A Very Obsessive Guide To Sight & Sound's Greatest Films PollS

Yesterday was heaven for film lovers and list fanatics as Sight & Sound unveiled its once-a-decade poll of the greatest films of all time. There are actually two separate lists—one for critics, one for directors—and the big news was that, after topping the poll since 1962, Citizen Kane had been replaced by a new No. 1 in the critics' list, Vertigo. (The directors' list, which has only been going since 1992, also had a new No. 1: Yasujiro Ozu's Tokyo Story.) What else has changed in the past 10 years?

1. The polls were less exclusive this time around.

In 2002, 145 critics voted, and 108 directors participated. This time around, 846 critics contributed, including me, and 358 directors voted. This is important to point out from the beginning because it suggests that a bunch of new voices entered the conversation that hadn't been part of the poll before. Also, more voters means fewer ties than in past years.

2. Orson Welles took it on the chin.

If Sight & Sound was a presidential debate, with CNN and FOX News discussing all the "winners" and "losers," all the commentators would pick Orson Welles as one of the poll's losers. It wasn't simply that Citizen Kane fell from No. 1. (It's at No. 2.) But in the critics' Top 50, what's striking is how poorly Welles' other films did in comparison to 2002. Back then, Touch of Evil was tied for No. 15, and The Magnificent Ambersons was tied for No. 35. Neither of them made the Top 50 this time. Even movies that simply starred Welles suffered: The Third Man (previously tied for No. 35) was nowhere in the Top 50.

3. Restored/re-released films polled well.

There are always going to be complaints by some that Sight & Sound is too "stodgy," that the poll only honors "old" films. But while it's true that the critics' Top 50 favors films from before 1980 (more on that in a second), some older films got a boost thanks to being rediscovered. Two examples that immediately spring to mind are Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, which was brought back in a new print (and a new Criterion release) a few years ago, and Late Spring, which hit Criterion in 2006. Neither film was in the Top 50 (which, because of ties, was actually the Top 60) in 2002; this time around, they were No. 35 and No. 15 respectively. The same rediscovery process could have helped Touch of Evil 10 years ago: Welles' noir was re-released in 1998 in a re-edited form. For all the whining that "new" movies aren't being shown enough love in the poll, older films are being embraced and reevaluated when they return in new prints or DVDs.

4. The last 30 years of cinema aren't having much of an impact—or are they?

In the Top 50, there are only six films released since 1980: Shoah, Close-Up (I guessed the wrong Abbas Kiarostami when I put together my '90s predictions), Sátántangó, Histoire(s) du cinéma, In the Mood for Love and Mulholland Dr. If you take a look back at the 2002 poll, there were nine films from 1970-2000 that made the Top 60. That would suggest that critics aren't as interested in newer films for the new poll. But in 2002, a movie needed all of five votes to crack the Top 60. In 2012, to hit the Top 50 (or 52, thanks to ties) required 29 votes. In other words, it takes a lot more agreement to make an impact in the poll, so the presence of six post-'80 films doesn't seem too stodgy.

5. Coppola's "greatest film" is up for debate.

In 2002, Sight & Sound allowed multiple films to count together as one film, which is why The Godfather and The Godfather Part II collectively came in at No. 4. This time, though, the publication asked that every film be counted separately, and The Godfather tied for No. 21 and The Godfather Part II tied for No. 31. Consequently, neither of those is Francis Ford Coppola's most popular film among polled critics: Apocalypse Now (which wasn't in the Top 60 in 2002) landed at No. 14. Did the release of Apocalypse Now Redux in 2001 sway voters to its greatness? (That definitely seemed to be the case for Roger Ebert, who put the film on his ballot after its re-release.) As Matt Singer points out, if the two Godfather films had remained together, they would have ended up at No. 7. The bottom line is that among major directors, Coppola is the one guy whose "best film" is in dispute. Everybody else—Hitchcock, Welles, Kubrick, Fellini, Ford—has always polled strongest with one particular film. Which leads me to...

6. Having only one masterpiece helps your Sight & Sound chances.

Four directors have more than two movies in the Top 50: Coppola (3); Andrei Tarkovsky (3); Carl Dreyer (3); and Jean-Luc Godard (4). With the exception of Dreyer (The Passion of Joan of Arc), none of them has a film in the Top 10. Every director with a movie in the Top 10 is well-respected, beloved, a titan, etc., but also benefits from having one singular film that critics point to as the film. A consensus around a particular masterpiece allows voters to pick both a film and a director they admire in one fell swoop.

7. Comedy is in short supply.

Every once in a while, someone will write a piece arguing that the Academy Awards overwhelmingly prefer dramas to comedies and that a Best Comedy prize should be awarded. (Everyone reads that piece, shrugs, and then moves on with their life.) But it's true in the critics' poll as well that dramas perform much, much better than lighter fare. By my count there are only five films outright comedies: Singin' in the Rain, The General, Some Like It Hot, Play Time, and City Lights, which tied for No. 50. Singin' was No. 10 in 2002; now it's at No. 20, the highest comedy on the list.

8. The list is mostly inclusive...with a few exceptions.

It would be a mistake for Sight & Sound voters to feel that they "have" to include films from directors of all races, genders, creeds, nationalities, and sexual preferences on their ballot. (Great movies should be great movies, period.) But only one female director, Chantal Akerman, made the Top 50. There are no African-American directors in the Top 50. Other than that, you do have a healthy mix of Asian, European, and American filmmakers.

9. Certain "beloved favorites" didn't make the cut.

Lawrence of Arabia, Casablanca, The Wizard of Oz, Gone With the Wind, and It's a Wonderful Life are the sort of film-library staples that everybody owns and everybody loves. But they don't make the critics' Top 50, opening the door to criticism that the voters willfully turn their nose up at popular favorites. Be that as it may, none of these movies cracked the Top 60 in 2002, either—with the exception of Lawrence of Arabia, which tied with a bunch of other films with five votes at the bottom of the Top 60.

10. The directors' list is pretty fun.

The directors' poll is enjoyably unpredictable from decade to decade. This is only the third time Sight & Sound has conducted a directors' poll, and their new No. 1, Tokyo Story, was nowhere to be found in the Top 10 in 2002 or 1992. (Ten years ago, it was tied at No. 16.) There's simply no rhyme or reason from one decade to the next, which makes this list constantly surprising. (Unlike the critics, the directors have decided to change which film from a certain beloved director is his masterpiece: substituting Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey for Dr. Strangelove, and now preferring Scorsese's Taxi Driver to Raging Bull.) It's entirely possible several of their Top 10 slots will change again in 2022. For those who wish the critics' list wasn't so similar each 10 years, the directors list will be more your speed.