Once every ten years, Sight and Sound Magazine polls critics from across the globe in an attempt to construct some semblance of a canon of the greatest films ever made. Historically, the list has been headed by Bicycle Thieves, Citizen Kane and most recently Vertigo, but this December, when the critics poll was released, none of them got top billing. Chantal Ackerman’s Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles — a 3.5 hour slow-moving portrait of a woman’s day-to-day life — won out. It’s a brilliant pick, if decidedly un-populist, and it seems destined to receive an influx of viewership that likely won’t be conditioned to enjoy its admittedly strange pleasures.
Still, amidst a film culture where totemic directors are ridiculed for deigning to suggest that corporately excreted serialized military propaganda produced on an assembly line through labor exploitation may not reflect our highest artistic impulses, the Sight and Sound poll envisions a more optimistic view of the medium’s potential. Jeanne Dielman is not only an excellent film, it’s also a work that reframes the range of emotions that film is designed to convey.
Going down the list, I found a lot to celebrate in this decade’s elected canon. My two personal favorite films, Beau Travail and Mulholland Drive, sit pretty at spots seven and eight respectively. The list also celebrates some very recent fare, with four films from the 2010s (Moonlight, Get Out, Portrait of a Lady on Fire and Parasite) all making the list. In fact, most of the movement on the list, as perhaps can be expected, was toward both contemporary and unconventional cinema. The list finally removed its historic inclusion of D.W. Griffith (best known for reigniting the KKK with Birth of a Nation), while also cutting David Lean (of Lawrence of Arabia fame). I can’t say that I’m devastated to see them go; I’ve always found Lean’s widescreen epics to be a bit dusty for my taste, and the horrific racism of Griffith is enough for disqualification.
As for directors who I wish had more staying power, Charlie Chaplin has seen his representation continually eroded through the years, with only two films on this year’s list. I wish the critics had found a place for Monsieur Verdoux, my personal favorite of his. Orson Welles, too, is still represented with Citizen Kane at number three, but the list’s presentation of him as a one film wonder does a disservice to a career that was consistently spectacular. I, for one, would’ve voted for the recently reappraised F for Fake or the reconstructed The Other Side of the Wind (which was only released in 2018). Still, a list which rightfully finds room for two Ackerman pictures (News From Home in addition to Jeanne Dielman) as well as films from historically underrepresented voices may need to forgo reclamation projects for established masters.
There are a few places where I’d like to nitpick filmographies that are imperfectly represented on the list. Wong Kar Wai is an indisputable master of his craft, twice represented on the list for In the Mood for Love and Chungking Express, but critics were silent on his best film (in my opinion), Fallen Angels. Similarly, I realize that no one needs to make the case for either Godfather film, but it always frustrates me a little when the first gains more votes than the obviously superior second part; Part One is ranked at 12 and Two is nowhere to be found. I would also make the case for Tarkovsky’s Solaris and Ozu’s Good Morning over some of the films representing the directors on the list. Finally, I’ll always bemoan the fact that Hitchcock’s Notorious is rarely represented on lists of his best work, when it, to me, is his most perfect thriller.
Some directors, either for excessive recency or for reasons that completely defy me, are upsettingly omitted from the list. The Coen Brothers are absent, though that may be because they have such a hefty filmography that it’s impossible to choose just one or two films (No Country for Old Men, Fargo or The Big Lebowski alone provides a difficult dilemma). Paul Thomas Anderson too hasn’t yet made his way into the top 100, despite There Will Be Blood’s widespread reputation as one of the best films of the 21st century. I’m also surprised that with a list so heavy in slow films, Tsai Ming Liang didn’t earn himself a spot with Goodbye Dragon Inn, a conventional pick for one of the best slow films ever made. Personally, I’m most upset about the omission of Luis Buñuel, who lost his sole spot on the last list in Un Chien Andalou. Buñuel is easily one of the five or ten greatest filmmakers of all time, dabbling in surrealism, melodrama and satire to produce a filmography that could stand up against the best of them.
Still, for all its limitations, I’m a big fan of the Sight and Sound poll this year (and decade). It had the unenviable task of evaluating a film history that is now firmly in the triple digits, all while correcting a record that has tended to be overwhelmingly white and male. Jeanne Dielman may or may not produce numerous converts to the cult of slow cinema, but at the very least some of the other films on the list will serve to provide new avenues for budding cinefiles to experience the breadth of what film has to offer and some of the best and strangest examples of the detours its taken.
Max Fattal is a sophomore in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations. They can be reached at [email protected].