Poll position: ‘of its time’ or ‘of all time’?

The film of the year rarely ends up on the list of all-time greats. What makes the difference?

30 November 2023

By Kevin B. Lee

The Souvenir 2019
Sight and Sound
  • From Sight and Sound, Summer 2023.

Of any film made in the last 20 years, Portrait of a Lady on Fire boasts the highest placing in Sight and Sound ’s Critics’ poll (No. 30). So it’s notable that in 2019, the year of its release, the magazine’s end-of-year poll – which surveyed only around 100 critics, compared with the decennial poll’s pool of 1,600 voters – placed it fifth. The top spot was taken by another breakthrough film by a female auteur: Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir – which in the all-time poll only got three critics’ votes compared to 60 for Portrait.

What could account for such a dramatic swing towards one film in only three years? Is it because Céline Sciamma’s film more overtly articulates one of the ascendant filmic concepts of the last decade, the female gaze, and is a landmark of mainstream queer cinema that it convinced more voters of its all-time status? The distinction between an ‘all-time great’ and a film that’s of its time is elusive, but it’s clear it warrants consideration when you notice how critical opinions of recent films have shifted in a relatively short time.

Highest ranking films from the 2010 onward in the Sight and Sound poll, and their ranking in S&S’s annual poll
FilmYearRanking in S&S best of the year pollRanking in Greatest Films poll
Portrait of a Lady on Fire2019530
Get Out20171=95
Twin Peaks: The Return20172=152
Under the Skin20145=169
Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives20102=196
The Tree of Live20111=196
Mad Max: Fury Road20153=196

Of the nine films besides The Souvenir which topped their respective S&S annual polls in the 2010s, only two ranked high in the all-time list. One of those, Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life (2011) is as ostentatiously ‘all-time’ as it gets, while Jordan Peele’s Get Out (2017) broke critical race theory into mainstream and genre filmmaking, and its impact on cinema is still being felt. But claims of all-time significance could also be made for Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing (2012), a game-changer for documentary filmmaking, or for Richard Linklater’s Boyhood (2014), a self-contained decade’s worth of cinematic wonder.

Looking at other films that have faced off in end-of-year polls, we see that Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives has outlasted The Social Network (2010), Moonlight has outshone Toni Erdmann (2016), and Mad Max: Fury Road has outpaced The Assassin (2015) – this last received no votes whatsoever in the all-time poll (doubly noticeable given that 12 other Hou Hsiao-hsien films were voted for). Both The Assassin and David Fincher’s The Social Network had to compete with their directors’ other films, while Toni Erdmann and The Souvenir may both have suffered from what makes each of them such singular achievements – a resistance to being tied to rallying concepts or keywords that signify their importance. They are marvellous for their underplayed qualities, their steady deepening of their worlds and characters over an extended duration.

Films that topped Sight and Sound’s annual polls, 2010-2019, and their placing in the Greatest Films poll
2010The Social Network=839
2011The Tree of Life=196
2012The Master=550
2013The Act of Killing=264
2015The Assassin0 votes
2016Toni Erdmann=291
2017Get Out=95
2019The Souvenir=839

This distinction may reflect a shift less in how films are conceived than in how they are spoken and written about. When S&S recapped the first decade of this century, it issued a list of 30 films that defined the 2000s, plus an editorial summarising the era’s prevailing trends and concepts (digitalisation, slow cinema). For the 2010s, the magazine discarded a ‘best films’ approach altogether, offering an alphabetical index alternating between individuals, themes and films (A for Ava DuVernay, B for Bridesmaids, C for class…). This broader lexicon gives a welcome view of cinema’s ecosystem beyond marquee titles. But it raises a question: in order to earn critical approval these days, must a film resonate with prevailing concerns and ideological frameworks? Does this signal a weakening of the appeal of the cinematic experience in a world obsessed with theme-driven discourse? Do concepts precede cinema?

‘Film for film’s sake’ may feel like a quaint notion, but the insistence on such qualities as the poetics of space and time still hold power. Still, poetics does not stand on an island of integrity, safely detached from ideological frameworks. Two years ago I was invited as a guest to teach a colleague’s class on cinematography and point of view. I noticed that his syllabus had only male-directed films. When I proposed adding Portrait of a Lady on Fire, he protested that a “chick flick” would be out of place next to Hitchcock. Even when fully embracing cinematic form, associative labelling is inescapable. If Portrait can be judged as great a film as any Hitchcock, it is because of a continuous evaluation of what values, cinematic or otherwise, are worth considering – if not for ‘all time’, then at least all the time.

The Greatest Films of All Time

In 1952, the Sight and Sound team had the novel idea of asking critics to name the greatest films of all time. The tradition became decennial, increasing in size and prestige as the decades passed. The Sight and Sound poll is now a major bellwether of critical opinion on cinema and this year’s edition (its eighth) is the largest ever, with 1,639 participating critics, programmers, curators, archivists and academics each submitting their top ten ballot. What has risen up the ranks? What has fallen? Has 2012’s winner Vertigo held on to its title? Find out below.

The Greatest Films of All Time

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