane because it being "the greatest film" didn't align with one's own view of what "greatest" meant. Now, Vertigo will be attacked from all angles.

    Instead of making lists and comparing films we should be watching them and enjoying them. This isn't politics! It's entertainment and we're still talking about these films because they still make us laugh, cry, stimulate thought and they're wildly entertaining.

  • PB | August 13, 2012 1:22 AMReply

    I seem to have hit a nerve. We haven't had as many comments since we wrote Welcome to
    Blogdanovich! All the remarks have been extremely bright and pithy, and I am thankful so
    many of you agree with me. There's still hope!

  • Ron Merk | August 13, 2012 12:31 AMReply

    Dear Peter,

    A very erudite British wit, whose name I sadly do not recall, once quipped, "America is the most rewarded nation on earth, probably because they don't have royalty of their own." I thought of this as I read "the list" and of course, your very pertinent, and yes occasionally, unrelenting undercurrent of impertinence toward the idea of a "10 best" list.

    This western need to categorize everything, put it in a little box with a nice bow, has gotten so out of control. We have a film festival (or two) every day of the year, awards programs for practically anything one can think of, people make lists of everything imaginable with a special emphasis on Best of this or that.

    While film critics were the ones who were polled, it will be the films, themselves, that will be remembered, and not the mutterings or declarations of a bunch of people who spend their lives in darkened rooms. Many have forgotten how to be enlightened by the brilliance of the great works of cinema. Instead the catalog them. It's like living in an apartment on Central Park in New York, and never looking out the window on that marvel of Nature which the city, in its wisdom, set aside for this very purpose.

    To make a list of the ten best films of all time, or the 100, or the thousand, is foolish at best, cruel (to the filmmakers or their memory), and serves no useful purpose that I am aware of after 45 years in the film industry. As for Vertigo beating out Citizen Kane for the number one spot, I think we have to look not at the list of films, but at the list of critics. Gone are the likes of Judith Crist, Paeline Kael and Andrew Sarris, who might have "skewed" the voting in a different direction. But at least we still have you, Peter, always willing to say what you think, and no shy away from disagreeing the consensus "lists" like the Sight and Sound list.

    By the way, I recall when I first bought a subscription to Sight and Sound, when attending the New York Film Festival at Lincoln Center in 1965, it was a thicker tome, with lots of intriguing articles and information for a young filmmaker at NYU. I remember talking about an article in it with Martin Scorcese who was in a class with me as the teaching assistant, and said, "now this is quite a film magazine." It was at Marty's suggestion that I first subscribed. But as the years when on, Sight and Sound lost its bulk and its gravitas, too. It's a thin, sparse version of what it used to be. So, as you look at this list again, consider the source.

    The whole idea of cinema is to open our eyes to things we cannot see, or have never seen, and thus to open our minds to all the possibilities of life. You, Peter, clearly understand that. But Sight and Sound, for all their fury with lists, clearly has its eyes and ears closed. As for Vertigo being the number one pick, all I can say to the film critics who submitted their choices, is a very American expression, "huh?"

    Keep up the good work, and keep the arc light burning.

    Regards,
    Ron Merk

  • Christopher | August 12, 2012 11:03 PMReply

    As much as I love Vertigo,it is a bit of a personal film and an acquired taste and if Polls are to lead newcomers into deciding which films to see,I would happily suggest Rear Window or North By Northwest or even Strangers On A Train...still the dilemma remains.."but which one of those do I choose?"

  • Richard | August 12, 2012 9:08 AMReply

    Hi Peter, Whilst I am generally cynical of reductive Top Ten popularity polls and also broader canons such as 'The 1001 films you must see' I do give the benefit of the doubt and check the publication to see if there is a positive side. There is. Sight & Sound publish all lists online and this allows a film fan to see a huge international range of recommended titles. I would advise any Sight & Sound reader to take the resutls of any poll with a pinch of salt and rather look into the huge variety of titles they are unaware of. A splendid thing. My advice to the contributor such as yourself is to subvert the poll a little and put in some ringers you would want people like me to see which are not otherwise mentioned. In my list I might put Paper Moon or Last Picture Show.

  • Tony Caruana | August 12, 2012 5:32 AMReply

    I agree with you, totally. Your article summed up my feelings on the matter. All I can ever come up with is a favourite list, which depends on the director or actor, which is endless.

  • Karen Reilly | August 11, 2012 6:00 PMReply

    I don't understand why "Vertigo" took 1st place. I REALLY adore the film but you have to leave your brains at the door to think a little hair dye and redrawn eyebrows could turn a woman into another person... one who her lover doesn't recognize. I'm perfectly willing to leave my brains at the door, but when I come out again I want someone to tell me that the best movie is "The Third Man"

  • insert name here | August 11, 2012 12:43 PMReply

    Beautiful. The fact is our entire critical discourse is being overrun with these numerous arbitrary lists. Cinephilia ought to be a pursuit of passion, instead with this endless focus on "queues" and lists, it seems to be treated more and more like grocery shopping.

  • @m_pattison | August 11, 2012 10:42 AMReply

    You're right, I think, in your observation regarding "tastemakers" looking to the straightfaced over the animated (my preferred terms over "miserable" and "fun"). I think there's a cultural hierarchy at work in the poll in general:
    http://idfilm.blogspot.co.uk/2012/08/the-greatest-films-of-all-time-branding.html

  • Ghijath Naddaf | August 11, 2012 4:44 AMReply

    @Mark Rabinowitz
    I am with you.
    Mr.Bogdanovich´s Masterpiece belongs absolutly in the Top 50.
    In General,the seventies are not represented to well.
    I would,for instance,rate Mr.Scorsese´s Mean Streets even a little higher than Taxi Driver.
    But it´s also not in.
    At least Mr.Coppolas three greatest Masterpieces are included.
    That´s a Start.

  • Blake Lucas | August 11, 2012 3:06 AMReply

    I mostly agree with you. Well, not about VERTIGO, which is my own favorite Hitchcock film
    and I find it moving and beautiful--and with a touch of real tragedy--rather than depressing, while I prefer at least three Welles movies to CITIZEN KANE. But still, after seeing this poll every decade since 1972 it's become just a boring consensus list that I believe doesn't tap that deeply into most people's real and most profound experience of cinema--rather it seems like a search for a canon, which always seems to exclude so much more than it includes. I believe though that when we see all the lists of the individual contributors we will see some more interesting choices so that will at least be more fun to read. Just how little affected I now find myself by the choices at the top is reflected by having virtually no reaction to VERTIGO taking over, even though I do much prefer it. It occurred to me that if lists like this have to have something at the top, CITIZEN KANE was always a pretty good, list-friendly choice--it's very cinematically inventive, very entertaining, has good characters played by all those great Mercury theatre actors Welles brought with him, kind of an intriguing construction, a lot going for it. And something else, it reminds us that cinema does not need to be "pure," that it easily and richly absorbed so many things from the other arts, in this case I believe radio, which Welles had already mastered--close your eyes and listen to the soundtrack and it sounds like radio of the day even the whole movie is also strikingly visualized. Really, these are the same movies now as they were before this list came out, no matter where they came in before. Just want to add thanks for mentioning SOME CAME RUNNING, one of the movies that means the most to me (can't imagine it got too many votes in this poll), and also hope you won't mind my correcting the title of that beautiful Griffith movie ISN'T LIFE WONDERFUL?

  • serpico | August 10, 2012 9:05 PMReply

    I would also like to comment on this quote, "...Vertigo, which is profoundly depressing. Maybe that’s why it’s suddenly so popular among tastemakers: it fits our depressing times; happy endings are out, miserable conclusions are in. "

    I feel he's right. Indiewire posted a bad review of Jeff Nichols' new film "Mud", and called it "sentimental" and disapproved of a fairy tale/happy ending. I have yet to see "Mud", but I voiced my displeasure over the criticisms. And some poster responded, "Go watch the Hallmark Channel". Umm, what?

  • Esoth | August 10, 2012 4:27 PMReply

    I'm not offended by such lists and can even find a way in which they are interesting to participate in, if I reboot my mind and recall the great films I've seen, and the one's which still move me. I find it's not a static list even when the films on it are unchanging, as there aren't always new entries. Some film I'd previously glossed over reaches me in a new way, and one that had always been a part of it, though it hadn't yet come to life for me. A list like this measures things other than the quantitative quality of its items.

    But the bragging rights are meaningless, aren't they? It's still subjective and susceptible to selection bias. Perennials either gain status by virtue of longevity or else suffer because people get tired of reading about them, (much more rarely do people tire of seeing them).

  • richard | August 12, 2012 9:11 AM

    Agree.

  • Matt | August 10, 2012 4:03 PMReply

    Doesn't this go without saying? I can't think of a single colleague who would argue that Renoir made a whole stack of magnificent movies.

    We only play this game once every ten years. The rest of the time we try to figure out how the game works. The only thing sillier than not playing is pretending that the game can't be played.

  • Mark Rabinowitz | August 10, 2012 3:51 PMReply

    Because it would have been unseemly for you to write it, I would like to add:

    "....or Peter Bogdanovich's The Last Picture Show."

  • Kris | August 10, 2012 3:27 PMReply

    I can't agree more with you Mr. Bogdanovich!

  • David Kilmer | August 10, 2012 2:05 PMReply

    "...Vertigo, which is profoundly depressing. Maybe that’s why it’s suddenly so popular among tastemakers: it fits our depressing times; happy endings are out, miserable conclusions are in. "

    Did the man who made Last Picture Show write this?

    Also, Vertigo does, of course, have (intentionally) humorous bits (Hitch's cameo; bits of scenes with Barbara Bel Geddes.)

  • Ghijath Naddaf | August 10, 2012 2:04 PMReply

    It seems,like there is not much love for Hawks anymore.
    At least not in the Sight and Sound Poll.
    The 70th Hotshot,turned safer Cinema Preacher Paul Schrader,doesent even include him in his
    Film Comment Canon a view Years ago.
    If i remember right,his argument was,that Hawks was not versatile enough.
    Hawks not versatile ?
    The Man made Classics in every Genre,and while John Ford is for sure the greatest american Director,Hawks also belongs in every Canon.

  • BB | August 10, 2012 1:13 PMReply

    Right on Mr. B. "Absurdly reductive" indeed. The goal should always be: open more viewers to more films. The whole idea of creating a top ten list that just shifts around the same 50 odd films serves no purpose, despite the intended internet-friendly popularity contest.

  • richard | August 12, 2012 9:17 AM

    I agree this does happen somewhat. However if you ignore the Top 50 and instead check the full list of poll entries (online after 22/8) you'll find a broader list of films - many of which you will not have seen and perhaps may not have heard of.

  • Kim | August 10, 2012 11:13 AMReply

    I find the sight and sound poll invaluable as a newer film fan. At the very most it is an introductory to new great films, no it is certainly not a list of all great films but it's a nice start. And I hope if some people watch films on that list for the first time and enjoy them they will seek out other films by the same directors.

    Still I can understand what you are saying asking everyone for only 10 choices is way too limiting with the number of amazing films out there. I know I haven't seen as many people as some people but only 10 choices would still be impossible for me.

  • Pedro Verdugo | September 4, 2012 9:20 PM

    Totally agree, i think it would be better if they just release a list of great movies in no particular order, that way the only arguing we would have is "Why isn't this movie or why isn't that?" instead of "This is not better than that"

  • Manuel Benito de Valle | August 10, 2012 10:02 AMReply

    AMEN!
    Mr. Bogdanovich:
    I just hope History will do you justice and not only for the love and wisdom you have given away to the world in your books, documentaries and posts... But for some of the best movies ever done that should be ranked one day as masterpieces. And you might not agree with me but Nickelodeon is one of them -and personally is the reason that made me struggle to become a movie director-.
    Thanks from the bottom of my heart.
    Manuel Benito de Valle

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