The Greatest Films of All Time… in 1972

Citizen Kane holds its top spot in our third decennial poll, with Orson Welles’s second feature joining it in our top ten. And Swedish auteurs arise with two Ingmar Bergman films joining Carl Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc.

Citizen Kane (1941)
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(from our Winter 1971-72 issue)

It is ten years since Sight and Sound last invited critics to play the Top Ten game.

 We had first done it back in 1952, when it seemed a good idea to find out what critics thought in answer to a Brussels referendum among filmmakers. (On that occasion, Bicycle Thieves, City Lights, The Gold Rush and Potemkin were top four for both critics and filmmakers.) In our January 1962 issue we repeated the exercise; and we felt we couldn’t let this anniversary pass without staging a third round.

Obviously, Top Ten lists are best approached with trepidation or amusement by compilers and with some scepticism by readers. It’s manifestly impossible to name the ‘best’ of anything; but it’s fractionally less impossible to come up with a list of personal choices. Critics, as in 1962, were invited to be as subjective and idiosyncratic as they chose – to list the films they would personally want to see again, or could least imagine having to live without, rather than to try to think themselves into positions of impossible objectivity. We wanted to see, among other things, how the screen classics stood up in the light of 1972, how much the international perspective might have shifted, whether the silent cinema still held its ground. (Plainly it does: three silents in the top ten this time, against only Potemkin and Greed in 1962.)

We’re grateful to all our contributors, and apologetic about the affront to their sense of critical justice in that arbitrary figure of ten. ‘Plus, plus, plus…’ comes the repeated cry. Several people have made a point of precisely dating their lists: on another day, at another hour, the titles would be different. We also apologise to critics whose lists reached us too late for publication, though we have been able to add their votes to the main tally. Altogether, 89 critics’ views are represented.

And what emerges? First, something very obvious, but perhaps worth repeating: that film really is the most international of all the arts which use the written or spoken word. It would often be difficult to guess from an individual list which continent, let alone which country, the critic came from. Though, again, there are exceptions. Amita Malik is one of several people who have pointed out the problems and restrictions on actually seeing films. ‘For instance,’ she writes, ‘had I seen all the Buñuels my choice might not have been Nazarin. Having seen only Los Olvidados and Nazarin, I am putting the second in more as a vote for Buñuel.’

Again, Citizen Kane tops the list – astoundingly, it didn’t even make the top ten back in 1952. Philip French’s unnervingly accurate prediction – Kane and La Regle du Jeu out in front, L’Avventura and Bicycle Thieves off the list, and 8½  and Persona as likeliest newcomers – missed out only on the L’Avventura guess. Kane and La Regle du Jeu, respectively first and third in a closerun finish in 1962, have this time left the rest of the field standing. In general, the enormous range of individual choices reflects what one would expect: a more splintered, fragmented film culture. But in another sense that is belied by the agreement on these two films.

The final consensus is also rather strikingly on the side of the classics. In 1952 Bicycle Thieves (1949) topped the poll; in 1962 L’Avventura (1960) took second place and Hiroshima mon Amour (1959) led the runners-up. This time round, the only 1960s films come from Bergman and Fellini, neither of whom could exactly be called new men. In the voting, the underground remains largely underground; Pierrot le Fou wins out over the political Godard of recent years; and there’s surprisingly little evidence of what is sometimes suggested as another mood of the times – a move away from fiction towards fact. No one, incidentally, listed a television film.

Buster Keaton was probably the great rediscovery of the 1960s, and among directors Keaton just edges past Chaplin. But if there are surprises, they are less in what’s new than in some apparent reassessments. Dreyer has gained ground; Stroheim has lost it. Vigo, sadly, seems to have faded for the time being from the international critical consciousness: L’Atalante and Zero de Conduite, which in 1962 collected 24 votes between them, now muster only a pitiful half-dozen.

It would be foolish to risk generalisations on the shaky evidence of this kind of poll, but it’s hard to resist one or two speculative conclusions. That, allowing for every variation in outlook and taste, the 1972 list is weighted more heavily than might have been expected (no less solidly than the 1962 list) towards orthodoxy. In this country, certainly, the 1950s were the decade which opened up previously unknown areas – the discovery of Japanese and Indian cinema, the first big retrospectives at the National Film Theatre. The 1960s have produced nothing to equal, in worldwide impact, the effect of neorealism in the 1940s or of everything summed up in the phrase ‘new wave’ at the end of the 1950s. The discoveries of the past decade have been of the kind that split rather than unite critical opinion; and when the votes are added agreement settles on the proven masters. The most potent word in the cinema, it seems, is still Rosebud.

The top ten films

1. Citizen Kane

Orson Welles, USA 1941

Citizen Kane (1941)

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.

2. La Règle du jeu

Jean Renoir, France 1939

La Règle du jeu (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.

3. Battleship Potemkin

Sergei Eisenstein, Soviet Union 1925

Battleship Potemkin (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.


Federico Fellini, Italy 1963

8½ (1963)

Federico Fellini triumphantly conjured himself out of a bad case of creative block with this autobiographical magnum opus about a film director experiencing creative block.

=5. L’Avventura

Michelangelo Antonioni, Italy 1960

L’avventura (1960)

In Michelangelo Antonioni’s groundbreaking and controversial arthouse milestone, the mystery of a woman’s disappearance from a Mediterranean island is left unresolved.

=5. Persona

Ingmar Bergman, Sweden 1966

Persona (1966)

A nurse (Bibi Andersson) and an actress who refuses to speak (Liv Ullmann) seem to fuse identities in Ingmar Bergman’s disturbing, formally experimental psychological drama.

  • Read Persona archive review: where the mask meets the face

7. The Passion of Joan of Arc

Carl Dreyer, France 1927

The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928)

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.

=8. The General

Buster Keaton & Clyde Bruckman, USA 1926

The General (1926)

Set during the American civil war, Buster Keaton’s most ambitious film combines spectacular action sequences and hilarious comedy aboard the runaway locomotive of the title. 

=8. The Magnificent Ambersons

Orson Welles, USA 1942

The Magnificent Ambersons (1942)

Among the most famous of broken films, Orson Welles’ masterful follow-up to Citizen Kane was taken out of his control and re-edited by the studio.

=10. Ugetsu monogatari

Mizoguchi Kenji, Japan 1953

Ugetsu Monogatari (1953)

In war-torn 16th-century Japan, two men leave their wives to seek wealth and glory in Kenji Mizoguchi’s tragic supernatural classic.

=10. Wild Strawberries

Ingmar Bergman, Sweden 1957

Wild Strawberries (1957)

On a road trip to receive an honorary degree, an elderly academic (Victor Sjöstrom) looks back over his life in Ingmar Bergman’s art-cinema classic.

Runners up

=12. 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.

8 votes

=12. Hiroshima mon amour

Alain Resnais, France/Japan 1959

Love story between a French actress and a Japanese architect set against the background of Hiroshima and the atom-bomb.

8 votes

=12. lkiru

Kurosawa Akira, Japan 1952

This study of a terminally ill civil servant seeking meaning in his life is one of Japanese director Akira Kurosawa’s finest achievements.

8 votes

=12. Ivan the Terrible

Sergei Eisenstein, USSR 1945

The first part of Sergei Eisenstein’s truncated masterpiece about the 16th-century Russian Tsar sees young Ivan attempting to unite Russia under a single ruler.

8 votes

=12. Pierrot le fou

Jean-Luc Godard, France 1965

Riffing on the classic couple-on-the run movie, enfant terrible Jean-Luc Godard took the narrative innovations of the French New Wave close to breaking point.

8 votes

=12. Vertigo

Alfred Hitchcock, USA 1958

A former detective with a fear of heights is hired to follow a woman apparently possessed by the past, in Alfred Hitchcock’s timeless thriller about obsession.

8 votes

=18. 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.

7 votes

=18. Mouchette

Robert Bresson, 1966

7 votes

=18. The Searchers

John Ford, USA 1956

John Ford created perhaps the greatest of all westerns with this tale of a Civil War veteran doggedly hunting the Comanche who have kidnapped his niece.

7 votes

=18. Sunrise

F.W. Murnau, USA 1927

Lured to Hollywood by producer William Fox, German Expressionist filmmaker F.W. Murnau created one of the silent cinema’s last and most luminous masterpieces.

7 votes

=18. 2001: A Space Odyssey

Stanley Kubrick, UK/USA 1968

One of the most ambitious Hollywood movies ever made, 2001 crams into its two-hour plus running time a story that spans the prehistoric age to the beginning of the third millennium, and features some of the most hypnotically beautiful special effects work ever committed to film. After seeing this, you can never listen to Strauss’ Blue Danube without thinking space crafts waltzing against starry backdrops.

7 votes

=18. Viridiana

Luis Buñuel, 1961

In Luis Buñuel’s controversial masterpiece, a novice nun gets more than she bargains for when she turns her dead uncle’s estate into a home for beggars.

7 votes

Voting by directors

1. Orson Welles (46 votes)

2. Jean Renoir (41 votes)

3. Ingmar Bergman (37 votes)

4. Luis Bufiuel (33 votes)

5. Sergei Eisenstein (29 votes)

=6. John Ford, Jean-Luc Godard (28 votes each)

8. Buster Keaton (25 votes)

9. Federico Fellini (23 votes)

=10. Michelangelo Antonioni, Charles Chaplin, Carl Dreyer (22 votes each)

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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