A Top Ten Dilemma: Previewing the Sight and Sound Greatest Films Poll, Part II

A Top Ten Dilemma: Previewing the Sight and Sound Greatest Films Poll, Part II

nullEDITOR'S NOTE: This summer Sight and Sound, the magazine of the British Film Institute, will issue the seventh edition of their international poll of critics and directors on the greatest films of all time. While there have been plenty of lists and polls of this kind conducted over the years by innumerable publications, websites and other outlets, the Sight and Sound poll occupies a special place among them. It polls a select number of participants that rank among the most respected authorities on film (the 2002 edition polled 145 critics and 108 directors). To my knowledge it is the longest-running poll of its kind, having first been conducted in 1952, and conducted only once every ten years.

To discuss the poll, its history and relevance to film culture, and possibly indulge in a bit of prognosticating, I’ve organized an online discussion with David Jenkins, UK-based film critic for the website Little White Lies, Vadim Rizov, US-based film critic for Sight and Sound and other publications, and Bill Georgaris, Australian-based creator of the website They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They and keeper of the massive list of 1000 greatest films, compiled from over 2100 such lists, including each edition of the Sight and Sound poll. (His list was what inspired me to start my own blog Shooting Down Pictures, in which I watched and researched all 1000 films on the list, a project that did as much towards expanding my film knowledge as anything I’ve done.) – KBL

Read Part One: NOT Simply the Best 

Read Part Three: Predictions You Can't Refuse

DAVID JENKINS: In terms of what the list means to me, I entirely concur with the notion that it operates best as a tool to help prospective cinephiles broaden their horizons. Like a giant cinema tip sheet, or something? That has certainly been my experience with it. The 2002 poll probably remains the most important one to me – possibly a result of it being so easy/fun/addictive to navigate online? – and while never rigidly committing to watch all the films selected or every title in the top 100, I did (and still do!) carry around a dog-eared slip of paper in my wallet with scrawled lists of prospective purchases and films to look out for in the schedules.

For the 2012 poll, I'm most excited to see how the era of DVD and film downloads has an effect on the results. It's hard to predict whether easy access to famously obscure titles (eg, Jacques Rivette's long-lost Out 1 recently surfaced on Italian television(!) and came out on German DVD) would serve in calcifying the status of the untouchable classics of yore, or force poll participants into adopting a broader view of film history based on the diversity of their viewing.

nullAnd on that note, would celebrated revivals and restorations serve to nudge under-loved films into the limelight? Will 2012 be the year of Charles Burnett's Killer of Sheep? Will the new, extended cut of Fritz Lang's Metropolis make it more of a contender than it has been in past polls?

In attempting to formulate my personal top ten, various issues have inevitably arisen regarding what makes a "great film" just that. The Sight & Sound brief leaves the term "greatest" tantalisingly open to interpretation, leaving each participant to choose what kind of statement they want to make with their own list. Here are some questions that I wrestled with while trying in vain to whittle down my own choices:

1. How much do you want your list to be a reaction to past polls as well as to the notion of an established canon? Or, put another way, how much do you feel Citizen Kane deserves another poll victory?

2. What preparation is required prior to formulating your list? Will you re-watch your proposed top ten before filing? What supplementary books, lists, websites will you use for reference?

3. Is there an unofficial period of maturation required for a film to be eligible for selection? In the 2002 list, Robin Wood noted that it was “too soon to be sure” whether Haneke's The Piano Teacher would be worthy for inclusion. Should, say, at least ten years have passed before a film can attain classic status?

4. Should every list acknowledge the importance of certain areas of cinema (historical, geographic, gender of director, sound, silent, etc…)? Should each participant be obliged to include at least one silent film or a film by a female director? Or if your specialist field of knowledge is African film or American film, is it OK to remain within your comfort zone and select the films which best represent your interests?

5. Should you create a list in terms of directors rather than films? And if so, is there a need to rally around a consensus title so that your favorite director gets a high ranking? Is it worth playing the long game? Eg, selecting 'Tokyo Story' over a lesser-known Ozu to represent the director's entire oeuvre knowing that you'd probably be boosting the film's overall rankings even if you din't see it as the director's most representative work. Or, should one always attempt to justify a personal favourite, whatever its current status? This question would probably be where the proliferation of home video and downloads rears its head.

6. Should subjective favourites always trump objective, universally recognized canonical titles? The big one.

Now Vadim is going to tackle some of these questions…

VADIM RIZOV: David asks: "How much do you want your list to be a reaction to past polls as well as to the notion of an established canon?"

nullI have no plans to put Citizen Kane on my top 10 list; I watch it every 5 years or so and try to come around, but it's still not working out. (Welles was right: The Trial really is his best film. Anyway.) I'm also not planning for the only film I think has a reasonable chance of replacing it (Vertigo), so from the outset my interest in contributing to any kind of top 10 surge or shift is minimal. (Should I feel guilty about these relatively underwhelmed responses? I'll let the internet tell me!)

Let me skip to David's question on representation, which truly troubles me. I have a lot of trouble with the idea of a meaningful top 10 list stating what I truly believe to be the all-time greats, even subjectively. My goal is to select 10 films that actively represent a cross-section of my viewing patterns. No matter how hard I try, though, I'm not going to be able to come up with a list that is truly representative not just of my viewing patterns but any political values I have. There will be, I fear, no non-fiction films, no representatives of the avant-garde, and — distressingly — probably no films directed by women. (For some people, any one of those absences would be enough to prompt scorn.) Moreover, I'm straining hard to make a list that represents my time-period-indifferent viewing in aggregate. A late-night subway ride during which I tried to casually jot down the first candidates that sprung to mind was overwhelmingly slanted towards recent stunning films, many of them American. This won't do — so I'm tamping down the emphasis on my immediate recent favorites a bit. This is my modified version of Robin Wood's rule.

Let me be clear about why I feel no guilt about making a list that's more than a little self-consciously designed to be a little punchy. First of all, my eyes glaze over like anyone else's when I pass over lists of unimpeccable but standardized choices; that's what the aggregate numbers are for. But secondly: I read, every day, bold criticism in which people make categorical declarations without remotely trying to back them up, and these are considered some of the most valuable writers working now. I may not be as good as some of these writers (no names), but for some reason gauntlet-throwing is considered an acceptable mode of discourse. When it comes time to make this list, for once I'm going to indulge my urge to make categorical declarations with minimal explanation. I'm summarizing my viewing values, not trying to start a fight about Which Films Truly Matter.

BILL GEORGARIS: My perspective on the Sight & Sound poll will be from the point-of-view of a punter, because that is what I am, in film terms. That is, a long-time film lover who is subscribed to Sight & Sound, and who also, as you know, assembles (via many sources, including Sight & Sound) his own list of greatest films for the website They Shoot Pictures Don't They? I have been collecting film lists in one form or another since 1988. John Kobal's book "John Kobal Presents the Top 100 Movies" was where it all started. I love these bloody polls, although at the same time, I can see why they are often frowned upon.

nullFirstly, I'd like to comment on the process, and express my minor disappointment at the fact that S&S have decided not to increase the ballot from 10 films. It would have been nice to break with tradition and call for 20-25 films from each critic/filmmaker. The consensus at the top may have remained very much the same but the variety of films at the bottom would probably have intrigued more. That's not to say, that there won't be intriguing selections, just less than there might have been.

Alright then, in no particular order, I have a few remarks and further questions relating to the poll and to a critic's perceived responsibility when it comes to penning their selections.

Should a critic/filmmaker slave over their selections (the studied approach), or should they just jot down the first 10 great films that come to mind (the off-the-cuff approach)? I sense that most critics and scholars steer towards the studied approach, whereas filmmakers probably generate their lists more spontaneously. This has been my perception with the previous polls.

I enjoy seeing the filmmaker selections as much, and in many cases, more than the critics' selections, but I am sceptical as to the time and effort that goes into their selections. I acknowledge that I am generalising here. It would be fair to suggest that most filmmakers spend far more time planning and making their own films, than watching films by others (past and present). For example, I heard an interview with Werner Herzog a few weeks back where he stated he has only watched a handful of films over the last few years. There are some obvious exceptions, the most famous being Martin Scorsese, whose appetite and care for film history is seemingly as insatiable as that of the most dedicated film critics and scholars. Maybe Marty could have a double-vote?

Generally-speaking, I agree with Robin Wood's 'test-of-time' rule. I, personally, wouldn't select a film from the past 10 years, but at the same time critics/filmmakers should go with their gut feeling. If they honestly believe that a film from this year or last year is worthy to be in their top 10, then so be it. Just do it.

The selection dilemmas, as Vadim touched on, when limited to just ten films are immense. Does the voter restrict themselves to 1 film per director, 1 film per decade, a maximum of two comedies, not too many American films, a handful of Asian films, etc, etc. And, gosh, how do I squeeze in my favourite film noir? This is the quandary that you will all possibly be having. How can ten films possibly represent the overall taste of a critic/filmmaker? And, does it matter? Probably not.

In terms of trends over the last 10 years, I envisage that the 2012 poll, more than any other, will include more selections that have been viewed in the comfort of the voters' own homes, than in a film theatre. The increase in availability of hard-to-find films from all parts of the globe over the last ten years has been breathtaking. Criterion and others have enabled us to explore films and filmmakers that were previously tough to track down. Also, the Blu-Ray revolution has given us the opportunity to watch films at their best, something we weren't able to do in the past. Seeing a classic film in Blu-Ray could see it shoot up into contention for your top-10. If I had a penny for every Blu-Ray that has made me reassess the overall quality of a film, then I would be…

Also, let's not forget the advances in television technology over the last 10 years that has made viewing films in a domestic environment a far more rewarding experience. I'm not 100% sure where I'm going with this, but I guess what I am alluding to is the fact that viewing habits since the last poll have changed markedly, and hence, may influence choices.

Continue to Part Three: Predictions You Can't Refuse

Read Part One: NOT Simply the Best 

3 thoughts on “A Top Ten Dilemma: Previewing the Sight and Sound Greatest Films Poll, Part II”

  1. The Sight and Sound poll is supposed to represent the greatest films of all time. I don't understand why anyone would alter their list so it contains 1 silent film, 1 film directed by a woman, only 1 film per director etc. A film is a film is a film: I don't see why anyone would choose to impose limiting criteria like these when the result is clearly not going to produce a list of what the compiler considers to be the best of all time (if they happen to satisfy them anyway then that's a different matter).

    Anyway, I am eagerly looking forward to the results, even if does seem inevitable that Citizen Kane will win again.


  2. It's kind of interesting how being a single person polled among a large group and limited to only 10 films can change your choices so much. In some lists–especially if you're writing a book with a large number of films–the emphasis can be on historical importance and influence. The impact and innovation of things like Birth of a Nation and Battleship Potemkin may be more than almost any other film you can think of, so in an objective fashion one might have to include these to give an accurate understanding of film history. But when it's just your own personal Top Ten and you know the final Top Ten is just going to be whichever film gets mentioned the most, that changes things. Personally, I would make a list of the 20 or so the movies I feel have affected me the most with their power, beauty, and artistry, and then choose the ten from that list which I would most like to see represented in the poll. To hell with any sort of affirmative action for that top 20, but within that list if I want to include a Powell or a Malick because they always seem to be underrepresented in the poll, then that's what I'll do. Voting strategically is inevitable when you have such a small window to do it in and there are undoubtedly a couple dozen other movies you regard just as highly.


  3. Very interesting observations! I agree on the "Hall of Fame" approach that a film can only be once on the list… But it is also interesting to see how the test of time can affect some films and how each decade can love/hate certain films and then after many years in the dark the film will reappear. I am looking forward the prognostics!


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