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(from our Autumn 1952 issue)
As a sequel to the Brussels Referendum (featured in the previous issue of Sight & Sound), in which about one hundred film directors were asked to vote for what they considered the Ten Best Films of all time, we decided to ask critics the same question.
Eighty-five critics, from Britain, France, the United States, Italy, Germany, Denmark, Sweden, Belgium, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, were asked, and 63 responded; the cooperation is much appreciated.
Most critics were unanimous in finding the question unfair. “What an awful idea,” “What a thing to ask,” “I feel simply broken,” “disturbing,” “impossible,” “barbarous,” “silly” and “lousy” were among the comments passed. One pointed out that he had seen about 3,200 films, another that he had seen exactly 5,777.
As with the Brussels Referendum letter, our request was for personal references – “the films that have impressed you most personally” – and many critics were quick and right to answer that the films one thought best (in the history of the cinema, etc.), were not necessarily the films one liked best. Other reservations were that memory plays tricks, and that ten was an unreasonable and arbitrary number. Why not 50? asked one contributor (sending in 15 choices). Why not 2½? suggested another.
Space, unfortunately, does not permit us to include all these interesting, apt and sometimes desperate reservations, nor to publish every individual list. In the space available we have tried to print as representative a selection as possible, bearing in mind nationality, types of critic (daily paper, weekly, magazine, occasional, writer of books, etc.), and the interest of listing as many different films as possible. We apologise for the omissions. [These individual lists are not yet online.]
As can be seen, the top four choices of the critics agree with those of the directors, though in a different order. Bicycle Thieves won easily with 25 out of a possible 63 votes, the two Chaplin films tied with 19 each, and Potemkin followed with 16. After that the number dropped to 12, and the films followed each other very closely, four tying for the last place.
Films in the critics’ and not the directors’ best ten are Louisiana Story, Le Jour se Lève, La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc, Intolerance and La Règle du Jeu. Apart from these, The Grapes of Wrath, The Childhood of Maxim Gorki; Earth, Citizen Kane, Monsieur Verdoux, Que Viva Mexico, Zéro de Conduite and Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne are placed high in the runners-up by critics, and not by directors. Some of the directors’ strongest personal choices, by contrast – Hallelujah!, Foolish Wives, Storm over Asia, Devil in the Flesh, The Threepenny Opera – receive considerably fewer votes in this referendum.
Most appropriate last word, perhaps, from a distracted critic: “Goodness, how hard it was to whittle down!”
The ten best films
1. Bicycle Thieves
Vittorio De Sica, Italy 1948
De Sica’s story of a father and son searching for a stolen bicycle on the streets of Rome is a classic of postwar Italian cinema.
=2. City Lights
Charles Chaplin, USA 1931
The Tramp wins the affections of a blind flower seller (Virginia Cherrill) in this hilarious but heartbreaking comedy – one of Chaplin’s uncontested masterpieces.
=2. The Gold Rush
Charles Chaplin, USA 1925
Chaplin’s snowbound silent comedy contains two of his most celebrated foodie setpieces: the boot supper and the ballet of the bread rolls.
4. Battleship Potemkin
Sergei Eisenstein, Soviet Union 1925
A fixture in the critical canon almost since its premiere, Sergei Eisenstein’s film about a 1905 naval mutiny was revolutionary in both form and content.
D.W. Griffith, USA 1916
Responding to criticisms of racism for his record-breaking The Birth of a Nation, filmmaking pioneer D.W. Griffith made this epic drama depicting intolerance through the ages.
=5. Louisiana Story
Robert Flaherty, USA 1948
Commissioned by the Standard Oil Company, Flaherty’s masterful blend of documentary realism with dramatised fiction was nominated for an Oscar and won composer Virgil Thomson a Pulitzer.
Erich von Stroheim, USA 1925
Silent cinema’s most famous ‘lost’ film, Von Stroheim’s monumental study of three ordinary lives destroyed by avarice was ruinously edited down by the studio.
=7. Le Jour se lève
Marcel Carné, France 1939
This masterpiece of poetic realism from the classic team of director Marcel Carné and screenwriter Jacques Prévert stars Jean Gabin as a man who kills for love.
=7. The Passion of Joan of Arc
Carl Dreyer, France 1927
Silent cinema at its most sublimely expressive, Carl Theodor Dreyer’s masterpiece is an austere but hugely affecting dramatisation of the trial of St Joan.
=10. Brief Encounter
David Lean, UK 1946
Turbulent passion and middle-class restraint combine in uniquely English style when a married woman falls for a doctor she meets at a railway station.
=10. Le Million
René Clair, France 1931
René Clair’s effervescent musical comedy stars René Lefevre as an impoverished artist racing around Paris to recover a winning lottery ticket.
=10. La Règle du jeu
Jean Renoir, France 1939
Made on the cusp of WWII, Jean Renoir’s satire of the upper-middle classes was banned as demoralising by the French government for two decades after its release.
=11. Citizen Kane
Orson Welles, USA 1940
Given extraordinary freedom by Hollywood studio RKO for his debut film, boy wonder Welles created a modernist masterpiece that is regularly voted the best film ever made.
=11. La Grande Illusion
Jean Renoir, France 1937
Jean Renoir’s pacifist classic is set in a German prisoner-of-war camp during WWI, where class kinship is felt across national boundaries.
=11. The Grapes of Wrath
John Ford, USA 1940
Novelist John Steinbeck’s great chronicle of Depression-era America reached the screen in director John Ford’s stark and powerful adaptation.
=14. The Childhood of Maxim Gorky
Mark Donskoi, USSR 1938
The first part of a trilogy based on Maxim Gorky’s memoirs, spanning the young Alexei Peshkov’s experiences living with his grandparents in Nizhni-Novogorod.
=14. Monsieur Verdoux
Charles Chaplin, USA 1947
Ill-received in the USA upon its release, Chaplin’s post-war black comedy stars himself as a bigamist killer of wealthy women, based on the French serial killer Henri Désiré Landru.
=14. Que Viva Mexico!
Sergei Eisenstein, USA 1932
Eisenstein’s ambitious, broken Mexican adventure aimed to journey through Mexican history, from the Aztecs to the Mexican Revolution.
(aka Song of New Life / Zemlya)
Alexander Dovzhenko, USSR 1930
Commissioned to make propaganda for Stalin’s farm collectivisations, the Soviet cinema’s great visual poet Alexander Dovzhenko instead delivered an impassioned hymn to nature.
=17. Zéro de Conduite
Jean Vigo, France 1933
An anarchic study of life in a French boarding school by the sadly short-lived poetic master Jean Vigo (L’Atalante).
=19. Broken Blossoms
D.W. Griffith, USA 1919
The story of a Chinese man’s love for an English child, her death at the hands of her brutal father and the suicide of the Chinese man. A Chinese man tries to help in the reform of the Western world. He settles in the East End slums, and falls in love with an ill-treated orphan girl. She is beaten to death by her stepfather, who is then shot by the Chinese man before he takes his own life.
=19. Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne
Robert Bresson, France 1945
Bresson’s second feature film, predating the stringent spareness of his later works, is a drama of love and revenge involving three women and a modern updating of a modern adaptation of Diderot’s Jacques le fataliste.
King Vidor, USA 1929
Vidor’s first sound film and one of the first all-African American films to be made by a major studio, born of the director’s desire to build a musical around the ‘negro spiritual’. Made for the Pre-Code MGM, it stars Daniel L. Haynes as a Southern sharecropper beguiled by Nina Mae McKinney’s wayward seducer.
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Originally published: 26 May 2021