We hope somewhere in movie-character heaven Charles Foster Kane still finds comfort in the memory of his childhood sled, because for the first time in 50 years Citizen Kane doesn’t top the Sight & Sound poll.
Every ten years since 1952, the London-based film magazine published by the British Film Institute conducts a sweeping survey of renowned critics and filmmakers to determine what many cinephiles consider to be the definitive list of the greatest movies ever made. The very first poll placed Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves at the No. 1 spot. Ever since 1962, however, Orson Welles’ dazzling fake biopic has taken top honors.
Until 2012, that is. This year Sight & Sound tapped 846 critics and 358 directors to submit individual Top 10 lists. When all the ballots were tallied and aggregated, the magazine’s editors discovered that both the critics and directors had said, “Rosebud, schmosebud.” The critics’ pick for the new No. 1 is…
Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo! The Master of Suspense’s otherworldly Möbius-strip reverie on love, loss, and obsession, about a police detective in love with a woman who may be a ghost–or possessed by a ghost, or pretending to be a ghost, or…brain…melting…down–has long been considered the strongest contender to dethrone Kane, having popped in at No. 2 on the Sight & Sound critics’ 2002 ranking. On the other hand, the directors, who this time included Woody Allen, Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, Bong Joon-ho, Guillermo del Toro, and Michel Hazanavicius, picked Yasujiro Ozu’s contemplative domestic drama Tokyo Story for No. 1. Here are the full lists.
The Critics’ Top 10
1. Vertigo (Hitchcock, 1958)
2. Citizen Kane (Welles, 1941)
3. Tokyo Story (Yasujiro Ozu, 1953)
4. The Rules of the Game (Jean Renoir, 1939)
5. Sunrise: A Song for Two Humans (F.W. Murnau, 1927)
6. 2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick, 1968)
7. The Searchers (John Ford, 1956)
8. Man with a Movie Camera (Dziga Vertov, 1929)
9. The Passion of Joan of Arc (Carl Th. Dreyer, 1927)
10. 8 ½ (Federico Fellini, 1963)
The Directors’ Top 10
1. Tokyo Story (Ozu, 1953)
2 2001: A Space Odyssey (Kubrick, 1968)
2 Citizen Kane (Welles, 1941)
4. 8 ½ (Fellini, 1963)
5. Taxi Driver (Scorsese, 1976)
6. Apocalypse Now (Coppola, 1979)
7. The Godfather (Coppola, 1972)
7. Vertigo (Hitchcock, 1958)
9. Mirror (Tarkovsky, 1974)
10. Bicycle Thieves (De Sica, 1948)
Kane topped the list for 50 years not just because it’s one of the most entertaining films ever made but because of what it represented in the annals of film history: the emergence of the concept, within Hollywood at least, that a writer-director can be a singular auteur (as much as Pauline Kael, not to mention earlier film artists like Charlie Chaplin, F.W. Murnau, and D.W. Griffith, would beg to differ); as one of the rare times that a writer-director has been given virtually a blank check from a Hollywood studio to put his vision on screen; for its pioneering use of wide-angle lenses to achieve deep-focus cinematography; for its circular, self-reflexive narrative that throws out all screenwriting-class notions of a three-act script. But Nick James, the editor of Sight & Sound, suggests that critics and filmmakers voted more for personal than objective, historical reasons this time.
“This result reflects changes in the culture of film criticism,” James tells the BBC. “The new cinephilia seems to be not so much about films that strive to be great art, such as Citizen Kane, and that use cinema’s entire arsenal of effects to make a grand statement, but more about works that have personal meaning to the critic. Vertigo is the ultimate critics’ film because it is a dreamlike film about people who are not sure who they are but who are busy reconstructing themselves and each other to fit a kind of cinema ideal of the ideal soul mate.”
Some other observations.
- In previous polls, Sight & Sound has allowed poll participants to list The Godfather and The Godfather Part II together as a single entry, a bit of a cheat. This time, James ruled that the films would have to be listed individually, since Francis Ford Coppola directed them as two entirely separate productions. That means both films are off the critics’ list entirely–The Godfather and The Godfather Part II were listed as one entry at No. 4 on the 2002 list–and only the first film cracked the directors’ list at No. 7, tying with Vertigo.
- Silent cinema is well represented, but Sergei Eisenstein is shut out. Three silent films (Sunrise, Man With a Movie Camera, and The Passion of Joan of Arc) cracked the Top 10, but perpetual favorite Battleship Potemkin (1925) was muscled out to No. 11. Eisenstein’s blistering saga of the 1905 mutinee aboard a Russian warship, usually considered the apex of the Soviet Montage school of filmmaking, had appeared on every single Sight & Sound Top 10 since 1952. Now, perhaps reflecting the critical community’s increasing preference for high-concept brain scramblers, Man With a Movie Camera, an extremely meta pseudo-documentary from Eisenstein’s comrade Dziga Vertov, takes its place.
- Andrei Tarkovsky is the new Ingmar Bergman. The directors’ high ranking of Tarkovsky’s Mirror seems to fill the art-cinema slot formerly occupied by Bergman films like Persona and Wild Strawberries.
- The most recent film to appear on either Top 10, Apocalypse Now, is 33 years old. On the critics’ Top 50, only 2000’s In the Mood for Love (No. 24) and 2001’s Mulholland Drive (No. 28) represent the 21st century. Some will chalk this up to some cliche about “the declining quality of movies.” But how about pining for the days when critics had the guts to champion their recent faves? Bicycle Thieves topped the very first Sight & Sound poll in 1952, only four years after it was made. And Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’Avventura scored the No. 2 spot in 1962 just a year after its release.
Personally, I’m okay with the changing of the guard. If anything, Kane‘s overwhelming institutional acclaim and “greatest film of all time” status have damaged it, turning Welles’ vital, alive work of art full of manifold pleasures into a museum piece. As a first-time No. 1, Vertigo doesn’t risk being labeled as “homework,” at least not in the near future. Dreamlike and densely coded, with just the right mixture of romanticism and alienation for a 21st century audience, Hitchcock’s film is the perfect choice for the Internet Age.
What did you guys think of the list? Does the dethroning of Citizen Kane represent the healthy evolution and fluidity of critical taste? Or is its demotion entirely arbitrary? And what recent films, if any, do you think have a shot at cracking a future list?
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