Posted by: ckckred | July 13, 2013

Assessing Sight and Sound’s Poll


It’s been almost a year since Sight and Sound released their list of the greatest movies of all time.  By now, I think there’s been enough space to give critics some breathing room to accurately assess the list (back then, the craze was “Citizen Kane is no longer the greatest movie of all time”).  So now that most of the fuss has disappeared, let’s reexamine at Sight and Sound’s Top 50 movies.

1. Vertigo (Hitchcock, 1958)
2. Citizen Kane (Welles, 1941)
3. Tokyo Story (Ozu, 1953)
4. La Règle du jeu (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 (Dziga Vertov, 1929)
9. The Passion of Joan of Arc (Dreyer, 1927)
10. 8 ½ (Fellini, 1963)
11. Battleship Potemkin (Sergei Eisenstein, 1925)
12. L’Atalante (Jean Vigo, 1934)
13. Breathless (Jean-Luc Godard, 1960)
14. Apocalypse Now (Francis Ford Coppola, 1979)
15. Late Spring (Ozu Yasujiro, 1949)
16. Au hasard Balthazar (Robert Bresson, 1966)
17. Seven Samurai (Kurosawa Akira, 1954)
17. Persona (Ingmar Bergman, 1966)
19. Mirror (Andrei Tarkovsky, 1974)
19. Singin’ in the Rain (Stanley Donen & Gene Kelly, 1951)
21. L’avventura (Michelangelo Antonioni, 1960)
21. Le Mépris (Jean-Luc Godard, 1963)
21. The Godfather (Francis Ford Coppola, 1972)
24. Ordet (Carl Dreyer, 1955)
24. In the Mood for Love (Wong Kar-Wai, 2000)
26. Rashomon (Kurosawa Akira, 1950)
26. Andrei Rublev (Andrei Tarkovsky, 1966)
28. Mulholland Dr. (David Lynch, 2001)
29. Stalker (Andrei Tarkovsky, 1979)
29. Shoah (Claude Lanzmann, 1985)
31. The Godfather Part II (Francis Ford Coppola, 1974)
31. Taxi Driver (Martin Scorsese, 1976)
33. Bicycle Thieves (Vittoria De Sica, 1948)
34. The General (Buster Keaton & Clyde Bruckman, 1926)
35. Metropolis (Fritz Lang, 1927)
35. Psycho (Alfred Hitchcock, 1960)
35. Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce 1080 Bruxelles (Chantal Akerman, 1975)
35. Sátántangó (Béla Tarr, 1994)
39. The 400 Blows (François Truffaut, 1959)
39. La dolce vita (Federico Fellini, 1960)
41. Journey to Italy (Roberto Rossellini, 1954)
42. Pather Panchali (Satyajit Ray, 1955)
42. Some Like It Hot (Billy Wilder, 1959)
42. Gertrud (Carl Dreyer, 1964)
42. Pierrot le fou (Jean-Luc Godard, 1965)
42. Play Time (Jacques Tati, 1967)
42. Close-Up (Abbas Kiarostami, 1990)
48. The Battle of Algiers (Gillo Pontecorvo, 1966)
48. Histoire(s) du cinéma (Jean-Luc Godard, 1998)
50. City Lights (Charlie Chaplin, 1931)
50. Ugetsu monogatari (Mizoguchi Kenji, 1953)
50. La Jetée (Chris Marker, 1962)

Even if you just skimmed the list, you probably noticed a majority of these films were not made in the past few decades.  Only two movies (Mulholland Drive and In The Mood For Love) are from the 21st century.  In fact, the youngest movie of the top 10 of the list is Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey; that’s over forty years old.

Seeing this might make readers accuse Sight and Sound voters of stodginess, that they’re favoring past movies instead of the present.  That would be making a sharp and incorrect decision.  Just about everyone of these films on the list (I’m counting the ones I’ve seen) redefine or test the limits of cinema.  The Searchers is a great American epic breaking out of the western genre.  The Rules of the Game is a swift satire of French society.  Tokyo Story completely disobeys the 180 degree rule.  If anything, these movies are still as fresh as today as they were then and ahead even by contemporary standards.


The younger movies on the list have the same ambition and goals as the older ones.  Take David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive (a movie that would rank in my own top 5).  It is in a sense a homage to multiple Hollywood movies (Sunset Boulevard and Vertigo being two of the primary examples) as well as twisting narrative story telling to a whole new extreme.  It’s shocking, frightening, and thrilling.  In about fifty years or so, I still suspect people will be talking about Mulholland Drive.  Can we say the same for other movies like Titanic, which has faced a serious critical decline since its sweeps of the Oscars.

Of course I think there other great recent movies that could have gotten a spot in the top 50 (to name a few, A. I.No Country For Old MenThere Will Be Blood, and Caché) and there are a couple of movies mentioned I don’t enjoy (I’ve never been overly enthusiastic on Battleship Potemkin), but I can’t deny the craftsmanship of the films listed.

Now let’s move on to the point I think many of you readers were waiting for: is Vertigo better than Citizen Kane?  Before I begin, let me say I don’t agree that any single movie should be noted as the greatest film of all time for many different reasons.  For starters, everyone has a favorite movie that they consider the greatest.  But the major issue of a movie being crowned “the best film of all time” is that it hurts the picture’s reputation.


That’s what happened to Citizen Kane, which is a real shame.  A majority of viewers argue that Citizen Kane is overrated because they have a different favorite movie, a completely unfair argument.  Is it fair to dismiss Kane‘s incredible acting and groundbreaking direction simply because audiences didn’t like it being called the greatest film?

While some fans of Kane are crying injustice over the movie being displaced to second, I think it’s good for the film.  Kane is certainly one of the greatest movies of all time (I won’t get into explanation since I have about nothing original to say about it), and certainly ranks in my top ten.  Citizen Kane was called the greatest movie of all time because Sight and Sound said so and that has infuriated many moviegoers.  It’s time for Kane to take a breather.


So even though I consider Kane to be a better movie than Vertigo, I think Vertigo is a worthy successor.  I’m a bit surprised that Vertigo was listed as number one since Hitchcock has a diverse range of films (voters could have easily chosen Psycho or North by Northwest) while a majority of critics consider Kane to be Orson Welles’ masterpiece.  Despite that Vertigo isn’t as definitive of the film form as Kane was, it’s just as groundbreaking and enthralling.  The first time I saw Vertigo, I was frustrated with the movie’s abrupt conclusion, but today I think the picture is Hitchcock’s finest picture (with the other contender being Rear Window).  It takes a typical Hitchcock formula and adds more suspense and mystery than any of the director’s other films.  Vertigo is simply an unforgettable movie.

This is why I think Sight and Sound has made a wise decision.  Like all other lists, Sight and Sound’s serves to give recommendations for movie viewers more than to say __________ was a much better movie than ________.  But what do you think?  Do you think Sight and Sound is elitist and that their decision to displace Kane with Vertigo incorrect?


  1. Very interesting article. These sort of lists and rankings are fascinating to me. Yup, this is going to be a really long comment.
    Definitely agree with you about how crowning a film the greatest of all time immediately gets it into trouble with film fans. I went to a screening for Vertigo at school and during the discussion it was almost immediately under attack as not being the greatest film ever made. People were more interested in talking about how it wasn’t the greatest film ever made than it’s themes and artistry, which are considerable. Vertigo is one of my favorite films of all time and I love it to death; I’m proud that it got to the top of this poll but it really doesn’t affect how much I love it. It’s probably top ten for me, whereas Citizen Kane is probably more like top twenty. I love both films, but they are great in different ways and for me it’s hard to weigh the options. Citizen Kane is the easy answer and has been since the fifties; I respect the people that voted for this because they had enough guts to reexamine what they thought was the greatest. It’s a very hard question. It’s so easy to say Citizen Kane is the greatest, but when you compare it with a lot of other great films, it’s harder to justify it. Because there are a lot of great films out there.
    I hope people will warm up to Citizen Kane now though. I genuinely love that film a lot, regardless of its reputation.
    As for the list being slanted towards older films, I think it seems that way to most people because we generally watch (at least I do) more modern films. As time goes on people will get used to the films that have come out in this century and they will make it on the list as well. Also it’s easier to see the influences films have on others after they have been around for a while. Some overlooked film from recent times may revolutionize filmmaking when directors and critics from the future look back on it. But there is no way of knowing that until it happens. That’s why these things have to keep being updated.
    I’ve seen 14 of these. I don’t particularly care for Potemkin either (I have fallen asleep every single time I’ve seen it) but it is undoubtedly influential and the editing is fantastic. I personally don’t like The Searchers, but it’s an important film nevertheless. It’s impeccably crafted and influenced Taxi Driver, so on those grounds alone it deserves to be on the list.
    I must check out Tokyo Story. I really want to see them break the 180 degree rule! I keep trying to imagine what that would be like and I can’t.
    As for whether or not the list is elitist, I think it is and I think that’s a good thing. It’s supposed to be. If want a list of the most popular films, I’ll look at the imdb list. If I want something in between I’ll go for the AFI list. This list is voted on by critics, scholars, and directors from all over the world. It is supposed to be the definitive list, therefore it should be elitist. It’s a list of the most elite films.
    Again, great article. Lists are just so interesting.

    • Thanks! I had a similar conversation with a couple of people a few months ago. They dismissed Vertigo more or less than its place on Sight and Sound, which I feel in unfair. I think it would make my top 10 as well, but I prefer Kane slightly. Still, both are great films.

      Good point about older films. I feel that a majority of these movies are really cemented on classics and while I would add a few more modern movies I really appreciate the list. While I find Battleship Potemkin a bit dull, it certainly has its place on film history.

      I highly recommend Tokyo Story. That’s in my own top 10.

  2. These polls are always interesting.

    I don’t think they’re a reflection of the greatest films; more a reflection of the current cinematic culture. For example, Man With a Movie Camera ended up a number 8, I’m sure, because it was re-released a few years ago in America. The same for Vertigo in the 90s. As much as critics pontificate, they have not seen nearly as many films as they’d like to think.

    That’s where the canon comes in. It is becoming more and more obvious that critics feels a need to include certain films in their lists. I’ll use Roger Ebert as an example: up until the 1992 Poll, he always voted for a different Hitchcock film to Vertigo (Notorious I think was the one he voted for before). However, in 2002, after Vertigo ranked in the top 10 in the 1992 Poll, he decided to vote for Vertigo.

    Now, I’m not saying he didn’t really believe it was one of the greatest films, but I think he believed that because others told him it was (I.E. its position in the ’92 poll).

    As for Kane, I think it didn’t end up at #1 because critics felt it would end up there anyway (and they wanted to give other films a chance in the spotlight). Loads of people commented under there choices saying stuff like “Kane has received its props. Time to give these 10 films a shout-out.”

    Kane is no longer my favourite Welles film (I’d take Ambersons or Falstaff), but it is the first place I know of to think about cinema in general.

    Sorry if this comment is all over the place!

    • No problem. You have a great point there. Sight and Sound’s polls more or less contribute to the film’s recent influences. I think I remember reading that Ebert considered Notorious still on his top 10 but after watching Vertigo picked it over it.

      Yeah, it’s become a bit mandatory for Kane to be ranked as number 1 and as much as I love it, it doesn’t always need to be in the spotlight.

  3. Also, I think the next Poll should let critics vote for 20 films; cinema is much larger than it was when the Poll started.

    Plus, choices 11-20 are usually more interesting than the top 10. (In my top 10, a few ‘canon’ choices would appear, like The Searchers and Raging Bull, but my 11-20 would be more interesting to most, I suspect, with choices like A.I., the Master, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes etc.)

    • I agree, the poll definitely needs to be bigger. I feel if the selection was expanded to even 15 choices, the list would look much different.

  4. I don’t feel that focusing on older films means the Sight & Sound poll is elitist. For one thing, it’s a collection of the votes of many critics and experts. So there’s no one agenda that creates the list. Also, I do believe that the idea of a movie being an “instant classic” is false. In most cases, it does take some time to understand a film’s influence on cinema culture.

    The tricky part is choosing what should qualify movies as the greatest. You make a good point about Citizen Kane and people unfairly disliking it because they’re expecting it to be better than their favorite movie. They’re looking at a list compiled through many votes and expecting it to match their own views. Vertigo is not in my Top 5 of Hitchcock’s work, but I don’t have an issue with it being #1. I love Citizen Kane and am saddened by all the nastiness towards it, but I wouldn’t call it my favorite movie.

    What I like about lists like this one is that they drive me to see movies that I might not pursue otherwise. The 2002 list pushed me to watch Sunrise, Tokyo Story, and The Rules of the Game during a marathon. I haven’t seen The Man With a Movie Camera yet, but I probably will now. It’s okay to me if some of the choices seem high-minded. I’d rather they push me to expand my mind instead of confirming my preferences.

    • Thanks for the comment. I feel people really dismiss Kane unfairly and it really hurt when I heard a couple of people complaining about the film but raving about Here Comes The Boom. While I prefer Kane, I think Vertigo is a strong replacement.

      Yeah, I’m trying to do the same now. I’ve seen all of the top 10 except Sunrise and Man with a Movie Camera. I’ll have to watch those two soon.

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