Notes on the New Movie Poll

Jake Dihel
18 min readDec 11, 2022
Delphine Seyrig in Jeanne Dielman

Every decade starting in 1952 the British film magazine Sight & Sound runs a poll of critics and directors in an effort to name a broadly consensus list of the greatest films of all time. On December 1st, the eighth of these polls was released, setting a new boundary for this type of film discourse that will continue for the next ten years. The full list of 250 chosen by critics is released at a later date, but for now we have the new top 100. By and large this is purely a rhetorical matter, it doesn’t effect this subject at any individual level, which is what the poll is aggregated from, but I think canons are important in art and it’s kind of fun to have and it does end up reflecting some broader trends in discourses on film and particularly film criticism. To the point: I have some thoughts on the new poll, and this is as good a place as any to lay them out.

(One note: I’m using the list on Letterboxd for easier reference, so numbered placements will not be entirely accurate given the presence of tied placements in the actual poll)

  • There’s a new no. 1. In the original S&S poll Bicycle Thieves by Vittorio de Sica was awarded the top spot—an agreeable if not exactly timeless choice, but what else could be expected from such a young art form and an even younger body of criticism. In the next five decades, Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane was the reigning champion, rightfullly so in this humble writer’s opinion. Then the unthinkable happened in 2012: Kane lost. What exactly transpired to unseat it from the top I’m at no authority to say (I was 14 when that poll came out, hardly a discerning film watcher), but it left Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo at number one. Perhaps it was the result of critical studies shifting away from formalistic analysis and towards more personal, biographical readings; Vertigo is far more revealing of cinema’s psychological components of construction and spectatorship than Kane is, even as Kane redefined film grammar for all-time (I do want to be clear here: Vertigo is among my very favorite movies ever, moreso than Kane, I’m just of the opinion that Kane is probably a better representative pick for number 1).
    The results of 2012’s poll were shocking; it comes as no surprise then that 2022’s poll follows the precedent and has a new film displacing Vertigo, and it isn’t Kane. Jeanne Dielman, 23, Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, or more mercifully shortened Jeanne Dielman, by Chantal Akerman is the new top dog after placing 38th in the 2012 poll. This comes after a conscious expansion by S&S of their voting pool, increasing the number of ballot-wielding critics by more than double in a stated effort to diversify the voices of those reconstructing the canon, though a little more on that later. I don’t think I need to spell out that women filmmakers have been afforded less opportunity and received less recognition than male filmmakers throughout the past century, so this kind of effort to broaden canonical representation is welcome, even if its implementation is clumsy and can lead to a certain degree of tokenization (though again, more on that later). And, at least at the top of the list, the effort is successful—Akerman becomes the fourth director to top the list and the first woman (the first queer woman as well!), and while I haven’t seen Jeanne Dielman yet the reactions from critical voices I trust have been nothing but pleased by its newfound position, and even without having seen it its reputation as a major work of experimental and feminist cinema precedes it. And, to dispel the idea that this is purely a reaction of critics, Jeanne Dielman also placed top 5 in the director’s poll. Much like Kane and Vertigo, this seems to be a worthy selection to be picked in a pseudo-official capacity as The Greatest of All Time.
  • Solid top 20. Following Jeanne Dielman is Vertigo, Kane, Tokyo Story (Yasujiro Ozu), and In the Mood for Love (Wong Kar-Wai) to make up the top 5. In the Mood for Love climbs from 26 to 5, marking the highest placement for a film from the 21st century in the list. I was personally predicting either Kane or Tokyo Story for the top spot, so while I’m not too surprised that they did not make that jump, what does surprise me is Vertigo still coming out ahead of either of them. I was expecting a backlash to the 2012 placement and Vertigo’s conscious-or-not creepy misogyny that ended up not manifesting, and Tokyo Story topping the previous director’s poll seemed a good indication that it was as rock-solid a bet as anything on the list. Jeanne Dielman pushed those three down a spot, but they all appear locked in top 10 picks for time immemorial at this point; In the Mood for Love might be more tenuous, but time will tell, and I would certainly not be upset if it stuck around at this area for a while.
    After that is 2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick), Beau Travail (Claire Denis), Mulholland Drive (David Lynch), Man with a Movie Camera (Dziga Vertov), and Singin’ in the Rain (Stanley Donen/Gene Kelly). 2001 was also 6 in 2012 and it deserves this placement even if I personally think it’s kind of a boring pick at this point, and it did also end up topping this year’s director’s poll. There may not be a more technically accomplished Kubrick movie, but there are Kubrick movies that I find so much more compelling. Beau Travail sees one of the most significant jumps of any movie from last decade’s poll, going from 79 to 7, making Denis the second woman director in the upper echelon. I would normally be cautious of this kind of jump, but I think if there were a movie that deserves that kind of increase Beau Travail is it; even despite this high placement, and her contemporary status as one of the great arthouse filmmakers, I think Denis’s other films are criminally slept-on in this kind of evaluation, as this is her only appearance on the top 100 and was her only appearance in the previous top 250. Mulholland Drive jumps from 28 in 2012, one of two 21st century films in that poll, both of which are now in the top 10. As far as Lynch’s feature films go this is his best, and might actually still be underrated. Man with a Movie Camera is the highest representative from the foundational Soviet cinema school of the early 20th century, dropping from its position at 8 last poll. I haven’t seen it, but it’s a little disappointing that this era is not better represented at the top, as almost all of modern cinema can be indebted in some way to those filmmakers. Singin’ in the Rain climbs from 20 to 10, and while it is a wonderful movie, I think it’s always being overrated by these polls.
    Next is Sunrise (F.W. Murnau), The Godfather (Francis Ford Coppola), The Rules of the Game (Jean Renoir), Cleo From 5 to 7 (Agnes Varda), and The Searchers (John Ford). It’s been a very long time since I’ve seen Sunrise so I can’t give an accurate opinion on it; it drops from 5 to 11 here, and while I can’t be specific in this case I do wish, similar to the Soviet formalists, that there was greater representation of silent cinema here, as this is only one of three* silent films near the top (*two of these three are experimental movies, which I feel is a little dishonest to lump with more conventional silent films, and one of those two came out after sound technology had been popularized). The Godfather jumps from 22 to 12, though I think there might have been a lack of clarity on these votes; The Godfather part 2 was ranked 32 in 2012 and is nowhere in the top 100 this year, which would be a jaw-dropping disappearance from the list, so I am almost thinking that people voted for The Godfather with the intention of grouping both movies together (corroborated by both being grouped together in the 2002 poll). Regardless, this isn’t a surprising entry, and while I wouldn’t personally rank it that high it’s hard to argue with the cultural legacy or the quality of it. The Rules of the Game drops from 4 to 13, but I haven’t seen it yet so I don’t have any thoughts. Cleo jumps tremendously, a whole 200 places from 214 to 14. This is one of my favorite movies, so that previous ranking seems preposterously low to me. This is the highest placing film from the French New Wave, putting Varda over contemporaries like Jean-Luc Godard, Francois Truffaut, and Alain Resnais, all of whom were ahead of her previously. The Searchers drops from 7 to 15; while it should still be top 10 in my humble opinion, this is one that I was very nervous about, and am happy to see hanging around the top. The Searchers is a very racist film, but in an intentional, conscious way, designed to show the ugliness of the early American frontier mindset. It asks you to tag along with an unrepentantly racist, violent character for the duration, and given that modern film discourse lacks a lot of necessary nuance when it comes to depiction and endorsement, I was worried that this would be left behind (many Westerns did in fact get left behind—this is only one of two on the top 100). It’s also the only John Ford film in the top 100 from 2012, and so I think it’s important that one of the all time greatest directors maintain his representation on a list like this.
    Rounding it out is Meshes of the Afternoon (Maya Deren), Close-Up (Abbas Kiarostami), Persona (Ingmar Bergman), Apocalypse Now (Coppola), and Seven Samurai (Akira Kurosawa). Meshes jumps from 105 to 16, and I think makes for a good representative of experimental cinema; while I personally prefer the more structuralist style of later decades, Deren’s short is a strong example of the more surrealist form. Close-Up jumps from 44 to 17, and is the only Middle Eastern film on the top 100, which is the extent of my thoughts because I haven’t seen it. Persona holds strong at 18; Bergman has mostly gone out of fashion for this poll, which I think is disappointing but not unexpected, but it’s nice to see the GOAT holding firm near the top, even if I do wish it was higher. Apocalypse Now makes Coppola unexpectedly the director most represented in the top 20, even as it actually dropped from 2012 where it was 14. Neither of his here are my favorite Coppola’s, and I do kind of think Apocalypse Now is overrated slightly, though that might be because I haven’t seen it in many years. It was one of the first Serious movies I remember making a big impact on me as a young movie watcher, and a lot of the other ones from that period have not aged particularly well in my estimations, so maybe it’s catching a bit of stray flak from that association. Seven Samurai drops from 17 to 20, which is a little low for one of the supreme achievements of moviemaking. All in all though, this is almost as good of a top 20 as you could ask for, as far as I see it.
Corinne Marchand in Cleo from 5 to 7
  • A brief assessment of the other 80. The overall top 100 is not really the shakeup that I think some people were expecting. A lot of the virtues and faults of previous polls are still present: France and America see the strongest representation; Tarkovsky, Hitchcock, Chaplin, Bresson, Fellini all see the usual picks, shuffled around somewhat from their previous spots; Blade Runner is inexplicably here; Godard gets a ton of love for his ’60s films and the token Histoire(s) du Cinema gets to stand in for all his other work; Indian cinema gets shafted, along with almost anything close to genre filmmaking; etc. Some absences are felt deeply (no Touch of Evil, no Howard Hawks, no Nashville, only one Antonioni), some inclusions are well-deserved (Do the Right Thing jumps from 128 to 24, Chungking Express from 148 to 89), some are mystifying (Daisies is good but it is not 28 good, too much Billy Wilder, Spirited Away). All in all, save for a handful of entries, it’s a “sounds about right” top 100.
  • The elephant in the room. Alright, time to get to the real nag about the new list. I think it’s fair to say that modern film criticism is not particularly historically literate when it comes to the art form, which made one of my biggest concerns about the expanded pool of voters a tendency towards recency bias. To whit: in 2012 there were two movies from 2000 onward in the top 100, the aforementioned In the Mood for Love and Mulholland Drive. Two more 2000s movies have since joined them in this new poll, Tropical Malady (Apichatpong Weerasethakul) at 100 and Spirited Away (Hayao Miyazaki) at 77. As for 2010s movies in this poll, there are four entries: Get Out (Jordan Peele) at 98, Parasite (Bong Joon-Ho) at 93, Moonlight (Barry Jenkins) at 63, and Portrait of a Lady on Fire (Celine Sciamma) at 30. I’m not inherently opposed to putting recent films in a conversation like this, in fact I was even hoping to see a couple movies from the last decade on this list (Paul Thomas Anderson, Jia Zhangke, Martin Scorsese, and Hong Sang-Soo should all have entries here imo), but I am of the mindset that temporal distance tends to reveal greater truth about things like this, when evaluations are less susceptible to knee-jerk reactions. And unfortunately these all feel like knee-jerk picks: Get Out is the modern reset for the horror genre, and we’ll be dealing with its effects for a while to come; Parasite is among the biggest foreign-language hits to ever come stateside; Moonlight ushered in a new era of American indie arthouse cinema that is interminably ongoing; and Portrait is the splashiest arthouse hit of the last five years. For the record, I think three of these are great movies (haven’t seen Portrait), their selection just shows a lack of deeper inspection than remembering a movie that came out recently that made an impact. Get Out being the only horror film on the list besides freaking Psycho is insane. Parasite isn’t even the best movie Bong has made, it isn’t even the best Korean movie of its decade! Portrait at 30 is the most egregious, especially when considered alongside the films around it on the list (do we really think this is slightly worse than Taxi Driver? do we REALLY think this is better than Mirror or 8 1/2 or Psycho???). Every film that shows up on these lists are then saddled with the expectations that selection carries; a lot of them, being older films, have withstood those expectations across their larger timespan, they’ve more or less beaten the “overrated” allegations in the wider critical conversation. Portrait is three years old at this point, and the expectations of “best movie of 2019” or “one of the best of the decade” are very different from “top 30 of all time”; unless it really is some remarkable work of filmmaking (which, given that I’ve rarely heard it brought up since it came out, I find unlikely), there’s almost no way it can hold up to those expectations, and it’s going to end up being done a disservice by this kind of reactive recognition that, and I hate to indulge this kind of perspective, feels like a selection made to check social boxes. Then again, canons have a tendency to become feedback loops, so it may end up that because a movie ends up on this list it is then considered worthy of being on the list and therefore makes it on the next list, ad infinitum (see: Blade Runner, wtf). Maybe that happens here; for my money I would say Moonlight has the best chance at sticking around the top 100 in future polls, the other three might very well all fall off in 2032, though I suppose that depends mostly on the body of voters.
  • Representation matters, but for whom? I mentioned earlier that this decade’s poll was designed partly with the intention of widening the base of voters so as to try and better include historically underrepresented filmmakers in the final poll, giving a more nuanced, more theoretically accurate picture of a global, historical cinematic canon. The results of this are… mixed, I think. 11 of the 100 are movies directed by women, including 4 in the top 20, which is definitely not a lot, but it’s much better than the 1 from 2012 , and I think at some point the low numbers are simply representative of the historical absence of women from behind the camera. It’s certainly a positive step to recognize the real time-tested GOAT women directors, like Akerman and Varda and Denis, and in setting their work in direct comparison with their male counterparts I think it becomes easier in the future to recognize women filmmakers on these historical terms without the baggage of having to break through, even if some of this poll’s selections might be a bit odd (Portrait as mentioned above, Varda has a number of films worthy of placement but The Gleaners and I is a really left field pick, Daisies is way too high). So overall, even with some questionable picks, this poll feels like a positive step in recognizing women in the film canon. Likewise, I think there are some baby steps towards recognizing Black filmmakers here in a better way than previously. 7 out of 100 are by Black directors, again up from 1 in 2012, and again, while this is not a good number holistically it is partially determined by historical conditions, whether in the lack of Black filmmakers in Hollywood, the sequestering of Black filmmakers towards lower profile genre and demographically driven work, or in the less accessible means of production and distribution for African film industries. In short: not as good as you’d like to see, but some of that can’t be avoided, and it’s a start nonetheless.
    The same cannot be said for non-Western, non-European cinema by and large. We see slight gains for Korean (was 0, now 1), Hong Kong (was 1, now 2), Senegalese (was 1, now 2), and Thai (was 0, now 1) cinema, and a small bump to Japanese films (from 6 to 8), but that’s about it. There’s more than in 2012, but still less than 20 movies overall come from countries outside of Europe and America, including a fat zero from Latin America or mainland China. Instead, there seems to be a further siloing of films of these regions to particular directors, particularly with regard to Asian countries: the only Taiwanese director is Edward Yang, the only Hong Kong director is Wong Kar-Wai, the only Japanese directors are Akira Kurosawa, Yasujiro Ozu, Kenji Mizoguchi, and Hayao Miyazaki. And with all due respect to their considerable artistic talents, but Kurosawa, Ozu, and Miyazaki are like baby’s first Japanese movies (Mizoguchi’s persistence in this year’s poll is actually really heartening, as he has tended to get less popular exposure than his contemporaries Kurosawa and Ozu). The lack of greater Japanese representation is galling, given the overwhelming historical richness Japanese cinema has in relation to much of the world, and the same could be said for Hong Kong, though that could very well be a result of the poll’s typical anti-genre bias. Regardless of whatever flimsy reasoning, it’s insane to leave off anything from the Japanese New Wave, anything from the Taiwanese New Wave outside of Yang, anything from contemporary China… you get the idea. The same goes for Indian cinema, one of the major industries of the entire global history of film represented here with one entry—I understand that Indian film requires a little more work to get into than your French and Italian stuff (I myself have literally never seen an Indian movie lol), but for something with the goal of this poll to miss an opportunity to try and open up a previously intimidating world is a huge miss.
    I can spend a lot more time bemoaning what isn’t here—there should be more Asian films, more silent films, more documentaries, more genre movies, etc.—but the unfortunate reality of an arbitrary task like this one is that it does become a zero-sum game. According to my count, I’ve seen 62/100 of the movies on this list, and I would say a lot of them genuinely do deserve to be there. I’m no math whiz but if you make a top 100 movies list, it has to have 100 movies on it, and so the cutting room floor is inevitably going to be filled with regrettable losses. That reality is understood, but what makes this new poll frustrating is that it was designed to shake things up, and it ended up mostly not doing that. As much as I do truly love them and as much as they are sincerely very important to this art form, we’ve been hearing how great and important the classic European arthouse and the mid-century Hollywood movies are for six decades now, and instead of broadening the idea of what constitutes the film canon, this poll instead continued to mostly reiterate what’s already been said, and where it did change things up it did so in largely reactive, confounding ways (see above bullet point). A larger pool of voters is mostly meaningless if they just end up reaching the same conclusions anyway. It’s not about the size of the pool, it’s about being selective in a conscious, intelligent way.
Jean-Paul Belmondo and Jean Seberg in Breathless
  • The Criterioncore-ification of the polls. Whatever issues I may have with what made the cut or who got to vote, I think this is actually my biggest concern arising from the poll. Right now on the Criterion Channel streaming service, there is a thematic grouping of over 50 films that are advertised as appearing on the Sight & Sound poll, which coincides (intentionally or not) with a holiday sale on the Criterion Collection website. Personally speaking, I own over 70 movies on Blu-ray from Criterion, a lot of which are among my favorites ever, and some of which even show up on the poll, on top of being an ongoing subscriber to their channel. Clearly I appreciate their service a lot, they provide a solution to a problem I’m interested in solving, namely trying to watch classic and foreign movies. This is not an issue; the issue comes when this retail brand begins to monopolize and become synonymous with an artistic canon. I don’t want to ascribe insidious intentions to them, after all the foresight needed for Janus Films (Criterion’s parent company) to try and engineer this monopolization from way back in the ‘50s when they acquired distribution rights to the films of Kurosawa, Fellini, Bergman, and a number of the other postwar arthouse directors would be supernatural. What it speaks to instead, rather, is a problem that has faced the film industry since its inception: accessibility of distribution. Consider in relation to the above bullet point that Satyajit Ray (who makes the list) is the most represented Indian director in the Criterion Collection, that Abbas Kiarostami is the most represented Iranian director, Edward Yang is the most represented Taiwanese director, and so on. As I mentioned earlier Godard’s ‘60s films are heavily represented in the list at the expense of his later work, and the exact same is true in the Criterion Collection. Criterion oversaw a big restoration effort and box set release of all of Agnes Varda’s films after her death a few years ago, and she subsequently increases her standing in this poll. Parasite and Portrait of a Lady on Fire received Criterion editions shortly after their release, in a shorthand way legitimizing them as Important Cinema. Again, the point is not that they’re the bad guys for doing these things, this is not a case of Criterion lobbying for votes or something ridiculous, they would be doing these things regardless of how many of their movies end up in the big poll. But peoples voting habits can only reflect what they’ve seen, and their viewing habits can only reflect what’s available, and Criterion has been eminently available for a while. The absence of Hong Kong films on the poll is just as much a consequence of the pool of voters as it is the notorious difficulty of actually acquiring Hong Kong movies. That would be the clearest example of a difficult market to get access to, but the same could be said of Chinese or African or South American films, when French and Italian and American movies are the ones that are a few clicks away it’s no wonder that they’re the ones that make up the bulk of a poll like this. It’s a good thing that Janus doesn’t have ownership on all this distribution, but since there aren’t a number of equivalents taking up that cause in a comparable scale, things will inevitably fall through the cracks and lose their broader prominence.

I could get into further nitpicks with this, but the reality is that nobody is ever going to be fully satisfied with this kind of endeavor, which is a good thing, it should start discussions and get people to think about what an artistic canon should look like in the future. But like I mentioned earlier, I think this is mostly an inoffensive, quality list to start with for someone trying to get serious about watching movies. Key word there is “start,” as there’s a lot, lot more out there than these 100 that should be seen and appreciated.

--

--

Jake Dihel

recreationally writing about movies and other media