Poll position: why so serious?

A list of Greatest Films hardly makes sense – so if we are going to make one, let’s have some fun.

Daughters of the Dust (1991)

When the filmmaker and film historian Peter Bogdanovich was asked to take part in the 2012 Sight and Sound Greatest Films poll, he tried to make a top ten. And then he changed his mind: “There are so many wonderful pictures to see that to reduce them down to a top ten is a disservice to all the great work that has been done.”

Anyone set to compile their own voting ballot – particularly for a poll as historically powerful as this one – may sympathise with Bogdanovich’s demurral. How does one value the revolutionary jump-cutting of À bout de souffle (1960) over the creeping formalist discomfort of Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975)? The pastel-drenched melancholy of The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964) beneath the zig-zagging existential doom of Rashomon (1950)?

The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964)

The answer, really, is that you can’t. It’s fundamentally absurd to rank art. You can only try, in your own lopsided, subjective way, to fashion a list of ‘greatest films’ that you love and that, in turn, you want other people to see and love. Invariably you’ll be in a Sophie’s Choice situation with two titles at some point, or realise you haven’t included a film from a particularly rich national cinema or decade. The cinematic ABCs in the traditional Sight and Sound poll are enduring: Welles, Ozu, Fellini, Hitchcock. Since the poll’s inception in 1952, the rankings have only changed incrementally, and slowly. Citizen Kane (1941) remained number one from 1962 to 2012, when it was usurped by Vertigo (1958). It’s fair to say that people have laboured over their choices, knowing greatness is bestowed upon their picks. I would argue that maybe it’s time we take list-making a little bit less seriously.

A decade on from the last poll, we’ve lived through the presidency of Donald Trump, a global pandemic, the rise of #MeToo and the Black Lives Matter movement, and we’ve seen a new focus on gender equality and trans rights. Our shifting world has asked for a major rethink of the dominant capitalist, colonialist and racist power structures that exist in life as in cinema. The concept of ‘experts’ building a ‘canon’ and selecting films for their relative ‘greatness’ may have been well-suited to the patriarchal 1950s, but today it feels old-fashioned. The concept will need continual updating, pruning and renovating to remain relevant. Recognising the fundamental imperfection of the process – and having fun with it – might be key to that relevance.

No one has to love all of the stone-cold classics (I don’t), but in the omnivorous paradise of high and low film culture, there is still value in the utilitarian purpose of canon-building and list-making. Not because opinions are dealt out from on high, but because people may continue to seek out and learn from them. For educational purposes alone, it’s vital that we both hold on to the historical gems while continuing to build onto the existing canon. I’d love to see films like Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust (1991) or Melvin Van Peebles’ groundbreaking Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (1971) make it on to the poll.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019)

Another of my hopes is to see an inclusion of younger films on this year’s aggregate. Few were under 40 years old in the last poll. Yet going further back, in 1952 Bicycle Thieves (1948) topped the poll and in 1962 L’avventura (1960) finished second. In 2022, backing recent masterpieces like Moonlight (2016), Inside Llewyn Davis (2013), or Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019) would provide some contemporary vibrancy to proceedings, not to mention a better chance for Black, queer and women filmmakers to make an impact on the poll.

Some resist the notion of list-making entirely, and this is understandable. Elena Gorfinkel, in her 2019 piece ‘Against Lists’, published in the feminist film journal Another Gaze, takes the view that in today’s ‘hyper-mediated moment’ list-making is fuelled by narcissism more than the urge to draw attention to great art. She may well be correct. There’s no small amount of egotism involved in being in the position to ‘canonise’ one’s taste or show it off in this way, but the opposite is also true: calls to tear down the canon often take perverse pleasure in attacking burnished classics, and require no less ego.

Our current moment has a broad tendency toward over-correction. Even assumptions of a so-called ‘critical consensus’ are often not borne out by the stats. Individual voters’ lists tend to burst with fascinating choices, sometimes films that attract only one vote in the entire poll; since 1962, no winner has ever been on more than 37 per cent of all the ballots. I expect this year’s poll to be even less homogenous and more disparate in its choices. And I think there’s a space for that which might not have been there back in 2012.

One of my favourite things about cinema culture of the past ten years – at least as I have experienced it – is that there’s been a voracious curiosity among young cinephiles which means that they might have seen 13 Going on 30 (2004) before 8½ (1963) but enjoyed both equally; that they binge-watch reality TV alongside screenings of rare Edgar G. Ulmer films; share torrents of Kore-eda films and stream Farrelly Brothers comedies. This kind of cultural omnivorousness might be just what’s needed to bridge the gap between the old canon and the new. My greatest hope for the 2022 poll is that people lean into what they wholeheartedly love, without reservation or calculation – that they stop taking it all so seriously. After all, it’s just a list.

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.

Get your copy