2022: The year the Sight & Sound film poll blew up
Reflections on how an expanded voting pool radically reworked the canon. Plus, my own canon-affirming ballot.
Last week, the results of Sight & Sound’s Greatest Films of All Time list were released, a decennial event since 1952, when 63 critics voted Bicycle Thieves the best film ever made, only four years after it came out. (Six films on the list were from the silent era, however, which was surely the retort on Ye Olde Twitter when the participants were accused of “recency bias.”) The 2022 edition polled 1,639 critics, up from 846 in 2012, which itself had exploded in growth from 2002, when the number was just 145. The two most recently polls have experienced shake-ups at the top: After four decades and five polls of dominance—during the “greatest film of all time” designation felt at once like a trophy and an albatross—Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane bowed to Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, which perhaps seemed more modern and resonant in its fractured, psychologically knotty tale of identity and obsession. In a bit of a shocker—though not that much of a shocker to me, I should note—Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles ended Hitchcock’s brief supremacy, putting an extraordinarily challenging and vexing (and brilliant) work at the top.
For the first time, I was invited to participate and will offer my ballot and my rationale below. But first I wanted to make some general observations about the 2022 poll, which radically upended the previous edition far beyond the top spot:
• “Seen any good movies lately?”: The answer was a startling “yes.” The 2012 poll, even with its significantly expanded roster, only featured two films from the 21st century in the Top 100, In the Mood for Love at #33 and Mulholland Dr. at #35. The 2022 poll added seven more: Portrait of a Lady on Fire (#30), Moonlight (#60), The Gleaners and I (#67), Spirited Away (#75), Parasite (#90), Tropical Malady (tied for #95), and Get Out (tied for #95). Perhaps equally breathtaking was the movement of the earlier two into the Top 10, with In the Mood for Love moving to #5 and Mulholland Dr. to #8. Add to that the upward trajectory of Claire Denis’ 1998 film Beau Travail (from #74 to #7), and it’s clear that this pool of voters was not afraid to grant “instant classic” status to many films instead of waiting a few decades for the dust to settle a bit.
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• Missing In Action: The addition of all these new films, of course, means that some of the mainstays lost support or dropped off the list altogether. To my mind, the most striking fall was Jean Renoir’s The Rules of the Game from #4 to #13. Throughout most of Citizen Kane’s run at the top, Renoir’s film always hovered in the two or three spot, sometimes only a few mentions away from finally catching up. There had been an ever-so-slight erosion of support in the 2002 (#3) and 2012 (#4) editions, but to leave the Top 10 entirely feels like a stunning blow to one of cinema history’s sturdiest beachheads. Such precipitous drops are all over the 2022 poll: Federico Fellini’s 8 1/2 (#7 to #31) and La Dolce Vita (#36 to #60), Jean Vigo’s L’Atalante (#14 to #34), Carl Dreyer’s Ordet (#24 to #48), Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times (#47 to #78), and Buster Keaton’s The General (#45 to a tie for #95).
And if you want to get into real pain, pour one out for the incredible films that have been pushed off the Top 100 altogether: The Godfather Part II (#31 in 2012!), Gertrud, Raging Bull, Touch of Evil, The Mother and the Whore, Wild Strawberries, Pickpocket, Rio Bravo, L’Eclisse, Children of Paradise, Grand Illusion, Nashville, Chinatown, The Magnificent Ambersons, Lawrence of Arabia, Fanny and Alexander, The Color of Pomegranates, Greed, The Wild Bunch, Come and See, Aguirre the Wrath of God, The Seventh Seal, Un Chien Andalou, Intolerance, and The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp.
Some of the big names not present in Top 100: William Wyler, David Lean, Preston Sturges, Howard Hawks, Roman Polanski, John Huston, Robert Altman, Ernst Lubitsch, Werner Herzog, Hao Hsaio-hsien, and, if you want to pick just one conspicuously absent modern auteur, Paul Thomas Anderson. A few of these might be a case where it’s difficult to choose any one film: With Sturges, do you pick The Lady Eve or Sullivan’s Travels? With Hawks, is it Rio Bravo or Only Angels Have Wings or His Girl Friday (or The Big Sleep or Scarface or Bringing Up Baby)? And where do you build consensus around Anderson? There Will Be Blood? Phantom Thread? Comedies are rare on the list, horror rarer. Critics as a species are resistant to exalting genre films, but you’d hope to see a classic screwball comedy make the list or perhaps a horror film like The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, which feels as much like a watershed moment for the genre as Psycho.
• What’s in: The most obvious difference is a massive uptick in women filmmakers. In 2012, only two films in the entire Top 100 were directed by women, and now both are in the Top 10: Jeanne Dielman was all the way back at #51, and, as previously mentioned, Beau Travail made an even bigger leap from #74 to #7. In those specific cases, the reputations of Chantal Akerman and Claire Denis have been burnished within the last decade, with Akerman’s death fueling a renewed interest in her work and Denis continuing to cement her reputation as one of the most intuitive and poetic filmmakers in the world.
There are now 11 films by women in the Top 100, including a second by Akerman (News From Home, #52), two by Agnès Varda (The Gleaners and I, #67 and Cléo From 5 to 7, #14), Maya Deren’s experimental film Meshes of the Afternoon (#16), and Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust (#60). There’s also representation from Africa, with Ousmane Sembène’s Black Girl slipping in at #95 and Djibril Diop Mambéty’s Touki Bouki moving up to #66 from #100. (Hat tip to Martin Scorsese’s first World Cinema Project box set for the latter.) Hiyao Miyazaki’s films also finally got the recognition they deserve and a divided vote didn’t matter, as Spirited Away (tied at #75) and My Neighbor Totoro (tied at #72), debuted right next to each other. The debuts of Daughters to the Dust, Get Out, Killer of Sheep, and Moonlight, as well as the ascension of Do the Right Thing from #136 to #24, sharply increased the presence of African-American directors on the list, too.
• On “stodgy-ness”: Back when the 2012 poll was released, I wrote an essay for The A.V. Club called “The radical visions in Sight & Sound’s stodgy best-films poll.” The piece was written as a response to a major criticism circulating at the time: that even with the expanded voter rolls, critics seemed to be clinging to the “stodgy,” hidebound classics of the past. The youngest film in the Top 10 in 2012 was Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, then 44-years-old, and Apocalypse Now, at #14, was the highest ranking film below that. The deeper criticism of the list—and one I didn’t address in the piece—is the lack of representation, which was not enough of a priority at the time and is clearly one now. If you’ve spent any time in the halls of academia, this is what happens to literary canons, too: Book lists larded with Dead White Europeans are questioned and fiercely debated, and re-orderings occur (or don’t) regarding what classics should be getting the most attention. You might bristle to see, say, a three-year-old movie like Portrait of a Lady on Fire debut a notch ahead of 8 1/2, but then again, you might see a major blindspot finally addressed.
But please, never use the word “stodgy” to describe the films that have anchored this list for decades. As I wrote in the essay, The Rules of the Game opened to such public outrage that it faced a drastic re-edit and a government ban. Tokyo Story and The Passion of Joan of Arc both tossed out the conventions of the 180-degree plane that establishes the way we are typically grounded in space. Time should not lead us to crude revisions in what we understand as radical advances in the form, just because these older films have carved a path for others to follow more smoothly. And the one heartening thing about having Jeanne Dielman at the top—and Meshes of the Afternoon that highly ranked—is that it tells us voters are not shrinking from difficult challenges. Consider 2022 the year the Sight & Sound poll blew up. We’ll have to wait another 10 years to see how the pieces are put back together.
As for my contribution, I should say up front that I have a bit of list-envy, to the point where I’ve been a bit embarrassed to reveal my own picks publicly. The top five films on the Sight & Sound poll are all on my list, which probably puts me in contention for the most middle-of-the-road voter out of the whole 1,639.
Let me explain myself.
You’re asked to submit 10 films in any order. 10 films from the entire 125-year history of the medium. This is an insane undertaking, and I can say with some confidence that my list would be different tomorrow than it is today than it was when I turned it in on August 9th. As you’ll be able to see from my ballot below, I was torn over the question of what “the greatest film of all time” was supposed to mean. Should I simply list my 10 favorite movies and leave it at that? Or did I have a responsibility to identify those watershed moments that changed the medium forever? The Cinema Studies student in me felt inclined to take a more conservative approach and include past S&S toppers—and, I should hasten to add, films I adore—that cast the longest shadows.
Here are my picks, in chronological order:
1. Citizen Kane (Orson Welles): When this film finally lost the top spot in the poll, it felt liberating. How can you be understood as “the greatest film ever made” and not either disappoint or intimidate people? Yes, Citizen Kane represented an extraordinary synthesis of everything film had been building up to at that point, as well as an incisive look at a very American form of egotism and media demagoguery. But it’s also a tremendously entertaining and approachable piece of work.
2. Vertigo (Alfred Hitchcock): You don’t have some of the S&S listers without Vertigo. You don’t have Mulholland Dr. You don’t have In the Mood for Love. There are more approachable Hitchcocks—Shadow of a Doubt is a favorite—but this is one where the film itself doesn’t just include a mystery, but is itself an enduring one.
3. Tokyo Story (Yasujirō Ozu): There’s just nothing like Chishū Ryū and Setsuko Hara interacting together, their gap in age bridged by mutual compassion and respect. The scenes between the two of them get at something so fundamental about age and experience, and how your hopes don’t often square with what life ultimately offers you. The older you get, the more this film affects you.
4. The Night of the Hunter (Charles Laughton): The greatest directorial one-off in film history. The best of my favorite genre (noir), released in my favorite year (1955).
5. The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (Jacque Demy): Keith and I share this one as our favorite film period. It wasn’t really on my radar until a restoration and rerelease in theaters in the mid-’90s, and it was an overwhelming experience to see it for the first time projected. Beyond the obvious pleasures of Michel Legrand’s music and the absurd beauty of the actors and the colors, there are few films wiser about love and how time and fate and experience can affect it (and you).
6. Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (Chantal Akerman): The right choice for #1. Much of the so-called “slow cinema” we see internationally owes something to Akerman, who proved that you could reset people’s metabolism and made even mundane, everyday tasks seem riveting and existentially revealing.
7. Taxi Driver (Martin Scorsese): Scorsese was my filmmaking hero from the time I first cared about movies and he remains so today. This is the one that still strikes hardest.
8. Modern Romance (Albert Brooks): Brooks is the most brilliant comic mind of his generation, and Modern Romance is screamingly funny, a fine meta-commentary on the filmmaking process, and a daring anti-romantic comedy. Few director-stars are willing to be this ruthlessly self-deprecating.
9. Blow Out (Brian De Palma): I feel like I’ve written about this film so many times on some many lists, primers, and retrospective pieces that I can’t say another word about it. Operatic, satirical, political, De Palma at the top of his game.
10. In the Mood for Love (Wong Kar-Wai): Swoon.
Runners-up: Cure, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Duck Soup, Sansho the Bailiff, L’Atalante, All That Heaven Allows, Shoot the Piano Player, A Star is Born (1954), Trouble in Paradise, The Lady Eve, The Battle of Algiers, Brief Encounter, High and Low, Once Upon a Time in the West, McCabe and Mrs. Miller, The Tree of Life, Jaws, Stranger Than Paradise, Meek’s Cutoff, Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, Naked, Stop Making Sense, Blue Velvet, Fargo, 25th Hour, etc.
Jesus. Can I take another crack at this?
Look obviously anecdotal stuff is anecdotal blah blah blah but I have never once heard of someone who thinks Jeanne Dielman is the greatest movie of all time. I have watched over 4,700 movies according to my IMDB ratings and never saw fit to check it out because there was never a sense it was something I needed to see. I won't criticize the film, because I haven't seen it, but how can something be the consensus best movie of all time when
1. No one has seen it. Citizen Kane and Vertigo have over 400,000 views on IMDB. A great foreign movie like Grand Illusion has 37,000. Jean Dielman had 7,000 when the list was announced.
2. No one likes it. In all previous version of the list, both overall list and directors list, it never ranked in the Top 10.
So everyone just suddenly decided this was the best movie of all time? It doesn't make any sense. The only sense I can make of this is identitarian
-it's directed by a woman and about a woman and we're making a conscious effort to disrupt the canon, because WHO makes the movie now matters to us more than WHAT the movie is
-there is a clear move into the obscure and less mainstream on this year's list. Oscars reflect it too
I saw Vertigo in 2012 not long after that year’s S&S poll shocked everyone. I loved it but living with undiagnosed obstructive sleep apnea at the time meant I fell asleep at some bits unintentionally. I need to see it again.
And how great is it that that film, Citizen Kane and Jeanne Dielman are all streamableon HBO Max?