Wednesday, December 21, 2022

The greatest films of all time? The 2022 Sight and Sound critics poll

Jeanne Dielman

The British Film Institute's Sight and Sound magazine has just released its once-a-decade critics' poll of the greatest films of all time. This is the eighth edition of the poll, and has some notable differences with earlier versions. [1]

But before I dive in, a brief preamble on the absurdity of "best of" lists, and especially best-of lists that compare works that are unlike (musical comedies, say, with documentaries), and most especially best-of lists that are numerically ranked. I'm not unaware that I've just finished providing lists of my favorite recordings, performances, books and movies enjoyed in 2022. But my lists make no claims that the works I've singled out as my favorites are "best" or "greatest," simply that, out of the tiny sample of the works I've personally experienced, they have given me the greatest pleasure—an obviously subjective and variable criterion. Also, my lists are generally not numerically ranked.

At most, ranked polls can provide a snapshot of the current average critical taste, but as we all know, critical tastes change, in part in response to cultural shifts. Of course, whose opinion the poll represents has also changed. In 1952 the poll was compiled from the ten-best lists of 63 critics from Britain, the U.S., and Europe; in 2022 the voting pool had expanded to "more than 1,600 of the most influential international film critics, academics, distributors, writers, curators, archivists and programmers," according to the BFI website. Finally, in 1952 it had been only 50 years since George Méliès' A Trip to the Moon (our distance from The Godfather and Cabaret); in 2022 the poll participants could select their ten best films from well over a century of world cinema. More than three-quarters of the films on the 2022 list had not yet been made in 1952.

So it's not surprising that in each decade the "greatest films of all time" change. Fully seven of the top 10 selected in 1952 are missing from the top 100 in 2022. These include Chaplin's The Gold Rush (#2 in 1952), Erich von Stroheim's Greed and Marcel Carné's Le jour se lève (tied at #7 in 1952), and David Lean's Brief Encounter (#10 in 1952). (Brief Encounter was one of my Favorites of 2011: Movies, and both it and The Gold Rush would be on the list of my favorite 100 films.)

Some changes, of course, are positive ones, and it's great to see women and Black filmmakers getting more recognition in the 2022 list. Making appearances for the first time:

  • Agnès Varda (Cleo from 5 to 7, #14; The Gleaners and I, #67)
  • Maya Deren (Meshes of the Afternoon, #16)
  • Spike Lee (Do the Right Thing, #24, my choice for the true Best Picture of 1989)
  • Věra Chytilová (Daisies, #28, which I called "essential viewing")
  • Céline Sciamma (Portrait of a Lady, #30, one of my Favorites of 2021: Movies)
  • Charles Burnett (Killer of Sheep, #43)
  • Barbara Loden (Wanda, #48) 
  • Jane Campion (The Piano, #50)
  • Julie Dash (Daughters of the Dust, #60)
  • Barry Jenkins (Moonlight, #60)
  • Jordan Peele (Get Out, #95, an honorable mention in my Favorites of 2017: Movies). 

I suspect that there are some highly-ranked films in the 2022 poll that won't maintain their current positions in future polls. Five among them (limiting my comments to films I've seen):

  • Chantal Akerman's Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (#1): Laura Mulvey writes in her essay about this film, "Interest in gender in cinema and the objectification of women has gathered momentum, especially as awareness of the misogyny inherent in the industrial mode of production–what we call 'Hollywood'–has become widespread. [Of course, misogyny, sexual coercion and assault are rampant not only in 'Hollywood.'] Perhaps as the oppression of women in the film industry has attracted attention, fuelled by the #MeToo hashtag, so has the oppression of women on the screen itself, in its fictions and inscribed into film language." So perhaps #MeToo has now brought to the fore issues that Chantal Akerman depicted in Jeanne Dielman nearly half a century ago (although its importance has long been recognized; it was #73 in the 2002 poll and #36 in the 2012 poll). But is Jeanne Dielman the greatest film ever made, whatever that might mean? I have my doubts, and suspect that it is the "greatest film of all time" for our present moment.
  • David Lynch's Mulholland Drive (#8): My choice for the true Best Picture of 2001. I've written that it is "a dreamlike neo-noir that turns nightmarish. Lynch masterfully creates an atmosphere of suspense and dread." But the eighth-best movie ever made? I think even putting it in the top 100 might be a stretch.
  • John Ford's The Searchers (#15): Jonathan Lethem has written that "The Searchers is racist the way Huckleberry Finn is racist," and perhaps it is as complex and self-critical as he claims. Or perhaps another of his descriptions of the film, that it involves "giddy misogyny. . .[and] willful racism," is closer to the mark. I've only seen The Searchers once, when I was in college, and giddy misogyny and willful racism seem like pretty accurate descriptions of what I remember seeing that night. A film long overdue for critical re-evaluation.
  • Céline Sciamma's Portrait of a Lady on Fire (#30): an excellent film, but is it really better than (to choose almost at random) Ugetsu Monogatari (#95), Modern Times (#78), Metropolis (#67), La Jetée (#67), Sherlock Jr. (#54), M (#36), or City Lights (#36)?
  • Stanley Kubrick's Barry Lyndon (#45): I think Kubrick's adaptation of Thackeray's novel is generally underrated and may deserve a place on this list, but in my version it would take the place of The Shining (#88). And while we're on the subject of Kubrick, why is Dr. Strangelove (#5 in 1982, and one of my ten favorite films) missing entirely?

Not only did Dr. Strangelove somehow fail to make the top 100, but the list is also lacking a number of other films and filmmakers. In alphabetical order, here are 15 directors that are absent from the list (and yes, I'm aware that they're all men):

  • Pedro Almodóvar, one of the most visually distinctive filmmakers of the past four decades. Is neither Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown nor All About My Mother, to name just two, worthy of inclusion?
  • Sergei Bondarchuk, War and Peace, one of my Favorites of 2019: Movies. This seven-hour, four-film epic includes vast spectacle—battle scenes featuring tens of thousands of extras—as well as emotionally intimate scenes where fates turn on a single remark or glance.
  • Luis Buñuel, the writer and director of, among others, Un Chien Andalou, L'Age d'Or, Los Olvidados, The Exterminating Angel, Diary of a Chambermaid, Belle de Jour, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, The Phantom of Liberty, and That Obscure Object of Desire. A case could be made for any of these to be on the list.
  • René Clair, À nous la liberté! (Give us freedom!), "his great masterpiece," although it was Clair's Le Million that tied with Renoir's La Règle de jeu and Lean's Brief Encounter at #10 in 1952. (In the 2022 list La Règle de jeu is #13; Le Million and Brief Encounter do not appear at all.)
  • Jean Cocteau, La Belle et la Bête (Beauty and the Beast). The images of the Beast's castle are utterly magical.
  • David Cronenberg, director of Naked Lunch, the brilliant film of William Burroughs' unfilmable novel, as well as The Fly, Crash, eXistenZ, and A History of Violence.
  • Jules Dassin, blacklist victim and director of The Naked City, Night and the City, and Rififi.
  • Louis Feuillade, writer-director of the silent-film serials Fantômas, Les Vampires, and Judex. If these were excluded because the episodes are not feature-length, I'll just point out that the great La Jetée (#67, and one of my ten favorite films) is less than half an hour long.
  • Wojciech Has, The Saragossa Manuscript, which realizes onscreen the intricate, looping narrative structure of Jan Potocki's great 1815 novel.
  • Werner Herzog, director of, among others, the movies Aguirre, the Wrath of God, The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser, Heart of Glass, Stroszek, Nosferatu, Woyzeck, Fitzcarraldo, and the documentaries Lessons of Darkness, The Transformation of the World into Music, Gesualdo: Death for Five Voices, Grizzly Man, Little Dieter Needs to Fly, Wings of Hope, Wheel of Time, and Cave of Forgotten Dreams.
  • Jean-Pierre Melville, director of Bob le flambeur, Le Doulos, Le Samouraï, and Army of Shadows.
  • Preston Sturges, The Lady Eve, which I called "the best of Sturges' movies"—that is, one of the greatest of all Hollywood comedies.
  • Wim Wenders, director of Paris, Texas, Wings of Desire, and the documentaries Pina and The Salt of the Earth.
  • Zhang Yimou, director of Red Sorghum, Ju Dou, and his masterpiece Raise the Red Lantern, as well as Hero and The House of Flying Daggers.

Of course, my questions about the poll don't end there. A number of movies that usually wind up on such lists are missing from this one, and for at least some of the following films I would correct the omission in my own favorites list:

  • F.W. Murnau's Sunrise (#11) is on the list, but where is the horror classic Nosferatu?
  • Ingmar Bergman's Persona (#18) is his only film on the list, which omits art-house perennials Autumn Sonata, Fanny and Alexander, The Seventh Seal, Scenes from a Marriage (possibly ineligible because it was originally made for television), Smiles of a Summer Night, and Wild Strawberries (#10 in 1972).
  • Satyajit Ray is represented by Pather Panchali (#35), but Charulata, The Chess Players, Mahanagar, The Music Room, or The World of Apu could be additional choices. And while we're on the subject of Indian directors, shouldn't Bimal Roy (Parineeta, Devdas, Bandini) and Guru Dutt (Pyaasa, Kaagaz Ke Phool, Chaudhvin Ka Chand, Sahib Bibi aur Ghulam (dance scenes; dialogue scenes directed by Abrar Alvi)) also receive recognition? That one of the largest and most vibrant film industries in the world is represented by one film by one director is a major oversight.
  • Noir is represented by Billy Wilder's Sunset Boulevard (#78), Carol Reed's The Third Man (#63), and perhaps Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo (#2), but also possibly worthy are Howard Hawks' The Big Sleep (another of my ten favorite films), John Huston's The Maltese Falcon, Jacques Tourneur's Out of the Past, Charles Vidor's Gilda, Orson Welles' The Lady from Shanghai, or Wilder's Double Indemnity, my choice for the true Best Picture of 1944.
  • Jean-Luc Godard's takes on the 1960s Pierrot le fou (#84) and Le Mépris (Contempt, #54) make the list, but should Mike Nichols' iconic The Graduate also find a place?

I can't help agreeing with the sentiments of the anonymous reviewer for the The Sheffield & Rotherham Independent Supplement in 1899, who wrote, "Most of the numerous attempts to draw up a list of the hundred best [works]. . .have been distressing failures." We can look forward to a Sight and Sound "greatest films of all time" list that fails differently in 2032.

Update 6 January 2023: The Guardian is reporting that Ni Zhen, the 84-year-old screenwriter of Raise the Red Lantern (1991), died last month. The cause of death was not announced, but the lede states that "A spate of deaths among celebrities and public figures across China has sparked concerns that the actual death toll from Covid-19 may be far higher than authorities are reporting."

  1. In this post I will follow the naming conventions of Sight and Sound, in which foreign-language titles are often (but not always) translated into English.

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