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Poll Dance

Vertigo (Alfred Hitchcock, 1958)


So here’s the obligatory blog on the 2012 Sight and Sound once-a-decade poll on the ‘greatest movies ever made.’ For those who haven’t seen the results (published, with the individual ballots of both critics and directors, in the September issue of S&S), this is the critics’ top ten:

  1. Vertigo (Hitchcock 1958)
  2. Citizen Kane (Welles 1941)
  3. Tokyo Story (Ozu 1953)
  4. La Règle du Jeu (Renoir 1939)
  5. Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (Murnau 1927)
  6. 2001: A Space Odyssey (Kubrick 1968)
  7. The Searchers (Ford 1956)
  8. Man with a Movie Camera (Vertov 1929)
  9. La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc (Dreyer 1927)
  10. 8 ½ (Fellini 1963)

For the complete top 50 go here.

Other than some scrambling for position, this list differs very little from that of 2002:

  1. Citizen Kane
  2. Vertigo
  3. La Règle du Jeu
  4. The Godfather (Coppola 1972) and The Godfather part II (Coppola 1974)
  5. Tokyo Story
  6. 2001: A Space Odyssey
  7. Battleship Potemkin (Eisenstein 1925)
  8. Sunrise (ex-aequo)
  9. 8 ½
  10. Singin’ in the Rain (Kelly-Donen 1952, ex-aequo)

Or that of 1992:

  1. Citizen Kane
  2. La Règle du Jeu
  3. Tokyo Story
  4. Vertigo
  5. The Searchers
  6. L’Atalante (Vigo 1934)
  7. La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc (ex-aequo)
  8. Pather Panchali (Ray 1955, ex-aequo)
  9. Battleship Potemkin
  10. 2001: A Space Odyssey

Or from a similar poll conducted by the Village Voice in 2000:

  1. Citizen Kane
  2. La Règle du Jeu
  3. Vertigo
  4. The Searchers
  5. Man with a Movie Camera
  6. Sunrise
  7. L’Atalante
  8. La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc
  9. Au Hasard Balthazar (Bresson 1966)
  10. Rashomon (Kurosawa 1950)

(2001 is 11th in this poll, The Godfather 12th, Pather Panchali came in at 13)

Much of the brouhaha on blogs and elsewhere following the announcement of the results has focused on the dethroning of Citizen Kane, the movie that has led the poll since its inception in 1952. As Todd McCarthy points out in his response, the demotion of Welles’ film was a fait accompli after the campaign in S&S with an eye to both freshen up the poll and free Kane of its reputation as a dusty museum piece, the perennial ‘best movie ever.’ Losing to Vertigo by thirty votes (Ian Christie makes a lot of this, but what are thirty votes out of 864 critics, programmers, academics and distributors voting?), it’s not as if Kane has suddenly fallen completely out of favour: it has merely had Vertigo leap-frog over it, a movie that has been steadily climbing the polls and has not been out of the top ten since 1982. On the other hand, it seems that Welles himself did fall victim to Nick James’s campaign: both The Magnificent Ambersons (29th in 2002) and Touch of Evil (18th) missed the top 50: Touch of Evil narrowly (56th), Ambersons (81st) by a much broader margin (the Welles backlash could even explain the low placing of The Third Man 75). As usual, there was much grumbling – especially from critics who weren’t polled – as to the validity or relevance of this kind of exercise given the fact that you can’t poll everyone and that the top movies are inevitably a consensual choice, a statistical compromise. There is no room in this type of popularity contest for the idiosyncratic choice, a given only accentuated by the ever-increasing pool of voters: for this edition, the number of voters has more than quadrupled – 864 critics and 358 directors were polled, compared to 145 critics and 108 film directors in 2002. The surplus comes largely, as Nick James explains, from widening the net to include a wider international group of commentators, and from the addition of bloggers and online critics. What the increase in voters shows perhaps more clearly than before is that the movie with the most votes is not necessarily everyone’s favourite: Vertigo garnered 191 votes, four times as many as in 2002, but only a fourth of all possible votes. The widening of the voter pool to include younger scholars and academics has also had an immediately visible effect: Vertov’s The Man with the Movie Camera has not only appeared in the top ten virtually out of nowhere (it ranked 27th in the last critics’ poll), but has pushed aside what used to be thought of as the very embodiment of Soviet constructivist cinema, arguably the most-taught movie of all times, Eisenstein’s Potemkin. Vertov’s film has become the most-studied European avant-garde film, and now occupies a traffic-heavy intersection between cinema studies focusing on experimental filmmaking, documentary and modernist aesthetics. Another result of the widening, or, let’s come out and say it, ‘academization’ of the pool is the showing of experimental, (semi-)documentary and essay films like Marker’s La Jetée (1962), Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers (1966), Lanzman’s Shoah (1985), Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman (1975) and, especially, Godard’s Histoire(s) du Cinéma (1998),  movies with an often unwieldy running time that normally used to register only in queries conducted by the Village Voice (Jeanne Dielman ranked 19th in the 2000 Voice poll; only Shoah was previously ranked in the S&S poll; other than Jonathan Rosenbaum, no other critic of name voted for Histoire(s) in the selection of the ballots published in S&S, so it will be interesting to see where all its votes came from when the full results are published on the BFI’s website on August 15). After Hitchcock, Godard is in fact the most cited filmmaker, with four movies in the top 50, closely followed by masters of austerity Tarkovsky and Dreyer, favourites all of academic film studies programs (significantly or not, Godard is only the sixth most popular director in the fillmakers’ poll; Tarkovsky, who proves more popular with his peers, is one of the big winners of this year’s poll, with both Stalker (29th), Andrei Roublev (26th) and Mirror (19th) climbing the charts).

World Cinema: One Man, One Movie

What the rebooted poll also shows is an increasing awareness by voters of the rules of the game and the relative impact of their vote: you can see that, perhaps more than before, critics choose a single movie by a favoured filmmaker to champion – usually that filmmaker’s acknowledged ‘masterpiece’ – hoping that other fans will also rally behind it (only in the case of the aforementioned  filmmakers the love seems to be spread, leading one to surmise that if the Godardians should decide to close ranks behind A Bout de Souffle, it could go all the way). This means that in the case of, say, Ozu, who made more than 50 films in his long career, many of them masterpieces worthy of a spot in the top twenty, films which moreover are extremely similar in terms of both narrative and style, the choice for Tokyo Story as the ultimate Ozu film seems clearer than ever before (with double the votes of  Late Spring). Again, if Ozu fans would rally even more firmly behind Tokyo Story, it could win. In the case of Kurosawa, the consensus seems to be that Rashomon (26th) and Seven Samurai (17th) are the canonical classics and not, say, Ikiru or High and Low. In other words, Kurosawa is the ‘period piece’ director, maker of formally daring jidai-geki, more than he is seen as the humanist (albeit satirical) force behind contemporary subjects like Ikiru. It also appears that among lovers of Japanese cinema, Kurosawa has lost some critical clout (both Rashomonand Seven Samurai were in the top ten in 1992). The choice has come out resoundingly for Ozu, also over Mizoguchi, whose Ugetsu Monogatari (1953), a film that was in the top ten in 1962 and 1972, now closes the top 50 (The Story of the Late Chrysanthemums, still ranked respectably in 2002, has disappeared out of the top 100). Buñuel and Fassbinder appear to be the greatest victims of their own prolific careers, but the logic of one-director-one-choice applies to Bresson (after its placing 9th in the Voice poll, Au Hasard Balthazar has become the Bresson film of choice), Bergman (Wild Strawberries and Fanny and Alexandertumble, but Persona shines brighter than ever at number 17), Welles, Fellini (the drop of La Dolce Vita to 39th from a spot near the top 20 all but ensured the top ten ranking of 8 ½), Kubrick (Barry Lyndon has fallen out of the top 50, while 2001 holds stronger than ever, especially with the directors), Truffaut (only 400 Coups is ranked), and Satyajit Ray.

Ray’s Pather Panchali has slipped from 22 to 42; it was in the top ten in 1992 and 13th in the Village Voice poll. This fall out of favor seems to denote two trends: the decline of Bazinian humanist realism and the uncertain attitude of voters towards ‘world cinema.’ The drop of support for a distinctly ‘humanist’ cinema is clearly shown by the tumble of De Sica’s Ladri di Biciclette (1948), a decline already initiated in the previous two polls. Ladri (now placed 33rd) headed the first S&S poll in 1952 and was in the top ten in 1962, but then began its slow descent. With the exception of the top spot for Fellini, it’s a dire year for Italian cinema in general: Visconti once again fails to make the top 50, Rossellini’s Viaggio in Italia (1954) barely holds on, and Antonioni, who perenially placed in the top ten with L’Avventura (1960) and came in second out of nowhere in the 1962 poll, seems definitively to have fallen outside the top 20. If we take the results of LadriPather Panchali, and even Ugetsu combined, it appears that the type of cinema championed by Bazin is out of fashion: Flaherty is gone from the list, and Stroheim’s Greed garnered a mere 19 votes. Renoir seems to be the exception, La Règle du Jeu holding firm in the top ten. But you could argue that Règle is one of Renoir’s bleakest films, cynical and despairing rather than humane. La Grande Illusion, more emblematic of Renoir’s humanism and (digitally) restored in 2012, hardly registers with 22 votes despite a passionate defense by Ginette Vincendeau in the May issue of S&S ( The waning of the Bazinian tradition is somewhat surprising, given that  many of today’s most revered filmmakers – Carlos Reygadas and Lisandro Alonso, Pedro Costa and Cristi Puiu, the Dardennes and Jia Zhang-ke, Nuri Bilge Ceylan and Apichatpong Weerasethakul, all frontrunners in the S&S selection of the movies of the previous decade ( – are working in or coming up with variations on the tradition of Bazinian ‘phenomonological realism.’ Of the ‘new Bazinian’ filmmakers only one appears in the top 50, Kiarostami with Close-Up (unranked in previous S&S polls but 64th in the 2000 Village Voice query). Despite the Kiarostami and the surprising result of Diop Mambéty’s (recently resored) Touki-Bouki (1973), world cinema is largely absent from the poll and this to me seems to be the result of what I would call an inflation of discovery. Since around the late eighties, the opportunities for cinephiles to discover new masters from non-Western countries have vastly increased, with the Iranian and New Taiwanese cinema being perhaps the most notable ‘new’ discoveries that fully benefited from victories on the festival circuit. The relative ‘novelty’ – in terms of the poll’s once-every-decade chronology –of these discoveries enabled through ‘transnational’ distribution, in my view has had less an impact on voting behaviour than the sheer quantity of canon-worthy filmmaking that has recently been revealed. Take an important filmmaker like Alexandr Sokurov, generally considered the most important heir of Tarkovsky. Like many contemporary filmmakers working outside the commercial circuit, Sokurov has made both documentary and essay films and fiction features, inflating his output to date to a dazzling 59 titles. How to pick to canon-worthy entry amongst all these films: how to decide whether Mother and Son is a better movie than Russian Ark, or Faust better than Whispering PagesThe Sun better than Spiritual Voices? The one-filmmaker-one-film logic seems to have a much narrower effect in the case of world cinema masters who have been around for a while, like Kiarostami or Hou Hsiao-hsien. The output of Wong Kar-Wai, as much indebted to the formulas of the Western art  film as to Hong Kong genre filmmaking, is much smaller and In the Mood for Love has always been seen as his masterpiece, which goes a long way to explain its relatively high listing (24th) (that and its placing first in several polls on ‘the movies of the decade’). Then there is the historical revisionism enabled by new film historical research. Whereas, for example, a filmmaker like Satyajit Ray used to be seen as an anomaly in an industry that mainly puts out commercial product, it has by now become clear that perhaps he was less exceptional than originally assumed, that other filmmakers working in the same tradition are definitely worth a second look , filmmakers like Mrinal Sen, Ritwik Ghatak, Guru Dutt and many others. So while we still vote for Pather Panchali, it is with less conviction and with full awareness that our judgement of its aesthetic value is based on incomplete information. The same anxiety possibly guides the critic’s reluctance to vote for new masters of Asian cinema that have been (re)discovered at festivals throughout the world: there is no doubt as to the importance and mastership of Naruse, Shinoda, Imamura, Kobayashi, Shinoda, Edward Yang, Hou Hsiao-Hsien, Kitano Takeshi, or more recently, Lee Chang-dong, Jia Zhang-ke, Kore-Eda Hirokazu, but given the fact that in many cases our knowledge of their work is fragmentary at best, we still opt for the safer choice, which in this case would be Tokyo Story (itself a safe choice from an immense oeuvre). Moreover, there is the idea that the new national or transnational cinemas – despite their being hailed as completely original  – are essentially replaying motifs familiar from Western modernist cinema, which has only increased the canonical staying power of the ‘originals.’

Art Films Forever

Despite the drop of L’Avventura and the inexplicable absence of L’Année Dernière à Marienbad, (already absent from the 2002 list) or any other movies by Resnais, it is striking how the European art film paradigm continues to dominate the canon: 15 movies out of the top 50 were made during the sixties at the height of European modernist cinema (in this context, it is no surprise that Persona has appeared as the Bergman film of choice). The auteurism that arose in the wake of the art film and its fronting of ‘authorship,’ still holds sway: most of the – modernist – auteurs canonized by the politique des auteurs appear on the list. And, lest we forget, it was Cahiers who first championed both Vertigo and The Searchers. More than ever, the top choices seem to be movies about movies, about filmmaking and about cinematic spectacle. And more than ever, critical esteem seems to be highest in the case of maverick filmmakers who were ahead of their time and whose masterpieces got trashed upon release. That The Godfather (21st) is ranked below Apocalypse Now (14th) is explained by the fact that, for the first time, Godfather I and II were counted as separate films, effectively splitting the vote. But another explanation, is that whereas the earlier Coppola film is more ‘classical,’ Apocalypse Now is pure spectacle, a canonical instance of what Sean Cubitt terms a post-classical ‘neo-baroque’ aesthetic. The embrace of (mad) visionaries making ‘impossible’ films also seems to have influenced the choice of the handful of ‘recent’ films (made after 1980) on the list: both Mulholland Dr. (Lynch 2001, 28th), Béla Tarr’s Sátántangó(1994, 35th), Histoire(s) du Cinéma (49th) and even Close-Up, are not exactly films that were immediately applauded by their distributors or audiences. Because of this embrace of the maverick, the classicists seem to suffer. Of the great classical Hollywood directors, only John Ford and Hitchcock made it into the top twenty. And, as David Bordwell points out in his essay on the art film paradigm, both Ford and Hitchcock have something of the art film about them. Moreover, both directors are represented in the poll by extremely self-conscious, technically uneven movies, that were embraced both by new wave filmmakers and  critics as much, if not more, for their flaws, their sense of neurosis and overkill, as for their accomplishments in classical storytelling technique. Hitch is listed with two titles, with Psychoranked at 35. But other than in a spirit of celebrating the one-off, the weird film that stands out, most Hitchcock scholars would agree that Shadow of a DoubtNotoriousNorth By NorthwestRear Window or even Rebecca are more accomplished films. As a Fordian, I can list several Ford movies that I find superior to The Searchers at every level – Young Mr. Lincoln, How Green Was My ValleyMy Darling ClementineWagonmasterShe Wore a Yellow Ribbon,  The Sun Shines Bright – and that are all far more typical of Ford’s temperament and style. But The Searchers is the movie that was embraced by Scorsese’s generation, and, partly through their influence, now shows up in the style of movies as disparate as The Assassination of Jesse James and Winding Refn’s Drive. And where the hell is Howard Hawks? Rio Bravo is the only one of Hawks’ films listed, and on the wrong side of the top 50. Where is Lubitsch? How can there not be a single Lubitsch film in a list of the 100 greatest films ever made? Lubitsch’s disciple Billy Wilder’s Some Like It Hot, crowned by the American Film Institute as the greatest American film comedy of all time, is the only sound comedy in the top 100. Where are Capra, Sternberg, Wyler, (Preston) Sturges, Minnelli, (Anthony) Mann, or even – if you want to broaden the conception of what is classical – Preminger? You could argue that many of the American classics at the top of the AFI-American Film Institute poll from 1998 (updated in 2007) are ‘middlebrow’ art, and that the S&S voters were perhaps afraid of coming over as ‘square’ by picking AFI favourites like The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) or On the Waterfront (1954; the same fear of the middlebrow probably also caused David Lean and Lawrence of Arabia to drop to 82nd, and British cinema garnering a lousy 77 votes). But what about ScarfaceHis Girl FridayTrouble in ParadiseThe Big SleepLauraWhite HeatThe Big HeatThe Lady EveOut of the Past, or indeed Rio Bravo, films that qualify less as ‘middlebrow’ than as what Manny Farber termed ‘termite art,’ art outside the spotlight of ‘culture.’ The lone representative of classical Hollywood on the list, Singin’ in the Rain (the only musical in the top 50; no Meet Me in St. Louis or Wizard of Oz), is another movie about the movies and has dropped, moreover, 10 places from its top ten position in the last poll. Also snubbed is the French classical cinema: excepting Renoir and Vigo’s proto-modernist film maudit L’Atalante, no movies from the French thirties and forties have a spot in the top 50, a clear insult in the case of Carné’s Les Enfants du Paradis, still ranked high in previous polls and now almost forgotten at 74. The poll’s bias towards the sixties and seventies can be explained by pointing to the average age of the S&S voter and the role played by nostalghia in the voting, movies scoring high that the critic remembers having seen upon initial release. And during the sixties and seventies, the classical cinema was long-gone.

Shtum on the Silents

The debate in the wake of the S&S poll – led by younger cinephiles – on blogs like MUBI has centered to a large extent on the question of why so few contemporary movies show up, specifically why a movie like Malick’s Tree of Life isn’t included (today’s 2001Tree certainly fits the profile of impossible films made by maverick filmmakers with little regard for general audience tastes). But for my money, the real question is why there are so few ‘old’ movies. Granted, there are three silent movies in the top ten, all made at the very end of the silent era. But other than Potemkin, Lang’s Metropolis (another late silent, another ‘visionary’ film; but is it superior to MabuseSpione or M?),  Keaton’s The General and Chaplin’s City Lights, there are no other silent movies in the top 50, this in a year when the top two Oscar contenders were tributes to silent cinema. And what has happened to our adoration of Chaplin? It used to be that either Modern Times or The Gold Rush were sure bets for the top ten. Now the former has dropped to 63rd while the latter has disappeared altogether. Perhaps Chaplin has suffered from over-adoration, given the attention devoted by the BFI to Chaplin’s legacy. But then, what about Hitchcock, whose entire silent output is currently being restored and who is the proud flagbearer of the BFI’s Olympic season? Is it because Chaplin has again fallen prey to that old platitude that he isn’t ‘cinematic’ enough? In any case, the one Chaplin films that still ha some support was again made at the end of the silent era (technically City Lights, like Sunrise, is a sound picture if not a talkie). With the exception of Potemkin and Greed there are no films from the twenties, let alone the teens, in the top 100 (yes, Intolerance is still in at 93, but really though). Is this another case of critical modesty, of critics succumbing to relativism because of overabundance? Silent films today are definitely more visible than at the time of previous polls, thanks to archives opening up their collections to the public at large, to online availability via MUBI or Netflix or through peer-to-peer exchange, through the tireless efforts of events like the Pordenone Giornate del Cinema Muto or the Cinema Ritrovato in Bologna, or the success of dvd distributors like Kino, Flicker Alley, and Milestone. Can the absence of films from the teens or earlier be explained by the fact that there are no clear guidelines on whether non-feature formats can be voted for (avant-garde films and animation films could be said to suffer from the same bias)? Whatever the reason, it is hard to take a proposed canon seriously that fails to include The Birth of a NationThe CrowdThe Big ParadeZemlya/EarthMat/MotherLa RoueTerje VigenIngeborg Holm or Nosferatu (Murnau benefiting from the one-man-one-movie theory and from the fact that Sunrise -a soundie – is another maverick film that was misunderstood upon release). Up to 1972 it used to be that silent films dominated the top 20 (even in the Voice poll, Griffith is in the top 20 with his two biggest films). Silent films were even more strongly represented in the first polls. Here are the Brussels Cinémathèque poll from 1952 and the first Sight and Sound poll from the same year:

Sight and Sound 1952:

  1. Ladri di Biciclette
  2. The Gold Rush
  3. City Lights (ex-aequo)
  4. Potemkin
  5. Intolerance
  6. Louisiana Story (ex-aequo)
  7. Greed
  8. Le Jour se Lève (ex-aequo)
  9. La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc (ex-aequo)
  10. Brief Encounter
  11. La Règle du Jeu (ex-aequo)

Brussels Cinémathèque 1952:

  1. Potemkin
  2. The Gold Rush
  3. Ladri di Biciclette
  4. City Lights
  5. La Grande Illusion
  6. Le Million (Clair 1930)
  7. Greed
  8. Hallelujah! (Vidor 1929)
  9. Dreigroschenoper (Pabst 1931)
  10. Brief Encounter (Lean 1945)
  11. Intolerance (ex-aequo)
  12. There were 5 more silents among the 8 runners-up: Passion de Jeanne d’Arc, Broken Blossoms (Griffith 1919), Foolish Wives (Stroheim 1921), Storm over Asia (Pudovkin 1928), and Birth of a Nation.

And here are the results of the famous Brussels Cinémathèque query at the occasion of the Brussels World’s Fair of 1958:

  1. Potemkin
  2. The Gold Rush
  3. Ladri di Biciclette
  4. La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc
  5. La Grande Illusion
  6. Greed
  7. Intolerance
  8. Mat (Pudovkin 1926)
  9. Citizen Kane
  10. Zemlya (Dovzhenko 1930)

(Murnau’s Der Letzte Mann places 11th on this list, Caligari is 12th)

One of the things these lists show is that, at that time in history, the critical debate on the movies was still in thrall to the question of whether silent movies were the only true cinematic art. With the international adoption of sound in the early thirties, cinephiles championed the true and pure cinematics of the silent film over the reversion to theater implied by the talkies. The Brussels list from 1952 shows a real concern with these questions by including daringly experimental sound movies like Vidor’s Hallelujah! and Clair’s Le Million. One reason for the disappearance of the silents in today’s poll might be the absence of any vivid debate about the silents, the waning of a popular-critical tradition on the aesthetics of the silent movie: despite the scholarly excellence of many contemporary academic studies of silent cinema, the original silent film scholars, Iris Barry, William Everson, Jean Mitry, Jay Leyda, Edward Wagenkecht and others, are sorely missed when the time comes for another round of canon debates. In this light, Mark Le Fanu’s championing of Boris Barnet’s films prior to the poll, in retrospect feels like a futile exercise, and there is little hope that future polls will include (re)discovered silent masterpieces like Capellani’s Germinal (1913) when not even the silents made by several of the canonized auteurs seem to carry any weight (for my part, I would gladly exchange The Searchers for Three Bad MenPilgrimage or Just PalsPsycho for the silent Blackmail).

Perhaps the mixed results of this year’s poll reflect, as in previous years, the highly dubious nature of an inquiry into the ‘greatest’ films of all time. What is meant by ‘greatest’? Most perfect? Most innovative (technically? stylistically? narratively?)? Most influential? Most relevant to the times? Nick James preferred to keep this vague: as to what ‘greatest’ means, “we leave that open to your interpretation. You might choose the ten films you feel are most important to film history, or the ten that represent the aesthetic pinnacles of achievement, or indeed the ten films that have had the biggest impact on your own view of cinema.” Now that S&S are onto their seventh poll, they should know by now what they mean by ‘greatest.’  In a poll by the Brussels Cinémathèque from 1977, critics and filmmakers from around the world were asked to name both the most important and most misappreciated American films ‘since the beginning of the cinema’.  The problem was that the final tally of votes did not distinguish between the results of each specific question, the editors merely listing the films by their total number of votes. This produced a top ten that is  reflective of l’air du temps and very similar to the 1972 S&S poll:

  1. Citizen Kane
  2. Sunrise
  3. Greed
  4. Intolerance
  5. The Birth of a nation
  6. Singin’ in the Rain
  7. Nanook of the North
  8. The General
  9. The Gold Rush
  10. The Crowd

Still, such emphasis and distinction, clearer criteria in general, might alter the poll’s make-up in more fundamental ways than any campaign to dethrone Citizen Kane. In a follow-up blog I’ll take a slightly more theoretical look at some aesthetical issues behind canon formation and introduce my own modest suggestions for a revised canon.