Home > Movies, Mumbled Culture > Greatest of All-Time: A Game We Need to Play

Greatest of All-Time: A Game We Need to Play

Today, Sight & Sound released a new iteration of its “Greatest Films of All-Time” list. This is a silly game that we cinephiles are only allowed to play once every decade, so it’s a special occasion. Sight & Sound‘s list is by far the most respected and celebrated of its kind. Each decade on the deuce since 1952, critics have sent in a personal top ten. Directors have done the same for a few decades now, creating their own lists. Since 1962, the second poll, Citizen Kane has managed to “win” without fail. This year, things changed a bit. Here’s the rundown:


  1. Vertigo [Hitchcock, 1958]
  2. Citizen Kane [Welles, 1941]
  3. Tokyo Story [Ozu, 1953]
  4. The Rules of the Game [Renoir, 1939]
  5. Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans [Murnau, 1927]
  6. 2001: A Space Odyssey [Kubrick, 1968]
  7. The Searchers [Ford, 1956]
  8. Man with a Movie Camera [Vertov, 1939]
  9. Passion of Joan of Arc [Dreyer, 1927]
  10. 8 1/2 [Fellini, 1963]


  1. Tokyo Story [Ozu, 1953]
  2. 2001: A Space Odyssey [Kubrick, 1968]
  3. Citizen Kane [Welles, 1941]
  4. 8 1/2 [Fellini, 1963]
  5. Taxi Driver [Scorcese, 1976]
  6. Apocalypse Now [Coppola, 1979]
  7. The Godfather [Coppola, 1972]
  8. Vertigo [Hitchcock, 1958]
  9. The Mirror [Tarkovsky, 1975]
  10. Bicycle Thieves [De Sica, 1948]

BFI has the Top 50 listed for now, with more things to be revealed as the issue becomes widely available.

There’s a reason to be excited about all of this nonsense. Over 1,000 people voted and over 2,000 movies were mentioned — by far the most in the poll’s history. In a time when film criticism is said to be struggling or declining, it’s important to remember that it also owns a very important corner of the Internet. For example, many expected that the wider inclusion would increase the potential for a Pulp Fiction or Tree of Life to crack the Top 10. Not so. In fact, the critics chose three silent films and the average release year was pulled down by 6 from 2002’s poll.

There are going to be a lot of headlines saying “Is Vertigo Really That Great?” and “Vertigo Dethrones Kane” and “Citizen Kane No Longer Good Movie.” Indeed, the most obvious change in the poll comes from the top — Hitchcock’s Vertigo defeated Citizen Kane by a healthy amount of votes. Does this say anything about the actual value of those movies? No, it doesn’t. They are both incredible works of art and occupy a level of genius that is remarkable in any circle. It seems clear that the critical pendulum is swinging, as usual. Vertigo isn’t necessarily enjoying a renaissance and Kane isn’t getting any worse. Rather, a new generation of film lovers is beginning to establish itself. It doesn’t seem difficult to imagine some critics intentionally leaving Citizen Kane off of their list, not because it isn’t worthy of it, but because it has enjoyed a healthy half-century as the recognized King of Cinema. Brilliantly, Kristen Thompson once suggested that we “retire” films (as jersey numbers are in The Sports) after they appear in the Top 10. That methodology would give us a constantly growing canon as opposed to the Sight & Sound poll where we mostly watch for minute changes and try to apply some zeitgeisty commentary to them. Surely, a headline somewhere will be, “Vertigo Tops Poll; Internet Fracturing Consciousness” or “Internet Eating Apples” or “Internet Changing Babies” or some other nonsense. As the Sight & Sound poll functions right now, it celebrates the juggling of a couple established essential titles and bickering over the small cracks in their overwhelming genius instead of finding greatness in all the unexpected nooks in which it presents itself.

That said, there are a couple very satisfying and unexpected shifts in other parts of the list. Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera has supplanted, thankfully, Battleship Potemkin as the Soviet Constructivist representative. No segment of The Godfather cracked the critic’s list, their chances probably injured by being rightfully separated. Perhaps most important and thrilling, Tokyo Story won the top spot on the Director’s poll. It’s not the representative I would choose for Ozu, but seeing him celebrated in any way is exciting — especially among the men and women actively moving the art form ahead. The Searchers, absent from the 2002 list, takes number 7 — marking my biggest qualm with the list. I deny that The Searchers is the best representative of Ford’s catalog or even a great film, for that matter. I could be a crybaby about 2001 as well, but that’s all for another day.

The bottom line is this — we should be happy that we are so in love with a medium that somehow encourages, or sometimes requires, us to engage in childish games. In that way, I’m glad to be a cinephile today. But Sight & Sound should also take a page out of some architecture, painting, or opera magazines and try to find a way to allow a broader canon. The lists above contain only 15 different movies. They’re all essential films. For any of my readers who are a little less obsessed with movies, don’t start here, but I implore you to work up to these films someday. Diving into the top of the heap can be confusing. That’s often the reason I think Kane is thought of as “not that great” or whatever — these movies, at this point in history, ask us to contextualize them with history and, most importantly, other movies.

The most beautiful thing about these lists is that they’re so small. Ten films to define a medium? It’s hard to argue with the brilliance atop these lists. But the important part is that we recognize the wealth of greatness below the surface. For every film on this list, there are 100 films worth seeing immediately. Every director represented on those lists has another masterpiece waiting around the corner. Howard Hawks, the single greatest filmmaking human in the history of Earth, isn’t anywhere to be seen in the Top 50!!! That’s how big this world is. That’s how amazing it is.

Because the best thing about lists like this is that they encourage us to make our own and to always be on the lookout for new contenders and to always reconsider the rubric. It’s a childish game, but one that I’m glad we’re all playing.

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