Chronicle of a fall foretold: analysis of the Greatest Films of All Time poll

What do the results of the latest and biggest edition of our greatest films poll tell us about changing critical tastes?

Updated: 1 August 2019

By Ian Christie

Stanley Kubrick, Federico Fellini, Orson Welles, John Ford, Alfred Hitchcock © Simon Cooper at
Sight and Sound

And the loser is – Citizen Kane. After 50 years at the top of the Sight & Sound poll, Orson Welles’s debut film has been convincingly ousted by Alfred Hitchcock’s 45th feature Vertigo – and by a whopping 34 votes, compared with the mere five that separated them a decade ago.

So what does it mean? Given that Kane actually clocked over three times as many votes this year as it did last time, it hasn’t exactly been snubbed by the vastly larger number of voters taking part in this new poll, which has spread its net far wider than any of its six predecessors (find them all here), asking nearly 850 critics, programmers and academics for their top tens, as well as over 350 directors.

But it does mean that Hitchcock, who only entered the top ten in 1982 (two years after his death), has risen steadily in esteem over the course of 30 years, with Vertigo climbing from seventh place, to fourth in 1992, second in 2002 and now first, to make him the Old Master. Welles, uniquely, had two films (The Magnificent Ambersons as well as Kane) in the list in 1972 and 1982, but now Ambersons has slipped to 81st place in the top 100.

The new and the old

In the Mood for Love (2000)

So does 2012 – the first poll to be conducted since the internet became almost certainly the main channel of communication about films – mark a revolution in taste, such as happened in 1962? Back then a brand-new film, Antonioni’s L’avventura, vaulted into second place. If there was going to be an equivalent today, it might have been Malick’s The Tree of Life, which only polled one vote less than the last title in the top 100. In fact the highest film from the new century is Wong Kar-Wai’s In the Mood for Love, just 12 years old, now sharing joint 24th slot with Dreyer’s venerable Ordet.

It’s improbable conjunctions like this, I would argue, that make the polling exercise entertaining, even thought-provoking. But does it tell us anything really important? The most striking feature of the 2012 top ten has nothing to do with new films – it’s the presence, for the first time, of three silent-era films: Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans, Man with a Movie Camera and The Passion of Joan of Arc. Both the Murnau and the Dreyer are perennial top-ten favourites, but Vertov’s city symphony is making its debut, and this at the expense of his old rival Eisenstein, whose Battleship Potemkin drops out of the top ten (just) for the first time in 60 years.

By now, you’re probably thinking this just shows how arbitrary the whole business is. Another vote for Potemkin would have made it joint tenth with Fellini’s 8½. True, but the unforeseen rise of Man with a Movie Camera confirms a process that’s been building for years – like the critical recognition of Hitchcock – and has no doubt been accelerated by the many different kinds of live accompaniment the film will support, from the Alloy Orchestra and Michael Nyman to prog rock. It’s also the first time since 1952 that any kind of documentary has made it into the top ten (without getting into arguments about what counts as documentary…).

The far and the wide

The new, wider polling base of the list has also produced some real surprises outside the top ten: Lanzmann’s 12-hour Shoah at no. 29 must surely be thanks to video viewing, likewise Godard’s Histoire(s) du cinema at no. 48. Béla Tarr has also made a strong showing, with Sátántangó ranking 35 (above the once-canonic The 400 Blows, La dolce vita and Journey to Italy).

Another long film, widely considered ‘difficult’ (and certainly difficult to see, until the appearance of a DVD), now shares the no. 35 slot: Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce 1080 Bruxelles. This is also the highest-ranked film directed by a woman, with only one other in the top 100, Claire Denis’s Beau Travail (at no. 78). This disappointing result comes after complaints about a lack of women in this year’s Cannes festival selection, and suggests that women’s film is indeed losing ground in current critical thinking.

Past polls have been the occasion to reflect on broad trends in taste, on who’s in and who’s out, and also to comment on the persistent Western bias in critical esteem. In this respect, the 2012 poll sees Ozu back to no. 3 (where Tokyo Story was in 1992) and also at no. 15 (Late Spring), with the other usual Japanese suspects Kurosawa (Seven Samurai, Rashomon) and Mizoguchi (Ugetsu monogatari) now joined by Wong Kar-Wai in the top 50, with Edward Yang (A Brighter Summer Day, A One and a Two) in the top 100. But the appearance at no. 105 of Fei Mu’s Spring in a Small Town (1948) may prove significant.

Elsewhere in Asia, only Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali (at no. 42) represents India’s vast array of filmmaking in the top 100. African cinema is equally invisible, although the appearance of Mambéty’s Touki-Bouki at joint 93rd (sharing the same number of votes as Intolerance and The Seventh Seal!) must surely owe something to the film’s recent high-profile restoration.

Slow change

What ‘the canon’ demonstrates, as always, is a slow-moving consensus: people who know and see a lot of films trying to reflect on their scale of values. It’s about naming classics, and so will always be biased against the recent, the marginal and the exceptional – apart from those brave enough to flaunt their non-canonic taste. With such a volume of list-making and often combative argument about films now available online – together with unprecedented access to old and obscure titles – it would seem likely that the ‘old canon’ shaped in the 1960s will eventually be eroded, or superseded by something more eclectic, reflecting recent discoveries.

Certainly, one problem felt by most participants in the poll is simply the ever-expanding range and number of films. Unlike the guardians of taste in other fields such as literature, music and art, film connoisseurs have tended not to pigeonhole themselves as specialists in a particular period or region, and so are faced with ever more invidious choices in listing just ten titles. Film, albeit in its predominantly digital forms, is still a global culture, with more exchange across cultural barriers than anything other than (probably) pop music and detective fiction.

But within this expanding bubble, it’s touching to see how some articles of faith still command respect. Even with no fewer than three films by Coppola in the top 50 (after the ‘splitting’ of The Godfather into separate entries for parts 1 and 2 – hence its dramatic fall since 2002), there’s still room for three by Tarkovsky in the same 50. At the very least, the 2012 list should be enough to start some entertaining arguments…

Further reading

Keeping a distance: Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman

By Janet Bergstrom

Keeping a distance: Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman

Is Citizen Kane still the greatest film of all time?

By David Thomson

Is Citizen Kane still the greatest film of all time?

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Originally published: 1 August 2012