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What good does a Greatest Films list do for anyone in this year of 2022? You could answer, “None” and, not so long ago, I might even have agreed with you. Whittling down the vast art of cinema to ten films is a laughably difficult task. Yet recently I had what you might call a moment of clarity. In that radiant flash, I saw that despite all my grumbling, I love Sight and Sound’s Greatest Films of All Time list and its voters. I even love the list’s unyielding good taste and its relentless numerical pull to the centre.

This epiphany had, I admit it, a dreary source: a list of “The 50 Best Rom-Coms” at pop culture site the Ringer. The earliest movie on that list? Harold and Maude, from 1971. The next oldest was from 1983. In my eternal optimism, at first I thought, “Oh, I see. It’s a list of the best romantic comedies of the past 40 years. Harold and Maude got lost, wandered in, and nobody had the heart to tell it it was in the wrong poll.” But no. The introductory paragraph ended like the clang of a jailhouse door: “… this ranking of the 50 best romantic comedies in movie history.”

It Happened One Night (1934)

“Movie history”. Which begins, if we use the usual yardstick (the first commercial film screening), in 1895. So according to the Ringer, a website with around a million page impressions a day, as well as an enviably large bankroll with which they could, presumably, afford to hire any number of highly qualified film critics and film-literate culture writers, the first 88 years of movie history produced no romantic comedies worth sticking on a list like this. That is, except for Harold and Maude (which, to be clear, I like).

There were 18 writers polled. (A tip of the hat to the Sight and Sound editors who will be wrestling perhaps 100 times that number of voters into spreadsheets even as this is published.) I tinkered with some figures, trying to see how many votes it would have taken to land a spot on the Ringer’s list and where that film would have to be ranked on each ballot. Unfortunately, I ran into two of my most grievous faults: my barely adequate maths skills and my inability to make head or tail of ranked-choice voting.

Still, the only logical conclusion was right there, waiting for me to quit pretending it wasn’t. Sure, it’s just clickbait, and if I had a nickel for every time I’ve loftily been told that about some fresh viral horror, I sure could fund a lot of restorations. But there have been many, way too many, other instances. I can’t lie to myself; for a lot of people, even those paid to offer opinions on movies, the entire concept of ‘cinema history’ is becoming truncated. The great post-war arthouse era – which, contrary to many casual assertions, brought more than just white male directors to movie-houses – is fading from view. Early talkies and silent cinema, with their experimentation and frequent daring, have slipped over the horizon.

Oh, the melancholy tales I could tell you. The cinephile at a studio (hired no doubt by accident) who proposed a home-video set for a studio-era American auteur, a director revered by Cahiers du cinéma and this very magazine, and was told “no one cares about black-and-white.” The corporate ‘classics’ departments that aren’t interested in actually circulating anything of the sort. The legendary foreign film, unseen for decades, that screened in a major city at a famed revival house for fewer than a dozen customers. For those whose cinematic loves skew older, the situation is, let’s just say, not good.

And here is where Sight and Sound comes in. Lists have always drawn eyeballs; they are the clickbait lifeblood of many film sites. Complain, carp, rend your garments and toss all your Criterion Blu-rays on the floor, but we know it’s true. And this decennial poll, whatever its faults, has usually taken a long view of the movies. The highly welcome (and overdue) moves to expand and diversify the pool of voters didn’t end that.

Sunrise (1927) placed fifth in the 2012 Greatest Films of All Time poll

A number of reasons have been suggested as to why this is. What’s with all the black-and-white, Sight and Sound? I’d like to think that, at least in part, it’s because when a film writer is serious enough to be invited into the poll, the list of movies they’ve seen doesn’t fall off a cliff once you go back further than the 1970s, any more than it’s confined to one country or region. The 2012 critics’ poll, far from suffering recency bias, included three silent films in the top ten, whereas the 2002 poll had two.

The 2012 top ten had an interesting distribution across the decades, with three each from the 1920s and 1950s, two for the 1960s and one apiece for the 1930s and 1940s. Nothing pre-1920s, and nothing from the 1970s (rather surprising, since the decade was represented before). Nor any movies from the 1980s, 1990s or 2000s. If I had to make one prediction, I think that for 2022, the 54-year-old 2001 will no longer be the youngest film in the top ten. Despite my obvious interests, I say that’s as it should be. I may prefer to voyage into the past, where I make fresh and exciting discoveries all the time. But cinema itself moves forward, or so we hope.

I’ve never seen this poll as enshrining a canon. I do see the list in the way it will be used by many people; as a starting point, a set of suggestions for acquainting yourself with an artform. And in art as in life, as Maya Angelou said, “If you don’t know where you’ve come from, you don’t know where you’re going.” Even those who’ve seen everything on the final top ten or 20 will search for and find gems in the individual ballots. The process is, as Sight and Sound cheerfully acknowledges, messy and flawed. But no matter how 2022 shakes out, at least we can be optimistic that this mother of all ‘best’ lists won’t suggest that the first 88 years of film never happened.

More Poll positions

Poll position: why so serious?

By Christina Newland

Poll position: why so serious?

Poll position: one more film

By David Thomson

Poll position: one more film

Poll position: too much perspective

By Ashley Clark

Poll position: too much perspective

The 100 Greatest Films of All Time

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

Sight and Sound September 2022

In this issue: Quentin Tarantino on tape, the best film podcasts, Baz Luhrmann on Elvis, Warren Ellis on composing for film and Panah Panahi on Hit the Road. Plus: Black Film Bulletin, James Caan, Georges Méliès and more.

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