Sight & Sound Poll 2012 – Nerd Christmas

One of the reassuring things about the Sight & Sound Poll, a once-a-decade list of the 10 greatest movies ever made, made up of submissions from the world’s leading critics and historians, is that change comes very gradually to it. Critical opinion doesn’t fluctuate wildly; if you’ve made the list at all, it’s proved that you are in the most select group of the greatest of movies. In fact, some have argued that inclusion on the list should be enough, that once you’ve made the list, you should be retired and unable to appear on the next decade’s iteration. It is this consistency that has led to only 32 movies appearing on the list in 60 years of this artistic experiment.

The 2012 list was supposed to be a shake-up. The sheer number of voters was much larger than in year’s past and the make-up was supposedly younger based on the fact that since 2002 Internet criticism had grown-up to the point that inclusion of web-based critics wouldn’t threaten the artistic merit of the enterprise (I’m assuming, Sight & Sound, my invitation to participate was lost in the mail). The new demographics were predicted to give us a list unlike any we’d seen before. A list that seemed at least respectably legitimate was leaked a few weeks ago that included Citizen Kane (1941) in the third position, two lower than the place it had occupied in the previous five lists, and a list that included Pulp Fiction (1994) and last year’s Tree of Life. If this list were to be believed, it seemed that critical opinion had indeed shifted, in wild and unpredictable ways.

However, then the real list came out and while it has been mostly chided as same old, same old, I’d like to hazard that it does represent a significant change, as much as the glacial moods of Sight & Sound go, and I think those changes are positive. It’s a very good list. Before I dive into it, however, I must issue the caveat that lists are quite silly and that Sight & Sound, which might be the most respected of them all, has by no means issued the 10 greatest movies ever made. There is no greatest movie ever made. This is a list made up of 800+ ballots of some of the most serious film minds in the world, but it’s possible that the list that resulted matches none of the individual voter’s personal list. Inclusion on the list is an honor, but exclusion is not necessarily a slight. How on earth does one distinguish which movie is the sixth greatest versus the seventh greatest? In the 2012 poll’s case, what deficiencies does The Searchers (1956, no. 7) have that allowed 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968, no. 6) to pass it? The list is a tool, a resource to educate and to provide a record of a moment in time in the critical thought of an art form. The list doesn’t provide answers, but it reveals trends. It is also incredibly fun to discuss. So, let’s do that shall we.

The headline grabber of this year’s list is that Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958) ousted Citizen Kane (1941), which had finished first in every list since 1962 only to find itself in second place in 2012. I don’t agree with this change, but I don’t find it to be the earth-shattering revolution that it has been characterized to be. Vertigo is, of course, a great movie and is as worthy as any to “dethrone” Kane. It has been charging up the ladder for decades and finished second in 2002 just five votes behind the top spot.

Furthermore, Sight & Sound’s rules disregard list order in its submissions, meaning that a voter can put his or her 10 movies in any order and they all get the same number of pointsI feel this is slightly unfair: The final list make value-judgements about which movies are better than others, and I believe they should allow the voters to do so too. What it comes down to is that Vertigo was on 40 or so more lists this year than Citizen Kane, but if the results were weighted, the outcome could have been different. Either way, it doesn’t matter. It’s hard to argue that Kane isn’t a good movie anymore because it finished second. It’s not the “loser” as Sight & Sound itself claims.

More telling to me are movies that were excluded from the list entirely. A rule change from 2002 to this year is that movies in a series could no longer be voted upon as one entry, meaning that if a voter wanted to suggest that The Lord of the Rings Trilogy was one of the greatest movies of all time, in 2002 they would have been able to use just one of their 10 spots to do so (although, not really, as two thirds of that trilogy had yet to be released by the time voting ended in 2002—it’s a hypothetical, bear with me). But in 2012 they would have had to donate three precious spots for each of the films in the series. This change most likely cost The Godfather (1972) or The Godfather Part II (1974) a spot on the list as they finished 4th as a unit in 2002 but most likely split the vote and got shut out this year.

More surprising is the omission of Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin (1925), one of the five most influential movies ever made and one that has appeared on every list leading up to 2012. I don’t decry Potemkin’s exclusion (its spot as the representative of Soviet montage has effectively been replaced by Vertov’s Man With the a Movie Camera [1929] at No. 8, on the list in 2012 for the first time), but it appears that, for the time being at least, Potemkin has been put in a nebulous place that one studies as a triumph of technical filmmaking but doesn’t enjoy as a piece of art on its own, a place Griffith’s The Birth of A Nation (1915), almost unassailably the most influential movie of all time, has resided in for some time. This is a little unfair. Of course, The Birth of a Nation, which is told with more energy than Potemkin, relegated itself to academic hinterlands by being so unwatchably racist, while Potemkin can still offer audiences both visceral and scholarly pleasure (though, being honest I’d rather watch the Vertov picture). Potemkin missed out on the top 10 by a single vote so perhaps it could bounce back.

The biggest exclusion seems to be comedy, of which, unlike in every other iteration of the list, there isn’t a single title whose crux is mainly to that end. I would say a light, comic sense informs Kane, The Rules of the Game (1939, which now that Potemkin is out is the only movie that has been on all seven lists), and 8 1/2 (1963), but to call any of them comedies holds little water. Other movies on the list have funny parts, but if you find yourself laughing during The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928, no. 9) it’s because you thought of something else. It’s interesting that a list with three silent movies seems to have shut out Keaton and Chaplin, who used to trade decades as the finest of the silent filmmakers. There are comedies peppered in the also-ran area including L’Atalante (1934) at 12, Singin’ in the Rain (1951) at 21, The General (1926) at 34, Some Like it Hot (1954) and Play-time (1967) tied at 42 and City Lights (1934), which once finished 2nd but is now barely hanging on at number 50, but none of them had the clout to finish in the final list. 

There are also some surprises from what was expected compared to what actually happened. Rumblings of Vertigo topping Kane had been on the horizon for a while so that softened the blow. Man with a Movie Camera came out of nowhere. There was a lot of heat about Raging Bull (1980) cracking the top 10 in 2012, but it didn’t make the top 50 and was outdone by Scorsese’s other masterpiece Taxi Driver (1976) which finished 31st.

For all the talk about the youth movement, this year’s movies are older than 2002’s. With the most recent being 2001 from 1968, six years older than the newest movie in 2002, The Godfather Part II, which was no spring chicken 10 years ago. The average release date of the 2002 list was 1952; in 2012 the average was 1946. I don’t know exactly what that means other than the Sight & Sound poll, which once featured a two-year-old movie as second greatest in 1962, has shifted steadily toward requiring a severe test of time.

How does the list compare to my personal top 10? Since I recently asked this question of my friends I happen to have that information handy and can say that my list and the magazine’s share two titles and I thought slightly higher of both of them than did Sight & Sound. I could complain about exclusions or instances of the right director but the wrong movie, but what’s the point? There’s nothing to object to here and quite a lot to be excited about. With the exception of The Searchers and Man with a Movie Camera, both of which I highly regard as being in the very top tier, all the rest of the movies on the Sight & Sound poll can be found on my personal top 100 and, when thousands of movies are released every year, if you’re in the top 100 or even the top 200, you can make your argument for the top ten.

There’s much to digest here (Ozu’s continued critical dominance over Kurasawa, John Ford being apparently back in vogue), and I plan on digesting as much as I can. It’s Nerd Christmas, everyone, time to celebrate. By the end of this month, I plan on having rewatched and written about all of the movies on the 2012 list (I’ve already written about The Rules of the Game). Below is the list I would have submitted had my invitation not got lost in the mail, followed by the results of every Sight & Sound poll.

1. Citizen Kane (Welles)
2.  The Godfather (Coppola)
3. Schindler’s List (Spielberg)
4. The 400 Blows (Truffaut)
5. Notorious (Hitchcock)
6. 8 1/2 (Fellini)
7. Jaws (Spielberg)
8. L’Avventura (Antonioni)
9. Lawrence of Arabia (Lean)
10. L’Atalante (Vigo)

Sight & Sound
1. Bicycle Thieves (De Sica)
2. City Lights (Chaplin)
2. The Gold Rush (Chaplin)
4. Battleship Potemkin (Eisenstein)
5. Intolerance (Griffith)
5. Louisiana Story (Flaherty)
7 (tie). Greed (von Stroheim)
7 (tie). Le Jour se lève (Carné)
7 (tie). The Passion of Joan of Arc (Dreyer)
10 (tie). Brief Encounter (Lean)
10 (tie). La Rules of the Game (Renoir)

1. Citizen Kane (Welles)
2. L’Avventura (Antonioni)
3. The Rules of the Game (Renoir)
4. Greed (von Stroheim)
4. Ugetsu Monogatari (Mizoguchi)
6. Battleship Potemkin (Eisenstein)
7. Bicycle Thieves (De Sica)
7. Ivan the Terrible (Eisenstein)
9. La terra trema (Visconti)
10. L’Atalante (Vigo)

1. Citizen Kane (Welles)
2. The Rules of the Game (Renoir)
3. Battleship Potemkin (Eisenstein)
4. 8 ½ (Fellini)
5 (tie). L’Avventura (Antonioni)
5 (tie). Persona (Bergman)
7. The Passion of Joan of Arc (Dreyer)
8 (tie). The General (Keaton)
8 (tie). The Magnificent Ambersons (Welles)
10 (tie). Ugetsu Monogatari (Mizoguchi)
10 (tie). Wild Strawberries (Bergman)

1. Citizen Kane (Welles)
2. The Rules of the Game (Renoir)
3 (tie). Seven Samurai (Kurosawa)
3 (tie). Singin’ in the Rain (Kelly, Donen)
5. 8½ (Fellini)
6. Battleship Potemkin (Eisenstein)
7 (tie). L’Avventura (Antonioni)
7 (tie). The Magnificent Ambersons (Welles)
7 (tie). Vertigo (Hitchcock)
10 (tie). The General (Keaton)
10 (tie). The Searchers (Ford)

1. Citizen Kane (Welles)
2. The Rules of the Game (Renoir)
3. Tokyo Story (Ozu)
4. Vertigo (Hitchcock)
5. The Searchers (Ford)
6. L’Atalante (Vigo)
6. The Passion of Joan of Arc (Dreyer)
6. Pather Panchali (Ray)
6. Battleship Potemkin (Eisenstein)
10. 2001: A Space Odyssey (Kubrick)

1. Citizen Kane (Welles)
2. Vertigo (Hitchcock)
3. The Rules of the Game (Renoir)
4. The Godfather and The Godfather Part II (Coppola)
5. Tokyo Story (Ozu)
6. 2001: A Space Odyssey (Kubrick)
7. Battleship Potemkin (Eisenstein)
8. Sunrise (Murnau)
9. 8 1/2 (Fellini)
10. Singin’ in the Rain (Donen/Kelly)

1. Vertigo (Hitchcock)
2. Citizen Kane (Welles)
3. Tokyo Story (Ozu)
4. Rules of the Game (Renoir)
5. Sunrise (Murnau)
6. 2001: A Space Odyssey (Kubrick)
7. The Searchers (Ford)
8. Man with a Movie Camera (Vertov)
9. The Passion of Joan of Arc (Dreyer)
10. 8 1/2 (Fellini)


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