The years drag by between this special August day. We can recite by heart the rankings last time around, but we hear a potential contender has a chance to topple the king. This time, the two will go face-to-face. The moment of truth has arrived. Spectators across the world open a new Internet tab and … check Twitter? Well, yes. This is not the Olympics and the contestants are not Michael Phelps or Ryan Lochte. This is cinema as filtered through the British Film Institute’s decennial Sight & Sound Poll and Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo is set to seize the throne from Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane as the de facto “Greatest Film of All Time.” And it did, as revealed by Sight & Sound’s Twitter account on August 1.
This is how it goes: Every ten years, the magazine Sight & Sound polls an exclusive list of critics, historians, theorists, distributors, exhibitors and other legit types on their picks for the ‘Top 10’ films. There were 846 voters in total (my employer at distributor Milestone Films was one of them) and they do not fall for the politics or marketing campaigns that plague the Oscars. The poll is, as Roger Ebert summarizes, “the only one most serious movie people take seriously.
So, the displacement of Citizen Kane from “Greatest Ever” status — which it held for five decades — in favor of Vertigo means sacred ground has been plowed, tilled and declared sacred anew. But not really, of course. There is no official “greatest” film, just as there is no greatest song, painting or aleatory cut-up poem. The best these academics can do is talk amongst and with themselves to decide which groundbreaking film broke more ground than that other groundbreaking film, or which artistic feature packed more beautiful art than that other artistic feature. It is quite silly and arbitrary when viewed from afar.
Considering that we witness every action and absorb every expression through our own eyes, it is impossible to divorce emotion from judgment, lest we become readymade Sight & Sound clones declaring their final list as fact. I think it would be irresponsible as a critic to hold a select few titles above all else just because they introduced this technique or inspired that director. Intuition, recognized through emotional response, should rule the sorting of great art. A masterpiece should strike an initial impression of awe, love, fear or even downright resentment, only for a closer read to enhance or reverse these feelings. The worst offense is causing no offense.
I both criticize and defend the Sight & Sound Poll. It settled on some truly wonderful films, like Yasujiro Ozu’s Tokyo Story, ranked at number three. I finally saw it because of its placement. The poll is more a glorified list of movies to watch for budding cinephiles than any stone tablet of truth. You would be a fool to take any of it for granted. I personally disagree with some of their choices, namely Vertigo as the number one pick. It is a haunting, dense work, one worth exploring in one of the many film courses you can take here at Cornell. But it is also a cold and distant study of obsession and creation, telling the story of a man who struggles and fails to craft the perfect woman from a memory at odds with her very flawed reality. No wonder it is the critics’ favorite; it tells their story. The Rules of the Game, number four on the list, survives today as a fascinating and witty portrait of pre-war bourgeois ideals, though I question anyone it touched on a personal level. Same goes with The Battleship Potemkin and much of Jean-Luc Godard’s work; they innovated the art form but should be remembered most for the more engaging fare they inspired.
This is all my opinion, of course, and that is the point. The logical fallacy the horrid Rotten Tomatoes community always shrieks — “You did not like Classic A so your opinion is invalid” — only elevates my respect for the targeted critic (often Dave Kehr or Armond White). There is no perfect movie, and we should revisit these monuments and check if their architecture really is sound. Admiration for art should come from within, not egged on by external pressures.
The line between “favorite” and “best” in these circumstances really is thin, if not existent. “Guilty pleasures” are a whole other thing — Rush Hour 2 would not be caught within a million miles of my Sight & Sound list, though I still deign to watch it with a smile. But for someone who has watched dozens if not hundreds or thousands of quality films, why reiterate the standards when you have the rare moment to reflect and think yourself? Think back to the moments that took your breath away and raised the hairs up on the back of your neck.
For me, those are HAL’s “Daisy” from 2001: A Space Odyssey, the Ride of the Valkyries in Apocalypse Now, Susan’s opera in Citizen Kane, Marge’s “It’s a beautiful day” speech from Fargo, the father’s visit in La Dolce Vita, the final frames of City Lights, the duster attack from North by Northwest, the U.S.S. Indianapolis story in Jaws, “La Marseillaise” from Casablanca and the Creation from The Tree of Life. There are some unimaginative picks as well as some disagreeable ones. But the list is mine, me, myself.
Original Author: Zachary Zahos