Sight & Sound, the preeminent film publication in the world, recently released its once-a-decade critics poll of the greatest films of all time. Citizen Kane, which soared to the top of this list in 1962 and remained there for the ensuing 50 years, has been unseated at last. Alfred Hitcock’s Vertigo is the new greatest film of all time.
There are several ways to interpret this development; the easiest might be to move right past it, quickly and quietly, don’t mind the spectacle. The removal of Citizen Kane is well overdue, the fuss is erroneous, and Hitchcock has a rightful claim to the top spot. Citizen Kane represented a transformational moment in cinema, but, inevitably, its importance has diminished with time. Hitchcock’s window may be closing, too, as his importance peaked several renditions ago. By the time they get to Breathless or Raging Bull, they’ll be behind on Goodfellas and Hoop Dreams.
What is more worthy of fuss is that this 60 year-old tradition, honoring an art form that’s only a century old, somehow yielded an even more antiquated list than its predecessor. The average date of the films on the list is 1946. Its newest film in the top ten is 2001: A Space Odyssey, from 1968. Singin’ in the Rain and the first two Godfather films, relatively new by the list’s standards, were dropped in favor of Man With a Movie Camera (1929) and The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928).
Only one film from the last 25 years cracked the top 25: In the Mood for Love, by Wong Kar-wai, from 2000. At 28, Mulholland Drive is the highest-rated American film from this period. Sátántangó (Hungary), Close-Up (Iran), A Brighter Summer Day, and Yi Yi (both Taiwan) are the remaining modern films listed in the top 100. Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life and The Thin Red Line, Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing, Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas, Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood, Jane Campion’s The Piano, and WALL-E received enough votes to fall within the top 250. Last year’s Melancholia is on there, too, but its nationalist leanings are elusive.
It would be mistaken to suggest that the distribution should be even — that a period of 25 years should produce at least 50 films, all things being equal. Certainly, if taking the task of preparing this list seriously, a critic will give the requisite time following a film’s release to determine its true quality and influence. A rush to judgment may have landed duds like Forrest Gump, American Beauty, or The Lord of the Rings on there somewhere.
That said, there is a not-so-fine line between resisting the urge to be topical and being outright resistant to change. Consider Pulp Fiction, likely the most influential American film of the last 20 years, taking the innovation of the French New Wave into bold new areas. It hasn’t aged a day… and it falls one spot behind Nosferatu, a film so old, no living person can possibly speak to its initial impact.
There is a reasonable defense of the slow-changing canon. It’s fair to say that tying the list to changing fads would invalidate its importance. The trouble with this argument, much like the argument that change is slow in politics, is that change isn’t so slow anymore. Change can be unthinkably fast. Soon, we might not have a canon at all. The Baby Boomer Vice Grip on our cultural consciousness is being steamrolled, and its perpetrators somehow don’t even know it. Your films aren’t the films anymore. How can you consider a film timeless if it has no impact on younger generations?
Cinema hasn’t been bamboozled to the degree of music recording or literature, but it requires greater resources than these art forms, is not promised to us the way melodies and the written word are, and there is no doubt that the modern role of cinema is changing. Blame it on the whippersnappers all you like, but one thing is abundantly clear: The voice of this art form, its most committed champions and architects, have determined that its greatest specimens are, on average, 66 years old when the artform itself is maybe 120. This is not feasible.
Modern cinema is the victim of old ideas here. No Country for Old Men is a recent great that didn’t crack the top 250. Fight Club, a generational landmark, received only one vote. Sight & Sound is losing its grip.
- You can scan the results by individual voter. One good list.
- None of this speaks to the absurdity of making these lists to begin with. Well put.
- I assumed documentaries weren’t eligible until I noticed The Thin Blue Line near the bottom. This is clearly a thriving medium and may serve as cinema’s life raft going forward. It is of particular importance in a world where leadership routinely lies, human rights abuses are the norm, and video screens are everywhere. The story of one brave filmmaker who endangers her own life to tell stories. Given the evolution of the American police state, her commitment is remarkably important — and makes cinema feel relevant again.