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The Greatest Films of All-Time! …Probably

2012.08.22

What seems to be the problem, Hal?Every ten years, the film magazine Sight & Sound releases its list of the best films of all time. Before finishing that first sentence, I could hear a collective YAWN—another film list. Why another film list? The Internet is rife with them, and they’re an editor’s go-to feature when a film/music/TV publication needs to shift a few more issues or generate extra page views. And the subsets of lists can get a bit ridiculous; you start with lists of the funniest movies, or most best epics, and can end up with “The 6 Most Depressing Happy Endings in Movie History” or “The 5 Most Ridiculous Martial Arts Movies Ever.”* But the Sight & Sound poll is different for a number of reasons. To begin with, its sheer infrequency. The first list was announced in 1952, and there have only been six further lists since—the latest out just this month, August 2012. So it is enormously helpful in identifying long-term trends. Also, Sight & Sound attempts to be quite exhaustive in its search for canon consensus; this year’s list was drawn from 846 critics, writers, and academics. Each critic was invited to present his or her list of the ten greatest films of all time—however each individual critic chose to define “greatest”—and each instance of a title would simply count as one vote for that film.

Joker

Y SO NOT SRS ABT MY GR8NSS?

846 might seem like a lot, and in fact it is a much greater number than they ever had in the past. 2012 was the first year that the majority of serious film comment was delivered via the internet, and the list of critics chosen to submit lists reflects that. I’ll admit I discovered these facts with some trepidation. After all, the internet has vastly enhanced the ability of people to communicate absolutely any notion they might have, and has ensured that those with said notions can disperse them with greater rapidity than ever before. Plus, my generation was the first to grow up with the internet as a fact of life, and such instant, time-undelayed communication has altered how many filmgoers process critical opinion. In 2008, praise of The Dark Knight was pretty much instantaneous, and there was no shortage of webpage message boards and fanboy treatises declaring it the GREATEST FILM EVAR!!!!!. Such praise happens regularly with such tentpole releases—and has ever since filmmaking began, probably—but now such ideas can coalesce much more apace than when film criticism was largely confined to a handful of periodicals.

So I was afraid this influx of new, internet-aided critics would spell doom for the older films that had dominated the Sight & Sound lists in the past. Would the list be packed with monumental (recent) crowd-pleasers, casting aside long-cherished gems?

Jimmy Stewart's Disembodied Head!

Well, why WOULDN’T you vote for a film showing us James Stewart’s Disembodied Head?

I needn’t have worried. The most recent film is from 1968 (2001: A Space Odyssey), and the top ten features three (!) silent films. If anything, the list solidifies my own philosophies about movies—that it should take a long time for a film to enter “the canon,” and that the relevance, resonance, or reputation of a film is one that must be developed over time. I mean, after all, for every newer film that makes the list, that necessarily means that an older classic mush be cast aside. It’s not always easy when basking in the glow of a newly-released film to hold an older movie beside it and fairly compare.

Citizen Kane Forever

Why don’t they love me?

Plus, looking at the movies perched upon the top ten spots, most of them were failures upon their first release. Citizen Kane was up for Oscars, but made Orson Welles a Hollywood pariah; Vertigo flopped commercially and destroyed Jimmy Stewart’s relationship with Hitchcock; The Searchers was considered minor John Ford and an egregious misuse of John Wayne’s screen persona, La Règle du jeu was banned, etc… It took decades in some cases for these movies to undergo a critical reevaluation.

It has been well-publicized by now that the number-one film on this list is Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, removing Citizen Kane from the top spot for the first time since 1952. Out of 846 critics, Vertigo received 191 votes, meaning that the consensus “Best Film Of All Time” was voted for by only 22.6% of all the critics that submitted a list. So even this “canon” is not established with overwhelming unanimity.

And this is where the real value of the Sight & Sound poll comes in: seeing individual critic’s lists. The website has an interactive feature so you can browse a list of all the films voted for, all the critics and directors polled, films by year and country, etc. It’s quite eye-opening to see the films admired by the critics and directors you admire. Being a hopeless movie addict, I’ve already “wasted” an inordinate amount of time on this website…

Of course, as someone who scoured the 2002 list for ten years (off and on, of course) and is obsessive about maintaining his own lists, I wondered what my list for Sight & Sound would look like, if, for whatever reason, I had been given the honor to submit one. The obvious, easy answer would be to actually list the films I thought were the greatest ever made:

  1. 2001: A Space Odyssey (Kubrick, 1968)
  2. Lawrence of Arabia (Lean, 1962)
  3. The Godfather, Part II (Coppola, 1974)
  4. Singin’ in the Rain (Donen/Kelley, 1952)
  5. The Godfather (Coppola, 1972)
  6. The Passion of Joan of Arc (Dreyer, 1928)
  7. The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (Huston, 1948)
  8. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (Nichols, 1966)
  9. Vertigo (Hitchcock, 1958)
  10. Bicycle Thieves (de Sica, 1948)

(These also happen to be my favorite films of all-time; some critics seem to experience some sort of discord when thinking about “greatest” vs “favorite,” but no such problems concern me—I think my favorites ARE the greatest.)

The Tree of Life foot

The Tree of Life was one vote away from being in the top 100.

But as some critics, such as Roger Ebert, have pointed out, there are other potential reasons for submitting a list to Sight & Sound. Somewhat shallowly, I suppose, you could submit a list that you think others will be impressed by, though that sort of defeats the purpose of the whole endeavor. (If I did that, I’d definitely have to find a place for Citizen Kane on mine!) Propagandistically, you could submit a list of films you think are routinely overlooked, or are trying to give a “bump” so that other critics/cineasts may notice them. Javier Packer-Comyn did this with his list, filled as it is with lengthy, obscure documentaries. If I were to craft a list in this manner, it would probably be filled up with nine silent films and then last year’s The Tree of Life.

Critic Ignatiy Vishnevetsky conceived an infuriating/ingenious method for constructing his list. Unable to shorten his list to a mere ten titles, he put his top 90 titles on scraps of paper, placed the scraps in a bowl, and pulled titles at random, one-by-one, until he had ten in front of him. This method led him to select titles you wouldn’t normally find on such a list—like Robocop and Dead or Alive 2: Birds—but it seems a fascinating exercise.  (Fascination being relative, naturally.)

So fascinating, I tried it out for myself. I wrote out my 100 favorite films by number, and used a random number generator to select ten numbers between 1 and 100. In order of selection, the corresponding titles it drew were:

  1. Citizen Kane (1941)
  2. 8½ (1963)
  3. Cries and Whispers (1972)
  4. Mr Smith Goes to Washington (1939)
  5. The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003)
  6. Mutiny on the Bounty (1935)
  7. My Neighbor Totoro (1988)
  8. Raging Bull (1980)
  9. The Crowd (1928)
  10. Singin’ in the Rain (1952)

Really, not a bad list at all. Only one of these films is actually in my personal top ten, but this selection is not one I’d have a problem submitting. (And the irony of a random process placing Citizen Kane on the top spot is …awesome. And kinda creepy.)

But the only “alternative list” I would seriously consider sending off, apart from a top ten list of my actual favorite films, would be a list of movies that, for whatever reason, did not receive a single vote in the last list. On this 2012 list, there are some films that I can’t believe no one voted for—especially in light of votes for films such as Plan 9 from Outer Space, and Me at the Zoo. If my list for 2022 contained only films that didn’t receive anyone’s vote in 2012, I’d have several excellent movies to draw from:

  • Schindler’s List
  • The Bridge on the River Kwai
  • The Hustler
  • All Quiet on the Western Front
  • The Ox-bow Incident
  • Hud
  • Dumbo
  • The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover
  • Raise the Red Lantern
  • Being There
  • Network
  • Pixote
  • Woodstock
  • The Silence of the Lambs
  • Rebel Without a Cause

I could submit a list with any ten of these. I’m sure there are many, many more neglected films I haven’t noticed yet. I’ve not yet gone through all the website yet, because… well, because it would take a very long time to review each title that anyone voted for, and I do have other obligations in life.

Man With a Movie Camera

Besides, we have this list for ten more years. There is plenty of time to peruse it between now and 2022. Plenty of time for this list to serve its ultimate purpose—introduce us to titles that may be unfamiliar, and invite us to expand our moviegoing horizons. The 2002 list led me to seek out many a film I would never have heard of otherwise. And maybe this 2012 version will inspire many to do the same—and maybe, just maybe, discover their new favorite film.

*Okay, those two examples are both from Cracked.com, which specializes in lists, but I think you see my point.

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