Poll position: past masters

As films slip down the rankings over the decades, will we forget what made them seem great?

30 November 2023

By Kevin B. Lee

City Lights (1931)
Sight and Sound
  • From Sight and Sound, Winter 2023/24

When I first watched my way through the Sight and Sound polls’ top tens in my teens, the film I struggled most to understand was La Règle du jeu (1939). It was perhaps the first great film for which I had to overcome an initial indifference to appreciate. Through college readings that explicated its nuanced cinematic staging, applied to anti-fascist French farce, I came to value it as Europe’s alternative to Citizen Kane (1941). It was also how I interpreted its decades-long placement right behind Kane at the top of the poll. But the 2022 poll had it at 13, ending its run as the only film to have placed in every edition of the top ten. To see it lose its standing was as epochal to me as the dramatic rise of Jeanne Dielman (1976) to the top, as if a time-honoured philosophy of cinema embodied by Renoir’s masterpiece was fading from view.

Some may dismiss the significance of these rises and falls when all of these movies are unquestionably important, but canonical status doesn’t ensure a film’s contemporary resonance. Tracing the changes between each edition of the poll reveals some of the historical forces that determine such resonance. The first poll in 1952 was heavy with post-World War II humanist sentiment, led by Bicycle Thieves (1948) only four years after its release. France was never more dominant, with four titles in the top ten. Of the six silent films on that list (subsequent polls have never had more than three), Chaplin’s City Lights and The Gold Rush (1925) took second and third place; they now stand at 36 and 352, respectively. Why did the former become Chaplin’s signature work? Perhaps the passage of time distinguished it as an apotheosis of silent filmmaking, made defiantly in 1931 when the form had already succumbed to the sound age.

By 1962, both Chaplin titles and five others were ousted by the likes of Citizen Kane and L’Avventura (then only two years old). These films, with their formalist interrogations of cinematic realism beyond humanism, mark the influence of André Bazin and Cahiers du cinéma on the preceding decade of film criticism. Fitting the Bazinian mode, Mizoguchi Kenji’s Ugetsu Monogatari (1953) made the first appearance by a film from outside the US and Europe, repeating the feat in 1972 before giving way to Seven Samurai (1954) in the 1980s and Tokyo Story (1953) in the 1990s. Nowadays, Miyazaki Hayao’s films rank higher than Mizoguchi’s, while Chaplin ranks higher than Michelangelo Antonioni.

While Battleship Potemkin (1925) was shut out of the last two editions of the top ten, it enjoyed its best placing in 1972, possibly due to the strength of leftist and avant-garde cinema at the time. Auteur theory was well established by then, with Orson Welles and Ingmar Bergman as the causes célèbres with two films each in the top 11, a feat not repeated since. With The General (1926) at number eight, Keaton’s kinetic brilliance supplanted Chaplin as the silent comic of choice. Fast forward to the current poll, where City Lights has retaken the lead and Keaton’s Sherlock Jr. (1924) ranks higher than The General. Is that because Sherlock’s post-cinematic dream sequence holds up better than The General’s problematic sympathies with a racist regime?

Current placement of films that placed highly in past editions of the poll
FilmPlacement in past editionPlacement in 2022
Bicycle Thieves1 (1952)

=41

The Gold Rush3 (1952)=352
Louisiana Story5 (1952)=839
L’avventura2 (1962)=38
Greed4 (1962)=184
Ugetsu Monogatari5 (1962)=90
Battleship Potemkin3 (1972)=54
4 (1972)=31
The General8 (1972)=95
The Magnificent Ambersons8 (1982)=169
Pather Panchali8 (1992)=35

US cinema was never so dominant as in 1982, holding six spots in the top ten. This was partly due to the exalted status of genre film studies, with an MGM musical, a Hitchcock thriller and a Ford western cracking the poll, and even Seven Samurai serving as a global counterpart. In 1992, the pendulum swung towards global humanist cinema, with Tokyo Story and Pather Panchali (1955) debuting. I would have predicted greater fortunes ahead for Satyajit Ray’s film given India’s indomitable film culture, but it is Ozu Yasujirō who has since held his spot, perhaps because his serene view on urban family crisis resonates with viewers across Asia and beyond.

The 2002 and 2012 polls saw the least number of debuts into the top ten, of which two were films from the 1920s, a sign of the era’s penchant for DVD-fuelled archival rediscovery. After decades of languishing just outside the top ten, Sunrise (1927) finally broke through as a silent film for the 2000s, while Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera (1929) replaced Potemkin as the leading Soviet-era entry, benefitting in part from the 21st-century renaissance of nonfiction art cinema. In the strongest showing of silent-era films since 1972, both films appeared in 2012 alongside 1928’s The Passion of Joan of Arc (Carl Theodor Dreyer’s film has, somewhat bizarrely, appeared in every other top ten since 1952; while it dropped to 21st last year, look for its comeback in 2032).

Amid the grand shake-up of 2022, mainstays like Potemkin, 8½ (1963) and La Règle have seemingly lost their footing, the bases for their appreciation less ubiquitous. The films that have taken their place are undoubtedly the benefactors of an unprecedented shift towards global, sexual and racial inclusion, the historical hallmarks of the last poll. Some of these newcomers are bound to meet the same declining standing as their predecessors, as new phases of history will lead to new concerns and corresponding resonances with certain films. If that becomes the case, one hopes that those in the future will at least strive to understand why so much worth was once seen in them.

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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