Listomania!

Ahead of our Greatest Film of All Time poll, Michael Atkinson anatomises critics’ obsession with enshrining cinema’s ‘top ten’.

Michael Atkinson
Updated:

Poll countdown essay no. 2 | from our June 2012 issue

Credit: Ana Himes

As far as we can tell, the first time anyone thought to take an ‘expert’ poll to form an amalgamated list qualitatively summing up an artform’s ‘best’ manifestations over its entire lifespan, the year was 1952, and it was in Brussels. Feature-length cinema, which for some reason is the only kind ever to be measured this way, was only 46 years old.A post-war cultural soirée, the Festival Mondial du Film et des Beaux Arts de Belgique, polled 100 industry bigwigs (mostly directors), of whom only 63 deigned to answer. Carl Dreyer’s number one was The Birth of a Nation (1915); four out of Cecil B. DeMille’s top ten were directed by Cecil B. DeMille. The winner, by a presumably statistically irrelevant calculation, was Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin (1925).

Sight & Sound was hot on the Belgians’ heels later that year, of course. This time, only critics were asked, but again, oddly, only 63 (out of 85 petitioned) contributed lists. De Sica’s barely four-year-old Bicycle Thieves was dubbed numero uno.

It’s strange to think that this accountants’-reflex, oligarchical canon-building phenomenon had never occurred to anyone before Elizabeth became queen – not regarding any cultural product, at least. There had never been, apparently, year-end ‘ten best’ lists of books or plays during the 19th and early 20th centuries, nor had there been, then or before, any effort to collect and collate expert opinions about ‘the greatest ever’ of anything. (The pioneering glazomaniac who first thought in annual terms appears to have been the New York Times’s Mordaunt Hall, who began assembling his unranked ‘top ten movies of the year’ lists in 1924.)

Today ‘greatest’ lists of all stripes comprise a huge percentage of what passes for cultural journalism online and in print, suggesting that Sight & Sound, for all of its vaunted disregard for pure populism, may have culpability in what many have seen as the atomised trivialisation of film culture at large.

Bicycle Thieves

Bicycle Thieves

Or maybe it’s the Belgians. In any case, here we are again, facing the business end of Sight & Sound’s decadal survey, a project as slippery as any electoral process or winds-of-opinion political poll. On a strictly practical level, a social scientist could easily vet the six lists accrued so far for the circumstantial variables that can change a good deal in ten years’ time – namely, memory, fashion, platform technology and restorational achievements.

Memory, of course, can change a good deal more quickly than that, but as of 1952, cineastes had to rely almost exclusively on their hippocampi to sort out their personal hierarchies. When Georges Sadoul wrote his Dictionnaire des Films (1965), itself one of the first publications to establish a canon of ‘important works’ in the medium, he worked mostly with decades-old memories of movies’ first runs, going back to the 1920s. (He was necessarily frank about it, admitting in his write-up of Henry Hathaway’s 1935 Peter Ibbetson: “it is difficult to discuss this film without tending to invent certain details more than 25 years after being burnt by its flame.”)

Certainly, in Sight & Sound’s first poll, roseate youthful memories of Le Million (1931) and Le jour se lève (1939), both prominent on the 1952 list, were powerful but fleeting; those films faded quickly from view thereafter, and not even their availability on home video decades later has rescued them.

Fashion-wise, look at the difference between 1962 and 1972, representing the sudden rise and ubiquity of New Wave film culture and auteurist cinephilia. Suddenly, it seems, dinosaurs like Greed (1924) and Ivan the Terrible (1944) were no longer as tantalising (perhaps once the memory had been refreshed with film-club and classroom rescreenings?), but the more graceful, sprightlier achievements of The General (1926) and The Magnificent Ambersons (1942) were.

No film aesthetic was as decisively felled by fashion as Italian neorealism: whereas Bicycle Thieves topped the 1952 list, it slid to no.7 ten years later, vanished thereafter and has yet to return (though it still made the directors’ top ten in 2002). La Terra trema (1948) made one tentative appearance in 1962; even that Italian stalwart L’avventura (1960), prominently placed practically since it was first released, slipped out of the top ten in 1992 and has yet to make a comeback.

Seven Samurai leapt to no.3 in 1982 – after its 1981 European rerelease – before slipping out of the critics’ top ten for good. Oscar-style sentimentality shouldn’t be ignored, either: the sudden appearance of Pather Panchali (1955) on the 1992 list seems to have been prompted only by the double whammy earlier that year of Satyajit Ray’s honorary Oscar and subsequent demise.

A question of availability

The ease and shruggable availability of so many fabled classics on video has seemed, so far, to have had a calcifying effect; the same handful of films keep showing up, although Tokyo Story (1953) finally made its first appearance in the top ten in 1992, after a sufficient number of critics had caught up with it at home. (It now threatens never to leave, despite the onrush of other Ozus now available; only one Japanese film can occupy the list at a time, it seems.)

Hairy-chested obliquity: Marketa Lazarová

Hairy-chested obliquity: Marketa Lazarová

There may be no underestimating the difference between being disappointed by a classic viewed in a shabby repertory cinema on a beat-up print in the 1970s, and being awakened to it today on your state-of-the-art home screen, after a good digital shave-and-haircut restoration. Take L’Atalante (1934), for example: after having just scraped in at no. 10 in 1962, it appeared mid-list in 1992 entirely thanks to Gaumont’s 1989 revamp and subsequent rerelease. By 2002, its glamour had already worn off, and its stock dropped once again.

Of course, the culture is changing in other ways. Online discussion groups, chatrooms, blogs and comment chains have exploded the discourse exponentially in volume; whether the discourse has been consequently thinned out or bulked up in the process is a reading only history can provide.

Exactly how this may affect this year’s balloting, or 2022’s, is anyone’s guess. Certainly, the usual gestalt of English-language critics isn’t as sacrosanct as it used to be – digitally platformed movies and the conversation about them are now global phenomena, with user reviews on IMDb just as likely to hail from Singapore, Tunis or Murmansk as from London or New York. If a truly global survey was taken, would the selections remain the same? Maybe they would: the pan-Asian magazine Cinemaya voted Tokyo Story no.1; French critics polled by Positif chose La Règle du jeu (1939), while their top ten had five further titles – Citizen Kane, 2001, Vertigo, , Sunrise – in common with the ten picked for S&S in 2002.

It may be worth looking at the often surprising titles that emerge when individual countries, some still evolving a nascent idea of national film culture, vote for their home-grown ‘greatest’. The results are often films no one elsewhere on Earth remains overly impressed with: Canada’s Mon oncle Antoine (1971), Finland’s The Unknown Soldier (Tuntemation sotilas, 1955), Australia’s Mad Max (1979), China’s Spring in a Small Town (Xiao cheng zhi chun – the 1948 original). Up until recently, the Czech Republic’s ‘greatest ever’ film Marketa Lazarová (1967) was practically unheard of outside its native land. It may well be the best-ever Czech film, but if so, why was it a secret for so long?

Such choices can strike us as idiosyncratic, but clearly these selections are tied up with the hardly insignificant matter of national identity and ethnic self-image. Canadians apparently see something profound about themselves or their history in Claude Jutra’s rather routine Mon oncle Antoine that they haven’t found in the Cronenberg, Egoyan, Arcand or Maddin oeuvres, while Czechs somehow identify with the hairy-chested obliquity of Frantisek Vlácil’s Marketa Lazarova – though in either case it’d be risky to draw conclusions. In a very general sense, this dynamic gives us a clue as to the provenance of what’s deemed deathlessly glorious about the ‘established’ classics: they reflect us; they represent an ideal; they characterise us, as cinephiles, in certain ways.

Defining greatness

If you aggregate the top 20 or 30 films that most often make the global lists, you can quite easily deduce that the audience that worships ‘cinema’ as it’s thus defined are of a certain tribe: proud humanists, sensitive liberals, aspiring philosophes when it comes to the ambivalent matters of love and violence and sociopolitics, aesthetes swooning over a certain type of poetic imagery (gauzy, leafy, hyper-composed). We usually prize ‘realistic’ stories over genre, and we respect history. We are moralists, but gentle ones, and we are Bazinians.

Undeniably, we also assess ‘greatness’ largely as a result of a film’s narrative-visual density; most of the persistently chosen top-shelvers are thick, rich layer cakes, bursting with story, design, alternate readings, hypnotic visuals, multiple points of view, busy set pieces and tasteful auteurist bravado. Ozu and Keaton are the exceptions; for our masterpieces we rather reactionarily prefer Bosch-ness to Miró-ness, massive invention to lean, subtractive modernity.

This is hardly surprising: cinematic density is not only dazzling to watch and fun to write about (we are mostly dealing with the whims of writers), but it also more easily rewards multiple viewings, which in some minds is the essential first parameter for a ‘best’ – that you not tire of it after watching it twice. To say the least, this preference for profusion and volume elides huge chunks of cinema and cinematic achievement, and may be why, simply, worthy films from Ordet (1955) to A Man Escaped (1956) to Taste of Cherry (1997) have never been placed, and may never climb up the ladder.

A Man Escaped

A Man Escaped

A certain middle-class homogeneity may be inevitable with voting bodies, arriving at politicians or hall-of-fame entrants or best-ever cultural rankings that reflect nothing so much as the mid-range alpha wave of mass consciousness. Extreme experiences are winnowed out by sheer numbers. Thus we have yet to see, rather scandalously, a single Godard or Buñuel breach the top ten, and few films that might be deemed, even dimly, ‘difficult’. Antonioni and Ozu aside, the polls slalom around ‘slowness’ and metaphysics as conscientiously as any ‘people’s choice’ awards, leaving no chance for a Bresson or Tarkovsky to make the grade.

At the same time, as we commonly acknowledge, we need films to acquire a few barnacles with the passing of time before we anoint them. How will we know whether or not our first glowing reaction to Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2010) will wilt within a few years?

But that condition has evolved with the culture and the depth of the library. As I mentioned, Bicycle Thieves and L’Avventura hit no.1 and no.2 within a few years of their respective making, while Persona made no.5 in the 1972 list six years after its release. Since then, however, films have required a roughly 20-year seasoning period before being deemed ready. Perhaps as cinema itself expands in every direction, we have become less confident in our choices – and in poll-taking altogether.

On the face of it, this conservatism seems absurd. If you scan back over the history of the Sight & Sound poll, as well as the Oscars and every qualitative ballot-collection in between, it becomes clear that such contests are not definitive preservers of posterity deciding once and for all (but over and over again) what’s ‘best’.

They are, in fact, snapshots of the zeitgeist in flux – a family photo of film culture’s priorities and tendencies in that year, and that is all. So, why not treat them as such, and vote your passion? Are we so sure that Uncle Boonmee, for instance, isn’t as mysterious and resonant and fascinating as Ugetsu monogatari (1953), or that Once upon a Time in Anatolia isn’t in fact superior to Antonioni?

And what about the older films rediscovered and restored in the last decade – Shimizu Hiroshi’s Mr Thank You (Arigato-san, 1936) or Anthony Asquith’s A Cottage on Dartmoor (1929) or Robert Reinert’s Nerven (1919)? Wouldn’t you trade Potemkin for any of them, right now?

Vintage-ageing may be a more complicated and corrupted influence than we suppose: who’s to say to what degree ‘classics’ like Singin’ in the Rain (1951) or 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) have attained a perpetual slot in the pantheon because of their previous appearances and critical esteem, and the aura of collective reverence that has amassed around them? Go ahead, watch them again, with fresh eyes: personally, I can’t imagine why anyone would choose that musical (I’d opt for a Minnelli) or that Kubrick (any of five others have aged far better). It’s tempting to consider how their placement would shift if the voting took place in a vacuum, without any knowledge of past lists or awards.

Peak manifestation: A Cottage on Dartmoor

Peak manifestation: A Cottage on Dartmoor

No vacuum is nigh – quite the opposite. As our digital intercourse about all things continues to grow like kudzu, threatening to involve practically every human being on Earth in open conversation, the feedback loops surrounding cultural investigation and appraisal of all kinds will get so pervasive that it may well become impossible, some day soon, to arrive at a truly singular and independent perspective on a film – much less hope that that perspective is attained by others independently as well, and might therefore constitute a valuable consensus about what that film is and how good it actually might be. Is such a questionable thing even possible, or are our poll-taking endeavours destined, in a fondly Camusian way, to long for a singular ‘truth’ that we know cannot exist, under any conditions?

There are those who consider the whole troublesome business to be nonsense – in David Thomson’s phrase, “a children’s game”. It’s an easy score to say so, but it’s also overlooking a few essential aspects of what makes cinema a culture and not merely a medium.

For one thing, movies are convenient to the purposes of glazophilia – we attempt to codify the form’s greatest achievements because it’s new, its history is obtainable and definable, and the films to choose from are for the most part knowable and limited. If painting, fiction, theatre, poetry et al had such distinct parameters and accessible histories, you know critics and scholars in those areas would be just as prone to annual lists and rankings. It may well be a genetic reflex – a primal-brain instinct for prioritising materials and works, gathering a communal agreement about the prioritisation, and understanding what we have wrought as a society by asking, simply, which is best, which exemplifies us?

This is what criticism does: assesses, categorises, compares, celebrates, lionises, and winnows away the chaff. A tally of how we momentarily view cinema’s peak manifestations is an integral part of the dialogue – a part that’s fuelled by love, by a desire to exalt. (As Madness used to say: “Don’t watch that, watch this!”) When explication and theorisation is done, what do we have besides our transported experiences, our ecstatic exchanges with cinematic tissue?

Poll lists are cultural housekeeping in a world nostril-deep in an endless ocean of marketing sewage and online distraction. It’s democratic organisation for the sake of value, in the absence of which certain ideas of film and filmwatching – as well as a great many films in and of themselves – would be subsumed in the flood and lost. Disagree or disregard, by all means, but stand back: this is our tribe’s way of saying, against the tide, This Is What Matters.

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