Some thoughts in the immediate aftermath of Sight & Sound’s 2012 “Greatest Films of All Time” list…
1) Vertigo is #1, narrowly edging out Citizen Kane. What does this mean? Not a whole hell of a lot. Both movies are still great: still formally and thematically dense, still fun to watch and write about, still excellent representations of their directors’ respective skills and obsessions. But of course these poll results will still stir up a lot of shit like “Kane was overrated; glad it lost” and “Vertigo isn’t even Hitchcock’s best.” Then, over the next decade, Vertigo’s new status will probably lead some folks to ascribe “cultural vegetable” traits (you know: boring! slow! unwatchable!) to what is, more or less, a lurid thriller. So, the same old posturing and bitching that always follow huge announcements like this.
2) But here’s the thing: this is really an opportunity. Kane’s “downfall” after 50 years (though come on—it’s still at #2!) can function less as a regime change than a reality check, inviting us to view the poll less hierarchically. Because that illusory “greatest film” hasn’t changed over the past ten years; critical reputations have. Maybe without that one canonized-since-1962 title at the top of the list, it’ll be easier to see that. With a new #1 for the world’s most prestigious film poll, maybe anything goes. Vertigo’s ascendance could grant us a new perspective on the poll and recenter the experience around the sheer fun of listmaking and list-reading.
3) Because, as always, let’s not take this too seriously. Let’s take it as a spark to light up our enthusiasm. As a series of great viewing suggestions. Lest you treat the S&S poll as more than a loose critical barometer, remember that it relies entirely on consensus accumulating around certain titles; if a filmmaker (like, say, Howard Hawks) doesn’t yet have a single canonical masterpiece, it’s near-impossible for them to squeeze in. (Although, impressively, Ozu ended up with two movies in the top 15.) Honestly, I’d prefer a poll run according to Kristin Thompson’s suggestion from earlier this year:
I think this business of polls and lists for the greatest films of all times would be much more interesting if each film could only appear once. Having gained the honor of being on the list, each title could be retired, and a whole new set concocted ten years later.
Now wouldn’t that be fun?
4) Silent cinema! This year’s top 10 saw four movies (Singin’ in the Rain, Battleship Potemkin, and Godfathers 1 and 2) traded for three: The Searchers, Man with a Movie Camera, and The Passion of Joan of Arc. Which means two new silent movies! And the voting body couldn’t have selected a better pair: one a playful blurring of art and the mundane, the other an austere descent into religious mania and torture. If I may indulge my inner statistics nerd: the top 10 has grown older since 2002, with the average release year going from 1952 to 1946. (Or 1946.2, to be exact.) On the one hand, this goes along with the poll’s tendency to ignore the bulk of recent cinema. (Only 13 out of the top 50 were made post-1970.) On the other hand, I don’t mind that, because Vertov and Dreyer are so much more in danger of being forgotten than, say, Tarantino and Paul Thomas Anderson. I still love those latter two directors, but more silents on such a prominent list can only be a good thing.
Wow, I just got so meta about film culture that I made myself dizzy.