The Sight and Sound “Greatest Films” Poll Presents a Bolder Vision of World Cinema

Transparency first: “Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles” is one of the ten films on my ballot for this year’s Sight and Sound critics’ poll for Greatest Films of All Time, so I’m pretty pleased to see it come out at the top of the heap. That little burst of gratification gets to the heart of what’s interesting and worthwhile about the magazine’s poll and critics’ participation in it. Lists are no substitute for criticism, but those who take them as inimical to criticism are pharisaical. Lists are solo acts of personal passion; voting acknowledges that one is part of a community. While there’s no allegiance or deference invoked by the results of a poll (as there is in an election), the poll’s outcomes are a satisfying reminder that it isn’t only family and friends who share one’s strongest enthusiasms. If a critic feels confident going out on a limb, it’s because of the implicit understanding that there’s a tree.

This time around, the tree is a bigger and stronger one, because the editors of Sight and Sound have thoughtfully cultivated it in the decade since the 2012 poll by expanding its voting base. It isn’t only the world of filmmaking that’s bigger than a working critic might know; it’s also the world of film criticism itself, and online publications make it all the more likely that a concerted effort will gather worthy writers from around the world. The magazine’s decennial poll has been in business since 1952; as late as 2002, it featured only a hundred and forty-five voting critics (a category that, then as now, has also included academics and other writers). In 2012, there were eight hundred and forty-six (I was among them), and, this time around, they got more than sixteen hundred participants (now also including programmers and others in the field). (They also feature a poll of directors—there, “Jeanne Dielman,” which was entirely absent in 2012, is now tied for fourth place.) Earlier polls were, more or less, packed with friends of Sight and Sound; the 2012 poll included friends of friends (of friends). The wider reach of this year’s edition more or less guaranteed that the hundred films on the list would represent a wider range of world cinema; the surprise isn’t that this year’s list is different, but that, for the most part, it’s so similar to that of 2012.

Right after “Jeanne Dielman” come the three films—“Vertigo,” “Citizen Kane,” and “Tokyo Story”—that held the top three slots last time. The Top Ten of 2022 includes three films made between 1999 and 2001—which, in 2012, were the most recent films included at all. It makes perfect sense that the intervening decade has, so to speak, cured those films—subjected them to the critical attention and repeated viewings that dispel the sense of mere novelty and establish them as classics. The most surprising shift isn’t the inclusion or exclusion of any individual film, but the significant presence of far more recent films: four from the past decade, with “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” as high as thirtieth place, plus “Moonlight,” “Parasite,” and “Get Out.” It’s tempting to ascribe this to the recency bias that’s built into the streaming system as well as into the publicity-journalism complex. But I think that there’s something more significant in play: the fact that the past decade has been a time of drastic transformation in the world of movies, whether filmmaking, film criticism, or film viewing.

The transformation has gone together with far-reaching social changes, the acknowledgment of age-old and unquestioned exclusions—of Black, female, Asian, and generally nonwhite and non-straight filmmakers and critics from prominent places in filmmaking and, for that matter, in criticism. In both of these domains, a shift has taken place in seeking and including talented outsiders who have been kept outside by invisible barriers made manifest only by their effect. The American film business, the Academy, and the British publication Sight and Sound haven’t “put their thumb on the scale” (as the director Paul Schrader put it when he criticized what he called the “politically correct rejiggering” of the voting body); rather, they’ve taken it off. I consider at least two of the above four films (“Moonlight” and “Get Out”) to be among the very best of recent years, artistic advances as significant as any of the time, and all of them to be worthier than some of the 2012 entries. In such transformative times, the telescope to history is reversed and the present tense looms dramatically large. The 2022 voting group made good use of the relative ease of access to world classics and took a broad and probing view of movie history, amplifying the list to include the foundational experimental film (“Meshes of the Afternoon,” from 1943), an aesthetically radical film of women’s experience (“Daisies,” from 1966), and three of the greatest American independent films (“Wanda,” from 1970; “Killer of Sheep,” from 1978; and “Daughters of the Dust,” from 1991).

In other words, the new group has offered a generally more lucid view of the greatest films in the history of cinema (even if there are a few truly lamentable omissions—still no films by John Cassavetes, and no longer any by Luis Buñuel). There are fewer silent films now; appallingly, there are three films by Billy Wilder but no longer any by Howard Hawks and still none by Ernst Lubitsch. (In general, polls favor filmmakers who have one or a few consensus favorites; the Lubitsch and Hawks votes were doubtless scattered among their plethora of masterworks.) And I don’t know how to include Busby Berkeley, who directed many entire features but is singularly great only for his musical numbers.

Above all, the 2022 list reflects yet another wider trend in world cinema: polarization. With “Jeanne Dielman” at the top, the center holds tenuously, if at all. Popular movies have, by and large, grown increasingly overproduced and dehumanized; the commercial success of such an individualistic film as this year’s “Nope” is increasingly rare. Most of the best big-budget films are proving to be box-office disasters, and audiences for substantial lower-budget films are dwindling, too. The writer-centric world of television and the algorithm-driven pablum of streaming movies are pushing serious films (which include comedies) further to the margins of the industry. “Jeanne Dielman,” with its brazen aesthetic radicalism, its challenges to the very terms of movie-viewing, is—at nearly a half century’s remove—a gauntlet thrown down by the Sight and Sound voters to the filmmakers of today, a dare to make movies with no regard for the box office, for trends, for popular appeal, to create films that risk being outside the present day because they already belong to the future of the art.

P.S. Here’s my ballot in this year’s poll:

“King Lear” (1988, Jean-Luc Godard)

“Shoah” (1985, Claude Lanzmann)

“The Last Laugh” (1924, F. W. Murnau)

“The Gold Rush” (1925, Charlie Chaplin)

“The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum” (1939, Kenji Mizoguchi)

“Citizen Kane” (1941, Orson Welles)

“Playtime” (1967, Jacques Tati)

“Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles” (1975, Chantal Akerman)

“Faces” (1968, John Cassavetes)

“Daughters of the Dust” (1991, Julie Dash) ♦