Comment: Sight & Sound Top 50 Greatest Films of All Time

Sight & Sound magazine has published the latest incarnation of its ‘Top 50 Greatest Films of All Time’ list, with a brand new victor taking first place…

Though perhaps ‘new’ is a little too generous a word to describe Alfred Hitchcock’s 1958 film Vertigo, which has held second place on the listing for the last ten years (behind Orson Welles’ 1941 much-lauded Citizen Kane, which ranked number one on the critics’ list since 1962) and which first entered the top 10 in 1982.

Sight & Sound go to some (ultimately confusing) lengths to try and deconstruct the meaning behind this shift in opinion, stating that Citizen Kane has been “convincingly ousted by Alfred Hitchcock’s 45th feature Vertigo – and by a whopping 34 votes, compared with the mere five that separated them a decade ago,” before noting that “Kane actually clocked over three times as many votes this year as it did last time,” as though Vertigo’s success were some kind of cinematic coup d’etat, devoid of logical explanation. But surely if Citzen Kane ranked above Vertigo in 2002, and has received three times the number of votes this year as last, then Vertigo, too, must have seen a much higher number of votes in order to overthrow its predecessor? Mystery solved.

“What does this mean?” asks Sight & Sound. I’m beginning to wonder the same myself. Does it mean that Vertigo is intrinsically one point greater than it was ten years ago, or ten greater than in 1982? Let’s not be foolish now, of course it doesn’t. Neither Vertigo, nor Citizen Kane, nor any of the 48 other films on the list are any more or less great now than on the day the final cut was printed. A film’s intrinsic value cannot change, only our response to and appreciation of it.

In 1962 Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’Avventura (1960) appeared as a new entry in the number 2 slot. This year, it sits at number 21, though only 6 of the films which rank above it were produced after it. Not so great now, eh?

If Citizen Kane had been usurped by a renegade newcomer a la L’Avventura, I could understand the emphasis which has been placed upon it, which as it stands seems slightly over-accentuated. In fact, there’s not much on the list at all that’s new. The most contemporary film in the top ten is 2001: A Space Odyssey, which was released in 1968, a mere 21 years before I was born. The rest of the list doesn’t fare much better. Though Wong Kar-Wai’s In the Mood for Love (2000) ranks at 24, and David Lynch’s Mullholland Drive (2001) lands not far behind at 28, the 21st century is woefully under-represented. Yet it quite simply cannot be the case that only two films produced in the last twelve years can be worthy of the title ‘great’. So how are Sight & Sound’s voters quantifying greatness?

Is it longevity? Certainly, the age of many of the ranking films would suggest some kind of ‘test of time’ has been implemented during selection. But is this a valid method of measuring how ‘great’ a film is? Take number 42, Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali (1953), which might be considered great for breaking boundaries in Indian filmmaking and ushering social realism into a film culture firmly rooted in fantasy, but is this sufficient to still declare it ‘great’ 59 years later? In reality, Pather Panchali is an incredibly arduous watch – over-long, staid, with poor editing and sound design – and though it made an important comment on the realities of rural Indian life, its message is no longer relevant to a contemporary audience. Michael Winterbottom’s Trishna, released earlier this year, makes similar statements, yet ones which are pertinent to India today and, further, which are presented with far more beauty, craft and skill than Ray’s film. Pather Panchali may have had a greater social impact, but I suspect Trishna is technically a ‘greater’ film, though I suspect it will never rank in Sight & Sound’s top 50.

What of commercial success? Is this not indicative of greatness? Box office records are continually being broken, yet Hollywood blockbusters are notably absent. There is all-too-frequently, in film appreciation, the habit of pedestalling particular films and directors. Thus, lists such as Sight & Sound’s become self-fulfilling, alerting readers to the type of films they should believe are great, and which are then discussed in such terms. In many ways, the ‘Top 50 Greatest Films of All Time’ reads like ‘Film Studies for beginners’ – films one ought to like, at the very least to have seen, before one can be taken seriously in cinematic circles, despite whether they indeed deserve the accolade which has been heaped upon them over the decades. Pather Panchali is one such film, as are Man with a Movie Camera (number 8), L’Atalante (number 12) and Pierrot le fou (number 42), along with the majority of the list. Given that voters submit their top 10, rather than 50, once they have worked their way through all the films they feel compelled to call ‘great’, and these recommendations have, in turn, been peddled to a receptive audience, there is very little scope for anything new.

A final thought, and one which perhaps most thoroughly encapsulates the flaw of this poll: this year’s list is missing numbers 43-47. Rather, there are six ‘42’s. Yes, that’s right – Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali, Billy Wilder’s Some Like it Hot, Carl Dreyer’s Gertrud, Jean-Luc Goddard’s Pierrot le fou, Jacques Tati’s Play Time and Abbas Kiarostami’s Close-Up are all of absolute and indistinguishable intrinsic value. Not one could possibly rank above another. Is this what the list tells us? Or does it instead demonstrate that the greatness of these films cannot, demonstrable, be quantified, if the voters could not reach a unanimous decision on their ranking? Similarly, Jean-Luc Goddard has four films in the list, more than any other director, yet the highest-ranking of these is Breathless (1960), at number 13. It would seem to be that he is seen as the greatest director ‘of All Time’, yet none of his films made the top 10.

Ultimately, my message is a simple one: take ‘The 50 Greatest Films of All Time’ with a pinch of salt. Just as, I’m sure, there will be many people who disagree with my argument, so too will there be many who disagree with Sight & Sound’s. This is not a list of greatness, but one of appreciation, and it is by no means the final word.

Words: Jack Casey