Saturday, August 4, 2012

Citizen Kane is no longer "The Greatest FIlm of all Time"

So, Thursday was kind of a big day for film history. Citizen Kane was “officially” unseated as The Greatest Film of All Time.

Okay, back up. Some background: When people say things like “By consensus, Citizen Kane is the greatest film of all time,” the “consensus” that they’re talking about is (probably) (maybe) the Sight & Sound poll, which has been conducted by BFI (The British Film Institute) once every ten years since 1952, and is generally considered the best of its kind. In that first edition, the number one film was Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves (1948), but Citizen Kane topped the 1962 poll and has done so in every poll since. That is, until now.

The *new* Greatest Film of All Time is… Dramatic pause… Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo! After first showing up in the 1982 poll, Vertigo steadily climbed the ranks, and finished #2 (behind Kane) in the 2002 edition. Some people even predicted it would knock Citizen Kane off its perch in the new poll.

Here are the 10 Greatest Films of All Time according to the 2012 Sight & Sound poll, released Thursday, August 2.

1. Vertigo (Alfred Hitchcock, 1958)
2. Citizen Kane (Orson Welles, 1941)
3. Tokyo Story (Yasujiro Ozu, 1953)
4. The Rules of The Game (Jean Renoir, 1939)
5. Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (F.W. Murnau,
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 Dreyer, 1927)
10. 8 ½ (Federico Fellini, 1963)

Now technically, this is just the critic’s poll, and there’s also a director’s poll, but the critic’s poll tends to be the one given more weight (for reasons I don’t necessarily understand). To obtain the results, BFI asked 846 leading critics, programmers, and academics from all over the world to list what they believe to be the ten greatest films. And what does BFI mean by “Greatest?” Well, here’s what they actually said in the email sent to voters:

As for what we mean by 'Greatest', we leave that open to your interpretation. You might choose the ten films you feel are most important to film history, or the ten that represent the aesthetic pinnacles of achievement, or indeed the ten films that have had the biggest impact on your own view of cinema.

This is by far the largest voting body the poll has ever seen, as the 2002 poll only had 145 voters. So, it does make sense that with a voting body more than quintupling in size, the results were bound to be a bit different. But like most voting-based outcomes, there are inherent flaws in the process that must be considered. Here are the major two that I see.

1. With voters only being allowed to select ten films, it’s unlikely that many directors showed up twice on a lot of ballots. As Roger Ebert points out, this means that directors with more than one “masterpiece” likely split their own vote. For example, voters that wanted to select a Scorsese film were probably forced to choose between Taxi Driver and Raging Bull unless they wanted to use up two spots on a ballot that already had precious little space. This hurt the chances of either film showing up on the finished list, unlike (for example) The Searchers, which is pretty unanimously believed to be John Ford’s greatest work. Other directors (probably) hurt by this quirk: Truffaut (400 Blows or Jules et Jim?), Kurosawa (Seven Samurai or Rashomon?), Chaplin (City Lights, The Gold Rush, or Modern Times?), Coppola (The Godfather, The Godfather Part II, or Apocalypse Now?), Keaton (The General or Sherlock Jr.?), Bergman (The Seventh Seal or Persona?), and Godard (Breathless or Contempt?). If voters were permitted a top 50, or even a top 25, this vote-splitting effect would have been substantially diminished.

2. Voters were not required to rank their ten selections, and all films voted for on any ballot were weighted equally. More than anything, this might be the biggest reason Citizen Kane was unseated. In this latest poll, Kane received 157 votes compared to Vertigo’s 191. But how many of the 157 people that voted for Kane think it is the single greatest film of all time? My guess is a higher number than the amount of people that would say that about Vertigo. If voters were required to rank, and points were awarded on a weighted basis according to those rankings, I think Citizen Kane would have still finished #1 despite appearing on fewer overall ballots.

But even with these flaws, this is still a great list, and as Peter Matthews says in the latest issue of Sight & Sound, people upset by Citizen Kane’s placing should still be able to rejoice in the “proof that film canons are not completely fossilized.” It’s useful to be reminded in such a concrete way that opinions and accepted truths do change over time.

And consider this: in the 2002 poll, Citizen Kane appeared on 46 of the 145 critic's ballots, or about 32%. This year, Kane's 157 votes means it only appeared on 19% of the critic's ballots. 

The full top 100 list for both the critic’s and director’s polls will be revealed later this month, as will the actual ballots of every single voter. But until that happens, here are some thoughts and observations on what we know so far.

·      I’ve always liked Vertigo better than Citizen Kane. To me, Vertigo is the more psychologically complex film, richer in its lingering effect on the viewer, and it probably uses color better than any other film. However, I do think Citizen Kane remains the more important and influential film overall. Does this mean voters are subconsciously saying that psychological complexity is more important to them now than technological and stylistic innovations? I suspect it’s no accident that Vertigo ascended to the top of the list at a time when cinema’s two greatest contemporary filmmakers (David Fincher and Christopher Nolan) are people that have been massively and obviously influenced by its exploration of the darker corners of the human psyche.

·      According to Entertainment Weekly, Nick James, the editor of Sight & Sound, suggested that this result “reflected changes in the culture of film criticism,” and voters appear to be “more about works that have personal meaning to the critic.” However, Richard Rushfield (of the Daily Beast) suggests that Citizen Kane was dethroned merely because of the Twitter era that we now live in, where everything experiences backlash at an accelerated rate, and the very notion of something being seen as “the best” ensures that people will go out of their way to prove otherwise. If this is true, Vertigo could experience a rather short reign at the top.

·      Three silent films made the top ten for the first time since 1972. With more voters than ever, and over 2,000 films receiving at least one vote (!!!), the silent era appears to be one of the few corners of film history where a consensus has (almost) been reached. But, fascinatingly, that consensus has now excluded Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin (1925), which made the top ten of every previous poll, but finished 11th this year. While it’s true that the difference between 10th and 11th place is pretty extremely arbitrary, it’s still a significant slip for a film that appeared to have a permanent lock on the top ten. As with the Kane/Vertigo switch, Potemkin is the more technically innovative film, while the three silents that finished ahead of it appeal more overtly to the viewer’s emotions.

·      With Potemkin slipping out, Jean Renoir’s The Rules of The Game, a 1939 French comedy of manners, is now the only film to appear in the top ten of every poll. It finished 10th in 1952, moved up to 3rd in ’62, then finished 2nd behind Citizen Kane for three straight polls before sliding back down to 3rd in 2002 and slipping to 4th this year. For a film that reveals more nuances and hidden plots with every viewing, I would expect this spot to be secure for a long time.

·      The Godfather & The Godfather Part II finished 4th in the 2002 poll while occupying one spot, because BFI allowed voters to count them together as a single work. This year, however, the rules stipulated that the two films be counted separately, and presumably voters ended up picking one or the other. The two films plummeted out of the top ten as a result, finishing at 21 & 31 respectively. However, if the votes for both films were combined, they would have finished 7th, just ahead of The Searchers. Though on the director’s list, The Godfather and Vertigo tied at #7, with Tokyo Story finishing #1.

·      Only two films from the 2000’s appeared in the critic’s top 50, In the Mood for Love (Wong Kar-Wai, 2000) at #24 and Mulholland Dr. (David Lynch, 2001) at #28, and even those are both over ten years old now. This isn’t a huge surprise, considering the most recent film in the top ten (2001) is 44 years old. People like to know a film has stood the test of time before anointing it. But from the last decade, I would expect films like The Social Network, There Will Be Blood, Pan’s Labyrinth, No Country For Old Men, and City of God to all make some noise on this list in the decades to come.

·      Here’s the director’s list:

1. Tokyo Story (Yasujiro Ozu, 1953)

2. (tie) 2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley
Kubrick, 1968)

2. (tie) Citizen Kane (Orson Welles, 1941)

4. 8 ½ (Federico Fellini, 1963)

5. Taxi Driver (Martin Scorsese, 1976)

6. Apocalypse Now (Francis Ford Coppola,

7. (tie) The Godfather (Francis Ford Coppola,

7. (tie) Vertigo (Alfred Hitchcock, 1958)

9. Mirror (Andrei Tarkovsky, 1974)

10. Bicycle Thieves (Vittorio De Sica, 1948)

It’s always fascinating to see the differences between the two lists. Right away you can tell the directors were less afraid to vote a bit more recent, with four films in the top ten hailing from the 1970’s, and no silent films made the director’s top ten. This is probably a sign that the directors were less concerned about the results being “right” than the critics are (perhaps indicating why the critic’s list is viewed as more definitive), and are therefore more willing to vote without self-imposed rules (i.e. can’t be too recent, have to pick a silent, etc.). It also appears that the directors are more enamored with the purity of a filmmaker’s vision and degree of difficulty than they are with emotional connectivity.

And the switch at the top is particularly interesting. As with the critic's poll, Citizen Kane fell to #2 after a long reign at the top. But unlike the critic's poll, where the top two films from the 2002 version just switched places, the director's selected Tokyo Story #1, after it finished 16th in the 2002 edition. A huge leap, to be sure, and I don't have any idea what accounted for it. 

What would I have voted for? I won’t lie, one of my goals as a critic in life is to one day be asked to vote in this poll, so of course I’ve thought about it. Unfortunately, I’m still at a point where I’ve seen a huge number of important films only once (or not at all), and I wouldn’t want to vote for anything that I hadn’t seen enough times to fully appreciate. As for my definition of greatness, I’ve always viewed it as a 50/50 combination of importance and quality, but I also like the idea of populating my ballot with a little bit of everything suggested by Sight & Sound in their email to voters: some historical importance, some pinnacles of aesthetic achievement, and some personal impact on my own relationship with cinema. So here’s my best stab:

1. The Third Man (Carol Reed, 1949)
2. Pulp Fiction (Quentin Tarantino, 1994)
3. Vertigo (Alfred Hitchock, 1958)
4. The Godfather (Francis Ford Coppola, 1972)
5. Raiders of the Lost Ark (Steven Spielberg, 1981)
6. The Shawshank Redemption (Frank Darabont, 1994)
7. Blade Runner (Ridley Scott, 1982)
8. Rashomon (Akira Kurosawa, 1950)
9. Being John Malkovich (Spike Jonze, 1999)
10. Dr. Strangelove, Or: How I Learned to Stop
Worrying and Love the Bomb (Stanley Kubrick, 1964)

And just because, here are the five movies that I had the most difficulty cutting off my list: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (Sergio Leone, 1966), The Bridge on the River Kwai (David Lean, 1957), Annie Hall (Woody Allen, 1977), Bonnie & Clyde (Arthur Penn, 1967), and Groundhog Day (Harold Ramis, 1993).