Every 10 years, the British Film Institute (BFI) gathers together a collection of film directors and critics and asks them to name the greatest film of all time.
The resulting list is known as the Sight & Sound poll, and is considered one of the more prestigious lists from the multitude that proclaim to tell us the best film ever made.
Its prestige comes from the number of critic contributors (more than 1,600 this year), the calibre of its voters — this year’s directors’ poll includes Martin Scorsese, Barry Jenkins, Sofia Coppola, and Bong Joon Ho — and the fact it happens once a decade.
This year’s critics poll appointed the experimental slice-of-life drama entitled, Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, as the greatest film of all time, while the directors selected influential sci-fi film, 2001: A Space Odyssey.
So who’s right, and why should we care?
What would you think if I told you I’d figured out a way to answer the question, “What’s the greatest film of all time?”, once and for all?
Lights, camera, action
When the Sight & Sound poll began in 1952, it was a critics-only affair that judged Vittorio de Sica’s Italian drama The Bicycle Thieves the greatest film.
In the five decades that followed (1962-2002), the critics voted Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane as number one, before dubbing Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo the greatest in 2012.
The Sight & Sound director’s poll, which began in 1992, chose Citizen Kane that year and in 2002, before dubbing Yasujiro Ozu’s family drama Tokyo Story the winner in 2012.
A snapshot of changing views
Each of these polls — indeed any such list of the greatest films of all time — can tell us a lot about how cinema is viewed and valued at a particular point in time by a particular group of people.
For example, The Bicycle Thieves was praised for its realism at a time when cinema was very focused on spectacle and theatricality, while Citizen Kane’s selection came as part of a re-evaluation of Welles’ masterpiece and the belated realisation of its monumental influence on film-making in the years since its 1941 release.
Similarly, Vertigo’s re-appraisal by critics in 2012 celebrated the increasing influence of the film’s more daring and unconventional touches, after many years of being considered inferior to other Hitchcock works, such as Psycho and Rear Window.
This year’s selection of Chantal Akerman’s 1975 film, Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, by the critic pool is significant as it reflects a move to address the white male dominance of cinematic history.
It’s the first time a female director has topped the poll.
The number of female and black directors in the critics’ top 100 has increased dramatically and, according to BFI, is reflective of a “more diverse [voting] group than ever before”.
Akerman’s film climbed from its position of 36 in Sight & Sound’s 2012 list, where it was one of only two films by female directors.
This year, there were 11 female filmmakers in the critics’ top 100 features list.
In 2012, Touki Bouki was the only film by a black director on the critics’ list. This year there are seven.
BFI Public Programmes and Audiences executive director Jason Wood said the latest list “shakes a fist at the established order”.
“Canons should be challenged and interrogated,” he said.
“The BFI’s remit [is] to not only revisit film history but to also reframe it.
“It’s so satisfying to see a list that feels quite radical in its sense of diversity and inclusion.”
And the winner is …
Other “greatest ever” lists tell different but similarly interesting stories. Audience polls tend to prize emotional and pop-cultural impact over critics’ lists, which put higher stock in the film-making technique, boundary-pushing and cinematic influence.
You rarely see Akerman’s 200-minute-long documentary-like study of femininity and womanhood in an audience poll, although that may change as the film’s stature as a cult classic grows.
Inversely, the Internet Movie Database’s top 250 movies, as calculated by user ratings, puts Frank Darabont’s prison drama The Shawshank Redemption at number one, a film that pops up on far more audience-derived lists than those by critics.
When the now-defunct Mr Showbiz website simultaneously released a critics’ poll and a readers’ poll in the late ’90s, the differences were stark.
Casablanca topped the critics’ list, Star Wars the readers’ list, only three films were in both top 10s, and two films in the critics’ top 10 (The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance and City Lights) failed to make the readers’ top 100.
Similarly, Empire magazine readers earlier this year voted The Lord Of The Rings: The Fellowship Of The Ring as the best movie ever made, while Citizen Kane was way back at number 40, and Vertigo at 50.
Which brings us back to our original questions: Who’s right, and why should we care?
The meaning of lists
Let’s deal with the second question first.
The short answer is, you don’t have to care. These lists are mostly done to start debate, which can be fun, and they can also make us think about what makes a film great.
But here’s where I’d like to share a personal anecdote about how sometimes these lists can do more than just trigger a discussion.
In 1998, the American Film Institute (AFI) polled 1,500 film industry figures to compile its list of the 100 greatest American films ever made.
At the time I was finishing high school and studying film, so thought I knew a little bit about movies, but was stunned to discover I’d only seen 12 films on the list.
It immediately made me wonder what was so good about all these movies, and so I took the list as a personal challenge.
I began trying to work my way through it — no easy feat while living in a regional centre in the pre-streaming era — and managed to watch 92 of the 100.
This became my true cinematic education and, three years after the AFI list came out, I wrote my first published film review. A few years later I became a Rotten Tomatoes-approved reviewer.
That AFI list awakened my curiosity and set me on a path, but it also made me hungry for more. I soon began collecting other lists of the best films ever made, and started watching those as well.
Which brings me back to the first question: Which list is right, and which film is indeed the greatest of all time?
The greatest show of all
After devouring so many movie lists I began to see patterns. The same films would appear in the top five or top 10, with the occasional surprise to generate debate or make the list feel a bit different.
That’s when I wondered what would happen if combined a heap of lists together in a database, using a weighted scoring system, and whether that would give me a definitive list of the greatest films of all time.
So I took all the lists I’d gathered and put them into a database, then went searching for more lists.
I collected lists from renowned reviewers and casual fans, from audience polls and critic collectives.
I sought out lists of the best Asian/Australian/African/non-English films to temper the American and British-centric lists.
I found lists of the best female-directed films to try to balance out the male domination, and I sought out genre-specific lists in an attempt to iron out the tendency towards dramas.
In the end I collected 63 lists, although I hope to add more in the future.
An unsurprising result
Here’s the top 10 which, unsurprisingly, looks a lot like a lot of the lists you will have seen before:
- 1.The Godfather
- 2.Citizen Kane
- 4.2001: A Space Odyssey
- 6.Star Wars
- 7.Lawrence Of Arabia
- 8.The Godfather Part II
- 9.Singin’ In The Rain
You can find the full list here.
What does it all mean?
So now that I’ve answered the question once and for all, we can put an end to such film lists, right?
I’m being facetious, of course. There is no definitive answer to such a qualitative question as, “What is the greatest movie of all time?”, but every serious attempt to answer the question is a window into what makes a film great.
The 10 films listed above all share the same qualities that critics (and many movie-goers) value — compelling characters, stories that grapple with powerful themes about humanity, exemplary direction and production values, engaging performances and writing, and benchmark, influential filmmaking.
Generally speaking, these film lists are about celebrating these qualities and the movies that hold them.
As much as lists such as Sight & Sound are about starting debates, they’re also about praising the pieces of cinema that sit at the pinnacle of the art form, and shining a spotlight on them.
For movie-lovers, these lists should serve as a menu in a fine dining restaurant.
And who knows? Maybe one of these polls will spark another teenager to start a cinematic journey like mine.