Saturday, August 11, 2012

Thoughts on Sight and Sound's 2012 Poll

The Top Ten Films of All Time – According to Sight and Sound’s 2012 Poll
1)  Vertigo
2)  Citizen Kane
3)  Tokyo Story
4)  Rules of the Game
5)  Sunrise
6)  2001:  A Space Odyssey
7)  The Searchers
8)  Man with a Movie Camera
9)  The Passion of Joan of Arc
10)  8 ½

The biggest news in the world of cinema is the recent announcement of Sight and Sound’s once-a-decade list of the best films of all time, as voted for by the world’s most prominent critics and filmmakers.  Sight and Sound have been publishing the list once every ten years since 1952, and it has come to be regarded by most cinephiles as the closest thing to an official film canon; Citizen Kane’s (1941) status as “the greatest film of all time” came about because it topped every list from 1962 to 2002 (the original 1952 poll favored Vittorio De Sica’s 1948 neorealist classic Bicycle Thieves).  Perhaps the most surprising, and widely reported about, development of the 2012 list is that it is not topped by Kane, or by perennial number 2 or 3 Rules of the Game (1939), but by Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958), a film that has been slowly creeping up the top ten since appearing as a runner-up in the 1972 list.

Like Kane, Vertigo was not widely appreciated in its own time, and was a failure at the box office as well as with critics.  Today Vertigo’s status as a masterpiece is rarely disputed, though Hitchcock’s long string of classics makes choosing a definitive work difficult.  Personally, I’ve never been able to decide whether I prefer Vertigo or Rear Window (1954), but if I were including a Hitchcock film on my own hypothetical ballot for the Sight and Sound poll – which is meant as a list of “best” films rather than “favorites,” assuming that it’s possible to make such a distinction – I would have to give the edge to Rear WindowVertigo is undeniably the grander auteurist statement, a hypnotic and eccentric waking dream from a director whose obsessions clearly lined up with those of his protagonist Scottie (James Stewart), who becomes hopelessly fixated on a woman (Kim Novak) he’s supposed to be investigating.  Hitchcock’s 1958 classic is the most intense and emotionally expressive of his films, but Rear Window is the easier film to make a logical argument for placing on a list of all-time greats.  A model of perfect narrative construction and a triumph of old Hollywood craftsmanship, Rear Window is about as close to flawless as movies come.  The film’s meta fascination with voyeurism satisfies intellectually, providing the bedrock for decades of film theory.  Meanwhile, the incredibly tight plotting, the likeable performances of an all-star cast, and Hitchcock’s customary stylishness combine to make Rear Window the most conventionally entertaining of the director’s films.

Whether Vertigo deserves the top spot over Citizen Kane is also debatable.  It’s hard to compare Vertigo to Kane, since the films have radically different goals and wildly dissimilar styles.  Few serious cineastes would argue with either films masterpiece status, but it’s easy to see that Kane has ultimately had the greater impact on the history of the medium.  Kane brought all of the innovations of pre-‘40s cinema up to date and virtually created (and/or perfected) a number of stylistic and narrative techniques that still feel fresh today, all while telling a grippingly funny and tragic story about the rise and fall of a complicated individual.  Vertigo is no less entertaining than Kane, and in some ways it is the more fascinating film from an auteurist perspective.  Hitchcock’s film is certainly more autobiographical than Orson Welles’ (though the fact that Welles played the lead role in Kane has understandably led many to mistakenly compare the titular tyrant to the free-spirited Welles).  Still, Vertigo can’t be said to have had as much influence on the state of the art as Kane has.  Kane is essentially a summary of all that came before it and an inspiration for everything that came after it, a feat that very few works of art can boast.  It may have been a bit boring to see Citizen Kane retain its Sight and Sound championship, but it is a definitive and logical top choice in a way that Vertigo simply isn’t, even though the two films are equally enjoyable.

Obviously this is an extremely nitpicky argument to make.  As I hope I’ve made clear, I do really love Vertigo, a film that will certainly appear on my long-in-the-works list of my 100 favorite movies (which I hope to post on this site by the end of the year, though I’m not making any promises).  I’m just not sure that it’s as definitive a piece of film history as some of the other movies on Sight and Sound’s list.  I also don’t want to put too much effort into criticizing the list itself, since all of the movies on it are genuinely important works of art.  Personally, I’ve never been a fan of Yasujiro Ozu’s Tokyo Story (1953), but I’m willing to accept that that may simply be the result of my not having seen it in nearly a decade, or of me simply not connecting with the Ozu aesthetic that has bowled over many people whose opinions I respect (though I feel fairly comfortable calling Leo McCarey’s 1937 film Make Way for Tomorrow – Ozu’s acknowledged inspiration for his most famous work – the better movie).  I also think that John Ford’s The Searchers (1956) is a bit more morally compromised than its reputation suggests, as its criticisms of western mythology are a lot less rigorous and honest than those in Ford’s own The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) or Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man (1995), though as pure cinema it is as good a representation of the western genre as any. 

Of course my personal top ten list would look different than the one compiled for Sight and Sound, but it’s hard to quibble too much with the films included, most of which are simultaneously definitive in terms of their import to the history of cinema and eccentrically singular in terms of their stylistic and thematic focuses.  I might slightly prefer Jean Renoir’s Grand Illusion (1937) to his Rules of the Game, Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Day of Wrath (1943) to his Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), and Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon (1975) to his 2001:  A Space Odyssey (1968), but in each case the film that actually made the list has had more of an impact on the medium (and preferring any one of these great films to another essentially amounts to splitting hairs).  Perhaps the boldest and most exciting development on the list is the brand-new inclusion of Dziga Vertov’s insane Dadaist experimental documentary Man with a Movie Camera (1929), which essentially replaced Sergei Eisenstein’s persistent favorite (and worthy contender) Battleship Potemkin (1925) as the list’s nod to classic Soviet montage. 

While it’s a shame that filmmakers as important as Eisenstein, Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Luis Bunuel, Jean Vigo, Michael Powell, Nicholas Ray, Howard Hawks, Akira Kurosawa, Robert Bresson, Jean-Luc Godard, Chris Marker, Andrei Tarkovsky and Abbas Kiarostami (to name just a few that immediately come to mind) couldn’t crack the top ten with any of their major works, it has to be acknowledged that only a handful of slots are available and that we’d be equally likely to bemoan the absence of any of the ten directors whose films do appear on the list had they not made it.  Dive into the extended top fifty list and you’ll see classics from many of the directors mentioned above, alongside some wonderfully cutting-edge choices like Jacques Tati’s Playtime (1967) and Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman (1975).

Having said all that, I’d like to lament the continuing absence of Fritz Lang’s M (1931) from the Sight and Sound list.  While few cinephiles would deny M its status as a classic, it rarely seems to be considered when debates about the greatest film of all time arise.  Metropolis (1927) has become known as Lang’s official masterpiece – which is understandable considering the pronounced influence the film continues to have on the science fiction genre, but perhaps harder to argue for when one considers its incoherent mishmash of half-understood competing ideologies.  That Metropolis isn’t Lang’s greatest film says more about the director’s incredible oeuvre than it does about any failings of the film itself, but M is certainly the better film and in many ways an even more important one.  Conceived at the nexus of silent and sound film, M provides the best of both worlds, as Lang liberally incorporates elements of the silent style that he’d mastered while also making some profoundly groundbreaking use of the new sound technology.  M’s innovative and flashy method of linking scenes by having a character finish a sentence that another one in a completely different setting started clearly had a major impact on the transitions in Citizen Kane, and arguably is used to greater purpose in M, which memorably depicts an entire city whipped into a frenzy as they attempt to capture a child murderer (Peter Lorre).  With its impeccable and still modern style, its tight narrative, its profoundly challenging morality, and its unforgettably disturbing glimpse into the psyche of Germany in the immediate pre-Nazi era, M is my choice for the greatest film of all time.

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