Reviewing the Greatest Films of All Time, part three: open the 2022 floodgates!

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

The Human Condition I: No Greater Love (1959)

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: Nicole Brenez
Subject: Future Top Tens

Dear All,

I’m reading your exchanges after a whole day devoted to identify the Palestinian revolutionary films that Masao Adachi described in his 1971 diary, which have no titles or names because at the time it was too dangerous to mention them. A difficult task, one that leads me to learn to carefully distinguish between the films made for the PLO [Palestine Liberation Organisation] and those made for the FPLP [Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine]. With such a background, do I feel very far away from the questions raised by the new Sight & Sound poll?

On the contrary, I think that, the more necessary films are to the people (le peuple, the exploited parts of society, which are the main parts of it), the more they will remain, will be cherished and will become adamantine classics.

Of course, the really necessary films, meaning the films made to support people during oppression, a struggle, a war, very often are clandestine, censored, or damaged in one way or another. Many of them were destroyed, as were Adachi’s own newsreels.

It takes some time (years, decades, half of a century…) for them to reach another audience than the one primarily concerned and already convinced (as Adachi’s Declaration of World War, for example, or René Vautier’s Afrique 50).

But when they do, they become the most precious patrimony of a culture, and models of inspiration for the new generations, who often are fighting under new kinds of oppressions.

Let’s think to the clandestinely made Hour of the Furnaces, now a classic in Latin America. Let’s think to Winter Soldier, to the films by Patricio Guzmán, by Raymundo Gleyzer and so many others.

Of course, the presence of Gillo Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers in the 2012 poll is not at all due to its revolutionary origins, but to the fact that after 9/11 it suddenly appeared as a possible visual key in a time of political crisis, a visual tool that historically was useful both for resistors (i.e. the Black Panthers) and for the counter-intelligence services.

From a cinephile point of view, it’s very curious, because it’s not the best film of his author (¡Queimada! is more inventive), and it is praised for its documentary dimension (written and acted by Yacef Sâadi, a true fighter) while it’s really a historical fiction. I think the presence of The Battle of Algiers is a symptom of a deep thirst for films dealing directly with the collective history of emancipation, and this one was the most easily available. 

My most personal experience concerns the films of the Medvedkin Group, totally forgotten by the cinephiles when I met their (very surprised) authors in 1999: Bruno Muel, Henri Traforetti, Georges Binetruy and so on. They are now exemplary classics in France, published on DVD, and subject of much research, writing, screenings. They are part of what we call ‘la culture générale’.

The 2012 results of the poll are full of avant-garde films: Man with a Movie Camera, Jeanne Dielman, Sátántangó, La Jetée, and of course there are the experimental sequences of the great winners: Vertigo, 2001, Persona.

So, I guess the next step, in 2022, will be the ‘classification’ (becoming classical/being ‘classifiable’) of the films that were made outside the usual production circuits, were never screened in a regular commercial theatre, and are not yet published in DVD (or any new circulation tool).

  • Firstly, because they are historically precious, and their story is in itself an exploit, sometimes very novelistic;
  • Secondly, because their conditions of production will look like new and future ones, as now anyone can produce a film outside of the industry.

As usual, Jean-Luc Godard’s work will be a major source of inspiration, as soon as the films of his Dziga Vertov era will be correctly published (they are already in Spain).

I bet that the radical films made by the most autonomous and formally inventive creators, for example the films of Jonas Mekas, Lino Brocka, Afrique 50 by René Vautier,  D.O.A. by Lech Kowalski, or London 66 by Peter Whitehead, will be part of the future canon.

From: Kevin B. Lee
Subject: On Stodginess, Chinese Films, Hollywood and Third Cinema

Dan S., one reason I’m glad you’re part of this discussion is your piece on Slate following the 2002 Sight & Sound poll, where you seemed to complain that the “the canon has become a wee bit stodgy”. Your comments then reinforced my own opinion that a self-perpetuation of received wisdom about canonical cinema was something threatening the vitality of film culture at large and the S&S poll in particular. So it’s sort of an ironic turn to see you respond to my introductory remarks by commenting on a certain need for continuity to validate a canon.

Another highlight of your 2002 article is how you point out the educational and entertainment value of poring over the individual lists for unexpected or unfamiliar titles, and how a list might reflect the tastes of the list maker. I suspect that the 1,200-plus critics’ and directors’ lists submitted by this year pose a more daunting prospect to pore through than the 253 ten years ago – but if we have time to look through even a fraction of them, I’m eager to know what catches your attention.

Jonathan, since you brought up Jia Zhangke, I’ll mention that Platform made it as far as my shortlist (I consider it and Xiao Wu to be his two best works), so I plead guilty to not helping his cause. As you noted, Platform came out the same year as Yi Yi, as well as In the Mood for Love, the top-ranked post-millennial film in the poll – these three films alone suggest that 2000 may well have been the greatest year for Chinese-language cinema.

Still, I can’t profess to understand why Wong Kar Wai’s film placed so well, or how it reflects the very best filmmaking our generation has to offer – in some respects it feels like a throwback to 1960s European art cinema dressed in Chinoiserie. (In Hong Kong it was hailed as a quantum leap for their cinema in the arena of international festival respectability – praise that seems to negate the much more unique and innovative work its commercial cinema produced throughout the preceding three decades, as argued by the likes of David Bordwell in Planet Hong Kong). 

Mood’s craft is impeccable, and, like Mulholland Dr., the other film from 2000 to place in the top 50, it has a rug-pulling climax to self-reflexively announce itself as a work of cinema to be studied on multiple levels. Perhaps it makes sense in the year that Vertigo tops the poll that a vertiginous, obsessive mood piece like In the Mood for Love gets carried aloft in the vortex. I respect the film and don’t want to disparage its masterful introspection in favour of films like Yi Yi or Platform that are less glamorous or sexy, but no less attuned to epic revelations found within everyday life. Time will tell if Wong’s film is more than just a fashionable choice.

Dan C., I think a number of us in this conversation would second your complaint about Howard Hawks’ non-presence in this poll. Never mind the lack of a consensus film to rally around (Rio Bravo fared best at number 63), Hawks doesn’t even place in the top 25 among directors! I believe Jonathan has voted for Hawks in the past (Gentlemen Prefer Blondes) and Dan S. is a big Hawks aficionado (he voted for Rio Bravo), so they may have some thoughts as to his lack of support here.

At the same time, the murmurings of Hollywood’s demise in the poll are a bit exaggerated – half of the top ten are US commercial releases, only one fewer than 10 years ago. I share more of your concern about the dearth of comedies, verbal or otherwise. In the top 50, I count only seven films that qualify as comedies (by a fairly generous definition, including such films as La Règle du jeu), and only two more comedies make the top 100.

Nicole, as in your essay about Hour of the Furnaces that S&S published prior to the poll, you ask what makes a canonical film and take the question all the way back to question the industrial and political apparatus that dominates cinema, and by extension dominates most people’s thinking about what cinema is and could be.

Here I must make a confession that I did not fully understand the definition of Third Cinema until I adapted your essay into a video. I had just assumed it referred to cinema of the ‘third world’, but its meaning as explained by Solanas and Getino in their seminal essay is more profound – that there can and should be a cinema that exists in opposition to the first, dominant commercial cinema which largely supports the societal status quo, and the second, ‘auteur’ or art house cinema that occasionally purports to transcend the mainstream, but as you say in your essay, amounts to a “release valve”.

The films you listed all qualify as a cinema that exists in a radical alternative space, one that most people, even cinephiles, may not know about. I didn’t go to film school, but I wonder if I would have encountered these films even if I had. My involvement with the independent film scene in China is what brought me solidly into this vital space. What I also take from your writing is that it’s also not enough to put these films in front of people but to orient them with an understanding of what Third Cinema means. The ascendance of Battle of Algiers may well be indicative of a growing awareness of this cinema – I’m curious see what more will come to the fore in ten years.

From: Dan Sallitt
Subject: Canon Formation and Reformation

Canons form on the interface between reactionary and revolutionary impulses. All our internal and external experience gives us evidence against the idea that there can be anything objective or essential about our aesthetic preferences; and yet, when the conservative in the conversation says, “So there’s no good reason that we think Shakespeare is a better writer than my seven-year-old?”, few of us don’t dither over our answer.

Looked at from this perspective, canon drift is fascinating because it can either document cultural subjectivity or hint at its limitations, depending on how you want to look at it. No canon stays the same, and no canon changes completely.

So, from my point of view, the Sight & Sound poll is interesting precisely because individuals generally vote as though they are measuring aesthetic value in some objective, timeless sense. Canon drift happens in spite of tastemakers’ efforts, not because of them. Of course, voters have all sorts of motivations, and we have exhibited a number of them in this conversation. But the collective result favours the traditional voter and discards experimental ballots – if the statistics are sound, anyway.

Most of the ‘complaint’ about the canon’s stodginess in my 2002 article was contained in the title and caption, which were not chosen by me. I wouldn’t say that the piece itself has a complaining tone. The editor did ask me for a ‘punchier’ ending, and so I revised the final sentence to read:

Unfortunately, for the foreseeable future, Breillat, Haneke, and other major directors of today’s cinema are likely to appear in the Sight & Sound polls only as commentators.

I wished almost immediately that I’d said “for better or worse” instead of “unfortunately”.

As for Hawks, I’d wager that most of the voters in the poll consider him a great director. It’s no insult not to make the cut when only ten films are allowed. This said, I think that Hawks’s status in the United States has always been just a hair lower than that of Ford, Hitchcock and other deities. I wonder if Hawks would perform better if this survey were filtered to include only French critics – I bet that would have been the case in the 60s or 70s, at least.

From: Vadim Rizov
Subject: In the Mood for Criterion

Kevin, you noted that In The Mood For Love seemed in some ways “a throwback to 1960s European art cinema dressed in Chinoiserie” – that potentially lightweight, fashionable quality, I’d suggest, is part of the reason it’s traveled so well and attracted such devotion.

I can’t help but think that the Criterion Collection’s selection of Mood (and Yi Yi as well) is possibly an equally important contributing factor to our awareness of it, or at least a validation of a trend (much as Touki Bouki’s 2008 restoration by the World Cinema Foundation and subsequent internet availability almost certainly accounts for its sudden, welcome appearance on the list). For better or worse, their inclusions generate internet discussion and almost instant worrying about canonical inclusion, and I suspect that the many American and English voters are at least interested in them.

I also note, perhaps cynically, that In The Mood For Love made $12 million worldwide upon initial theatrical release, while Yi Yi made just over a million in the US – both numbers dwarfing every film by Hou Hsiao-hsien and Jia Zhangke. Both of these relatively high pollers also don’t lead curious novices towards reviews stressing the historically dense challenges facing viewers – surely another unfortunately discouraging signpost guiding viewers towards safer, if still great, films.

From: Nicole Brenez
Subject: The Power of One, and Many

The 2012 results seem the symptom of an equilibrium that is already vanished: between the times where all the critics, focused on some industries and their margins, could see and discuss a corpus considered as ‘the history of cinema’; and the times where even the most dedicated critic, watching films all day and night long, on any kind of technological tools, from every period and countries (let’s say, a Jonathan Rosenbaum), knows that he’s seeing just a bubble of the foam in the ocean of images.

What excites me is the complete list of all the mentioned films: 2,039 (coming from 846 voters).

  • 1,152 films are mentioned only one time, so the majority of films are praised by only one person.
  • 303 films are mentioned by two persons.

Anecdotally, I must confess that the first thing I did after reading the list was to write to Olaf Möller (whom I’ve never met), to salute him because we were the only two to mention Afrique 50 by René Vautier.
Among the films mentioned just one time, one can find many classical masterpieces: Yojimbo by Kurosawa Akira, Peeping Tom by Michael Powell, 8 Marvels by Pasolini and many more (already or not yet classical) that could easily pretend to be in the place of Hitchcock’s Vertigo.

It’s a question of what we call in French la fortune critique, the ways of recognition/legitimisation and then the paths of inspiration. If, for example, next year Wang Bing or John Gianvito decides to create a remake or any kind of re-installation of Masaki Kobayashi’s The Human Condition, a film that in itself deserves totally to be considered as ‘the best’ film in the history of cinema (but obtained only two mentions in the poll), and if three new good books/pieces are published about Kobayashi (or even only one, if it’s by an internationally acclaimed artist like Harun Farocki or Tacita Dean or Ai Weiwei), it could become the most necessary and revered film for the next decade.

So the bottom and the head of the list could be reversed, but what is important is the dynamics of the new poll: to enlarge the corpus of works and authors. Not at all its ‘winners’, but its faculty to broaden the perspective of visual patrimonialisation.
The Third Cinema was a movement protesting against imperialism (in its military, economical, political dimensions) and notably in its cultural counterpart, visual imperialism. Hour of the Furnaces is important because it’s an essay describing the logics and procedures of imperialism. But, even if one of my main works is to look for forgotten and magnificent films that belong more or less to the same ideal (le cinéma des combattants, from the beginning of the cinema to our days), the idea is not to defend only the Third Cinema as a purpose closed upon itself: but Fourth Cinema, Fifth Cinema, Sixth Cinema… meaning, all kinds of free, creative, provocative, courageous or “useless” (as Jonas Mekas said) film. And those could lie also in the heart of the industry itself, as in many of the films by George Romero or John Carpenter.

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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