Sight & Sound, Britain’s prestigious film magazine, oversees this most prestigious of film lists every ten years. Polling “critics, programmers, academics, distributors, writers and other cinephiles” from all over the world, the Sight & Sound list tallies the votes to name the all-time Top 10 (and in this latest version, the next forty as well). Since 1992, the magazine has also done a directors’ poll, but it’s the critics’ list that gets most of the attention. The brand-new 2012 version marks the first time I’ve been aware enough to be excited for it. Something less than ten years ago, I first came across the ambitious Top 1000 list at They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They? That resource, updated annually, is what I consider the “definitive” film list. The Sight & Sound poll has a large influence on how that list is created, but the TSPDT folks have combined a great many lists from many other sources as well. One thousand is a daunting number, but that depth protects the TSPDT list from charges of egregious omissions, to some extent. As time continues to march on, narrowing everything down to the ten greatest films only gets more ridiculous — let alone narrowing it all down to the one “greatest film of all time.” But the valiant effort continues, and there’s much to enjoy with the latest Sight & Sound list.
Even while I take everything with a grain of salt, I cheer this poll’s results. Here’s the headline: Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo has ended Citizen Kane‘s fifty-year reign atop the list. This completes a slow climb: Vertigo first made the list, tied for #7, in 1982; ten years later, it reached fourth place; and in 2002, it received only five votes fewer than Kane. Now it holds the top spot by the most significant margin in the poll’s history (bearing in mind that Sight & Sound counted hundreds more ballots this time around than ever before). Much has been said already about the significance of this “upset.” For me, I think the most significant thing is the precedent it sets. Many people had complained that the list had fossilized into the same old choices decade after decade. Six out of the ten films made the list both in 1992 and 2002; four of those also were on the 1982 list. And naturally, the announcement of the number one film became more anticlimactic each time. Now, the latest update is far from a radical departure — only one of those six stalwarts dropped out of the Top 10 (it’s now #11). Citizen Kane and Vertigo switching spots is a small step, but it is a step nonetheless. The results are just a little bit unpredictable now, opening the door for more surprises in the future.
Do I think Vertigo is a better film than Kane? I legitimately love them both, and I honestly think this development can be good for both of them, because it allows people to look at them in different ways. Wearing the “greatest ever” crown can put a wall between a film and a casual audience, and Kane may finally be relieved of that burden. I agree with Pauline Kael that Kane is “more fun” than a lot of other “great” films. If, upon seeing the film for the first time, a viewer doesn’t feel social pressure to understand how Kane is somehow the best movie possible, that viewer can be freed to have fun with it. This freeing is unlikely to happen overnight, but Vertigo does have ten years for victory laps. In that time, there will be backlash. Hitchcock’s dreamlike film can certainly be accused of plot holes and inconsistencies, as well as of being probably the least crowd-pleasing of all this popular director’s films. But no movie was more personal to Hitchcock, and I don’t think he ever filled another movie with this much passion, technical brilliance and understated perversity. Besides, the film has Jimmy Stewart giving quite possibly the performance of his career. Placing the film on this pedestal should increase awareness and curiosity, and unlike Kane, which had been “the greatest ever” for as long as a lot of people could remember, Vertigo is just “the greatest this time.”
How about the rest of the list? As I see it, two other films in the top ten have made the most interesting moves. First is Tokyo Story, a movie that climbed two spots to just behind Vertigo and Kane, as well as being named the top film in the directors’ poll. Thus, quietly (as is fitting for Ozu), Tokyo Story may have made an even greater improvement than Vertigo. I’ve seen the film about three times and feel terrible that it hasn’t moved me like it apparently has so many others. It’s definitely the kind of film that I can see myself appreciating more as I age. The second movie I want to point out is Man with a Movie Camera. This film seems to have come out of nowhere, making its first appearance on the list even though it was made in 1929. I saw it a few years ago and was blown away by the technical achievement but didn’t love it. Now I’m excited to see it again. I love that the top ten includes three silent films. Even though younger critics were invited to participate this time, the top ten hasn’t had this many silents since 1972. Two films from the 2000s, In the Mood for Love and Mulholland Drive, made the top 50, which is great, but the overall list still celebrates that ol’ test of time logic.
You don’t need to have known me long or to have read much of this blog to recognize how much I love lists. Stuff like this will always interest me. It needn’t interest you, by any means, but the real point is to find something interesting and powerful in these films. Your favorite Hitchcock movie is Notorious, or Rear Window, or Psycho? That’s wonderful, it really is. This list shouldn’t close off discussion but open it up. Personally, I would greatly prefer to find critics rhapsodizing over the greatness of Vertigo than tearing it down in the wake of this victory. But there should be plenty of both, always. Vertigo got mixed reviews when it was first released. The debate continues.