By now, you have probably already heard that Sight & Sound’s once-in-a-decade poll results have just been announced and Alfred Hitchcock’s 1958 Vertigo has edged out Orson Welles’ debut and five-time champion (that’s every poll aside from the first in 1952, which De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves topped) Citizen Kane. Of the 846 critics polled, 191 named Vertigo compared to 157 for Kane. Vertigo first entered the poll in 1982, placing 7th, then finishing 5th in 1992 and 2nd in 2002 before its gold medal this time around.
Kane’s removal is not surprising to many people that have been following the list, as Vertigo has steadily gained traction for the past 30 years. Perhaps more importantly, this year’s poll is the first to take place in an age where communication about films has moved primarily to the internet and companies like Netflix allow us to consume movies at a faster rate than ever. As a result, Sight & Sound was almost forced to tone down its exclusivity, inviting 700 more critics than in 2002. A number of younger, internet-reliant critics, more quickly and readily exposed to a large, diverse array of films, bored by the same film having topped the poll since their parents’ birth, voted around it while rallying around Vertigo has Hitchcock’s single greatest work.
Whatever the reason, Vertigo is #1, Citizen Kane is #2, and it initially appears that little has changed. The top 10 is pasted below for reference and ease, with the number of votes after each title:
1. Vertigo (Hitchcock, 1958) 191 votes
2. Citizen Kane (Welles, 1941) 157 votes
3. Tokyo Story (Ozu, 1953) 101 votes
4. La Règle du jeu (Renoir, 1939) 100 votes
5. Sunrise: A Song for Two Humans (Murnau, 1927) 93 votes
6. 2001: A Space Odyssey (Kubrick, 1968) 90 votes
7. The Searchers (Ford, 1956)78 votes
8. Man With a Movie Camera (Dziga Vertov, 1929) 68 votes
9. The Passion of Joan of Arc (Dreyer, 1927) 65 votes
10. 8 ½ (Fellini, 1963) 64 votes
There is some position shuffling all over, but the title changes include a re-entry by The Searchers and The Passion of Joan of Arc after placing in 1992 but not 2002, and the inclusion of Man With a Movie Camera. These three replace Coppola’s mobster epic The Godfather & The Godfather Pt II, Gene Kelly’s immortal musical Singin’ In The Rain, and Eisenstein’s montage-minded propagandistic Battleship Potemkin, which is out of the top 10 for the first time.
This may seem like considerable change, but in 2002, the two Godfather films were counted together, and some critics even voted for them in one slot. I expected many Godfather voters to turn to Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979) to replace, but it was not so. My prediction is partially correct, as Apocalypse Now is the highest ranking of the three (at 14th; The Godfather and Part II come in at 21st and 31st, respectively). It is also worth noting that if votes for the two Godfather films were combined, they would tally 81 votes, good for 7th place.
Perhaps the most common complaint about Sight & Sound’s poll is that there is an immeasurably large bias toward older films. The absence of The Godfather films in the top 10 makes the newest film in the poll 2001, 44 years old. While I understand the inclination to wait several years, sometimes even decades to be fully confident in placing a newer film in a top 10, it is worth noting that it was not until 1982 that films from recent years were excluded (though 1992 had 1980’s Raging Bull, which seems to have fallen in standing since). Part of this has to do with the cinema becoming a much older art form by the time of that poll; the “test of time,” as we call it, became valid. It was also the first poll in which home viewing became an undeniable fact that allowed audiences to revisit older films.
Of the top 11 films (Battleship Potemkin finished 11th), four of them are silent, one might say. Indeed, it was among the first things I noticed when I saw the list. There is a good argument here. The individual ballots are not in yet, but it is probably safe to assume that the oldest film to receive votes is D.W. Griffith’s The Birth Of A Nation (1915), and the most recent is 2011’s The Tree of Life. Of those 96 years of film, 15 of them, or 15.6% are the “Silent Era.” Yet, disproportionately, 30% of the top 10 or 36.3% of the top 11 are silent.
I am a fan of Murnau’s other major works (particularly Nosferatu), although I have not seen Sunrise. I have not seen The Passion of Joan of Arc, either, but I have seen both Movie Camera and Potemkin. I do not question the greatness of the latter two nor doubt the greatness of the former pair, but I do wonder when it may be time to begin voting newer films, lest the canon of cinema overlook all the great works from 1968-2012. The lists make the canon, not the other way around, and with the greatness of these four films so certain, should voters not be using their votes for somewhat less canonized masterpieces? The idea of narrowing nearly 100 years of an art form to a mere 10 titles is a ridiculous practice, one most useful for aspiring cinephiles to use as a checklist. In that case, a Man Wih a Movie Camera is a good addition because it has not previously been in the top 10, but it is impossible to deny the greatness of Battleship Potemkin by now, and grooming young cinephiles on Haneke or Kiarostami would not be terrible.
Such an argument is understandable. To respond, one may suggest that replacing Sunrise or 8 ½ or The Rules of the Game or even Citizen Kane with a newer film would demerit the film being replaced. Persona, Wild Strawberries, Bicycle Thieves, L’Atalante, L’Avventura have all been missing for some time? Have any of those films been dismissed since? Of course not. But, quietly, that is exactly what may be happening here with Potemkin and The Searchers and Joan of Arc re-entering. To simply not vote for an older film because it so highly respected and canonized is as ridiculous as not voting for a film younger than 40 years old. Great films are great and remain great, but every now and again, we should be reminded of their greatness. Look closer. The Passion of Joan of Arc and The Searchers have both been here before. They took 2002’s poll off, but a much larger group has decided that those two films are as great as we previously imagined. Now, Battleship Potemkin is absent for the first time ever. Will it be back in 2022? Or will it not be until 2032, 2042, or perhaps, not ever? If it is as great as we have believed, it will surely be back. A future generation will re-discover it and reward its greatness. Man With a Movie Camera has never been in the top 10 before. After 60 years of polling, its greatness has become apparent to a new group of voters. We’re already moving forward. Should The Searchers and Joan of Arc have taken another poll off, just so we know that they are definitely as great as we thought in the previous polls? Maybe, maybe not. What is certain is that a “bias toward old films” is grossly understating the quiet vibrations that precede the earthquake.
And indeed, if we look ahead, the earthquake is coming. In 2002, the two full decades prior had two films combined in the top 60 (Shoah and Blade Runner). Compare that to just the top 50 for 2012:
11. Battleship Potemkin (Sergei Eisenstein, 1925)
12. L’Atalante (Jean Vigo, 1934)
13. Breathless (Jean-Luc Godard, 1960)
14. Apocalypse Now (Francis Ford Coppola, 1979)
15. Late Spring (Ozu Yasujiro, 1949)
16. Au hasard Balthazar (Robert Bresson, 1966)
17. Seven Samurai (Kurosawa Akira, 1954)
17. Persona (Ingmar Bergman, 1966)
19. Mirror (Andrei Tarkovsky, 1974)
19. Singin’ in the Rain (Stanley Donen & Gene Kelly, 1951)
21. L’avventura (Michelangelo Antonioni, 1960)
21. Le Mépris (Jean-Luc Godard, 1963)
21. The Godfather (Francis Ford Coppola, 1972)
24. Ordet (Carl Dreyer, 1955)
24. In the Mood for Love (Wong Kar-Wai, 2000)
26. Rashomon (Kurosawa Akira, 1950)
26. Andrei Rublev (Andrei Tarkovsky, 1966)
28. Mulholland Dr. (David Lynch, 2001)
29. Stalker (Andrei Tarkovsky, 1979)
29. Shoah (Claude Lanzmann, 1985)
31. The Godfather Part II (Francis Ford Coppola, 1974)
31. Taxi Driver (Martin Scorsese, 1976)
33. Bicycle Thieves (Vittoria De Sica, 1948)
34. The General (Buster Keaton & Clyde Bruckman, 1926)
35. Metropolis (Fritz Lang, 1927)
35. Psycho (Alfred Hitchcock, 1960)
35. Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce 1080 Bruxelles (Chantal Akerman, 1975)
35. Sátántangó (Béla Tarr, 1994)
39. The 400 Blows (François Truffaut, 1959)
39. La dolce vita (Federico Fellini, 1960)
41. Journey to Italy (Roberto Rossellini, 1954)
42. Pather Panchali (Satyajit Ray, 1955)
42. Some Like It Hot (Billy Wilder, 1959)
42. Gertrud (Carl Dreyer, 1964)
42. Pierrot le fou (Jean-Luc Godard, 1965)
42. Play Time (Jacques Tati, 1967)
42. Close-Up (Abbas Kiarostami, 1990)
48. The Battle of Algiers (Gillo Pontecorvo, 1966)
48. Histoire(s) du cinéma (Jean-Luc Godard, 1998)
50. City Lights (Charlie Chaplin, 1931)
50. Ugetsu monogatari (Mizoguchi Kenji, 1953)
50. La Jetée (Chris Marker, 1962)
We have two films from the 21st century (In The Mood For Love and Mulholland Dr), in the top 30 placing ahead of the likes of Psycho and The 400 Blows. We know that The Tree Of Life was just one vote shy of the top 100. We also have three films from the 1990s (Sátántangó, Close-Up, and Histoire(s) du cinema), all ahead of Ugetsu Monogatari, which has been in the top 10. That’s another one: Is Ugetsu great enough to re-enter the top 10? At this point, probably not. But isn’t that another reason to be cautious of voting for new films? There is surely something between 51 and 100 (Look out for Yi Yi, Cache, and Platform from the new century or A Taste of Cherry, Goodfellas, or Breaking The Waves from the 1990s).
If that isn’t enough, take a look at past results. Count the number of films that have made it once or twice but not since. The canon changes constantly, and while the infrequency of the poll ensures that it is never changing fast enough, a lot is happening. The “old films” are too great for people to simply stop voting for. Gil Scott-Heron famously stated “the revolution will not be televised.” That does not mean that the revolution will happen overnight.