By Jim Emerson
OK, this is where it really gets interesting. Forget the consensus Top 50 Greatest Movies of All Time; let's get personal. Sight & Sound has now published the top 250 titles in its 2012 international critics poll, the full list of more than 2,000 movies mentioned, and all the individual lists of the 845 participating critics, academics, archivists and programmers, along with any accompanying remarks they submitted. I find this to be the most captivating aspect of the survey, because it reminds us of so many terrific movies we may have forgotten about, or never even heard of. If you want to seek out surprising, rewarding movies, this is a terrific place to start looking. For the past few days I've been taking various slices at the "data" trying to find statistical patterns, and to glean from the wealth of titles some treasures I'd like to heartily recommend -- and either re-watch or catch up with myself.
I know we're supposed to consider the S&S poll a feature film "canon" -- a historically influential decennial event since 1952, but just one of many. I don't disagree with Greg Ferrara at TCM's Movie Morlocks ("Ranking the Greats: Please Make it Stop") when he says that limiting ballots to ten all-time "best" (or "favorite," "significant," "influential" titles is incredibly limiting. That's why I think perusing at the critics' personal lists, the Top 250 (cited by seven critics or more) and the full list of 2,045 films mentioned is more enjoyable pastime.
It's wise to remember that, although the top of the poll may at first glance look relatively conservative or traditional, there's a tremendous diversity in the individual lists. Even the top vote-getter, "Vertigo," was chosen by less than one quarter of the participants.
I guess if you really wanted to make a "boring" list, you could start by asking a bunch of people what films they felt were most significant landmarks and they'd feel compelled to check off the usual suspects. You'd probably get results resembling the syllabus for an early intro-to-film-history course: "The Birth of a Nation," "Battleship Potemkin" ( #11), "Metropolis" (#36), "The Gold Rush" (#154), "The Passion of Joan of Arc" (#9), "Rules of the Game" (#4), "Citizen Kane" (#2), "Bicycle Thieves" (#33), "Rome: Open City" (#183), "Rashomon" (#24), "The Seventh Seal" (#93), "8 1/2" (#10) and other canonical classics that were officially endorsed as standard "texts" in the formative days of university cinema studies departments. Not that there's anything wrong with acknowledging such cinematic landmarks -- most of these also happen to be indisputably great movies.
Scott Tobias ("The radical visions in Sight & Sound ") addresses the complaints raised in some quarters that the list is safe and "stodgy" because there aren't enough post-1960s movies on the list:
But that argument is wrong, for two seemingly contradictory reasons: The list should be stodgy, and the list isn't stodgy in the least.... [T]he stability of the Sight & Sound list is a big part of what gives it value: For film critics and historians--and would-be critics and casual historians--the poll is the compass pointing north, the absolute baseline for an education on the medium. Every critic who submitted a ballot deviated from the Top 10 either partially or wholly--just as any film fanatic heads down their own personal tributaries--but the consensus of the many has given the study of film a useful foundation. A radically altered Sight & Sound list would be weak and destabilizing; breaking into the Top 10 should be slow and carefully considered. For now, just losing "Citizen Kane" [to second place, for the first time in 50 years] is radical enough, like having to orbit around a different sun.
Now here's the second point: Many of the films on this list are fucking crazy. If you can imagine yourself going back in time and seeing any of these films for the first time, nearly all of them are mini-revolutions, breaking so firmly with what people expected cinema to be that they were often misunderstood or hated. There's nothing "stodgy" about "The Rules Of The Game," which had to be removed and drastically re-edited due to mass outrage and a government ban. "Tokyo Story" and "The Passion Of Joan Of Arc" violate the most basic rules of how a film is supposed to be shot, the former by breaking "the 180-degree plane" and the latter by abandoning spatial relationships altogether. "2001: A Space Odyssey" attempts nothing short of accounting for existence itself--and doesn't even get to the space part until after a long prologue about a breakthrough in ape evolution. "The Searchers" remains an absolutely chilling rebuke to what we expect from John Wayne, John Ford, and the American Western itself. If you were to add, say, "Pulp Fiction," to the list, that would be a relatively stodgy choice in this company, despite being a sensation in itself.
To Read the Rest of the Essay and to Read Emerson's List of the 25 Favorite Movies That Nobody Voted for in the 2012 Sight & Sound Critics Poll