The Greatest Films of All Time 2012

Nick James introduces our Greatest Films of All Time poll – plus all our coverage.

Credit: Simon Cooper for Sight & Sound

To many of you it’s probably a familiar story. Every ten years, from 1952 onwards, Sight & Sound has conducted a worldwide poll of critics in order to decide which films are currently regarded as the greatest ever made. (Vittorio De Sica’s neorealist parable Bicycle Thieves won the first iteration only four years after it was shot. Famously, Citizen Kane has won ever since.) We’re proud that the longevity of this poll means that it’s widely regarded as the most trusted guide there is to the canon of cinema greats.

About a year ago, the S&S team met to consider how we could best approach the poll this time. Given the dominance of electronic media, what became immediately apparent was that we would have to abandon the somewhat elitist exclusivity with which contributors to the poll had been chosen in the past and reach out to a much wider international group of commentators. We were also keen to include many critics who had established their careers online rather than purely in print.

To that end we approached more than 1,000 critics, programmers, academics, distributors, writers and other cinephiles, and received (in time for the deadline) precisely 846 top-ten lists that between them mention a total of 2,045 different films.

As a qualification of what ‘greatest’ means, our invitation letter stated, “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.”

Each entry on each list counts as one vote for the film in question, so personal rankings within the top tens don’t matter. And one important rule change compared to 2002 was that The Godfather and The Godfather Part II would no longer be accepted as a single choice, since they were made as two separate films.

What the increase in numbers has – and hasn’t – done is surprising, but we’ve certainly achieved a consensus on what represents ‘great cinema’ that now has a greater force of numbers behind it.

Since 1992, we have also conducted a separate directors’ poll, likewise dominated by Citizen Kane through 1992 and 2002. Over 350 directors have contributed. Leaving to one side what’s number one this time, I can say that you’ll find a pronounced difference between the filmmakers’ top tens and those of the critics – not to mention many more fascinating sub-themes…

Browse the polls

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Countdown essays

  • The mark of Kane

    The mark of Kane

    With Sight & Sound’s once-in-a-decade Greatest Film of All Time poll looming in 2012, David Thomson launches a series of occasional debates on the canon, here wondering whether Citizen Kane will – or should – retain its top spot.
    Thursday 10 May 2012

  • Forever falling: Vertigo

    Forever falling: Vertigo

    In our series on contenders for our Greatest Films of All Time poll, Miguel Marías finds himself falling once again for the fathomless mysteries of Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo.
    Wednesday 25 July 2012

  • Revolutionary road: Boris Barnet’s The House on Trubnaya Street

    Revolutionary road: Boris Barnet’s The House on Trubnaya Street

    Battleship Potemkin is a standby in ‘best ever’ polls. But what of those silent classics revived in recent years?
    Wednesday 29 August 2012

  • Jean Vigo: artist of the floating world

    Jean Vigo: artist of the floating world

    L’Atalante was a bridge between the surrealism of 1920s French cinema and the poetic realism of the 1930s. Graham Fuller makes its case as one of the Greatest Films of All Time.
    Wednesday 1 February 2012

  • The great escape: La Grande Illusion

    The great escape: La Grande Illusion

    In past S&S polls of the greatest films of all time, Jean Renoir’s La Grande Illusion has lost out to his later, allegedly more personal film La Règle du jeu. It’s time to reconsider, says Ginette Vincendeau.
    Thursday 5 April 2012

  • Great wide open: L’Avventura

    Great wide open: L’Avventura

    Antonioni’s L’avventura is now more influential than ever, argues Robert Koehler in the latest of our series on contenders for our Greatest Films of All Time poll.
    Friday 27 July 2012

  • Light my fire: The Hour of the Furnaces

    Light my fire: The Hour of the Furnaces

    As Sight & Sound counts down to the September issue’s once-a-decade poll to find the Greatest Film of All Time, French critic Nicole Brenez makes the case for one of the key revolutionary activist films of the 1960s, The Hour of the Furnaces.
    Thursday 8 March 2012

  • Blood and sand: Beau Travail

    Blood and sand: Beau Travail

    In the latest of our essays making the case for contenders in S&S’s poll to find the Greatest Film of All Time, Hannah McGill revisits Beau Travail, Claire Denis’s rapturous 1998 exploration of male identity in crisis.
    Tuesday 1 May 2012

  • Remain in light: Mulholland Dr. and the cosmogony of David Lynch

    Remain in light: Mulholland Dr. and the cosmogony of David Lynch

    B. Kite considers David Lynch’s Mulholland Dr. in the light of the Vedanta-inspired spiritual philosophy that underpins all the director’s work.
    Thursday 1 March 2012

  • Listomania!


    Ahead of our Greatest Film of All Time poll, Michael Atkinson anatomises critics’ obsession with enshrining cinema’s ‘top ten’.
    Tuesday 31 July 2012

The 2012 top ten BFI Southbank season

Our 10 Greatest Films of All Time screened at the BFI Southbank throughout September. Watch the trailer!


Historical results

Our previous Sight & Sound polls are currently archived as follows:

2002 | 1992 | 1982 | 1972 | 1962 | 1952

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