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Introduction

(from our September 2002 issue)

All-time greatest, best or favourite, hundreds of critics and directors have chosen their Top Ten films below. Here Ian Christie sees how the results and methods measure up.

So it was Citizen Kane after all. Of course, there are plenty of reasons for Kane to win, starting with the fact that it’s already won four times. A film that’s stood the test of 60 years must have some sterling qualities. In fact, Kane offers an exceptional blend: it’s Hollywood yet maverick; it’s ironic in its treatment of reality and celebrity; it’s reflexive in its playing with filmic conventions; and it’s a shrewd combination of genres, ranging from screwball comedy to early noir. Despite the controversy over the script credit, it’s clearly a one-man show, marshalled around the audacity and charm of actor-director Orson Welles. As long as there are media-studies courses and DVDs and top-ten lists, why should it ever lose its top place?

Were there any other surprise contenders, if not for number one, then for the top three? Might von Trier or Kiarostami or Wong Kar-Wai have suddenly abseiled in, as Antonioni’s ultra-cool L’Avventura (1960) did in 1962, to take second place behind Kane? No chance, it seems: the main story from the 2002 Critics’ Poll is that Hollywood Rules, with Vertigo moving up to topple La Règle du jeu from its number-two perch and the combined Godfathers making their top-ten debut at number four. That makes seven Hollywood films if you count Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, which though made in Britain was Hollywood financed.

What’s also striking is the relative conformity of the critics’ listings, despite a large number of wild cards (more than 500 films received only one or two votes). However, there’s one important novelty about this latest poll: with the entry of The Godfather at number four, critical judgement has moved significantly closer to popular acclaim. Back in 1995 the Time Out readers’ poll challenged its critics’ earlier rating of the Mafia saga by placing it at number one, pushing Kane into second slot. Interestingly, however, Coppola continues to lag far behind his most popular work in all parallel polls of ‘best director’. Could this herald the beginning of the end of slavish auteurism, with The Godfather (along with Sunrise) recognised as exceptional within their makers’ uneven output?

Six votes more and Vertigo could have come out top

The most pressing concern is probably: how ‘accidental’ are these ratings? How much do they depend on who is and isn’t polled? A mere six votes more and Vertigo could have come out top, ending Kane’s 40-year reign. In fact, Sight & Sound ranged wider than ever before, with the number of critics voting up by 10 per cent. But suppose the balance had been tilted deliberately towards younger figures: would they have plumped for Kane with such unanimity? Or does the tradition of ten-best lists exert its own pressures, encouraging contributors to parade their knowledge and to worry about how they will appear to their peers?

Equally significant is the sheer volume of history piling up. It’s a sobering thought that when the first international poll was held in 1952, half the current top ten had yet to be made and one, Singin’ in the Rain, was less than a year old. Whole film industries, such as the Japanese, remained virtually unknown abroad, and the silent period was still a personal memory for many taking part in the vote. Then, it was literally possible for individuals to have seen all the films likely to be considered the greatest. Today the situation is very different. Not only are there twice or three times the number of films eligible to be considered, but secondary modes of delivery have emerged to supplement what was the only way of knowing a film in 1952 – being present at a screening. Television and video have become essential means of extending the big-screen experience, largely replacing the repertory cinemas and film societies where older and foreign ‘classics’ were once seen.

Perhaps most significant of all is the ‘personalisation’ of film knowledge that has been made possible by video ownership and the growth of reference literature. In 1952 critics would have had few reference books or magazines. There was Paul Rotha’s The Film Till Now, first published in 1930 with one of the earliest lists of 114 “outstanding films” including two of the current top ten, Battleship Potemkin and Sunrise. And there was Bardèche and Brasillach’s History of the Film, translated in 1938 by Iris Barry, the founder of the New York Museum of Modern Art’s film department. A new series of books on ‘national cinema’ began to appear in 1948, reflecting the post-war revival of cinema in Europe. Otherwise, there were back issues of Sight & Sound and its companion the Monthly Film Bulletin, plus treasured film-society notes and publications. Today critics and film enthusiasts are awash with hitherto undreamed-of opportunities for personal viewing and research. As I write I’m looking at a cabinet that contains, I think, about 800 videos, and I believe I have another 400 or so elsewhere. I have a wall of encyclopedias and journals behind me and at the twitch of a mouse I can browse the internet with all its film-reference and listings sites.

Truffaut predicted, back in 1975, that the advent of home video would irrevocably transform our attitude to cinema. Once we could have the works of Renoir (or indeed Truffaut) on our shelf alongside Dickens and Fitzgerald, then our perception of cinema’s ‘classics’ was bound to change. No longer would lack of memory be a handicap, or not having been in the Paris of Henri Langlois’ Cinematheque française or the London of the Academy, the Electric and vintage NFT programming. Instead, we could pick up a rare Griffith, or Chaplin or De Sica, and simply view! But do we? At least one contributor to the current poll did apparently re-view many films before committing to a final list, but I suspect more resorted to the opposite tactic of closing their eyes and trying to recall which films really stayed in the mind. Like the hero of Borges’ story Funes the Memorious, we tend to suffer from too many memories, and from the impossibility of ‘legitimate’ forgetting.

Which brings us back to the business of polling. Because cinema history is now more accessible and potentially more overwhelming than ever, there’s a renewed urgency to the issue of evaluation. Since the Sight & Sound poll of 1992, it has become increasingly common to relate this exercise to wider debates about ‘the canon’ (as I did then). In the 1970s and 1980s bitter controversy over the alleged bias of the humanities curriculum towards ‘dead white males’ convulsed mainly American campuses. Feminists, Afro-Americans and campaigners for gay and lesbian rights argued that the traditional slate of ‘great authors’ was not only irrelevant to the cultures they represented, but by its very weight and reputation served to keep those cultures’ texts off the agenda. These arguments were often derided, especially from afar, and attempts to correct the balance were mocked by talk of ‘political correctness’. They also provoked a new counterculture, very different from that of the 1960s, which arose to ‘defend’ the values of ‘liberal humanism’ against the massed blacks, dykes and faggots.

‘The canon’, at least in literature, had become divisive and dangerous. Sir Frank Kermode, who has probably contributed more to its rethinking than any other critic, recalled in a 1988 article how his lecture at a prestigious conference in the United States “was quite violently attacked on the ground that its lack of reference to gender was tacitly antifeminist”. At the time he thought “such absurdities could only harm the cause”, but later he reflected that “it may not be such bad propaganda to make it appear that absolutely everything one can say about canonical literature has a bearing on the minority issue one supports.” Fifteen years on, much has changed. Defenders of the DWM authors have refurbished their claims for the relevance of ‘timeless classics’, while a new tier of widely taught texts has appeared to give self-expression to minorities and, crucially, to argue that these have as much claim to canonic status as the familiar favourites. For the heart of the issue is that canons matter. They set the agenda and they reinforce its transmission, both positively and negatively.

The heart of the issue is that canons matter. They set the agenda

It’s easy enough to see this at work in literature, from syllabuses in schools and universities to publishers’ catalogues, bookshop shelves and media coverage. But if this is the visible face of the canon, there’s also a largely invisible cultural structure that underpins it: a tissue of quotations, linkages, assumptions and ultimately memories. Without trying to mystify the workings of the canon in any way, it’s important to grasp how central it is to our idea of culture – and, by implication, non-culture. Now, try applying this to cinema.

The first obvious difference is nationality. Our sense of literature is inevitably language-defined, and even if any ‘ten greatest works in English’ is likely to include Irish and American writing, this will probably reflect the English origins of both these traditions. Of course there are translations; but the academic pattern of teaching ‘English literature’ or ‘literature in English’ usually excludes these, while comparative literature has a low profile in British academia. In cinema the stakes are now clearly loaded in favour of Hollywood, with little or no chance of a British film reaching anywhere near the top 20 (if we ignore Kubrick, The Third Man and Lawrence of Arabia come highest this time, at number 35 and number 45 respectively). But it’s striking that a French, a Japanese, a Russian and an Italian film occupy the rest of the new top ten.

These provide at least some evidence to support the claim that cinema remains a transnational medium. But we must be cautious before jumping to easy conclusions. Most of the films in question entered global consciousness during two distinct periods, the 1920s and the 1960s, when there was a strong art-cinema movement. In retrospect it’s clear that Rotha’s list of international recommendations was intended precisely to counteract the already dominating effect of American movies. As he wrote acidly in The Film Till Now, “Although they are… the lowest form of public entertainment, their very number prevents their being ignored.” Sure enough, the 1952 poll included American films only from directors already canonised by Rotha: Chaplin, Flaherty, Griffith and von Stroheim. Subsequently the top tens swung sharply away from US films except those that bore the scars of non-conformity, such as Kane, the mutilated The Magnificent Ambersons and Greed; or, in the case of The General, marked a rejection of the ‘sentimental’ Chaplin in favour of Keaton’s modem-seeming nonchalance.

By 1982 voters’ attitudes to Hollywood had begun to change. Vertigo and Ford’s The Searchers had started their ascent in critical esteem, supported by the auteurist books and journals, and now film-studies courses, which would confirm them as modern classics. Cinema was beginning to acquire the modern sense of a canon, with its institutions and their acolytes first defining then defending a set of values embodied in the eclectic mixture of films included. Reflexive Hollywood (Kane, Vertigo), the oriental exotic (Tokyo Story), the iconic silent (Potemkin, Sunrise), the poetic-humanist French tradition (La Règle du jeu) – it’s easy to identify the types of film that have come to stand for cinema’s diversity at a time when there’s probably more cynicism over commercial manipulation of popular taste than ever. But are these more than gestures from a generation of critics who, increasingly, draw inspiration from the breadth of programming only festivals and niche video publishing offer?

Are we voting to reinforce a sense of cinema’s cultural legitimacy or to topple a false structure of accepted classics?

Another reading of the 2002 results would point to a shrunken core of widely accepted classics surrounded by a vast penumbra of films, from many periods and traditions, which inspire local advocacy – from, let’s say, Paolo Cherchi-Usai’s choice of The Land beyond the Sunset, a little-known but magical 1912 short, to Peter Wollen’s surprising selection of the British Gilbert and Sullivan biopic Topsy Turvy (1999). In short, the postmodern condition, which as Kermode noted is “by its nature hostile to the entire conception… of a totality”. Since the acknowledgement of postmodernism coincided with attacks on the canon, it’s hardly surprising the two should be in conflict, and the schizophrenic attitude of many contributors reflects this confusion. Are they – we – voting to reinforce a sense of cinema’s cultural legitimacy or trying to topple a false structure of accepted classics? Mostly, of course, we’re doing both.

And where are we coming from in this exercise? A different perspective on issues of cultural valuation was provided by combative French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, notably in his 1979 book Distinction, subtitled “a social critique of the judgement of taste”. Based on two sets of interviews undertaken in the 1960s with representative samples of French citizens, this pursued, as Bourdieu admitted, a very “un-French” approach (meaning unlike that taken by such mandarins as Barthes and Foucault) in its belief that matters of cultural taste could be researched empirically and must take account of such factors as education, employment and disposable income. Art, as Bourdieu notes, “is one of the major sites of denial of the social world”, meaning that the arbiters of taste have a sneaky tendency to write themselves out of the equation and to ignore the social realities of which they’re also a part.

The implications of Bourdieu’s work for such exercises as the ten-yearly poll are that we will never understand its mapping of taste unless we get serious about who’s being asked to vote and what image of cinema culture they’re trying to project. We would also need to think about what use is made of such lists; how they shape repertory cinemagoing (and programming) and video publishing and collecting. And we need to consider what preparation and lifestyle are involved in being able to enjoy, say, Tokyo Story or 8½ as well as 2001 and Vertigo – and what’s different about the ways the latter two examples of Hollywood art cinema are appreciated by, for instance, a manual worker and a university teacher. There’s no point in denying that this would be shocking for many cinephiles, who are precisely the self-deluding aesthetes Bourdieu identified, because cinema embodies for them an idealised vision of a democratic, international culture. But he invites us to ask just how real this is, and to plunge into the complex task of understanding what shapes taste, not with condescension – he was an anti-snob and militant anti-globalist – but with a real desire to discover what ordinary citizens get from, and invest in, their cultural choices.

So the next step, on this model, would be to roll up our sleeves and find out what a wide range of people in different circumstances and places think of the vast array of cinema now on offer. What ‘educational capital’ is required to be able to name directors, deal with subtitles, silent films, black and white and all the categories of ‘specialist’ cinema that define cinema’s cultural sphere as distinct from, but dependent on, its commercial arena. And we would need to be specific about matters of class and location. Bourdieu drew important distinctions between metropolitan and provincial taste, which is an important issue everywhere. But we also have to consider what’s the difference between a vote for, say, Guru Dutt’s Pyaasa cast in London, in Nottingham, in New York or in Bangalore.

Until we get more serious about such matters, the decennial poll will edge uncomfortably closer to a monster trivia quiz rather than the global stocktaking it promises. And it will increasingly fail to register the interesting shifts of taste that have made Korean, Hong Kong, Taiwanese, Iranian, Danish and Indian cinema the real news stories of the last years. Not to mention simultaneous narratives (Timecode), single-shot DV films (Russian Ark) and gallery installations of film classics (24 Hour Psycho). As long as these remain buried by the heap of worthy votes for Welles, Hitchcock and Eisenstein, the poll will only tell us what we want to hear – the mantra of cinephilia: I believe in [insert masterpiece titles here].

Where else but cinema do large-scale debates about our culture take place?

At this point, you may say – or the editor will – c’mon, it’s only a movie poll, not an exercise in high-level sociological or aesthetic inquiry. But how long can we go on trying to have it both ways? Either movies are a trivial and trivialising pursuit, well suited to the attentions of fetishists and listmakers, or they really do matter, as the BFI argued in its 1999 report to the Department of Culture, Media and Sport, and need to be taken much more seriously by the powers that be. The great art historian Erwin Panofsky claimed as long ago as 1934 that, while few would notice if all poets, painters and composers stopped work, “If the same thing were to happen with the movies the social consequences would be catastrophic.”

Not just social, but aesthetic. Where else do meaningful large-scale debates take place about contemporary culture than in cinema? But if we want to keep open this public aesthetic sphere, the hegemonic drive of ‘new Hollywood’ will need to be resisted. The immediate lesson of the 2002 poll, perhaps the last of the filmstrip era, is surely that diversity has to be defended. Cinemas, video shops, libraries, syllabuses – and governments – all need to be challenged to keep open those channels that connect the world. And as for lists, let’s have more of them, and more iconoclastic ones: but instead of celebrating the winners, remember it’s the margins that really matter.

— Ian Christie

The top ten films – critics’ poll

1. Citizen Kane

Orson Welles, USA 1941

Citizen Kane (1941)

Dazzlingly inventive, technically breathtaking, Citizen Kane reinvented the way stories could be told in the cinema, and set a standard generations of filmmakers have since aspired to. An absorbing account of a newspaper tycoon’s rise to power, Orson Welles’ debut film feels as fresh as tomorrow’s headlines. And he was only 26 when he made it.

46 votes

2. 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.

41 votes

3. La Règle du jeu

Jean Renoir, France 1939

La Règle du jeu (1939)

Tragedy and comedy effortlessly combine in Renoir’s country house ensemble drama. A group of aristocrats gather for some rural relaxation, a shooting party is arranged, downstairs the servants bicker about a new employee, while all the time husbands, wives, mistresses and lovers sweetly deceive one another and swap declarations of love like name cards at a dinner party.

30 votes

4. The Godfather and The Godfather Part II

Francis Ford Coppola, USA 1972/1974

The Godfather Part II (1974)

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.

23 votes

5. Tokyo Story

Ozu Yasujiro, Japan 1953

Ryu Chishu and Hara Setsuko in 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.

22 votes

6. 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.

21 votes

=7. Battleship Potemkin

Sergei Eisenstein, Soviet Union 1925

Battleship Potemkin (1925)

Eisenstein’s recreation of a mutiny by sailors of the battleship Potemkin in 1905 works as daring formal experiment – which pushed the expressive potential of film editing to its limit – and rousing propaganda for the masses. The Odessa Steps sequence remains one of the most memorable set-pieces in cinema.

19 votes

=7. Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans

F.W. Murnau, USA 1927

Sunrise (1927)

Having left his native Germany for the US, F.W. Murnau had all the resources of a major Hollywood studio at his disposal for this, his American debut. What he produced was a visually stunning film romance that ranks as one of the last hurrahs of the silent period.

19 votes

9. 

Federico Fellini, Italy 1963

8½ (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.

18 votes

10. Singin’ in the Rain

Stanley Donen & Gene Kelly, USA 1951

Singin’ in the Rain (1952)

Impossible to watch without a smile on your face, this affectionate tribute to the glory days of Hollywood in the 1920s is pleasure distilled into 102 minutes. With Gene Kelly dance sequences that take your breath away and a great score by Brown and Freed, this is the film musical at its best.

​​​​​​​17 votes

The critics’ top ten directors

This list was put together by assembling the directors of the individual films that the critics polled voted for.

=1. Orson Welles and Alfred Hitchcock (69 votes each)

3. Jean-Luc Godard (43 votes)

4. Jean Renoir (40 votes)

5. Stanley Kubrick (39 votes)

6. Akira Kurosawa (3 8 votes)

7. Federico Fellini (36 votes)

8. John Ford (31 votes)

9. Sergei Eisenstein (30 votes)

=10. Francis Ford Coppola + Yasujiro Ozu (28 votes)

Directors’ top ten​ films

1. Citizen Kane

Orson Welles, USA 1941

Dazzlingly inventive, technically breathtaking, Citizen Kane reinvented the way stories could be told in the cinema, and set a standard generations of filmmakers have since aspired to. An absorbing account of a newspaper tycoon’s rise to power, Orson Welles’ debut film feels as fresh as tomorrow’s headlines. And he was only 26 when he made it.

​​​​​​​42 votes

2. The Godfather and The Godfather Part II

Francis Ford Coppola, USA 1972/1974

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.

​​​​​​​28 votes

3. 

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.

​​​​​​​19 votes

4. Lawrence of Arabia

David Lean, UK 1962

Filmed in the desert in lavish widescreen and rich colours, Lawrence of Arabia is David Lean at his most epic and expansive. You can almost feel the waves of heat glowing from the cinema screen.

​​​​​​​16 votes

5. Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb

Stanley Kubrick, UK/USA 1964

A black comedy about impending nuclear annihilation that was made at the height of the cold war, Dr. Strangelove is perhaps Kubrick’s most audacious movie and certainly his funniest. Peter Sellers has never been better, and provides good value playing three roles.

​​​​​​​14 votes

=6. Bicycle Thieves

Vittorio De Sica, Italy 1948

Mixing melodrama, documentary and social commentary, De Sica follows an impoverished father and son treading the streets of post-war Rome, desperately seeking their stolen bicycle. Deeply compassionate, this poignant film is one of the outstanding examples of Italian neorealism.

​​​​​​​13 votes

=6. Raging Bull

Martin Scorsese, USA 1980

An unblinkingly honest biopic of Jake La Motta — a great prizefighter but a deeply flawed human being — this catches Scorsese in fighting fit form. The boxing sequence are both brutal and beautiful, and De Niro, who famously put on weight to play the middle-aged La Motta, gives one of the performances of modern cinema.

​​​​​​​13 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.

​​​​​​​13 votes

=9. Rashomon

Kurosawa Akira, Japan 1950

Offering four differing accounts of a rape and murder, all told in flashbacks, Kurosawa’s 1951 film is a complex meditation on the distortive nature of memory and a gripping study of human behaviour at its most base. Mifune Toshiro is magnetic as the bandit Tajomaru.

​​​​​​​12 votes

=9. La Règle du jeu

Jean Renoir, France 1939

Tragedy and comedy effortlessly combine in Renoir’s country house ensemble drama. A group of aristocrats gather for some rural relaxation, a shooting party is arranged, downstairs the servants bicker about a new employee, while all the time husbands, wives, mistresses and lovers sweetly deceive one another and swap declarations of love like name cards at a dinner party.

​​​​​​​12 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.

​​​​​​​12 votes

The directors’ top ten directors

This list was compiled by assembling the directors of the individual films that the directors polled voted for. 

  1. Orson Welles ​​​​​​​(52 votes)
  2. Federico Fellini ​​​​​​​(50 votes)
  3. Akira Kurosawa ​​​​​​​(39 votes)
  4. Francis Ford Coppola ​​​​​​​(38 votes)
  5. Alfred Hitchcock ​​​​​​​(35 votes)
  6. Stanley Kubrick ​​​​​​​(34 votes)
  7. Billy Wilder ​​​​​​​(28 votes)
  8. Ingmar Bergman ​​​​​​​(25 votes)
  9. Martin Scorsese / David Lean / Jean Renoir ​​​​​​​(23 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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