Poll position: the two top tens

Do the twin polls suggest there is such a thing as a director’s film versus a critic’s film?

30 November 2023

By Kevin B. Lee

Raging Bull (1980)
Sight and Sound
  • From Sight and Sound, December 2023

In 1992 Sight and Sound introduced its inaugural directors’ poll with a somewhat patronising justification: “Contemporary filmmakers can be just as passionate historians of cinema as the best critics.” The directors’ canon proved more accommodating to recency: their top ten included films from the previous two decades – The Godfather (1972), The Godfather Part II (1974) and Raging Bull (1980) – while the critics offered nothing of the kind. The editorial speculated on the difference: “Filmmakers cannot afford to be divorced from present cinema” while “critics see themselves as curators for some imaginary museum”.

If this division of film historians versus makers was prevalent 30 years ago, it’s been perforated by the open circulation of critical and practical knowledge in the internet era. But the persistence of the parallel polls upholds the distinction and implies that it can be discerned by their cinematic preferences. Is there such a thing as a director’s film versus a critic’s film?

Reviewing the four sets of polls since 1992, what is as evident as the director’s film is the director’s director. Since the startling third place for Raging Bull in 1992, Martin Scorsese had been a mainstay in the directors’ top ten until last year, while among critics his films have never placed higher than 18. Films by Francis Ford Coppola, Federico Fellini, Andrei Tarkovsky and Stanley Kubrick have also fared better among directors. Thinking of what these auteurs have in common that would attract their peers, the words “white male bravado” come to mind. This sense is reinforced upon comparing the 1970s American independent films with the biggest gaps in ranking between the lists: directors leaned heavily towards John Cassavetes’ fiery A Woman Under the Influence (1974) while critics prefer the muted melancholy of Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep (1978).

Daisies (1966)

Films by women, like Věra Chytilová’s Daisies (1966) and Céline Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019), also fared far better among critics, suggesting the critics possess greater sensitivity towards sexual and racial themes. But while the top slot given by directors to 2001 (1968) instead of Jeanne Dielman (1975) might be thought to suggest they hold a more conservative mainstream sensibility, in fact Dielman placed not far behind, at number four. And there were nearly as many films by women and non-white auteurs in both lists, with work by Abbas Kiarostami, Satyajit Ray, Apichatpong Weerasethakul and Lucrecia Martel ranking higher among directors.

I admit to holding a longstanding bias that the critics’ top ten is more progressive, by virtue of elevating titles that later made their way into the directors’ list, and in my formative years I found it more valuable for expanding my cinematic horizons. Twenty years after Tokyo Story (1953) and 2001 first appeared in the 1992 critics’ top ten, they cracked the directors’ leaderboard, even taking first and second place. Bicycle Thieves (1948) and Persona (1966), which used to rank highly among critics, still do so among directors. On the other hand, consistent critics’ favourites like Battleship Potemkin (1925), Man with a Movie Camera (1929), La Règle du jeu (1939) and Pather Panchali (1955) have never crossed into the directors’ canon. It’s no simple matter to pin down, but it is worth considering how these films propose a different cinema than a Scorsese-Fellini-Coppola configuration.

Close-Up (1990)

Such an orientation is worthwhile for the sake of asking what position critics can take at a time when their role is increasingly indistinguishable from the legion of passionate historians and connoisseurs populating online film discourse, including filmmakers. With six shared titles, the 2022 critics’ and directors’ top tens had more overlap than in the past; even poll upstarts Jeanne Dielman and In the Mood for Love (2000) debuted simultaneously on both. If there are fewer differences between the two polls, do the differences become more crucial? What significance is there in why Close-Up (1990) is the top documentary among directors while critics prefer Man with a Movie Camera, or why directors favour 8 ½ (1963) and Persona while critics prefer 2001’s Mulholland Dr. (which could be seen as Lynch’s 21st century mash-up of both)? It depends on what undervalued aspects of cinema can be given relevance by pointing out such distinctions.

But if the singularity of the critic is dissolving, perhaps one could wish the same to happen to the auteur. As with other executive positions that are disproportionately valued over the people they employ, the authority attributed to directors obscures the expertise of producers, actors, screenwriters, cinematographers, editors and so on. If these discerning film practitioners, no small number of whom could count as “passionate historians” of cinema, were invited to future editions of the poll, what could be discovered? While this would require an even greater logistical undertaking than 2022’s epic corralling of ballots, it can provoke us to question the assumptions of authority under which the poll has been conducted in the past, and what notions of expertise will be most relevant in the coming years.

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

The new issue of Sight and Sound

Inside the mind of Christopher Nolan Plus: The Zone of Interest – All of Us Strangers – American Fiction – Wim Wenders – Marc Isaacs – The Kitchen – Samsara – Alice Guy-Blaché

Get your copy