Poll position: Kaned!

In 2012, our Greatest Films poll broke the internet. What will happen this time?

Citizen Kane (1941)

‘Kaned!’ That thumpingly comical coinage may well be my most abiding memory of 2012, the year Sight and Sound last did its once-a-decade Greatest Films of All Time poll. If you didn’t already know you might guess that it headlined a news story about Vertigo (1958) displacing Citizen Kane (1941) to take the number one spot; but it appeared in – of all places – the Sun, and not even online but in the actual newspaper!

I still shake my head incredulously when I cast my mind back to that moment. How did a poll in a supposedly elitist film magazine, sounding out a bunch of nerdy list-obsessed critics, end up being covered in a mass-market tabloid read by millions in the UK? As the S&S team gathers itself for this year’s next iteration of said poll, it seems apt to glance back to the 2012 editorial process which brought us to that strange but exciting pass.

Bicycle Thieves (1948)

Over the years, Sight and Sound had clearly been more instrumental than any other outlet in naturalising Citizen Kane as the greatest film ever made. The S&S poll started in 1952, with Bicycle Thieves (1948) in the top spot; that time round Citizen Kane narrowly missed making the top ten. It was voted best film ever for the first time in 1962 and then held that position for the next 50 years. As we began work in early 2012 on planning and putting together the invitation list, we were all determined on some changes; that this time around the poll should be much bigger and more fully international than ever, which clearly meant that the critical consensus might be subject to alteration – whether major or minor, it was impossible to say.

Apart from the then-editor, Nick James, and the features editor, James Bell, none of us on the 2012 editorial team had been at the magazine when the 2002 poll was held. But we all felt that, given the ongoing expansion and democratisation of film criticism on the internet and elsewhere in the intervening decade, and given the social media and other communication tools now at our disposal, we could and should be reaching out to a lot more critics than previously. Any lingering whiff of insidery cliquishness would be dispelled; the mood in the office was quietly iconoclastic.

In particular, we all recognised that the invitee list had to be much more diverse and as inclusive as possible. As well as a comprehensive geographical spread, we ideally wanted a 50/50 male/female split and strong coverage of all ethnicities and identity categories. In addition, we decided to expand the term ‘critic’ to include a range of cinema workers – curators, programmers, archivists, festival directors etc. To enable all this we needed a worldwide team of advisers to help us with contacts, not to mention an Excel spreadsheet. The process of gathering names took several months. It was a lot of fun but exhausting. What I imagined had once entailed phoning round a bunch of your film-festival mates to solicit their top-ten lists had now become akin to planning the Normandy landings.

The result came in and, blimey, did we have a story; but one we all had to keep secret for several weeks until we went public. The launch event at the BFI Southbank in London was packed, with Nick James doing a countdown of the top ten. There was a current of genuine shock and perplexity when Citizen Kane was announced as number two; then a furore of excited chatter after Vertigo’s enthronement. I was introduced to Penelope Houston, the legendary former editor of S&S, in the hubbub afterwards, who was airily, fabulously dismissive. “How could anyone think that’s the best film ever?” – she positively shuddered as she uttered those words.

Vertigo (1958)

Next day in the office things went ballistic. Sky, the BBC and other TV channels wanted to interview Nick James. The BFI’s head of press, Nick Mason Pearson, stuck his head round the door to tell us we were trending on Twitter. An hour later he did the same again; this time we were the top-trending topic on Twitter. People from all the over the word were emailing us about it. A friend in Israel told me it had just been on the TV there. Another in Buenos Aires had heard it on the radio news in Argentina. We were speechless, not to say euphoric. We’d hoped to make a bit of a splash but this had exceeded all our expectations. We were literally at the centre of an international media storm.

So how do you top that? More of the same essentially, but even bigger. We invited more than a thousand people last time; the ambition is to at least double that number in 2022. The authority of the S&S poll has always been underpinned by its longevity and deep roots. Our belief is that authority will be enhanced, rather than diminished, by a judiciously curated expansion of our invitee list. Of course all the same principles apply in terms of diversity and inclusion, but we’ll have to work hard to make that apparent in the final analysis. I’ve been approached by a dozen people so far who’d like to be included. That’s the good news. The bad news – they’re all male and all white!

All this may stir things up considerably. We could also see more 21st-century films given that we’re almost a quarter of the way into it by now. Could there be more films by women directors, more by Black directors? It would be good to see the white male hegemony shaken up a bit. But perhaps it’s wise not to make too many assumptions about voting patterns. Do LGBTQ+ cinephiles vote for more LGBTQ+ films, for example? Let the debate begin. The results will be unveiled later this year. Now, where did I put that spreadsheet?

The 100 Greatest Films of All Time 2012

In our biggest ever film critics’ poll, the list of best movies ever made has a new top film, ending the 50-year reign of Citizen Kane.

The 100 Greatest Films of All Time 2012

The new issue of Sight and Sound

In this 21st-century cinema special: 25 critics choose an era-defining film from each year of the century, and J. Hoberman asks: what is a 21st-century film? Plus: ten talking points from Cannes – George Miller on Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga – remembering Roger Corman with a never-before-seen interview.

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