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Not Simply the Best: Previewing the Sight and Sound Greatest Films Poll, Part I

Features
by Kevin B. Lee, David Jenkins, Vadim Rizov, Bill Georgaris
April 18, 2012 1:25 PM
5 Comments
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EDITOR'S NOTE: This summer Sight and Sound, the magazine of the British Film Institute, will issue the seventh edition of their international poll of critics and directors on the greatest films of all time. While there have been plenty of lists and polls of this kind conducted over the years by innumerable publications, websites and other outlets, the Sight and Sound poll occupies a special place among them. It polls a select number of participants that rank among the most respected authorities on film (the 2002 edition polled 145 critics and 108 directors). To my knowledge it is the longest-running poll of its kind, having first been conducted in 1952, and conducted only once every ten years.

To discuss the poll, its history and relevance to film culture, and possibly indulge in a bit of prognosticating, I’ve organized an online discussion with David Jenkins, UK-based film critic for the website Little White Lies, Vadim Rizov, US-based film critic for Sight and Sound and other publications, and Bill Georgaris, Australian-based creator of the website They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They and keeper of the massive list of 1000 greatest films, compiled from over 2100 such lists, including each edition of the Sight and Sound poll. (His list was what inspired me to start my own blog Shooting Down Pictures, in which I watched and researched all 1000 films on the list, a project that did as much towards expanding my film knowledge as anything I’ve done.) This is the first in a series of posts on the poll, and examines the poll's significance; part two looks more closely at how critics create their top ten lists. - KBL

Read Part Two: A Top Ten Dilemma

Read Part Three: Predictions You Can't Refuse

KEVIN B. LEE: Speaking personally, the Sight and Sound poll played a seminal role in my movie love. I first learned of it in the 1980s as a teenager when Roger Ebert shared his top ten list for the 1982 edition of the poll in his Movie Home Companion, composing one eloquent paragraph for each film. To read a critic at the top of his craft write about the films he loved the most really imprinted a deep regard for film and film writing in me. Films both from the ’82 poll results (Citizen Kane, Seven Samurai, Vertigo) and Ebert’s list (Taxi Driver, The Third Man) occupied my personal top ten for years to follow. Ebert's respect for the poll hasn't abated: just the other week he blogged about it as "The best damn film list of them all" and surmised which titles will make his ballot for this year's edition.

Another critic I admire, Jonathan Rosenbaum gives his personal account of the list’s influence in Essential Cinema: on the Necessity of Film Canons. Rosenbaum recalls how, as a college freshman, he encountered the 1962 edition of the list in Sight and Sound Magazine on the heels of writing a paper for his NYU film class arguing for the greatness of Citizen Kane, a film his professor dismissed as “uncinematic” (according to Rosenbaum, this was a prevailing assessment of Welles’ film at the time). For Rosenbaum, the S&S list affirmed his own values in regard to Citizen Kane, and pointed towards discoveries beyond what the ideological confines of his film class could offer:

Citizen Kane, I was happy to discover, placed first, and I was astonished to discover in second place L’avventura – a film by Michelangelo Antonioni that preceded La notte and that I had only just discovered and was still trying to process… I vowed to see as many films on the list as I could, and for the next several years proceeded like a butterfly collector, dutifully underlining each title in that issue of Sight and Sound as soon as I’d seen the film… Some critical favorites on the list proved to be disappointments, others were greater than I had even hoped for, but in both cases these responses represented not so much end points as the beginnings of evaluations and reevaluations that would continue over decades and that are still taking place.”

These examples should suffice in accounting for the impact the Sight and Sound list can potentially have on a young person interested in cinema. Rosenbaum links the list’s relevance to an underlying need for a canon that people can explore to develop their appreciation of film. The necessity of a film canon (as well as the complications and considerations that arise from this assertion) is something I’ve discussed with him following the release of Essential Cinema in 2004 and that he goes to some length in examining in the book. One point worth noting from our exchange is his expressed disappointment with the most recent edition of the list from 2002:

“Sight and Sound knew how to get a representative sample of international critical thought in the 50s, 60s, and 70s; more recently, I think the same magazine has shown a less certain grasp of what’s going on in criticism.”

The statement hints at the politics of canon formation: how the quality of the list of films depends on those involved in selecting them. When he wrote this back in 2004, I wasn’t as aware as I am now of the vast totality of contemporary film criticism as it exists around the globe. I still can’t confidently declare my familiarity with it all; who really can? There's been such an explosion of worthwhile criticism over the past decade thanks to the internet and blog culture. If it was challenging enough for Sight and Sound to assemble an authoritative critical mass for their poll back in 2002, one can only imagine the Quixotic dimensions of such an endeavor now. The internet, web 2.0 and social media have marked a radically new era in film culture, specifically in the proliferation and dissemination of reviews, opinions and theories on cinema. It will be fascinating to see how all of this will register shifts in the new poll (both in its participants and results), or to what extent it will echo the status quo and stagnation characterized by the 2002 poll results.

Oh Welles: "Citizen Kane" has lorded over the S&S Poll for 50 years.

Indeed, the 2002 results were a letdown, at least for me. I had seen nearly every film in the top 100, so it had little in the way of discoveries or surprises, other than how unsurprising it was. For that reason my relationship to the list changed; I no longer took the perspective of list consumer but that of a curator, looking for ways to make the list more meaningful.

My chief complaint is its overwhelming orientation towards films from the US and Europe and lack of recognition of films from the remaining 80% of the world. If this list was meant to be a canonical introduction to cinema, its cultural disposition was alarming to say the least. Given the thriving international festival and archival culture that’s emerged in the last 20 years, it’s not like there’s a lack of worthy films from Latin America, Africa and Asia to consider; more likely there’s a lack of awareness of them. This was when I began to realize the self-perpetuating mythical importance of lists like these: they entrench certain films, and all the aesthetic and cultural baggage that come with them, at the expense of granting access to new films with new values and perspectives. I think a shakeup is in order.

Scholar Kristin Thompson says as much in a recent blog post where she diagnosed the problem with the Sight and Sound list and canonical cinema in general: “With so many smaller countries starting to make movies and so many festivals making them widely available, it becomes impossible to anoint new classics in the way critics used to.” One possible solution might be to expand the top ten list to a top twenty, allowing for critics to account for more diversity in their selections. But who’s to say to what extent that would alter the consensus choices at the top.

Thompson offers an intriguing alternative to the Sight and Sound poll as it is currently conducted:

“I think this business of polls and lists for the greatest films of all times would be much more interesting if each film could only appear once. Having gained the honor of being on the list, each title could be retired, and a whole new set concocted ten years later. The point of such lists, if there is one, is presumably to introduce people who are interested in good films to new ones they may not have seen or even known about.”

Out of curiosity, I decided to simulate Thompson’s proposal by running through all the previous Sight and Sound film polls and “retiring” any film that had already placed in the previous edition, thus ensuring a fresh set of films each time. The results are below, and can be compared with the actual historical results as found on Thompson’s blog and on Wikipedia. (Many thanks to Bill Georgaris for supplying the data.)

As obsessed as I’ve been with lists for most of my life, the Shooting Down Pictures project convinced me that the world of great cinema is far too vast and multifaceted for a single list to do it justice. (These days I’m less interested in a list of great films than a list of ways to watch and think about films.) But young prospective filmmakers and cinephiles will continue to embrace these lists as a guide to their viewing and development. Therein lies the importance of this poll and what's on it.

Sight and Sound has its work cut out for it. Judging from past poll results, it seems that for the last 40 years canonical film culture has largely been stuck in the 50s and 60s, and overwhelmingly in Hollywood and Europe. Can and will this hegemony be altered? And if so, what will it take?

I hand the discussion over to David, Vadim and Bill who may have their own take on these and other questions. I know David has several questions that he feels every participant in the poll should ask themselves...

CONTINUE TO PART TWO: How the Sausage Is Made

READ PART THREE: Predictions You Can't Refuse

An alternative history of the Sight and Sound Poll (a "Hall of Fame" approach)

Following Kristin Thompson's suggestion, I ran through the results of each edition of the Sight and Sound Greatest Films poll, “retiring” any film that had already placed in the previous edition, thus ensuring a fresh set of top-voted films each time. How surprising are the results? See for yourself.

(Note some years have more than 10 entries in the event of ties)

1952 (same as actual results)

Once considered the greatest film of all, "Bicycle Thieves" has fallen from the top 10.

Bicycle Thieves (1948, De Sica)
City Lights (1930, Chaplin)
The Gold Rush (1925, Chaplin)
Battleship Potemkin (1925, Eisenstein)
Intolerance (1916, Griffith)
Louisiana Story (1949, Flaherty)
Greed (1925, Stroheim)
Le Jour se leve (1939, Carne)
The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928, Dreyer)
Brief Encounter (1946, Lean)
La Regle du jeu (1939, Renoir)

1962
Citizen Kane (1941, Welles)
L’avventura (1960, Antonioni)
Ugetsu Monogatari (1953, Mizoguchi)
Ivan the Terrible, Parts I and II (1944, 1958, Eisenstein)
La terra trema (1948, Visconti)
L’Atalante (1934, Vigo)
Earth / Zemlya (1930, Dovzhenko)
Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959, Resnais)
Sunrise (1927, Murnau)
Zero for Conduct (1930, Vigo)
Pickpocket (1959, Bresson)
Nazarin (1959, Bunuel)

1972
8 ½ (1963, Fellini)
Persona (1967, Bergman)
The General (1927, Keaton and Bruckman)
The Magnificent Ambersons (1942, Welles)
Wild Strawberries (1957, Bergman)
Vertigo (1958, Hitchcock)
Pierrot le fou (1965, Godard)
La Grande Illusion (1937, Renoir)
Ikiru (1952, Kurosawa)
The Searchers (1956, Ford)

1982

Warner Home Video "Singin' in the Rain"

Singin’ in the Rain (1952, Donen and Kelly)
2001: A Space Odyssey (1968, Kubrick)
Andrei Rublev (1969, Tarkovsky)
Jules et Jim (1961, Truffaut)
The Third Man (1949, Reed)
Tokyo Story (1953, Ozu)
Touch of Evil (1958, Welles)
Les Enfants du paradis (1943, Carne)
Modern Times (1936, Chaplin)
Madame de… (1953, Ophuls)
Contempt (1963, Godard)
The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972, Bunuel)

1992*
Raging Bull (1980, Scorsese)
The Godfather and the Godfather Part II (1972, 1974, Coppola)
Pather Panchali (1955, Ray)
La Strada (1956, Fellini)
La Dolce vita (1961, Fellini)
Rashomon (1950, Kurosawa)
Breathless (1960, Godard)
Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948, Ophuls)
Apocalypse Now (1979, Coppola)
Paisan (1945, Rossellini)
The Mirror (1976, Tarkovsky)
Fanny and Alexander (1982, Bergman)

2002*
Lawrence of Arabia (1962, Lean)
Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964, Kubrick)
Psycho (1960, Hitchcock)
Sunset Blvd. (1950, Wilder)
Some Like It Hot (1959, Wilder)
The Seventh Seal (1957, Bergman)
Au hazard Balthazar (1966, Bresson)
Taxi Driver (1976, Scorsese)
The Apartment (1960, Wilder)
Casablanca (1943, Curtiz)
Chinatown (1974, Polanski)

Some initial observations on this approach (which somewhat resembles a Hall of Fame induction process):

- *The ’92 and ’02 polls incorporate votes by directors – wasn’t able to separate the two with the data set I had.
- While in 1972 nearly half of the list consisted of new titles, in 1982 there was only one, and none in 1992 and 2002.
- The cinema of the 50s and 60s dominate as much here as they do in the official poll. I had assumed that this approach would surface more newer films, but looking at the last three editions, 50s and 60s films outnumber films from subsequent decades by a 3-to-1 ratio. While the results of this exercise still aren’t fully satisfying, at least they put different films in play and offer a list that’s continually expanding rather than stagnating. (One critic who is participating in the poll for the fourth time told me that he is using a similar approach, and will not include any films he selected in his previous ballots.)

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5 Comments

  • middle | July 2, 2012 4:12 AMReply

    "l'appartement" is one of the all-time great films

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GwapQhrZ-D0

  • StephenM | April 20, 2012 6:18 PMReply

    Interesting. I kind of like the "Hall of Fame" idea, but I also think it's valuable to show the ways critical opinion changes or stays the same over time by having the same basic question over and over. Also, while it's a shame there aren't more non-European&American films represented, it's not really surprising. Sight & Sound is after all an Enlgish-language British publication and most of those polled are Europeans and Americans--so of course most of the films that mean the most to them come from the same places. It does bring up some interesting ideas and problems with canons, though. What's the difference between a literary and a cinematic canon, and how should they reflect diverse cultures and nations? Shouldn't the poll really reflect what people genuinely believe to be the greatest movies rather than trying to fit in an equal cultural distribution? But then if that's the case, the list can end up rather stagnant, because the all-time greatest films don't just go away and therefore they are likely to keep being named over and over again. It's all pretty complicated.

  • Kevin B. Lee | April 24, 2012 1:05 PM

    You've pretty much summed up the central dilemma in one paragraph. And it points out the tautological system that I want to see broken: that the list of greatest films is mostly Euro-American because they are voted on by a mostly Euro-American critic pool who are immersed in a Euro-American system of promoting, distributing and evaluating films. I've lobbied hard for the S&S editors to invite more critics from other parts of the world to help address this and bring a fresh global perspective to the poll. We'll see what the results bear out.

  • jake | April 18, 2012 2:04 PMReply

    any interesting column would be predicting which films from 2002-2012 have a chance to make the list

  • Adam K | April 18, 2012 3:07 PM

    No, no it wouldn't. But anyway, this is only "Part I" after all...

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