By Luke Baynes
The reign of “Kane” has ended.
For the first time since 1962, Orson Welles’ “Citizen Kane” was not voted the greatest film ever made in Sight & Sound magazine’s decennial critics’ poll.
The winner: Alfred Hitchcock’s psychological thriller “Vertigo,” which placed second in the last Sight & Sound poll in 2002.
Sight & Sound, published by the British Film Institute, conducted its first greatest films poll in 1952. Vittorio De Sica’s 1948 neorealist parable “Bicycle Thieves” took top honors. “Citizen Kane,” released in 1941, failed to crack the top ten.
The rise in the critical standing of “Kane” coincided with the elevation of the Sight & Sound poll to a place of supreme prominence in cinematic criticism.
Simply put, it’s the only film critics’ poll that matters.
Its success is based primarily on its format, which asks critics, on an invitation basis, to submit a list of what they believe to be the 10 greatest films ever made. Although most critics rank their choices 1-10, the rankings aren’t weighted in the aggregated list, with each of the 10 films selected by a particular critic counting as one vote.
Thus, while the majority of critics who voted for “Vertigo” didn’t list it as their top choice, enough critics had it somewhere in their top 10 for it to emerge the victor.
One of the benefits of this process is that it helps weed out personal bias from the selections. While film criticism is a subjective process and all of the lists are subject to a given critic’s preferences and biases, there is a tendency for certain canonical films to balance out lists comprised of obscure personal favorites.
For example, New Yorker critic Richard Brody’s list contains such wildly eclectic titles as Jean-Luc Godard’s schizophrenic 1987 adaptation of Shakespeare’s “King Lear” and John Cassavetes’ hit-or-miss “Husbands” (1970), yet also includes Jean Renoir’s “Rules of the Game” (1939)—an unquestioned part of the film canon that is the only film to make the top 10 in all seven installments of Sight & Sound’s once-a-decade poll.
In the end, the aggregated top 10 lists of 846 critics in 73 countries resulted in the following list of the 10 greatest films of all time:
“Vertigo” (1958, Alfred Hitchcock) – 191 votes
“Citizen Kane” (1941, Orson Welles) – 157 votes
“Tokyo Story” (1953, Ozu Yasujiro) – 107 votes
“Rules of the Game” (1939, Jean Renoir) – 100 votes
“Sunrise” (1927, F.W. Murnau) – 93 votes
“2001: A Space Odyssey” (1968, Stanley Kubrick) – 90 votes
“The Searchers” (1956, John Ford) – 78 votes
“Man with a Movie Camera” (1929, Dziga Vertov) – 68 votes
“The Passion of Joan of Arc” (1928, Carl Theodor Dreyer) – 65 votes
“8 ½” (1963, Federico Fellini) – 64 votes
First off, it should be noted that all of the above listed films are legitimately great works of art, and are as good a place to start as any for the student beginning his study of film history.
It should also be mentioned that compiling a list of the 10 greatest films—without regard for genre or subject matter—is an absurd exercise.
How does one compare the relative merits of “Rules of the Game” (a comedy of manners) versus “2001” (a science fiction epic) versus “The Searchers” (a Western)?
For that matter, how does one compare a silent masterpiece like Murnau’s “Sunrise” with “Citizen Kane,” whose greatness is inconceivable without the benefit of sound?
Yet there are certain benefits to the process.
On Aug. 16, Sight & Sound released an expanded version of the poll that revealed the top 250 films of all time, as voted by the 846 critics. With a selection of films ranging from 1902 (Georges Méliès’ “A Trip to the Moon”) to 2011 (Lars von Trier’s “Melancholia”), it serves as an invaluable resource for anyone wishing to delve into the entire history of motion pictures.
It is also a useful historical tool to identify trends in film criticism and the waxing or waning in popularity of certain films or directors over time.
To wit: What is one to make of the fact that Sergei Eisenstein’s masterpiece of dialectical montage “Battleship Potemkin” (1925) failed to make the top 10 for the first time in the poll’s 60-year history, but its de facto Soviet silent film replacement, Dziga Vertov’s “Man with a Movie Camera” (1929), employs an equally radical, yet more self-consciously experimental form of montage?
Or how about the fact that “Singin’ in the Rain,” perhaps the quintessential MGM musical of the 1950s, dropped from No. 10 in the 2002 poll all the way down to No. 20 in 2012?
And then there’s the fall from grace of “Citizen Kane.”
Judged solely on its technical achievement and scope of influence, “Kane” remains the greatest film ever made.
In his telling of the rise and fall of a powerful newspaper tycoon, Orson Welles revolutionized the sound cinema. Although overlapping dialogue, deep focus photography and flashback narratives had all been used before with varying degrees of success, “Kane” brought them to new levels of sophistication and paved the way for the entire postwar American cinema.
Yet the reason why I didn’t include “Citizen Kane” in my top 10 (and why I speculate it finally slipped from the top slot) is because, like Kubrick’s “2001,” it suffers from an emotional coldness and intellectual stuffiness, and like Charles Foster Kane himself, it’s a film that’s easy to admire but hard to love.
MY PERSONAL TOP 10
In a way, I began working on this article 17 years ago, when I borrowed a VHS copy of Alfred Hitchcock’s “Rear Window” from the Berkshire Athenaeum in Pittsfield, Mass.
I was 14 years old, and it was my first encounter with film as art instead of mere entertainment.
As I began to delve further into film history—using the “Motion Pictures, History Of” entry in volume 18 of Funk & Wagnalls New Encyclopedia as my guide—I began formulating a list of my favorite movies. It was a way to keep track of the films I’d seen, not to mention a good way to kill time during geometry class.
Over the years, the second through tenth spots on the list were populated by countless permutations of films. The one constant was “Rear Window,” which to this day remains my choice as the greatest movie ever made:
1. “Rear Window” (1954, Alfred Hitchcock)
Right director, wrong film. “Vertigo” might be the more obvious choice for an art house revival, but there is something absurd about its plot scenario that prevents me from elevating it to the top echelon of cinematic masterworks. “Rear Window,” by contrast, is a paradigm of narrative precision and symmetry. It’s also, as Hitchcock phrased it in his famous interview session with François Truffaut, “a purely cinematic film,” and the best example of his theory of subjective montage, with James Stewart’s wheelchair-bound photographer serving as a vicarious extension of sedentary moviegoers, and the courtyard windows he gazes into representing a cornucopia of human drama within the enclosed universe of a Paramount soundstage.
2. “Late Spring” (1949, Ozu Yasujiro)
With apologies to “Tokyo Story,” “Late Spring” is Ozu’s greatest film. Starring frequent collaborators Ryu Chishu and Hara Setsuko as a widower and his devoted daughter overdue for marriage, “Late Spring” takes place in a postwar Japan teetering on the cusp of modernity and Westernization, but still clinging to the ancient customs dictating familial relations and the institution of marriage. Although fellow countryman Kurosawa Akira enjoyed more acclaim in the West during his lifetime, it is Ozu’s cinema that suggests that the raw emotions of the human soul know no flags or borders.
3. “Rules of the Game” (1939, Jean Renoir)
From a technical standpoint, “Rules of the Game” is a miraculous achievement, with Renoir’s simultaneous mastery of the tracking shot and deep focus photography allowing for an unprecedented freedom of movement among the various planes of action of his ensemble cast. But its greatest achievement is its effortless combination of comedy and tragedy, of humanism and cynicism. Despite being the oldest film on this list, it’s the most thoroughly modern in its examination of the inscrutable mysteries of love and sex.
4. “Wild Strawberries” (1957, Ingmar Bergman)
Dreams, memories and reality blur with clockwork ambiguity in Ingmar Bergman’s most humanistic film. Normally among the bleakest and most despairing of directors, Bergman admittedly fills “Wild Strawberries” with scenes of unremitting regret and sorrow, but there is an overriding compassion to its moral outlook that reaches its apex with the final ethereal close-up of Victor Sjöström’s face—a strong candidate for the most beautiful closing shot in movie history.
5. “Rio Bravo” (1959, Howard Hawks)
The leisurely pace and casual plotting of “Rio Bravo” belie the fact that it is one of the most emotionally complex genre films made under the American studio system. The culmination of themes Howard Hawks began exploring during the silent era, “Rio Bravo” is the study of the outwardly heroic male’s inability to face his inner fears, as exemplified by three characters: John Wayne, as a sheriff who stubbornly denies the limits of his self-reliance; Dean Martin, as a deputy battling alcoholism; and Walter Brennan, as a crippled old man with a mortal fear of outliving his usefulness to society.
6. “Kings of the Road” (1976, Wim Wenders)
Unavailable on DVD in the United States, the original German title of “Kings of the Road” is “Im Lauf der Zeit,” which can be more accurately translated as “In the Course of Time.” While the Americanized title is truthful enough, in the sense that the basic plot concerns a transient repairman of film projectors and a suicidal psycholinguist who roam the West German countryside in a Volkswagen bus, it fails to reflect the unique temporal aspect of the movie, which uses its 175-minute runtime to suggest the persistence of time and memory on man’s search for meaning in the present.
7. “The Thin Red Line” (1998, Terrence Malick)
Terrence Malick’s return to filmmaking after a 20-year hiatus takes a metaphysical approach to the traditional war movie, using the Battle of Guadalcanal as a springboard for an open-ended meditation on the nature of life and death. Against a visual dichotomy that juxtaposes the horror of war with the beauty of nature, the film’s myriad streams of voiceover narration represent a verbalization of the collective unconscious of a company of men, each waging his own war against his fellow man and his own mortality.
8. “Hiroshima mon amour” (1959, Alain Resnais)
Like Claude Lanzmann’s “Shoah” (the most historically important movie ever made), “Hiroshima mon amour” suggests the impossibility of accurately recreating a shared human tragedy in visual terms. Assigned to make a documentary about the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, Resnais and screenwriter Marguerite Duras instead questioned the very notion of history as documented truth by positioning the tragedy of Hiroshima as a shared memory in an interracial romance between a French woman and a Japanese man. By freely mixing the objective and subjective—often through a simple cut—Resnais shattered the rules of traditional narrative filmmaking, and in the process, ushered in the modern era of cinema.
9. “The Searchers” (1956, John Ford)
More than any American film of the 20th century, John Ford’s “The Searchers” carries the moral burden of its country’s short but volatile history of territorialism and race relations. An outdoor Western of staggering beauty, “The Searchers” is set in Texas in the aftermath of the Civil War, and stars John Wayne as Ethan Edwards, a Confederate war hero and virulent racist, whose hatred of Comanche Indians drives his obsessive search for his kidnapped niece. Yet Wayne’s archetypal loner, doomed to wander forever between the winds, is as complex as any of Shakespeare’s tragic heroes, reflecting both the pioneering spirit and imperialistic hubris at the core of America’s westward expansion.
10. “Breathless” (1960, Jean-Luc Godard)
After “Citizen Kane,” Jean-Luc Godard’s “Breathless” is the most influential film of the sound era. Not only did its jump cuts and use of natural lighting turn the film establishment on its ear, but its supreme sense of cool and anything goes attitude spearheaded the French New Wave and inspired similar cinematic revolutions across Europe and Japan—not to mention providing the impetus for the American film renaissance of the 1970s. But influence aside, the exclusive greatness of “Breathless” stems from its position on a continuum of existential literature and films that spans Hemingway’s “The Killers” and Camus’ “The Stranger” to Malick’s “Badlands” and Antonioni’s “The Passenger.” Jean-Paul Belmondo’s metacinematic anti-hero Michel Poiccard, who ultimately chooses to die like Roy Earle rather than live like Bogie, is the embodiment of the existentialist credo, delivered by French New Wave godfather Jean-Pierre Melville in a cameo appearance: “To become immortal, and then, to die.”