The magazine began polling critics for their lists of top ten films in 1952, when Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves (1948) became the first winner. In each decade since however it is Orson Welles’s classic story of press tycoon Charles Foster Kane that has topped the poll.
Welles’s film seemed impermeable, but many speculated that the results of the 2012 ballot would see a usurper. There were audible gasps around the room at BFI Southbank when the countdown reached number two and a still of Welles playing Kane shot up on screen. “Yes, Orson Welles’s towering edifice of cinema genius has been toppled at last,” said Nick James. “Many of you in the room can guess what this means…”
The favourite to cause an upset after it came a close second in the 2002 poll, Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo won by a margin of 34 votes. A hypnotic psychological thriller about romantic obsession, Hitchcock’s film was not a critical success upon its initial release and didn’t appear in the Sight & Sound top ten until 1982. Each decade since, it has edged higher up the rankings.
Three silent films made the top ten, including poll veterans Sunrise (1927) and The Passion of Joan of Arc (1927) – the latter, as James pointed out, passes “in and out of the top ten every decade like a yo-yo.” Despite its 80-plus years, Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera (1929) provided a fresher face. “A real surprise this,” James announced, “Vertov’s dazzling hymn to city life is in our top ten for the very first time. It’s the highest placed documentary and the highest placed avant-garde film to boot.”
Mindful of the ways in which the internet has broadened the scope of film commentary, Sight & Sound cast its net far wider for contributors this year, to include noted bloggers and internet critics as well as print journalists. “We were also determined that the list should not be so dominated by anglophone critics,” James explained. “We went out of our way to find critics and programmers from every country with any kind of significant film activity.” More than 1000 critics, curators, academics, and distributors were approached, with 846 sending in their top ten films.
With Vertigo still getting comfortable in its new throne, James went on to unveil the results of the poll of directors that Sight & Sound has run alongside its critics’ poll since 1992. “The shock here is that Kane hasn’t won this either,” he revealed, clearly savouring the reshuffle. “Indeed it would have been placed third had it not been rescued by our very last director to contribute, Michel Hazanavicius, who pushed it up to equal second.” Number three in the critics’ poll, it was Yasujiro Ozu’s Tokyo Story (1953) that the directors voted to the top, making it the first foreign-language film to win a Sight & Sound poll since Bicycle Thieves in 1952.
The event doubled as a launch party for the redesigned Sight & Sound magazine, the first issue of which contains the full poll results and selected individual contributor lists (the full lists will be made available online on 15 August).
In an introductory speech, the magazine’s publisher Rob Winter said, “Perhaps, in turning the grand-old age of 80 this year, Sight & Sound took a look at itself in the mirror and decided that we could do with a bit of smartening up. Make an effort. Find out what an Android device actually was.” To which end, a digital edition for desktop computers and iPads will now be available alongside the print version, and include access for subscribers to the entire archive of past issues.
For the night of the poll, however, the print issue would suffice. With the results finally out, and copies of the magazine made available, many present could be seen poring over the detail long into the evening.
Photography: Yves Salmon