Sight & Sound’s “Greatest Films of All Time” List

Excuse me while I mock and defile it.

Kim Novak in Vertigo.

Kim Novak in Vertigo.

© Paramount Pictures 1958.

The furor over the release of the British film magazine Sight & Sound’s once-per-decade list of “The Greatest Films of All Time” (OK, “furor” in the admittedly dollhouse-scale world of professional film criticism) left me shrugging. Yes, Vertigo displaced Citizen Kane from the No. 1 spot it had held for the past five decades, but that qualifies as an “upset” only in the loosest possible sense of the term, given that Hitchcock’s moody thriller had been steadily climbing the chart for decades, and came within five votes of beating Welles’ formally inventive fake biopic the last time around.

No doubt Vertigo’s glacially paced ascent up the ranks of the Sight & Sound canon says something about our culture’s changing tastes—or at least about the changing tastes of a group of 846 critics (and, in a separate poll, 358 directors) from around the world. And it’s a fun parlor game to speculate about what might have precipitated that shift and others reflected in this year’s list—like the disappearance of Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly’s Singin’ in the Rain from the top 10, which now contains no comedy at all, unless you count Jean Renoir’s decidedly melancholic social satire Rules of the Game. But will you excuse me if I refrain from joining debates about what does and doesn’t belong in the 2012 cinematic pantheon, and take a moment instead to ask: What is the source of the authority we confer on this, or any, list of the “greatest films of all time”?

I’m not saying canonical lists don’t have their purposes, and their pleasures. A Sight & Sound top 10 from any year since the poll began in 1952 would make a sensational syllabus for an introductory film course, or an aspiring autodidact’s introduction to the possibilities of the form. And once you start dipping down further, into the top 50 (or better yet, into the critics’ initial nominating ballots, which put forth hundreds of other titles, and which will be published later this month), even hardcore cinephiles will find lots of new territory to explore. Finally, longstanding lists like Sight & Sound’s provide a convenient tracking device for shifts in critical opinion—a way to chart, say, the fluctuations in Charlie Chaplin’s reputation since the mid-20th century, which is a perfectly valid meta-critical exercise of its own.

But there’s something in me—and in many cinephiles, I suspect—that chafes at the debates about what titles should go where on the list, who’s been shafted and who’s been overrecognized. The pomp surrounding the list’s release brings out the otherwise extremely latent punk rocker in me: Even though I may agree every film on it is an innovative, significant, and beautiful work—perhaps even among the best in the history of the medium—a part of me can’t resist the urge to mock and defile the list itself. I suppose this drive to defile is only the reverse side of an excessive deference to the list—either stance is an affirmation of its ultimate authority. If the unveiling of The List is Moses bringing down the tablets from the Mount, resistance to that unveiling is a dance around the golden calf of anarchic cinematic pleasure. But that dialectical tension between authority and anarchy isn’t only played out at the moment of the list’s reception—it’s present in the construction of the list itself, as each critic’s subjective passions do battle with his or her fealty to the notion of establishing and upholding a film canon.

Methodologically, the Sight & Sound poll is the exact inverse of those individual “top 10 of the year” critics’ lists whose appearance is a more reliable harbinger of the holiday season than 10 lords a-leaping. Where the personal list is a carefully tended compilation of sometimes eccentric passions—a sort of taste résumé—the list arrived at by poll must of necessity smooth out such individual quirks in favor of consensus. Like the democratic political process, collective list-making involves compromise, strategy, and a realistic assessment of one’s options. Go ahead and submit Weekend at Bernie’s at the No. 1 spot on your ballot: You’re not going to get a voting bloc large enough to push it through—even the nearly sixfold expansion of the voting pool from 145 in 2002 to this year’s 846 only shook things up enough at the top to nudge longstanding titles up and down by a few notches. I’m not sure how many rounds of voting it takes to narrow the Sight & Sound ballots down to the final top 50 (I didn’t vote in the poll), but years of voting for critics’ circle awards has shown me how, early in the process, you often need to kill your darlings and start putting your weight behind whatever generally favored candidate you dislike the least. Maybe this is what bugs me about the reception of the Sight & Sound list: that the document’s status as a made object, a contingent result of countless small compromises, gets glossed over in the conversations about what belongs where.

The reason that’s most commonly adduced in defense of top 10 lists–that they serve to spark conversations about film—has always struck me as somewhat bogus, because the movie conversations that lists often inspire (Who’s up? Who’s down? What movies would you put on the list instead, and where?) seem like the least interesting sort to have. Such is the power of the “greatest of all time” list: In order to engage with it in any mode other than dismissal, you must implicitly accept the notion of its validity. It’s that feedback loop of respectability that brings out my aforementioned inner punk rocker, juvenilely anti-authoritarian as she may be.

Critical arguments about whether or not the Sight & Sound list is “stodgy” seem to miss the point. Of course it’s stodgy, slow to change, and disproportionately focused on the work of white European men; it’s a canon (a notion that has held on much longer in the film world than the literary one, perhaps because of the relative youth of the medium, the sense among its acolytes that we still have something to prove to the other arts). But as the AV Club’s Scott Tobias points out in his vigorous defense of the list (and of lists themselves), the individual films in that canon are anything but stodgy. Both in the context of their time and all these years later, they’re radical documents, dispatches from the front of cinematic innovation. From the operatic psychodrama of Vertigo to the disjunctive editing and self-reflexive wit of the new arrival in the top 10, Dziga Vertov’s Man With a Movie Camera, the movies on this list (and many others not on it) reinvent the way we see cinema and the world. They’re marvelous, endlessly rewatchable works of art, and if the list and its accompanying hoopla makes people see them who might not have otherwise, maybe I should just learn to stop worrying and love the list. (Speaking of which: where the hell is Dr. Strangelove?)