Sight & Sound’s Greatest Films List, 2012

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Paul: Last week the results were released for a poll generally considered the most authoritative regarding what are the greatest movies ever made. Collected by Great Britain’s Sight & Sound magazine, the poll was made up 846 ballots from “critics, programmers, academics, distributors, writers and other cinephiles.” Each was allowed to select ten different films, with the ten that received the most mentions getting on the official Sight & Sound list. The 2012 version is the seventh, with the poll being conducted every ten years since 1952. The movie that topped the list in its first appearance was Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves, a film released only four years prior to the poll. Then, in 1962, Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane was named the greatest film. It would hold this title for fifty years. For the first few of those decades, its position seemed impregnable. As film history continued to move forward and change, the list changed very little. But in 1982, Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo made the list for the first time, having overcome poor reviews (for Hitchcock) on its initial release to finally be recognized as a masterpiece. Each new installment of the list saw Vertigo get closer to Kane, until it finished a close second in 2002. Finally, last week, Vertigo became the third movie to earn the title of “greatest ever” from this source, and Kane was knocked down to second place.
I’m a huge movie nerd, so I’m pretty sure this whole story is much more interesting to me than it is to the average person, or even the average moviegoer. But from the IMDb Top 250, to the American Film Institute’s lists, to year-end Top 10’s in many newspapers and magazines, lists are an almost inescapable part of movie culture. People in the know seem to say that the Sight & Sound list is the one to watch, not for finding something new, but for getting a look at the “canon,” the all-time essentials. I’ll start by asking what you think of the list, Daniel. How interesting do you find it, and what do you think of how stable it’s been, with a lot of movies staying on the list for decades?

Daniel: Sight & Sound has, once again, given the definitive list of what the giants of this industry have titled the best work in film that the world has ever seen. I had long been told, before actually seeing it, that Citizen Kane was widely regarded as the best movie ever made. This list is precisely why such a wide-held belief existed. More than anything, I believe this list has marked, and will continue to mark, the evolutionary leaps made in the film industry. Look at the comparisons in cinematography before Citizen Kane and then after; it’s a clear changing point in film history, which is why the top spot has been uncontested for so long.
So, what made the shift? and why did Vertigo take so long to climb? As you stated, Vertigo was not widely regarded as one of Hitchcock’s best films, let alone the greatest ever made. It takes a broader understanding of film for this dethroning to happen. Now that critics and those that have a say on the matter have seen film history in the broader spectrum that time has allowed, they’ve chosen a new victor for the greatest movie ever made. Each film on this list has had a dramatic impact on the way we now perceive and tell stories through film. I’ve seen eight of the films on this top ten list, and the majority of those were, at times, pretty boring. However, the fact remains that they are markers for change, as well as masterpieces of the art form. But what exactly was it that caused the slow-building shift that moved a movie that was absent from the list, to eventually take the top spot?

Paul: I have a theory about movies: there are good ones that most everyone likes, but on the level above that there are movies that certain people completely adore and that others completely despise. There’s something about a great film that makes it divisive. It could be artistic risks that not everyone likes or agrees with; it could be the prominence of the filmmaker’s personality that rubs some people the wrong way; it could even be departures the filmmaker takes from his or her own previous work. But many of the movies on the Sight & Sound Top 10 faced critical opposition at first (and, to be sure, not everyone loves them today either). This is where the cliche of “the test of time” comes into play. We can never have as good a perspective on a new film as we have on one that is still being talked about forty or fifty years later. Not only can subsequent generations add their voices to the conversation, but the passing of time allows us to see how influential a film ends up being.

As for Vertigo, I’m not sure exactly why its time has come. The movie works as a transition between the old Hollywood studio system and the era of the American auteur (Coppola, Scorsese, Altman, De Palma). Hitchcock was a master of the system, but with Vertigo he made a very personal, even self-critical, film. And it’s a great film – from the fantastic use of color, to the “dolly zoom” camera technique that memorably illustrates the fear of heights, to the terrific performances of James Stewart and Kim Novak, to Bernard Herrmann’s awesome score. I don’t love every movie I’ve seen from this list, but I do love both Vertigo and Citizen Kane, so it’s not terribly important to me which places higher than the other. Do you have any strong feelings for a movie on the list and how it was ranked (as in, “It should be higher/lower”)?

Daniel: I fear that I run the risk of losing any shred of credibility I have by saying this, but I think Tokyo Story was one of the most boring movies I’ve ever seen. Let me explain that when I watched it was in college (with you, actually), and there were other matters of more pressing importance that I set aside to watch the film. Namely going to Del Taco. I understand that the movie is a veritable emotional freight train, and its use of intimate, long shots brings the whole story to a very personable level, but at the time of watching it I couldn’t help but think “this is one of the most boring movies I have ever seen.” I wouldn’t change its spot on the list, rather I would (should) watch the film in a more appropriate setting than a busy dorm room. The film deserves more of my respect, and I feel that it will take time, especially with a film that is so involved with life, particularly the later years and dealing with children and the heartache that it can bring. Having no children of my own.

I appreciate the artistic creativity of the giants on this list, however I feel that film made almost strictly for artistic purposes, while incredible on most levels, runs the risk of failing to impress the masses, and film is a mass medium. It’s a delicate process to make a meaningful artistic film that impresses almost all who see it, regardless of film “expertise.” Seeing Vertigo at the top of that list achieves that balance, as most of the people I interact with love it. If I were to present Tokyo Story or Sunrise to the majority of my friends or family, I have a hard time believing they would place either in their top ten lists of best movies of all time. Now, should this translate into a desire to see fewer “artistic” movies made? Absolutely not. The film medium and the way that stories are told molds the way that our society comprehends fiction and reality alike. If movies only conform to what the masses are used to or enjoy seeing (like most blockbusters do), we would be deprived of advancement. The film art form would be doomed to remain in emotional and technical stagnation. Some of the films have made this list time and time again, not because they are entertaining, but because they are truly technically and emotionally fantastic. There are others that have been recognized by the elite of the film world, as well as someone that happened to catch Vertigo or The Searchers on television.

Paul: I can sympathize with your feelings about Tokyo Story. When I read Roger Ebert’s review of the film, it affects me emotionally more than the film itself. This is my problem, not the film’s. I honestly wish I was able to watch it the way Ebert does. Someday I might. The effort required is important. Plenty of great movies are actually quite entertaining, including, I would say, Citizen Kane. (It’s not a-laugh-a-minute, but it’s still fun.) But there’s a difference between passively viewing a movie, saying, “Entertain me,” and meaningfully engaging with a work of art. Movies can serve either or both purposes. As you mentioned, there can be conflict between the art and business sides of moviemaking: do we make something great but potentially alienating, or something trivial but guaranteed to get a large audience? The movies with large audiences, naturally, get no shortage of publicity. The best thing about the Sight & Sound list, in my opinion, is that it put Vertigo, and other great but not super-popular movies, in the headlines again.

Daniel: The comprehensive power behind the compiling of the list is a strong testament to its credit. The idea that the most dedicated minds in the film world are asked to give their top ten list and have it be so conclusive as to which movies belong in the top spot is amazing. Those that are able to watch, comprehend and completely appreciate the film medium as a whole have presented us with a list of not only what they consider to be the best movies, but perhaps the most important ones as well. You touched on the difference between simply watching a movie and engaging it. Engaging film and appreciating it is something that is almost always overlooked. The business side, as you put it, knows what people in general want and expect, which runs the risk of lulling the audience into a stupor. Then we have the art side, which tackles technical difficulties in storytelling right alongside the philosophical ones. Should someone sit down and take the time to actively engage any of the movies on this list, I imagine it would be illuminating, especially to look back at the history and cultural climate that they were created in.

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One Response to “Sight & Sound’s Greatest Films List, 2012”

  1. “Hitchcock” and 1 year Giveaway! » Popcorn and Peril Says:

    […] I’m celebrating 1 whole year, I’ve decided to give away the best movie of all time (at least according the the latest Sight & Sound list) to one lucky winner. That is to say: I’m giving away Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo on […]

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