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
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:
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).
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.
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…
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.
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.
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.