For a week now, Sight & Sound’s decennial critics’ poll of the Greatest Films Of All Time, the results of which are awaited by cinephiles with all the eagerness of over-sugared rugrats on Christmas morning, has provided ample discussion fodder for the film-focused blogosphere.
The Top 100’s seemingly inexhaustible avenues for statistical breakdowns (How many Asian films? How many post-1968 films? Which directors received the most votes collectively? Which films fell the farthest from their 2002 placing?) are still being explored, the number-crunchers matched in enthusiasm — or lack thereof — only by the sniping commentators inevitably displeased with the results. Why is the list so old? Why is it so stodgy? Why is it so white? Why is it so male? Why are my own subjective favorites not accounted for? Many talk of the list as if it’s compiled by some unified committee with a patent agenda against cinema from many of our lifetimes, an aggressive boner for silent cinema and a vindictive urge to take Orson Welles down a peg or two.
It’s not, of course. Democratically tabulated from 846 wholly subjective, disparate lists from critics, academics and programmers around the world — the Sight & Sound list is merely a gathering of the titles that the largest proportion of participants happen to love enough to place it in their own desert-island. And not such a large proportion, either: “Vertigo” may have won the poll with 191 votes, but that still means 655 voters don’t think it was one of the greatest films ever made. Consensus moves like molasses, yet it stubbornly refuses to represent the majority.
There is no better way to demonstrate this than a glance at the individual Top 10 lists, contributed by everyone from Roger Ebert to Quentin Tarantino to, well, me — almost every single one of which features a couple of personally treasured titles that will never amass enough support to threaten the collective list. The magazine has published a small fraction of these in print, with the rest (mine included) due to hit their website on August 15. But I’ve played coy for long enough: it’s time to reveal how I voted.
After the initial surprise and thrill of being invited to vote subsided — if you’d told me a decade ago, when I pored over the 2002 results as a university sophomore in Johannesburg, that I’d have the honor of participating next time round, I wouldn’t have believed you — a less warming sensation of panic crept in. I hadn’t kept a ranked list of favorite films since I was a teenager, having abandoned the practice until I felt sufficiently grown-up and well-versed for it to mean something. Quite what, I didn’t know, and I think I was wrong anyway: a list of this nature should be a snapshot of where one’s head and heart is at a particular stage of life. Without ascribing inordinate levels of importance to one’s taste, what more can it mean — and why should it not shift and grow with us?
Sight & Sound themselves offered an encouragingly, if complicatingly, broad brief: “You might choose the ten films you feel are most important to film history,” they suggested, “or the ten that represent the aesthetic pinnacles of achievement, or indeed the ten films that have had the biggest impact on your own view of cinema.”
In other words, there was no need to separate the notions of “favorite” and “best” — a divide that I nonetheless heard many colleagues agitatedly discussing. Still, the titles that I jotted down most swiftly and unquestioningly for inclusion were ones that comfortably tick both boxes: landmark works of either innovative or perfectionist aesthetic value that nonetheless resonated with me personally on first viewing, and have continued to do so through repeat visits. With such a daunting chunk of my life’s viewing to eliminate, I decided that there was no room in my Top 10 for films I chiefly admire on an academic level, however glad I am to have them in my life. The only other rule I set for myself was a simple one-film-per-director quota: a helpful restriction at the longlist stage, though often a heartbreaking one.
From there on, my gut took over. Indecisively, it has to be said, as any number of Sophie’s choices were reversed and re-reversed over the course of an increasingly stressful week. I decided to impose no further quotas or restrictions regarding era, genre, nationality or gender, lest it begin to seem like a list made to impress others rather than represent myself. (There is a female filmmaker on the list, though certainly not a token one.) And when a bunch of equally loved canon titles bottlenecked for the final spot on my list, I wriggled out of the decision by taking a punt on something a little newer — is it so sacrilegious to invest a little in the current cinema?
As is stands, the final list of 10 I arrived at is more western in its makeup than I’d like, with comedies, animation and silent cinema all coming up regrettably short. But I couldn’t imagine trading any of my inclusions for anything else, and not continuing to have second thoughts afterwards — they all come tied to very special and specific memories of when, where and how I first saw them. (Screen International critic Tim Grierson brought up the interesting question last week of how many films in our Top 10s we’ve only ever seen on the small screen — having largely grown up in a country with no concept of rep cinema, that goes for half my list, but that’s not to say TV, DVDs or even VHS tapes are sentiment-free media.)
The list of also-rans is so long I fear I might not be able to stop if I mention even a few. Let’s just say that “Apocalypse Now,” “The Passion of Joan of Arc,” “The Lady Eve,” “Ran,” “Umberto D,” “Holiday,” “Days of Heaven,” “3 Women,” “City Lights,” “Raging Bull,” “Les Enfants du Paradis,” “The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner,” “Bambi,” “Hud,” “Raise Ravens,” “Barry Lyndon,” “Playtime,” “Ju Dou,” “Stalker” and “When Harry Met Sally…” are just a score of many other titles that were in the frame at one point or another — and that’s strictly off the top of my head, not from some non-existent 11-30 backup pile.
Finally, to return to my earlier point about the elusiveness of consensus, only four of the films selected below even feature in Sight & Sound’s Top 100. Compare to Kris’ recent all-time Top 10 list, meanwhile, or Drew McWeeny’s Top 20, and you’ll find not a single overlap. Isn’t it nice that there are enough great films to go around?
Check out my choices in the gallery below, and be sure to share your own thoughts in the comments.