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 

Not Simply the Best: Previewing the Sight and Sound Greatest Films Poll, Part I

Not Simply the Best: Previewing the Sight and Sound Greatest Films Poll, Part I

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.) This is the first in a series of posts on the poll, and examines the poll's significance; part two looks more closely at how critics create their top ten lists. – KBL

Read Part Two: A Top Ten Dilemma

Read Part Three: Predictions You Can't Refuse

KEVIN B. LEE: Speaking personally, the Sight and Sound poll played a seminal role in my movie love. I first learned of it in the 1980s as a teenager when Roger Ebert shared his top ten list for the 1982 edition of the poll in his Movie Home Companion, composing one eloquent paragraph for each film. To read a critic at the top of his craft write about the films he loved the most really imprinted a deep regard for film and film writing in me. Films both from the ’82 poll results (Citizen Kane, Seven Samurai, Vertigo) and Ebert’s list (Taxi Driver, The Third Man) occupied my personal top ten for years to follow. Ebert's respect for the poll hasn't abated: just the other week he blogged about it as "The best damn film list of them all" and surmised which titles will make his ballot for this year's edition.

nullAnother critic I admire, Jonathan Rosenbaum gives his personal account of the list’s influence in Essential Cinema: on the Necessity of Film Canons. Rosenbaum recalls how, as a college freshman, he encountered the 1962 edition of the list in Sight and Sound Magazine on the heels of writing a paper for his NYU film class arguing for the greatness of Citizen Kane, a film his professor dismissed as “uncinematic” (according to Rosenbaum, this was a prevailing assessment of Welles’ film at the time). For Rosenbaum, the S&S list affirmed his own values in regard to Citizen Kane, and pointed towards discoveries beyond what the ideological confines of his film class could offer:

Citizen Kane, I was happy to discover, placed first, and I was astonished to discover in second place L’avventura – a film by Michelangelo Antonioni that preceded La notte and that I had only just discovered and was still trying to process… I vowed to see as many films on the list as I could, and for the next several years proceeded like a butterfly collector, dutifully underlining each title in that issue of Sight and Sound as soon as I’d seen the film… Some critical favorites on the list proved to be disappointments, others were greater than I had even hoped for, but in both cases these responses represented not so much end points as the beginnings of evaluations and reevaluations that would continue over decades and that are still taking place.”

These examples should suffice in accounting for the impact the Sight and Sound list can potentially have on a young person interested in cinema. Rosenbaum links the list’s relevance to an underlying need for a canon that people can explore to develop their appreciation of film. The necessity of a film canon (as well as the complications and considerations that arise from this assertion) is something I’ve discussed with him following the release of Essential Cinema in 2004 and that he goes to some length in examining in the book. One point worth noting from our exchange is his expressed disappointment with the most recent edition of the list from 2002:

“Sight and Sound knew how to get a representative sample of international critical thought in the 50s, 60s, and 70s; more recently, I think the same magazine has shown a less certain grasp of what’s going on in criticism.”

The statement hints at the politics of canon formation: how the quality of the list of films depends on those involved in selecting them. When he wrote this back in 2004, I wasn’t as aware as I am now of the vast totality of contemporary film criticism as it exists around the globe. I still can’t confidently declare my familiarity with it all; who really can? There's been such an explosion of worthwhile criticism over the past decade thanks to the internet and blog culture. If it was challenging enough for Sight and Sound to assemble an authoritative critical mass for their poll back in 2002, one can only imagine the Quixotic dimensions of such an endeavor now. The internet, web 2.0 and social media have marked a radically new era in film culture, specifically in the proliferation and dissemination of reviews, opinions and theories on cinema. It will be fascinating to see how all of this will register shifts in the new poll (both in its participants and results), or to what extent it will echo the status quo and stagnation characterized by the 2002 poll results.

nullIndeed, the 2002 results were a letdown, at least for me. I had seen nearly every film in the top 100, so it had little in the way of discoveries or surprises, other than how unsurprising it was. For that reason my relationship to the list changed; I no longer took the perspective of list consumer but that of a curator, looking for ways to make the list more meaningful.

My chief complaint is its overwhelming orientation towards films from the US and Europe and lack of recognition of films from the remaining 80% of the world. If this list was meant to be a canonical introduction to cinema, its cultural disposition was alarming to say the least. Given the thriving international festival and archival culture that’s emerged in the last 20 years, it’s not like there’s a lack of worthy films from Latin America, Africa and Asia to consider; more likely there’s a lack of awareness of them. This was when I began to realize the self-perpetuating mythical importance of lists like these: they entrench certain films, and all the aesthetic and cultural baggage that come with them, at the expense of granting access to new films with new values and perspectives. I think a shakeup is in order.

Scholar Kristin Thompson says as much in a recent blog post where she diagnosed the problem with the Sight and Sound list and canonical cinema in general: “With so many smaller countries starting to make movies and so many festivals making them widely available, it becomes impossible to anoint new classics in the way critics used to.” One possible solution might be to expand the top ten list to a top twenty, allowing for critics to account for more diversity in their selections. But who’s to say to what extent that would alter the consensus choices at the top.

Thompson offers an intriguing alternative to the Sight and Sound poll as it is currently conducted:

“I think this business of polls and lists for the greatest films of all times would be much more interesting if each film could only appear once. Having gained the honor of being on the list, each title could be retired, and a whole new set concocted ten years later. The point of such lists, if there is one, is presumably to introduce people who are interested in good films to new ones they may not have seen or even known about.”

Out of curiosity, I decided to simulate Thompson’s proposal by running through all the previous Sight and Sound film polls and “retiring” any film that had already placed in the previous edition, thus ensuring a fresh set of films each time. The results are below, and can be compared with the actual historical results as found on Thompson’s blog and on Wikipedia. (Many thanks to Bill Georgaris for supplying the data.)

As obsessed as I’ve been with lists for most of my life, the Shooting Down Pictures project convinced me that the world of great cinema is far too vast and multifaceted for a single list to do it justice. (These days I’m less interested in a list of great films than a list of ways to watch and think about films.) But young prospective filmmakers and cinephiles will continue to embrace these lists as a guide to their viewing and development. Therein lies the importance of this poll and what's on it.

Sight and Sound has its work cut out for it. Judging from past poll results, it seems that for the last 40 years canonical film culture has largely been stuck in the 50s and 60s, and overwhelmingly in Hollywood and Europe. Can and will this hegemony be altered? And if so, what will it take?

I hand the discussion over to David, Vadim and Bill who may have their own take on these and other questions. I know David has several questions that he feels every participant in the poll should ask themselves…

CONTINUE TO PART TWO: How the Sausage Is Made

READ PART THREE: Predictions You Can't Refuse

An alternative history of the Sight and Sound Poll (a "Hall of Fame" approach)

Following Kristin Thompson's suggestion, I ran through the results of each edition of the Sight and Sound Greatest Films poll, “retiring” any film that had already placed in the previous edition, thus ensuring a fresh set of top-voted films each time. How surprising are the results? See for yourself.

(Note some years have more than 10 entries in the event of ties)

1952 (same as actual results)
nullBicycle Thieves (1948, De Sica)
City Lights (1930, Chaplin)
The Gold Rush (1925, Chaplin)
Battleship Potemkin (1925, Eisenstein)
Intolerance (1916, Griffith)
Louisiana Story (1949, Flaherty)
Greed (1925, Stroheim)
Le Jour se leve (1939, Carne)
The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928, Dreyer)
Brief Encounter (1946, Lean)
La Regle du jeu (1939, Renoir)

1962
Citizen Kane (1941, Welles)
L’avventura (1960, Antonioni)
Ugetsu Monogatari (1953, Mizoguchi)
Ivan the Terrible, Parts I and II (1944, 1958, Eisenstein)
La terra trema (1948, Visconti)
L’Atalante (1934, Vigo)
Earth / Zemlya (1930, Dovzhenko)
Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959, Resnais)
Sunrise (1927, Murnau)
Zero for Conduct (1930, Vigo)
Pickpocket (1959, Bresson)
Nazarin (1959, Bunuel)

1972
8 ½ (1963, Fellini)
Persona (1967, Bergman)
The General (1927, Keaton and Bruckman)
The Magnificent Ambersons (1942, Welles)
Wild Strawberries (1957, Bergman)
Vertigo (1958, Hitchcock)
Pierrot le fou (1965, Godard)
La Grande Illusion (1937, Renoir)
Ikiru (1952, Kurosawa)
The Searchers (1956, Ford)

1982
nullSingin’ in the Rain (1952, Donen and Kelly)
2001: A Space Odyssey (1968, Kubrick)
Andrei Rublev (1969, Tarkovsky)
Jules et Jim (1961, Truffaut)
The Third Man (1949, Reed)
Tokyo Story (1953, Ozu)
Touch of Evil (1958, Welles)
Les Enfants du paradis (1943, Carne)
Modern Times (1936, Chaplin)
Madame de… (1953, Ophuls)
Contempt (1963, Godard)
The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972, Bunuel)

1992*
Raging Bull (1980, Scorsese)
The Godfather and the Godfather Part II (1972, 1974, Coppola)
Pather Panchali (1955, Ray)
La Strada (1956, Fellini)
La Dolce vita (1961, Fellini)
Rashomon (1950, Kurosawa)
Breathless (1960, Godard)
Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948, Ophuls)
Apocalypse Now (1979, Coppola)
Paisan (1945, Rossellini)
The Mirror (1976, Tarkovsky)
Fanny and Alexander (1982, Bergman)

2002*
Lawrence of Arabia (1962, Lean)
Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964, Kubrick)
Psycho (1960, Hitchcock)
Sunset Blvd. (1950, Wilder)
Some Like It Hot (1959, Wilder)
The Seventh Seal (1957, Bergman)
Au hazard Balthazar (1966, Bresson)
Taxi Driver (1976, Scorsese)
The Apartment (1960, Wilder)
Casablanca (1943, Curtiz)
Chinatown (1974, Polanski)

Some initial observations on this approach (which somewhat resembles a Hall of Fame induction process):

– *The ’92 and ’02 polls incorporate votes by directors – wasn’t able to separate the two with the data set I had.
– While in 1972 nearly half of the list consisted of new titles, in 1982 there was only one, and none in 1992 and 2002.
– The cinema of the 50s and 60s dominate as much here as they do in the official poll. I had assumed that this approach would surface more newer films, but looking at the last three editions, 50s and 60s films outnumber films from subsequent decades by a 3-to-1 ratio. While the results of this exercise still aren’t fully satisfying, at least they put different films in play and offer a list that’s continually expanding rather than stagnating. (One critic who is participating in the poll for the fourth time told me that he is using a similar approach, and will not include any films he selected in his previous ballots.)