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Predictions You Can't Refuse: Previewing the Sight and Sound Greatest Films Poll, Part III

Features
by Kevin B. Lee, David Jenkins, Vadim Rizov, Bill Georgaris
April 24, 2012 8:07 AM
3 Comments
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Is "The Godfather" Ready to Pull Into the #1 spot as the greatest film of all time?

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.) - KBL

Read Part One: Not Simply the Best

Read Part Two: A Top Ten Dilemma

KEVIN B. LEE: Since we touched on a bit of trendspotting in our discussion, I wanted to take some observations from the historical results of the poll. If we look at the last five editions of the critics' top tens and make a newspaper headline for each, it would go like this (click on each year to see the results that inspired their headline)

1962: Humanism Is Out (Bicycle Thieves, Chaplin), Formalism Is In (L’Avventura, Citizen Kane)

1972: Kane, Rules of the Game, Potemkin Cement Canon Status; Fellini, Antonioni, Bergman Lead 60s Vanguard

1982: Kurosawa and Singin’ in the Rain Shift Spotlight to non-Western and Genre Films

1992: Ozu, Satyajit Ray Broaden International Canon; Dreyer, Vigo Lead Early Cinema Resurgence

2002: Godfather Films Break Silent Embargo on Post-1970 Cinema

That last one is only half-facetious. It’s flat-out crazy that at the time of the 2002 poll, the last 30 years of film accounted for only 1 of the top ten and one sixth of the top 50. And the only reason the Godfather films placed so high is that the compilers kinda sorta fudged and counted votes of the two films together, regardless of whether they were voted on as a tandem.

In case anyone is curious, here’s a list of the top films from the cinematic wasteland known as 1970-2002, based on votes from the last poll:

"Barry Lyndon" was one of very few post-1970 films that placed strongly in the 2002 Sight and Sound poll.

1. The Godfather and The Godfather II, 1972 (actual placement #4, 23 votes)
2. Barry Lyndon, 1975 (actual #27, 7 votes)
3. Fanny and Alexander, 1982 (actual #35, 6 votes)
tie. Taxi Driver, 1976
5. Blade Runner, 1982 (actual #45, 5 votes)
tie. Mirror, 1976
tie. Shoah, 1985
tie. The Travelling Players, 1974

You’ll notice nothing from the 90s (I believe the top placer was Pulp Fiction with 3 votes). Had I taken part in the poll, I almost certainly would have included Jia Zhangke’s Platform, a 2000 film.

Thinking back to the Robin Wood Rule discussed earlier, I understand the logic of it, but frankly I admire those crazy critics in 1962 that had no compunctions about putting 2 and 3 year old movies like L’Avventura, Hiroshima Mon Amour and Pickpocket among their top tens. I think members of my generation who live and breathe the films of today have a duty to make the best case for the films of our time - if we don’t, who will? At least one or two titles wouldn’t hurt.

MOVERS AND LOSERS FROM THE LAST POLL

There were some big ascenders back in 2002 (see full list here) from the 1992 results (see full list here). It’s curious to speculate what films might do the same this year. Barry Lyndon is on my short list, so its relatively meteoric rise in the 2002 poll - up about 105 spots from 1992, up to #27 - was heartening to see, moreso than the Godfather I & II’s 26-spot ascension to the top ten. The single biggest mover was Mizoguchi’s The Story of the Late Chrysanthemums, up at least 108 spots to the top 25. I’m not sure I can account for its rise the way I can Au hasard Balthazar’s 43-spot leap to #19 (that 1999 worldwide Bresson retrospective made a difference, I imagine), or Rashomon’s remarkable 80-rung catapult to #13 (the '90s rage of non-linear, multi-subjective narratives in everything from Pulp Fiction to Satantango made this film a hot ur-text). 

After breaking into the top 20 in 1992, "Raging Bull" took a stunning dive in the 2002 poll.

On the flip side, the biggest loser of 2002 was Roberto Rossellini, whose Paisan fell from #18 out of the top 60 - Journey to Italy didn’t do much beter. Bicycle Thieves fell 34 spots, just as it was on the fringe of making it back to the top 10 for the first time in 40 years. Seems that Italian neo-realism fell out of favor - as did its Indian cousin Satyajit Ray, whose Pather Panchali fell out of the top ten. Surprisingly, Rear Window dropped 35 spots even as Vertigo nudged into the #2 spot, seriously challening Citizen Kane - you have to wonder if the Hitchcock contingent somehow collectively agreed to go all in on Vertigo. But the biggest surprise for me is seeing Raging Bull lose support, falling out of the top 50 after being the #1 post-1970 film in the ‘92 poll. (Note in the list above that Taxi Driver placed higher, so the Scorsese contingent may have shifted their focus). Maybe it just goes to show that it’s hard for recent films to gain momentum; and that it’s not that there aren’t any worthy of being the greatest, but perhaps too many for any one to attract consensus.

Bill, I agree with your observations about the directors’ lists vs. the critics’ lists; I find the latter more inspiring and credible from the standpoint of breadth and depth. Though there were some fascinating individual lists (Richard Linklater’s, Michael Haneke’s and Terence Davies’ top tens really illuminated their sensibilities for me), and particularly the comments of some like Catherine Breillat and Michael Mann (who sounds like he should write a dissertation, or at least should be writing on film more often).

Scorsese didn’t take part in 2002, but I remember in his ‘92 ballot he listed only five films and said that these are the titles he will always stand by (off the top of my head, it was Citizen Kane, 8 ½, The Leopard, The Red Shoes, The Searchers - five is easy to remember!). Interesting and perhaps disheartening that one of the most literate of directors is so rigid with his list. But I admire his loyalty to certain films and filmmakers, it may be what gives him an anchor for his own visions. My own tastes and values can feel downright unfocused and promiscuous in comparison.

I currently don’t have any loyalties to auteurs informing my agenda. Looking back at David’s questions, I’m not particularly interested in genre representation, except perhaps a desire to include at least one documentary and/or avant garde film. However, I think I will make it a point not to include any of the top ten from 2002, and not to include more than one film from a given country (and possibly a given decade). Perhaps this makes my potential list sound too calculated or draconian in its design. But the fact is that there are too many great and worthy films and these restrictions are one way of narrowing it down.

And I completely know where Vadim is coming from with his point about ad hominem gauntlet-throwing, even though it has a tinge of cynicism to it - but heck, this whole conversation rings of a cynicism, or at least a loss of innocence or naivete (whichever connotation you prefer) about how canons are formed and what they mean. But it’s necessary.

And to Bill’s point, it will be interesting to see how many of them I’ve actually seen in a theater. The holy movie theater, another sacred cow, like film canons, in need of re-evaluation under threat of irrelevance.

BILL GEORGARIS: This is a bit of a calculated guess. I've added up all the noteworthy lists that I've compiled since the last Sight & Sound poll. This may be a reasonable guide to the forthcoming results.

Will "In the Mood for Love" be the top ranking film of the 21st century?

1. Vertigo
2. The Godfather
3. Citizen Kane
4. The Rules of the Game
5. The Seven Samurai
6. Sunrise
7. Au hasard balthazar; Lawrence of Arabia
9. 2001: A Space Odyssey; 8 1/2; Dr. Strangelove; Taxi Driver
13. The Wild Bunch
14. Some Like it Hot
15. The Magnificent Ambersons; Once Upon a Time in the West
17. The Bicycle Thieves; The Shop Around the Corner; Singin' in the Rain; The Third Man; Tokyo Story
22. The Godfather Part II; Jaws; Playtime

The above list is based on 182 critics/filmmakers. It is a very decent sample. Battleship Potemkin is the only film from the 2002 S&S Top-10 not included in the list above.

I, personally, will be quietly elated if a Robert Bresson film makes the top-10. If that occurs, then maybe Humanism is Back In. In terms of a headline, how about "Internet cinephiles crash BFI server(s)".

In terms of a bold pronouncement, I am going to be mechanically-boring and side with the results of the list above, and assert that Citizen Kane will not top the poll this time around. And, I predict, will never top it again. Furthermore, an obvious point perhaps... If either The Godfather or Vertigo are number one, it will the first time a colour/widescreen film will rule the roost.

A more uneducated pronouncement would be that films from the last decade-or-so will poll strongly. Just my gut feeling. I think many critics, especially those being polled for the first time, will want to bring something fresh to the table and I think they will draw from recent cinema for that freshness. Among films of the 21st century, I expect In the Mood for Love, Mulholland Dr. and Yi Yi to do quite well. Also There Will Be Blood and 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days will probably get some recognition.

[Editor's Note: See Bill's compilation of the 21st Century's Most Acclaimed Films, compiled from countless critics' polls of the past decade plus change.]

DAVID JENKINS: Bill and Kevin have offered their predictions based on hard fact and considered conjecture. So I thought it best to offer some totally spurious thoughts on how things may go down…

Will "The Godfather" be one and done in its tenure among the top ten?

It's interesting to see that Bill predicts The Godfather will rise in the rankings. I was under the impression that it would, if not crash and burn, then at the very least fall out of the top ten. Coppola has hardly been churning out the copper-bottomed classics of late (20 years since the last decent film?), and perhaps his recent slump could affect participants' memories his early hits. Of course, it'd be churlish to think that too many participants would question their love of The Godfather on the basis of the director's more recent work, but for those formulating their lists by picking favourite directors and then narrowing things down from there, it could be swing the vote in small but meaningful ways.

Again, an entirely spurious proclamation, but I think (hope!) the lists sent in by "internet cinephiles" will reflect a reaction to – and possibly a rejection of – past consensus. Considered gauntlet throwing, if you will. Just recently I was nosing in on an Twitter back-and-forth which espoused the relative merits of De Palma's neglected Mission to Mars, to cite just one tiny example. It'd be disingenuous to dismiss this strain of criticism as wilful contrarianism (which some more established critics have) as it's clear in the reading that the large majority of these critics possess the necessary deep background to back up their claims.

I agree with Vadim that there is an all-mouth-and-no-trousers critical contingent (a practice which I'll admit I'm occasionally guilty of myself) but for the purposes of this list, being bold – justified or otherwise – can only make the final results more interesting. Whether these bold decisions will galvanise in any way seems less likely. I'd love it if a group of critics rallied together for an act of cine-terrorism and tactically voted Soul Man into the upper echelons of the canon.

Interested in Bill's belief that the last decade will poll strongly. More interested to see where those votes come from – critics covering the weekly theatrical releases or bloggers who have more opportunity to cover the back catalogue?

I'll also go further and say that not only will Kane fall from the top spot, it'll fall out of the top ten. Major backlash.

Personally, I'm against Kevin's idea of creating a list that cosily covers bases. There are some Russian films I love and would absolutely put them in my top ten, but I wouldn't do so because they were Russian. It also seems a shame that, say, French cinema should be covered with a single film. So you've had your Bresson and that's adios Melville, Godard, Renoir, etc... I've tried my best to make my list as expansive as possible, but I've gauged this expansiveness in terms of style and, to a lesser extent, time of production rather than geography.

Apropos of nothing (and somewhat off-message), my method has been to select 100 films, personal favourites mainly, rewatch as many as possible and then gradually hone them down to ten. I kinda felt that there just isn't time to make new discoveries, but more than that, there's not the time to be able to process them properly. All bar one of my top ten I originally saw at the cinema, though that did not affect my selections.

Donkey Power: Can "Au hasard Balthazar" kick and bray its way to the top?
KEVIN B. LEE: Looking at Bill's predictions, I would be thrilled if Balthazar makes the top ten. Bresson is one of a handful of directors I would ever consider devoting a lifetime to study, and Balthazar along with L'Argent are my very favorites of his inimitable corpus. And I would be even more pleased - and perhaps a bit ashamed - if he makes it in without my vote. Because I'm pretty sure I'll be selecting another film and master as my lone representative from France.

Reading David's comment in response to my "one film per country" requirement, I sense the incredulousness that such an approach may meet among others. But I don't see it as "cosily covering the bases" (it's not like I can select a film from every country that I think has an all-time great film) as it is spreading the field in a way that I think is valuable. And I really don't see it as any more or less risible than, say, the auteurist thinking that typically dominates this kind of list-making, and that in my view has been taken too far. The glorification of the film artist gets taken to the point that people undervalue the importance of film as a global, social phenomenon, almost always made by groups of people instead of individuals. Creativity and innovation spring as much from social forces and cultural developments than they do from individual genius.

"Histoire(s) du cinema": Godard's greatest film, but with a tragic flaw

I struggled with these matters a lot concerning one film that is one of my favorites and will continue to inspire me for years to come, but I ultimately will not select. That film is Godard's Histoire(s) du Cinema, which is in some respects the greatest essay film ever made, and as a film about films is the kind of work I could only dream of making. I know at least one film critic who has it in their top ten ballot. But I ultimately decided not to include it because, as a work that seeks to explore film, its worldview in regard to cinema history and cinema's relevance to world culture is so baldly, unapologetically provincial that many times it feels antithetical to my understanding of film. Of course it is a reflection of Godard's Eurocentric orientation, but whatever the case the work embodies a lot of assumptions about what film is that, in the 21st century, can no longer be taken for granted.

The conventional way of thinking about films, as discrete, self-contained works whose value is self-evident according to received aesthetic criteria, often ignores the larger cultural forces that shape our way of evaluating them, including the Sight and Sound list. My framework for creating my own list seeks to address that. It is not just shaking things up for the sake of being bold, controversial or un-boring. I want my list to express a set of principles that I consider to be crucial ways to understand cinema. As I mentioned in my first entry, I'd rather see a list espousing ten ways to watch a movie than a list of the ten "best" films. There are so many films out there worthy of being called the best than can't possibly fit in a list of 10, 20 or 100. I think we are at a point in the history of the movies where it is more important to think about how we watch films than about which films to watch. Or at least the latter should serve the former.   

Speaking of where we are in film history, at least David and I agree on spreading the field according to decade - this is the last possible decade where one could make a top ten list with a feature film from each decade in cinema history. And maybe that's a framework that we have to let go of as well, insofar that it holds us back from thinking about the future. After all, a list of the greatest films of all time should be less a reflection of what the best of cinema has been, but of what it can be.

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3 Comments

  • Tom C | May 8, 2012 10:19 PMReply

    Seems unlikely The Godfather will poll as well this time if Sight & Sound stick to the insistence that you cannot vote for Godfather I & II (or III) as one vote. Last time they bundled them.

  • i seriously hope you guys ross douthat | April 26, 2012 5:27 AMReply

    "I, personally, will be quietly elated if a Robert Bresson film makes the top-10. If that occurs, then maybe Humanism is Back In."

    Or "Christianity"?

  • Kbl | April 26, 2012 3:50 PM

    Or Bazin-ianity. Same difference.

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