Who’s the Greatest?

Orson Welles

The nominations for the Film Independent Spirit Awards are out, the Gotham Awards will be presented tonight, and the New York Film Critics Circle will pick its winners on Friday. In short, awards season is now underway, and we’ll be spending the next few months sorting and ranking and resorting and reranking the finest cinematic achievements of 2022. But 2022 is just one year. On Thursday, the editors of Sight and Sound will announce the latest results of a poll the magazine conducts just once every ten years: The Greatest Films of All Time.

In part to rouse anticipation, Sight and Sound spent the summer running a series of articles in which writers of varying ages and inclinations speculated on the overall value and purpose of list-making in general and on the potential shape and range of this year’s poll. More than 1,600 critics, curators, programmers, and scholars have sent in ballots, and nearly five hundred filmmakers are taking part in the Directors’ Poll, which, for whatever reason, is conducted separately and never seems to draw as much attention or discussion.

Kieron Corless, an associate editor at Sight and Sound, recalls that in 2012, when there were 846 ballots cast, the results made the evening news and the pages of the Sun. “How,” he wondered, “did a poll in a supposedly elitist film magazine, sounding out a bunch of nerdy list-obsessed critics, end up being covered in a mass-market tabloid read by millions in the UK?” For one thing, there was a real story to cover: Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958) had knocked Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane (1941) from the top spot, where it had sat comfortably for half a century.

As Henry K. Miller explains, the poll is rooted in a pedagogical urge. In 1941, C. A. Oakley, a lecturer at Glasgow University, proposed drawing up a list of “Ten Film Classics” accompanied by instructions for teachers on how to encourage “film appreciation” in young British students. A decade later, when the then-twenty-year-old magazine still had an ampersand in its name, Sight and Sound editor Penelope Houston came up with the idea of consulting a tight roster of revered critics and directors in order to revisit that first list.

Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves (1948) topped the resulting list, but it fell to the #6 spot in 1962, when the notion that Citizen Kane was the best film ever made first settled in. Samuel Wigley, the BFI’s digital features editor, has put together a small but terrific collection of typed and hand-written ballots, complete with titles scratched out and scribbled over, from voters in that year’s poll, including Jonas Mekas, Jacques Rivette, and Andrew Sarris.

In 2012, then-editor Nick James and his team, seeking more diverse input, spread their nets wider when it came time to send out invitations. “Our belief is that authority will be enhanced, rather than diminished, by a judiciously curated expansion of our invitee list,” writes Corless. “Will an even broader roster of contributors lead to an influx of new filmmakers and styles?” wonders Ashley Clark. “Does an accelerated rate of media consumption and online discourse mean that films assume classic status more speedily? Will we see Get Out? Moonlight? The Act of Killing? Toni Erdmann? Parasite? Anything from Netflix? How will Gen Z Letterboxd listomania-cinephilia map on to this print tradition—if at all? How will the ever-evolving debates around what a film even is be represented? Will we see votes for TikToks? Conner O’Malley’s manic-satirical videos? Surely Twin Peaks: The Return (2017) will resurface to ruffle feathers. Have we discussed this before? What year is this?”

As much as she welcomes the fresh round of voices, Farran Smith Nehme does worry that “for a lot of people, even those paid to offer opinions on movies, the entire concept of ‘cinema history’ is becoming truncated. The great post-war arthouse era—which, contrary to many casual assertions, brought more than just white male directors to movie-houses—is fading from view. Early talkies and silent cinema, with their experimentation and frequent daring, have slipped over the horizon.”

David Thomson asks voters to imagine themselves on a desert island and then ask themselves which “ten pictures you want there simply in the name of pleasure?” He hopes “voters will attest to their allegiances more than make a list of pictures for their résumé.” B. Ruby Rich notes that the films “seen as having changed film history are often the ones saluted today; the ones that tried and failed are left off. Those outsiders have my heart.” Christina Newland declares that it’s “fundamentally absurd to rank art . . . I would argue that maybe it’s time we take list-making a little bit less seriously.”

Maybe. But for Ray Pride, writing in Newcity in September, however much weight we decide to give to this year’s final results, there’s genuine pleasure to be found in paging through the individual ballots. It’s “the chatter and static that rubs one list against another, mighty montage, handy bricolage, a chaos unified only by a thousand bundles of urges crushed together.”

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