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The Greatest Films of All Time? Erm...
Sight & Sound's famous list has been refreshed, and it's not the greatest of all time.
Chantal Akerman’s 1975 masterpiece Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du commerce, 1080 Bruxelles has topped Sight & Sound’s decennial critics poll (jumping 35 places from 2012’s poll) and snatched the title of Greatest Film of All Time from Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo. Check out the full list here.
Jeanne Dielman is worthy. It’s in my personal Top 20, an iconic arthouse film that will get much-deserved attention now. But I’m a cinephile, a freak. I’ve got the patience to get immersed into a 3-and-a-half-hour film about the daily routine of an average woman. Casual film lovers will not find it as entertaining as Vertigo or Citizen Kane, and I’m pretty sure it will be used as extra ammo for people who think today’s critics are pretentious, identity-politics-driven hacks drunk on the same Kool-Aid. The truth is the list has big problems, and it’s not the newly annointed number one.
For starters, the “All Time” in the “The Greatest Films of All Time” title doesn’t do this list any favours. It makes for the best headline, and that’s what the tradition has been about since 1952; getting film critics to rank the 10 films they think are the greatest ever, and then putting these lists together to make the Ultimate List. Realistically though, and what the 2022 edition has made crystal clear, is that the list reflects a present collective mindset more than a genuine exercise in timelessness made by individuals.
It would be easier to respect it as more serious canon if it were simply called “The 100 Greatest Films… According to Critics in 2022.” Doesn’t quite roll off the tongue, I know, but just abbreviate it to “The 100 Greatest Films”, hit refresh every 10 years, and job done. It’s less definitive, it’s not anchored by historical heft, and there’s no ludicrous implications that professional film critics think Get Out is a better film than Chinatown, something that science could prove is objectively incorrect.
Anyway, we’re clearly not in Chinatown, Jack. The latest results have been published, as decided by 1,639 critics (almost double the amount of critics compared to 2012’s 846).With my marketing hat on, I’d love to get an insight into the demographics and psychographics of these critics, especially the fresh blood. What would be most interesting would be understanding their thought process behind making their individual lists.
Instead of thinking of it in pure “Greatest of All Time” terms, did they feel obligated to include at least one female-directed film for the sake of representation?
Did they give more weight to a film from an under-represented continent like Africa over the hundredth American film that ran through their head, even if that hundredth film was directed by Paul Thomas Anderson?
Did they feel the need to include a movie from the 2010s because a movie from the 2020s would be too soon, but not having anything from the past decade would feel like ignoring contemporary cinema (even if that means giving Raging Bull a pass)?
Was Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life omitted because critics didn’t take to his weightless trilogy (To The Wonder, Knight of Cups, Song to Song), released since the last poll was taken?
Did There Will Be Blood get Chadwick Boseman’dand miss out because every critic who thought about adding it decided not to because they "knew" someone else would?
What the hell is Wanda (tied with Ordet at #48), and who voted for that?
So many questions we’ll never really know the answers to, but judging by some of the bizarre inclusions and absurd omissions, and given who they were making the list for, it wouldn’t be crazy to assume that the majority of critics were more calculated with their lists (whichever which way) than hand-to-heart-truthful about what they really thought were the top 10 greatest films of all time, regardless of the director’s gender or race, or the film’s country, year or topic.
In any case, now that the list has been published, I trust that every critic who played a part feels the appropriate mix of joy, shame, pride, guilt and regret.
It’s not all doom and gloom though. The positives are that films like Claire Denis’s Beau Travail (now sitting comfortably at an impressive #7), never-before-heard-of films like Daughters of the Dust (tied at #60) and the aforementioned Wanda will get more attention and propel people to discover new voices and new films.Stanley Kubrick is featured three times (The Shining made it!), one more than in 2012, Satantango still somehow managed to stay in (even moved up a few slots) and Citizen Kane is still, somehow, in the Top 5. Doubt that will be the case in 2032.
All in all, of course this “Greatest Films of All Time” list features plenty of well-deserved GOATs, so it’s not the worst. It’s just not the greatest, either. And I’ll leave you with the biggest WTF results to rest my case.
Portrait of a Lady on Fire at #30.
The best way to incite a backlash against one of the best films of the past five years is to name it the 30th greatest film of all time. Portrait of a Lady on Fire is incredible, it might even be a timeless masterpiece, but it feels like it was released yesterday (2019) and there’s just absolutely no chance in hell it’s ready to be named the 30th greatest film of all time. It’s also ranked higher than any Andrei Tarkovsky and Federico Fellini film on the list (by a hair, as Mirror is tied with 8 1/2 at #31, but still…WTF?)
Get Out gets in
This was probably the most predictable WTF result, seeing as Get Out was named the best film of 2017 by Sight & Sound. Even when tied at the very bottom of the list with five other films (one of which is Once Upon a Time in the West!), it still feels wrong to have Jordan Peele’s horror film regarded as one of 100 Greatest Films of All Time when horror classics whose scares have stood the test of time - most notably The Exorcist - are nowhere to be seen.
Missing masters, and missing masterpieces.
From 1,600+ critics, curators, academics etc. who took part in this poll, it’s surreal to think that there weren’t enough votes for some of the greatest directors and some of the greatest films (arguably, obviously). Even having bonafide gems like Parasite, My Neighbor Totoro, Do The Right Thing, Moonlight, Portrait of a Lady on Fire and Black Girl anywhere on this list feels suspect when it has omitted some of the greatest names and films.
Directors that should’ve been in but are missing include: Terrence Malick, Werner Herzog, P.T. Anderson, Quentin Tarantino, Milos Forman, Lynne Ramsay, David Fincher, Robert Altman, Mike Leigh, David Lean, Krzysztof Kieślowski, and Park Chan Wook.
But it’s really when you scroll through a list of films that were omitted, a list that is by no means exhaustive, featuring some films which were considered among the “100 Greatest of All Time” in 2012 but have since been elbowed out by an extra 800+ participants, that you finally come to realise Sight & Sound's Greatest Films of All Time list is more brand than canon; merely a product of the times, more reflective of a modern critical landscape than an all-time cinematic one.
In no particular order, films not featured on the list that make a stronger GOAT case than a lot of films that ended up on the list, include:
The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly
Lawrence of Arabia*
There Will Be Blood
The Tree of Life
The Thin Red Line
Aguirre, The Wrath of God*
The Godfather Part II*
One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest
Touch of Evil*
The Magnificent Ambersons*
Fanny and Alexander*
The Grand Illusion
The Seventh Seal*
Mad Max: Fury Road
Once Upon a Time in America
The Big Lebowski
Inside Llewyn Davis
Days of Heaven
The Deer Hunter
The Colour of Pomegranates*
Three Colours: Blue
Three Colours: Red
The Double Life of Veronique
The Tree of Wooden Clogs
Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives
And too many more…
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There’s another list that’s less talked about but should carry more weight, made by directors. It’s more sensibile-looking, but made from far fewer participants (480 this year) and doesn’t get as big of a spotlight as the main one, which is why this article is only aimed at the one considered to be canon.
Everyone and their mother thought Chadwick Boseman was winning a posthumous Best Actor Oscar in 2021, only for Anthony Hopkins to end up winning it (deservedly so, I might add). Presumably this was because every voter thought every other voter will vote for Boseman, so everyone ended up voting for Hopkins.
I’ll be the first to acknowledge the egg oozing on my face if Wanda ends up being greater than Lawrence of Arabia, Pulp Fiction or Dr. Strangelove once I see it.
An asterisk (*) means the film appeared in the 2012 poll.