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Introduction

(from our December 1992 issue)

The first Sight and Sound ‘top ten’ poll was conducted among critics in 1952 to parallel a Brussels referendum among filmmakers. On the fourth anniversary of this now established ten-yearly event, it seemed the right moment to complement the critics’ poll with one among filmmakers. After all, contemporary filmmakers can be just as passionate historians of cinema as the best critics; each list would offer us a sketch of the filmmaker who made it; and it could only be fascinating to compare the two polls – the critics’ and the filmmakers’.

Our aim was to poll about the same number of critics as last time and to invite responses from some 100 directors. Our chosen critics would range from daily reviewers and writers through academics (a burgeoning group in the 80s) to archivists. We also wanted to include critics from countries not featured in previous polls – Hong Kong, China and Russia. The chosen directors would range from established filmmakers such as Fellini, Scorsese and Mrinal Sen through avant-gardists such as Stan Brakhage and Michael Snow to young independents such as Monika Treut and Srinivas Krishna, whose Masala recently opened in Britain.

Almost all the critics we contacted responded. Almost all the directors did likewise, but not always favourably. For some directors, our request was too painful, traduced the seriousness of film, or demanded the impossible – only ten films! Filmmakers who responded in one of these ways include Elia Kazan, Gus Van Sant, Sembene, Francesco Rosi, Godard and the Taviani brothers. The eloquent response of Oshima, whose Ai No Corrida is mentioned in the polls, may stand for them all: “I am not at all against the ‘top ten’. But it is very painful for me as a director to choose films. Please forgive me for not sending an answer.”

With the changes that mark the distance between the last poll and this one, it is remarkable that Citizen Kane, which has topped the list in the last three Sight & Sound polls, should reign supreme for both critics and filmmakers. But apart from the continuing dominance of Kane, the most striking thing about the polls is the fact that no post-60s film appears among the critics’ ‘top ten’, while Raging Bull and The Godfather and The Godfather Part II make the directors’. How are we to explain the difference in judgment? Perhaps filmmakers cannot afford to be divorced from present cinema, whereas many critics (and of course there are numerous exceptions) see the films of the past more as a solace, as fragments to shore against the present ruins. It may be that many critics see themselves as curators for some imaginary museum, whereas some directors are more like obsessive collectors feeding some private need (see, for example, Stan Brakhage’s list).

The reflections and questions that arise from these perhaps arbitrary polls are legion. What does it mean that the British critics’ top two films are Vertigo and Tokyo Story? Why is it that ‘film’ still seems to mean theatrically released feature films, although certain documentaries do surface? Particular films appear to have a national rather than international reputation: Listen to Britain and Performance are good examples. It may well be that certain films matter to a generation: the appearance of Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman on some lists seems to be one such example. With the exceptions of Akerman, Maya Deren, Jane Campion and a few others, women directors are noticeable by their absence. One or two of the Russian lists seem to register the sudden influx of US movies into that post-Soviet country. And what is it about Pather Panchali and Tokyo Story, the latter in the ‘top ten’ here for the first time, that ensures that they are the two ‘non-Western’ films that make it into the ‘top ten’?

This last matter, of ‘West’ and ‘the rest’, is perhaps the other major issue raised by the polls; and on the basis of the choices, there seems to be a geography as much as a history of cinema at work. Even if no critics or filmmakers work predominantly in terms of national cinema, it is very noticeable, for example, that the list of, say, a Japanese critic may include films that rarely, if ever, surface in lists from Western critics. This raises the question of how available is the range of world cinema to any of us, and particularly to those of us in the West? If these polls do nothing else, at least they give us a glimpse, however partial and inadequate, of what the range of the ‘best’ world cinema might look like.

Critics’ 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. Tokyo Story

Ozu Yasujiro, Japan 1953

Tokyo Story (1953)

A poignant story of family relations and loss, Ozu’s subtle mood piece portrays the trip an elderly couple make to Tokyo to visit their grown-up children. The shooting style is elegantly minimal and formally reticent, and the film’s devastating emotional impact is drawn as much from what is unsaid and unshown as from what is revealed.

4. Vertigo

Alfred Hitchcock, USA 1958

Vertigo (1958)

A gripping detective story or a delirious investigation into desire, grief and jealousy? Hitchcock had a genius for transforming genre pieces into vehicles for his own dark obsessions, and this 1958 masterpiece shows the director at his mesmerising best. And for James Stewart fans, it also boasts the star’s most compelling performance.

5. 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.

=6. L’Atalante

Jean Vigo, France 1934

L'Atalante (1934)

Newly-weds begin their life together on a working barge in this luminous and poetic romance, the only feature film by director Jean Vigo.

=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.

=6. 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.

=6. Pather Panchali

Satyajit Ray, India 1955

Pather Panchali (1955)

The first part of Satyajit Ray’s acclaimed Apu Trilogy is a lyrical, closely observed story of a peasant family in 1920s rural India.

10. 2001: A Space Odyssey

Stanley Kubrick, UK/USA 1968

2001: A Space Odyssey (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.

Directors’ top ten films

1. Citizen Kane

Orson Welles, USA 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.

30 votes

=2. 

Federico Fellini, Italy 1963

Wonderfully freefloating, gleefully confusing reality and fantasy, 8½ provides a ringside seat into the ever active imaginative life of its director protagonist Guido, played by Fellini’s on-screen alter-ego Marcello Mastroianni. The definitive film about film-making — as much about the agonies of the creative process as the ecstasies — it’s no wonder the movie is so popular with directors.

16 votes

=2. Raging Bull

Martin Scorsese, USA 1980

Starring Robert De Niro as the middleweight boxer Jake La Motta, Scorsese’s biopic is widely acknowledged as one of the greatest films of the 1980s.

16 votes

4. La strada

Federico Fellini, Italy

A brutish travelling strongman (Anthony Quinn) acquires a waif-like young assistant (Giulietta Masina) before taking to the road in Federico Fellini’s acclaimed neo-realist fable.

12 votes

5. L’Atalante

Jean Vigo, France 1934

Newly-weds begin their life together on a working barge in this luminous and poetic romance, the only feature film by director Jean Vigo.

11 votes

=6. The Godfather

Francis Ford Coppola, USA 1972

Few films have portrayed the US immigrant experience quite so vividly as Coppola’s Godfather films, or exposed the contradictions of the American Dream quite so ruthlessly. And what a cast, formidable talent firing all cylinders: Brando, De Niro, Pacino, Keaton, Duvall, Caan. Now that’s an offer you can’t refuse.

10 votes

=6. Modern Times

Charles Chaplin, USA 1936

The final outing for Charlie Chaplin’s beloved Tramp character finds him enduring the pratfalls and humiliations of work in an increasingly mechanised society.

10 votes

=6. Vertigo

Alfred Hitchcock, USA 1958

A gripping detective story or a delirious investigation into desire, grief and jealousy? Hitchcock had a genius for transforming genre pieces into vehicles for his own dark obsessions, and this 1958 masterpiece shows the director at his mesmerising best. And for James Stewart fans, it also boasts the star’s most compelling performance.

10 votes

=9. The Godfather Part II

Francis Ford Coppola, USA 1974

The expansive second part of Francis Ford Coppola’s Mafia saga continues the Corleone family story, charting in parallel young Vito’s earlier rise to prominence.

9 votes

=9. 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.

9 votes

=9. Rashomon

Kurosawa Akira, Japan 1950

Credited with bringing Japanese cinema to worldwide audiences, Akira Kurosawa’s breakthrough tells the story of a murder in the woods from four differing perspectives.

9 votes

=9. Seven Samurai

Kurosawa Akira, Japan 1954

The blueprint for The Magnificent Seven was Kurosawa’s magnificent swordplay epic of self-sacrifice about a band of hired samurai who come together to protect a helpless village from a rapacious gang of 40 thieves who descend every year to steal the harvest and kidnap women. The final sequence of the fight in the mud and rain has never been bettered.

9 votes

Critics’ top ten directors

1. Orson Welles (58 votes)

2. Jean Renoir (50 votes)

3. Jean-Luc Godard (42 votes)

4. Alfred Hitchcock (39 votes)

5. Charles Chaplin (36 votes)

6. John Ford (34 votes)

7. Satyajit Ray (32 votes)

8. Ozu Yasujiro (30 votes)

9. Carl Theodor Dreyer (29 votes)

10. Sergei Eisenstein (26 votes)

Directors’ top ten directors

1. Federico Fellini (45 votes)

2. Orson Welles (42 votes)

3. Kurosawa Akira (32 votes)

4. Francis Ford Coppola (26 votes)

=5. Luis Buñuel + Martin Scorsese (23 votes each)

7. Ingmar Bergman (22 votes each)

=8. Charles Chaplin + John Ford (21 votes each)

10. Alfred Hitchcock (20 votes)

Sight and Sound November 2021

50 years after its release, we reveal the untold stories behind A Clockwork Orange, as seen through the relationship between author Anthony Burgess and director Stanley Kubrick + Edgar Wright on Last Night in Soho, Jeymes Samuel on The Harder They Fall, Małgorzata Szumowska on Never Gonna Snow Again, Todd Haynes’s The Velvet Underground, the best of Venice and much more…

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