01 August 2012

Critical Mass

The critics have spoken, and we have a new holder of the title “Greatest Movie Ever Made.” Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958) has replaced Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane (1941) at the top of Sight and Sound’s decennial poll of film critics. In the Twitter era, we’re constantly being bombarded by best-of lists of one sort or another, but the Sight and Sound poll retains a certain air of authority, perhaps as much for the fact that it only appears once every 10 years as for the highly selective list of participants and their (mostly) impeccable collective taste.

For the uninitiated, every 10 years since 1952 the British film magazine Sight and Sound has conducted an international poll asking film critics to name the 10 greatest films ever made. The initial winner was Vittorio De Sica’s neorealist classic Bicycle Thieves (1948). The five subsequent polls were all topped by Kane, playing a major role in that film’s popular canonization as the greatest ever made. Kane out-polled Vertigo by a mere five votes in 2002, so the latter’s ascent to the top comes as little surprise to avid poll-watchers. Since 1992, the magazine has polled directors as well. This year’s directors' champ was Yasujiro Ozu’s Tokyo Story (1953), with Kane (the winner in the previous two surveys) coming in tied for second and Vertigo placing seventh.

Here’s the full critics’ Top 10:

1. Vertigo (Alfred Hitchcock, 1958)
2. Citizen Kane (Orson Welles, 1941)
3. Tokyo Story (Yasujiro Ozu, 1953)
4. The Rules of the Game (Jean Renoir, 1939)
5. Sunrise (F.W. Murnau, 1927)
6. 2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick, 1968)
7. The Searchers (John Ford, 1956)
8. Man With a Movie Camera (Dziga Vertov, 1929)
9. The Passion of Joan of Arc (Carl Theodor Dreyer, 1928)
10. 8 ½ (Federico Fellini, 1963)

Before I get to the self-involved portion of this post, a few notes on the critics’ list. As in previous polls, the list is heavily skewed away from contemporary cinema, with three films dating back to the silent era and nothing from the past 40 years. Despite a significant expansion of the electorate to include some 846 voters, seven of the 10 entries on this list appeared in the 2002 Top 10 as well, and two of the other three (The Searchers and The Passion of Joan of Arc) had appeared in previous versions. The lone surprise, and a pleasant one at that, was the inclusion of Dziga Vertov’s experimental silent documentary Man With a Movie Camera in place of Sergei Eisenstein’s more history-bound (albeit massively influential) Battleship Potemkin (1925). All are worthy inclusions on a list like this, with the possible exception of 8 ½, an entertaining relic of ’60s solipsism that feels a bit slight in this company.

In anticipation of the new Sight and Sound poll, I began thinking about my own all-time Top 10 a few months ago, an exercise I hadn’t indulged in for several years. Despite having spent far, far too much time pondering my list, I didn’t nail down the last three spots until this morning, about half an hour before the poll results went public. Before I get to my various disclaimers, descriptions, justifications, and assorted comments, let’s just spit it out. I’m not going to do anything as absurd as ranking the films and two of them begin with numbers, so in chronological order:

Sunrise (F.W. Murnau, 1927)
Meet Me in St. Louis (Vincente Minnelli, 1944)
Ordet (Carl Theodor Dreyer, 1955)
Vertigo (Alfred Hitchcock, 1958)
Rio Bravo (Howard Hawks, 1959)
Au Hasard Balthazar (Robert Bresson, 1966)
2 or 3 Things I Know About Her (Jean-Luc Godard, 1967)
2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick, 1968)
Close-Up (Abbas Kiarostami, 1990)
Mulholland Dr. (David Lynch, 2001)

The first thing to be said is that many other films could have appeared in place of some of these, so many that I won’t attempt to list them all. Since the Sight and Sound lists have comprised features exclusively, I ruled out short films, thus eliminating everyone from Chuck Jones to Maya Deren. It should also go without saying that this is a highly personal list informed by my own idiosyncratic sense of film history and aesthetics—i.e., “greatest” here does not necessarily equate to most important or influential. Re-watchability was a key criterion; these are all movies that I’ve returned to multiple times. The point is that while I’m not quite pompous enough to conflate my own tastes with any objective standard of “greatness,” I didn’t create this list in a vacuum either.

So having said that, I’ll make just a few notes about how I arrived at my selections. The alert reader has no doubt already noted that three films on my list also show up on the Sight and Sound Top 10. Vertigo and 2001 have appeared on every version of this list I’ve ever done. With its bravura visuals and elemental storyline, Sunrise seemed a good choice to represent the aesthetic freedom of the silent era; had I had room for another silent, it probably would have been Aleksandr Dovzhenko’s Earth (1930), which has many of the same virtues. In a few other cases, I chose some (slightly) less celebrated favorites in lieu of equally worthy canonical classics: Ordet over The Passion of Joan of Arc (a mostly arbitrary preference for the moral/spiritual/visual ambiguity of Dreyer’s late works over the clarity of his silents); Hawks’s Rio Bravo over Ford’s The Searchers (a purer example of its director's work and a more representative John Wayne character); Meet Me in St. Louis over Singin’ in the Rain, which placed on the 2002 Sight and Sound Top 10 (greater emotional range and gut-punch impact). Au Hasard Balthazar and 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her represent career peaks by two of my favorite filmmakers; several other Bresson or Godard films would have done just as well. Finally, I was determined to get a couple contemporary choices on the list. One of the common complaints about these kind of lists is that they tend to skew toward older films, although this may be primarily an effect of composition—many individuals voted for recent films, just not the same recent films. After much consternation I finally settled on Close-Up and Mulholland Dr., although I seriously considered Dazed and Confused, Sátántangó, Café Lumière, and Dead Man, among others.

Some vital statistics: Six of the 10 films hail from the United States, although one was made in Great Britain by an expatriate director with carte blanche from Warner Bros. and another is a German film through and through that happened to be made on American soil. Of the remaining four, two were made in France, one in Denmark, and one in Iran. Six of the 10 films date from a 13-year period spanning from the mid ’50s to the late ’60s, with only two each from before and after. I’m not necessarily pleased with this clustering, not least because it virtually eliminated Jacques Tati’s Playtime (1967) from serious consideration, but I couldn’t part with any of the six; we call the golden ages where we see them. One film is silent; one is a musical. Surprisingly, only three are black-and-white. All are by pantheon directors, reflecting my own auteurist biases. All are directed by men (and all but one by white men), reflecting the historical realities of film production, distribution, and criticism.

Some vitaler statistics: Two of these films intentionally blur the line between fiction and documentary. Two others have traditional stories, yet defy plot summary. One features a non-human as its protagonist; another, a non-human as its antagonist. Two are steeped in Christian symbolism, one climaxing with a mostly symbolic death and the other with a literal resurrection. Politically, one could be described as a prescient, quasi-Marxist attack on the consumer society, another as a conservative exploration of the nature of moral rectitude. One is about the encounter with modernity; another, made some 40 years later, about its exhaustion and what comes next. Two of these films give me chills every time I watch them; two more, otherwise as different as night and day, I can’t get through without breaking down in tears.

Anyway, I hope some of my overstuffed raving inspires you to check out one or more of these titles you might not have seen. Very few will enjoy them all as much as I have, but I suspect there’s something here for virtually any moviegoer to enjoy. In any event, thanks for your indulgence.