Reviewing the Greatest Films of All Time, part four: getting personal

Eight international correspondents post-mortem the biggest-ever iteration of our celebrated film polls.

Goodbye, Dragon Inn (2003)

Editor’s note: Following the unveiling in our September 2012 issue of the initial results of our new Greatest Films of All Time poll, Kevin B. Lee initiated the following email correspondence with several fellow film critics analysing the outcome of the poll, following up a prior discussion on Indiewire that anticipated the poll. We made further data from the nether regions of the poll (now completely online) available to the circle as we finished processing it, so the discussion was able to dig deeper as it developed. We’ve broken the conversation into four parts for publication over consecutive days.

From: David Jenkins
Topic: Getting Personal

On the personal top tens, I found two comments particularly interesting: the first, from Michel Ciment, which reads: “The latest film mentioned [on my list] is from 1977 – I deliberately wanted to include works that have stood the test of time.” The other, in the directors poll from Pawel Pawlikowski, reads: “Instead of repeating my top ten from 2002, I decided it would be interesting to select my favourites only from films made since 1992.”

Aside from the superficial reading that, obviously, contributors will all have vastly differing conceptions of the poll remit (Kevin’s own being carefully divided by country and decade), there’s the overall feeling that directors choose films which offer a key to their own work (perhaps relating to the time the film was released or its style), whereas critics appear more tethered to things like geography and are more aware of The Canon.

Maybe it’s just me, but I find the fact that Guy Maddin chose Zvenigora, or Hong Sang-soo chose The Green Ray, or Carlos Reygadas chose Gummo, or Patricio Guzmán only selected documentaries, or that Michael Mann chose Avatar, all selections worthy of further analysis. Again, this is just a very broad reading of the results printed, a reading which will only become even more hazy when all of the personal lists are published.

From the personal lists printed, one thing that stands out is that there appears to be more people willing to go totally off piste with their ballot. Of the critics, there’s Adrian Martin, Alexander Horwath, Slavoj Zizek, Mark Cousins, Pierre Rissient and Genevieve Sellier who have filed ‘highly personal’ lists. Of the directors, there are very few of the 100 printed that are entirely dictated by canonical titles.

Beyond a very deep analysis, at this point it’s tough to take away any very pronounced trends for the personal lists (or, indeed, speculate as to why people have voted the way they have), but the sense is that this spurt of eclecticism – bar the odd surprise like Touki-Bouki or Sátántangó – has been muffled by the sheer amount of people polled. Kevin/George – were there any noticeable times in past polls where contributors opted to entirely reject the conventional canon?

From: Kevin B. Lee
Subject: Directors > Critics?

David, I too enjoyed looking through the directors’ ballots, in some ways more than the critics’ ballots. Some are predictable (of course Woody Allen picked Bergman and Fellini, of course Hong Sang-soo picked Rohmer). There’s Francis Coppola picking two Scorsese movies. There’s the Dardenne Brothers not picking De Sica or Bresson (denial of influence?). There’s Bong Joon-ho picking City of Sadness and Zodiac, which with his Memories of Murder forms a fascinating trilogy: the history of violence, and the violence of history.

Conversely, there’s Paul Greengrass’s list of outstanding agitprop (Battle of Algiers, Potemkin, The War Game), a rich legacy I think he turned his back on when he went from Bloody Sunday to United 93 and the Bourne films. And it was nice to see Béla Tarr acknowledge Miklos Jansco, Tarr’s fellow countryman and original master of the long-take, who seems to have fallen well beneath Tarr’s shadow.

And then there’s Tsai Ming-liang selecting Goodbye, Dragon Inn, by Tsai Ming-liang. But knowing the intensely personal nature of the film and what it meant for him to make it, I can understand why. In this regard it’s surprising that not many other directors included their own favourite film that they made.

On a general level, Tokyo Story’s top placement among the directors is something I would have never seen coming, and it made the directors’ top ten list interesting to me for the first time, possibly even more interesting than the critics’ top ten. It also made me wonder about the roster of the voting directors, if there were many more from Asia than were in past polls. Among the Asian directors I know, Tokyo Story has as central a canonical status as Kane or Vertigo has among Western filmmakers. (For example, Chinese director Jia Zhangke makes explicit visual and musical homage to Tokyo Story in his film The World, which Jonathan picked for his top ten).

From: Nicole Brenez
Subject: Kindergarten

To discover the lists of other critics and directors – it’s when one feels like a little child in the schoolyard, exchanging marbles of every scale and colour.

My first move was (I guess like many people) to read the lists of my closest friends, knowing in advance that will be a relief because thanks to them I would feel less guilty not to have mentioned so many crucial films. And indeed, the lists by Jonathan, Adrian Martin, Brad Stevens, Javier Packer-Comyn, were perfect medicines to cure the guiltiness, the most curative for me being the wonderful list and comment by Berenice Reynaud.

Then, thanks to the filters used by Sight & Sound website, I read some of the lists by fellow programmers, whom I already met or don’t know at all. The great pleasure here is to discover titles that make me dream and I never heard of: Csontvary, by Zoltan Huszarik, mentioned by Alan Tasciyan, whom I don’t know but only can trust because he mentioned also The Colour of Pomegranates by Paradjanov and Man with a Movie Camera by Vertov; Beshkempir by Aktan Arym Kubat, mentioned by Gulnara Abikeyeva, whom I can only trust because she mentioned also Gabbeh by Mohsen Makhmalbaf and Rashomon by Kurosawa; or (to take only some cases), Reisender Krieger by Christian Schocher, mentioned by Thomas Allenbach, whom I don’t know either but trust because he mentioned Badlands by Malick and Cocksucker Blues by Robert Frank.

Cinephilia is a super-toxic virus of love.

Then, as the cinema always had taught us, I thought to the contrechamp, the counter-shot, and realized that many of the finest programmers and greatest connoisseurs of the history of cinema are absent from the poll, to which their knowledge could have brought a lot. I’m thinking of Michael Chaiken, Andrea Monti and Elle Burchill from the USA, Tanja Vrvilo from Croatia, Vassily Bourikas from Greece… So either I didn’t find them on the website; either they refused to make a list because it has no sense and it’s too painful to select only ten films, something I fully understand; or they are not yet identified by the Sight & Sound redaction.

Anyway, it’s only the beginning of kindergarten time, and I will read some more lists as soon as possible.

From: Bill Georgaris
Subject: The Most Unique Ballots

Inspired by Nicole’s comment “Then, thanks to the filters used by Sight and Sound website, I read some of the lists by fellow programmers, whom I already met or don’t know at all. The great pleasure here is to discover titles that makes me dream and I never heard of”, I decided to investigate which ballots where the most unique within the critics’ poll. I couldn’t agree more with Nicole, stumbling upon films you have never heard of or films you had previously disregarded is for me where polls like this really prove their worth. And, with over 2,000 films mentioned, there is a bevy of undiscovered beauties (and admittedly maybe some plain-Janes) awaiting us all.

Anyway, back to the investigation. I won’t bore you too much with the methodology, but below are – according to my workings – the ten most unique ballots submitted.

(Disclaimer: a unique ballot obviously doesn’t guarantee quality, but it certainly triggers curiosity.)

1 Ferroni Brigade, Olaf Möller (also part of the Ferroni Brigade) and Slavoj Zizek (12 votes in total for all films chosen)
4= Barbara Wurm (also part of the Ferroni Brigade) and Martial Pisani (13 votes in total for all films chosen)
6= Santiago Gallego (14 votes in total for all films chosen)
7= David Curtis and Gary Thomas (15 votes in total for all films chosen)
9= Luke McKernan and Patrick Russell (16 votes in total for all films chosen)

To clarify my workings, let’s take a look at Slavoj Zizek’s ballot:

  • 3:10 to Yuma (total votes in poll = 1)
  • Dune (total votes in poll = 1)
  • The Fountainhead (total votes in poll = 1)
  • Hero (total votes in poll = 2)
  • Hitman (total votes in poll = 1)
  • Nightmare Alley (total votes in poll = 1)
  • On Dangerous Ground (total votes in poll = 1)
  • Opfergang (total votes in poll = 1)
  • The Sound of Music (total votes in poll = 2)
  • We the Living [Noi Vivi] (total votes in poll = 1)

Slavoj Zizek’s total vote count for his ballot is therefore 12, making it the equal most unique ballot in the poll.

Please keep in mind, though, that some ballots may be more unique than you think. A voter may, for example, have included nine obscure titles and Vertigo. The moral of this is that all ballots, time willing, deserve our attention. There could be some hidden gems in places we’d least expect.

From: Nicole Brenez
Subject: More fun (with) ballots

Bill, contrary to what I thought first reading your message, I realised that eccentricity (in the literal geometrical sense of ‘being far from the centre’) does not mean exploratory (in the sense of proposing new titles and cinematic values).

For example, Slavoj Zizek’s list includes almost only mainstream films dealing with ways to create history – several of them about bigger-than-life and furious heroes, or a subversive classic of anti-fascism, Noi Vivi by Goffredo Aleassandri (1942).

On the other end is Barbara Wurm’s list that, proposing films dealing with the forms of resistance, includes classical masterpieces (e.g. Yol by Serif Gören and Yilmaz Güney, made by Güney while he was in jail), but also rare contemporary films, as Walter Defends Sarajevo by Hajrudin Krvavac or Malerei Heute (Painting Now) by Anja-Christin Remmert/Stefan Hayn.

A fascinating relationship between these two lists that both are dealing with films as weapons and scars of collective history, is also that Zizek’s list includes a film by Veit Harlan, The Great Sacrifice (1944), which I haven’t seen but the Harvard Archive describes as:

Here, a well situated husband strays from a life of privilege and a picture-book marriage to pursue an affair with a mysterious and sickly woman. With its ennui, melancholy, and fatalism, the film becomes a full-blown exercise in morbid abandon, culminating in a hypnotic demonstration of sickness unto death as another transgressive heroine takes her place in Nazi cinema’s gallery of female martyrs.

Wurm’s list includes Torre Bela by Thomas Harlan (1977), one of the most ‘activist’ films ever made, in the sense that it not only records but also provokes an insurrectionary situation in Portugal, as José Felipe Costa’s thesis ‘Cinema forges the event: Filmmaking and the Case of Thomas Harlan’s Torre Bela’ and filmic analysis Red Line (2011) taught us.

I wonder what Hartmut Bitomsky, who knows all about this history (Veit Harlan, Thomas Harlan, their films and the relationships between film and political struggles) would think about this.

From: David Jenkins
Subject: Living in a Post-Kane World

Last thing: one thing I mentioned in the Press Play pre-poll email roundelay was that Kane would be toppled. Not a particularly sage or risky prediction, perhaps, but it’s certainly got me thinking about a general air of triumphalism that has stemmed from the fact that Kane has now fallen. It made me wonder whether Kane had been bullied from the top spot? Would a vote for Kane be a vote retaining a safe status quo? And with Vertigo being identified early on as the film that could potentially nab the crown, would that have provoked contributors to make the switch, or tuck it on to the end of the ballot in order to play their part in canon-shaping?

I’m also interested to see how future criticism on Kane changes (or if, indeed, it changes at all) now this burden has been lifted. Will writing on Kane be less skewed towards attempts to desperately justify its all-conquering greatness? And will Vertigo now have to take on that mantle? Essentially, how important is the S&S poll in shaping critical discourse?

From: Kevin B. Lee
Subject: Beyond Lists

Time to draw this discussion to a close. Meant to do it sooner but I’ve been distracted here at the Beijing Independent Film Festival, where authorities shut down the opening screening and have driven the festival underground.

The situation brought to life what Nicole wrote about so many important films that have been kept in secret due to the conditions in which they were made. Film historian Brian Winston is here (he’s a BFI governor, to bring things full circle), and observed that all over the world, time and again, the way to control production is to control distribution.

But thinking further on Dan C.’s comments, it seems that even the hit films of Hollywood’s golden age are as equally threatened with the prospect of oblivion if they are not made newly relevant with the energy of our interest. It is not just a matter of discovering new films but rediscovering any whose greatness we’ve taken for granted. Even Citizen Kane is not safe, as this year’s results show.

David had asked earlier about what Kane’s mantle will look like now that it’s no longer the de facto greatest film. I was reminded of when Zhang Ling, a prominent Chinese film blogger and scholar, posted her Sight & Sound ballot online, and it was rebuked by another prominent critic who dubs himself ‘the Chinese Roger Ebert’. One reason for his scorn was that her list didn’t have Citizen Kane; the critic went on to suggest that she was ‘too Chinese’ to understand the film’s greatness (a rather improbable notion since Zhang is a PhD candidate at the University of Chicago and submitted a thoroughly international ballot). The cultural and aesthetic baggage that Kane’s assumed status brings to an exchange like this is something that we can probably do without.

By the same token, I should confess to passing cultural judgments in a separate instance. Just recently the Chinese-language film site published its own greatest films poll, except that the 135 participants were all specialists in Chinese cinema, mostly hailing from mainland China, Taiwan and Hong Kong. (It’s unclear to me if they did not invite qualified non-ethnic Chinese film specialists like Shelly Kraicer, Chris Berry and Tony Rayns; if so, I find that a troubling exclusion).

There were a number of differences, the most striking being the placement of Edward Yang’s A Brighter Summer Day as the number three film of all time. Fei Mu’s 1948 classic Spring in a Small Town also cracked the top ten (on the S&S poll it only managed number 127). Conversely, Wong Kar Wai’s In the Mood for Love, the highest ranked Chinese film in the S&S poll, only managed two votes and a 120 rank. I’m inclined to see this reversal as a validation of what I suggested earlier, that In the Mood for Love is a film that speaks to a more cosmopolitan, or just plain Western, sense of great cinema, the sort of perspective that needs to be challenged and broadened for it to entertain other films with equal consideration.

But there’s a flip side to this sentiment as well. Still I’m fascinated by the very notion of this poll, and wonder what polls by other voting blocs (specific nationalities, academic vs. programming vs. journalistic backgrounds, gender) would look like. It brings me back to one of my conclusions from the pre-poll discussion: I’d rather see a list that reflects not just great films, but great ways to watch films, ways of attaining other perspectives. A list that takes us beyond ourselves.

Also in this series

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