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Introduction

(from our Autumn 1982 issue; references to specifics of the original print layout have been removed below)

This is the fourth time that Sight and Sound has invited critics to play the Top Ten game.

The exercise began back in 1952, to complement a Brussels referendum among filmmakers. Since then, the temptation to test the critical climate every ten years, to find out whether the old assumptions still hold and how great is the impact of new films and ideas, has so far proved irresistible.

In writing to ask critics for their votes, we suggested that 1982 might well turn out to be the final replay, on the eve of the onslaught by video, cable, satellite and laser disc. The idea has always been ‘Top Ten’ rather than ‘Best’. We have asked as many critics as we could muster to name the films that have been for them the most relevant, stimulating or plainly enjoyable, their choices for a desert island or their first entries in a cassette collection. Personal choice, open to idiosyncrasy and the mood of the moment, is less daunting than some impossible objective assessment. But as the range of material steadily widens, along with changes in the methods of transmitting or distributing it, the whole exercise becomes increasingly difficult – even perhaps constricting. Apart from Geoffrey Nowell-Smith, whose list is made up of short films, most critics hold to the orthodoxy of the theatrical fiction feature, no longer by any means the dominant form. We also seriously wondered whether any consensus view would emerge, given the range of approaches to film criticism currently being practised and the fact that to name merely a film and a director inevitably smacks of auteurism. Bob Baker of Film Dope suggested that we might find 247 titles fighting for first place; we would not ourselves have been surprised.

The range of titles that turn up in individual lists is probably greater than ever. But when the votes are totted up, it appears that astonishingly little has changed – a conclusion likely to depress some as much as it may reassure others. Citizen Kane, a narrow winner in 1962 and an outright winner in 1972, has pulled clean away from the field; La Règle du jeu remains runner-up; Battleship Potemkin is still there. Even the newcomers to the top ten are very old stagers: Seven Samurai, now available in its splendid full-length version; Singin’ in the Rain, which seems to have been with us forever and perhaps stands up to repeated TV screenings better than some of its contemporaries; and two runners-up from 1972, Vertigo and The Searchers, whose elevation is unlikely to surprise anyone.

The most recent film is 8½, made almost 20 years ago. Is this rather overwhelming vote for the past a sign that film criticism is becoming an ageing profession, which may be the case? Is it that movies are not what they used to be? Or that younger critics are less confident about their immediate enthusiasms than those of 1952, when a new film, Bicycle Thieves, came out on top, or 1962, when another new film, L’Avventura, was runner-up? Whatever the reason, the films and filmmakers of the 1970s come out rather poorly, in individual lists as well as in the final count.

In 1972 we suggested that the exercise was not to be taken too seriously and that it would be rash to risk generalisations on the basis of shaky evidence. All the same, there are undoubted pointers, such as a vote for Hitchcock which reflects the hard work of the Hitchcock critical industry in the last two decades. The big names of the 1960s – Antonioni and Bergman and Godard – were likely to lose ground, given the pendulum swing of fashion. In fact they have lost less than might have been expected, and Fellini stoutly holds his place. We also noted ten years ago that the 60s “had produced nothing to equal in worldwide impact the effect of neorealism in the 40s or of everything summed up in the phrase ‘new wave’ at the end of the 50s. 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.” That comment survives unchanged ten years later. And in 1992, if there should be another round of the game, we won’t be at all surprised if the verdict is still Citizen Kane first, the rest nowhere.

As to some details of the poll, we invited critics to include films made for television or video, though not TV programmes as such (one TV series has been listed, by Ivor Montagu, and it would be churlish to banish it)…

Finally, we would like to thank all the critics who have sent us their lists and their comments… the film community remains genuinely and encouragingly international. The fact that Japanese critics admire Willi Forst, or that Finns vote for Ozu, might seem surprising if one were talking about the equivalent novels or plays or television programmes. With movies we take this sort of thing for granted.

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. Seven Samurai

Kurosawa Akira, Japan 1954

Seven Samurai (1954)

Rice farmers hire a band of samurai to defend them against marauding bandits in Akira Kurosawa’s influential epic, a touchstone for action movies ever since.

=3. Singin’ in the Rain

Stanley Donen & Gene Kelly, USA 1951

Singin’ in the Rain (1952)

Hollywood’s troubled transition from silent to talking pictures at the end of the 1920s provided the inspiration for perhaps the greatest of movie musicals.

5. 

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.

6. 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.

=7. 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.

=7. 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.

=7. Vertigo

Alfred Hitchcock, USA 1958

Vertigo (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.

=10. 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. 

=10. The Searchers

John Ford, USA 1956

The Searchers (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.

Runners up

=12. 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.

10 votes

=12. Andrei Roublev

Andrei Tarkovsky, USSR 1966

The life of a 15th century icon painter takes centre stage in Andrei Tarkovsky’s epic meditation on the place of art in turbulent times.

10 votes

=14. Greed

Erich von Stroheim, USA 1924

Silent cinema’s most famous ‘lost’ film, Erich von Stroheim’s monumental study of three ordinary lives destroyed by avarice was ruinously edited down by the studio.

9 votes

=14. Jules et Jim

François Truffaut, France 1961

Two friends fall for the same woman (Jeanne Moreau) in this effervescent French drama set at the time of the Great War.

9 votes

=14. The Third Man

Carol Reed, UK 1949

An American abroad in post-war Vienna pursues his missing friend down a rabbit hole of intrigue and moral corruption in Carol Reed’s masterpiece of European noir.

9 votes

Voting by directors

1. Orson Welles (71 votes)

2. Jean Renoir (51 votes)

3. Charles Chaplin (37 votes)

4. John Ford (34 votes)

=5. Luis Buñuel + Akira Kurosawa (33 votes each)

=7. Federico Fellini + Alfred Hitchcock (32 votes each)

=9. Jean-Luc Godard + Buster Keaton (30 votes each)

Sight & Sound Summer 2021

In our current (double) issue we hand centre stage to 100 hidden heroes of cinema who have shaped film history. Plus Ben Wheatley on In the Earth, Emma Seligman’s Shiva Baby, Victor Kossakovsky’s pig portrait Gunda, Jane Fonda interviewed, Limbo and refugees on film, and a look back at My Own Private Idaho. Available in print and digitally.

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