Why the Sight and Sound Poll Doesn’t Matter – And Why It Does

Thoughts from 2012 on ‘the greatest films of all time’ and the odd outliers of the Sight and Sound poll that year as we await the 2022 results.

As we await the results of the 2022 Sight and Sound ‘Greatest Films’ poll, here’s a piece from 2012, written in response to the reactions to the last once-a-decade critical listing. No doubt this year’s poll will cause even more discussion – and we’ll be part of that tomorrow, once it has been released and explored. But the points made here will still, I suspect, be as valid as ever – unless Back to the Future suddenly swoops in to claim the top spot.

So, it’s finally all over for another decade. Sight and Sound’s once-every-ten-year poll of critics and filmmakers to determine the Greatest Film of All Time was announced on August 1st – at least the top fifty titles – and the big news was that perennial chart-topper Citizen Kane, having clung doggedly onto the top spot since 1962, was finally dethroned by young whippersnapper Vertigo. This morning (August 16th, the full list was released online – the top 250 titles, plus a list of every film voted for and individual critic lists.

It’s a sign of how highly regarded both S&S and the BFI are that this poll made headlines around the world and, as the first such poll of the social network age, saw the BFI website grind to a halt as the world stopped banging on about the Olympics and tweeted the results. Comments ranged from the celebratory to the facile (lots of hilarious ‘I can’t believe that [insert dreadful film of your choice] didn’t win’ comments) to the angry – the latter generally railing against the perceived snobbery of the critics who voted for a bunch of whiskery (nothing in the Top Ten made after 1968) and chin-strokingly arty films.

I can understand those frustrations. As a younger film buff, the S&S polls I was aware of (pretty much the last three) would leave me shocked and appalled too. The omnipresence of Kane at the top spot for one, smacking as it did of critical laziness… the blatant snobbery of the critics, then very much dominated by an old guard who sneered at genre and commerciality.

Yet now, in an age where glossy, populist film magazines and blogs dominate, fixated on the mainstream, plastering the latest bloated Hollywood blockbuster across the cover and running readers polls where the ‘best film ever!’ is usually deemed to be either Star Wars or whatever recent release has caught the fleeting attention of the readers (if Empire runs a poll before Christmas, I’d expect The Dark Knight Rises to be the winner), Sight and Sound actually seems a vital, essential alternative – one that still appreciates quality over hype, and where the people taking part in a poll generally take the not unreasonable view that a film needs to stand the test of time before it can be considered one of the greats. I’m actually down with that.

And this year, Sight and Sound made a considerable effort to broaden their scope, acknowledging the new generation of critics who might not write for lofty magazines or important newspapers, might not be authoring academic studies of film culture – but who are still important voices. So instead of the 144 polled in 2002, they asked 1000 critics, of which 846 (your editor included) responded. More inclusive, yes – but did it affect the result at all? Well, obviously it did – but to how much is open to question.

Sure, Kane has been toppled – but it was a close call between the top two last time around (five votes in it), so there’s no saying that wouldn’t have happened anyway. And the rest of the poll – the Top Ten certainly, the Top Fifty only slightly less – contain no real surprises. Given that the most excitement was caused by Man with a Movie Camera – a silent Russian avant-garde documentary – crashing the Top Ten and the fact that the most recent film in the Top ten was 2001 – A Space Odyssey (made in 1968), it can hardly be said that a revolution took place.

However, if the top ten – and even the top fifty or top one hundred – doesn’t seem to contain any shocks, the sheer number of films voted for does at least show an impressively wide spread of opinion. As we go down the list, things become more interesting. There are many films I was genuinely pleased to see making the grade – some not obvious critical darlings, others movies that you fear might have faded from memory. Chris Marker’s La Jetee squeezing into the top 50 is most welcome and Chelsea Girls at 202 is a welcome surprise, as is Pasolini’s Salo in the same position. I wish films like Celine and Julie Go Boating, Annie Hall and Hiroshima Mon Amour (all joint 127) had done better, but there you go.

The fact that The Texas Chain Saw Massacre – frequently voted by critics as one of, if not the best horror films ever made is at 183 perhaps tells us a lot about ongoing critical attitudes to horror films (Psycho aside, the highest-placed horror movie is Nosferatu at 117). Still, Texas Chain Saw is joint-placed alongside films like Eraserhead, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, Faces, Paris Texas, A Touch of Zen and The Conversation, all with 9 votes each – so it’s in good company.

But let’s not pretend that the Top Ten – or even Top 250 – represents a critical consensus. Obviously, it doesn’t, and I doubt anyone at S&S would suggest otherwise. The point is this – Vertigo won with 191 votes, which is a decent number – but it means that the vast majority of voters (655) didn’t even think it was among the ten best films. In the end, 2045 different films were voted for. Apart from the odd critic making a point, taking the piss or just having a love for something that no one really gets (The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has at least one devoted fan it turns out!), it has to be assumed that most of those films were genuinely thought to be the best/greatest/their favourite (which are, of course, three different things) films of all time. The reason why the full list is worth ploughing through is because this is where you will find the oddities, the curios… the movies that slipped under the radar but found a handful of devoted fans. It’s where you’ll find interesting films you haven’t seen, but probably should. I’m not saying all these films will be good, which of course is a very subjective thing anyway; but I do suspect that all are films that genuine movie lovers – and not just the people who consider themselves film buffs because they go to the cinema twice a week but who haven’t seen anything more than 25 years old apart from Star Wars (ten votes) and Jaws (five votes) – should be interested in seeking out.

In the end, The Sight and Sound poll isn’t any more a definitive statement of what is or isn’t great than any other poll. But it does have a role to play, and if helps point a few people towards older, black-and-white, subtitled or ‘difficult’ films, then that’s a good thing. An important thing. If some of the more eccentric choices encourage people to check out fascinating, brilliant, bizarre or demented films like The Act of Seeing with One’s Own Eyes, Scorpion Thunderbolt or La Grande Bouffe, all the better. There is over a century of cinema out there waiting to be seen, and no one should be restricting themselves to whatever the local multiplex or arthouse has to offer. There are more movies available to be seen, and more ways to see them, than ever before. If polls like this encourage people to discuss, debate and simply watch more of those films, then they are not entirely meaningless.

Check out the full 2012 poll, a complete list of films voted for and individual critics lists here. Check out my own votes (only six of which made the top 250 and two of which received no other votes) here. And check in tomorrow for our thoughts on the 2022 poll and the personal nature of ‘the greatest films of all time’.


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