Such is the change of this year’s Sight and Sound Poll, I feel that I have to write this in two parts – firstly a discussion of the results and secondly a contemplation of the absurdity of choosing just ten films that you think are the ‘best’. Let’s deal with the most argumentative part of this and dive into the poll itself first – I’ll be back to talk about my own choices and to pick through some of the more interesting voting choices for films that didn’t make the Hot 100 once it has been made public.
You can check out the Top 100 here:
So the long-awaited 2022 Sight and Sound poll is finally here -and the battle to see which established classic is the greatest film of all time has been resolved for another ten years with the triumph of… erm… Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles.
Well, no one – apart from the critics who possibly connived behind the scenes to push this three-hour Belgian feminist drama from 1975, previously at number 35 on the chart, to the top spot – saw that coming. Perhaps we should’ve, though – if ever the system was going to be gamed, it was the 2022 poll, coming as it did when we are still caught up in a world where art becomes political and every form of culture must be seen through the eyes of intersectionality. More pointedly, it’s a world where social media means that no one’s vote was necessarily going to be entirely secret and private – if people wanted to campaign for a certain film, they were going to do so. It also represents the cinematic triumph of content over form – the visual innovations and cinematic spectacle that once meant so much now giving way to flatly filmed documentary realism and social observation. With more voters – and more young and diverse voters – change was inevitable of course, but this doesn’t quite feel like the democratisation that was planned. After all, the poll has replaced two films – Citizen Kane and Vertigo – that are not just critical favourites but also hugely popular with the public* with a movie that even many film writers and cineastes have not seen and which has – despite a recent surge of love from film academics – been a lot less accessible than its rivals (the BFI have now added the film to their Player but previously it was only available as a costly US Criterion edition).
The surprise of the first place perhaps overwhelms the fascinating shifts and business as usual in what had long been a fairly predictable poll. More recent films are included, and I have conflicting feelings about that. On the one hand, it’s good to see that there is no longer a critical consensus that films stopped being good at a certain point (well, apart from in my votes – but more on that anon); on the other, there is the nagging feeling that in a once-a-decade poll, films should have at least stood the test of a little bit of time before being declared ‘the greatest’. Otherwise, it becomes just another poll where the Bestest Ever is whatever is the flavour of the month. The whole point of the Sight and Sound poll is that it is more considered and less subject to the whims of fashion. If that changes, it loses whatever significance it has and becomes just another fleeting popularity contest.
More depressingly, we might also note the continued absence of horror, science fiction** and comedy – the latter seeming to be even more critically disregarded than horror – and the fixation with tedious realism over the fantastic, something that the top place very much represents. The new breed of film critics, it seems, are no more gripped with a ‘sense of wonder’ than their elders and instead want to see the everyday dullness of life – or, more pointedly, the lives of the little people who they pretend to be part of but actually know nothing about. Nothing appeals to the middle classes more than working-class misery and ‘serious’ cinema – a definition that, even now, excludes much genre work. The extension of the voting franchise does not seem to have reduced the cultural snobbery all that much – it’s just redirected it slightly.
Of course, it might be that no one actually thought that Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles is the greatest film ever made. The stumbling block of the poll is that you vote for ten films and those votes are all treated equally – there is no hierarchy in that list. For all we know, there might simply have lots of people in the poll who thought that the film was the tenth greatest ever made. That’s also true of Vertigo or Citizen Kane – which, after a while, seemed to win out of critical laziness more than anything (it’s hard thinking of ten movies and the temptation might be to make up the numbers with the classics) – or any other winner. All we really know from this poll is that more people have voted for this film in their top ten than any other title – and just how many people that actually is remains to be seen. If previous polls are anything to go by, it will be a small number of the overall voters. So it’s not really an exact science.
We might think, ultimately, that the idea of crowning one film, out of the millions that by now exist, as the ‘greatest’ is a mad folly in itself. If you haven’t seen Jeanne Dielman, then how do you know that it isn’t the best? But equally, unless you’ve seen everything, how do you know that it is? For all we know, the greatest film ever made is out there unnoticed by critics, awaiting a moment of discovery that might never arrive. Nevertheless, the result has understandably raised eyebrows. Defenders of the result have talked about opening up the discourse. Critic Anton Bitel said “If you have never heard of the film that got the highest number of nominations from the 1600+ contributing critics (and that was in the Top 50 a decade ago), well you have now. This is critical advocacy at work, doing exactly what it should do.” Well, that’s fair enough, if a touch condescending. But why stop at a film that was already in the top 50? If you really want to expand film knowledge amongst filmgoers and film critics alike, why not advocate for the ignored or forgotten movies that remain critically and culturally unloved rather than a film that was already in the top half of the poll, beloved of the film theorists? If you want to champion a pioneering female filmmaker, why not boost the work of Ida Lupino (still somewhat overlooked as a director), Doris Wishman or Roberta Findlay, who made highly individualistic movies in a genre and at a time when being a female filmmaker was both unusual and difficult? If Wishman seems a step too far, what about Monika Treut, Valie Export or Beth B? There are plenty of other women – genre filmmakers, experimentalists, provocateurs or even shamelessly commercial filmmakers – who could and should be advocated for. If people wanted to promote a female director whose film was already in the chart and so a likelier contender, giving the boost to Věra Chytilová’s Daisies – a rather more daring exploration of feminism and individual freedom that flew in the face of an oppressive political regime – would’ve been more interesting… and perhaps more overtly political if we were treating this once-a-decade poll as a statement about now***. But Chytilová’s film remains a bit too difficult, a bit too out there for a lot of critics. In that sense, Jeanne Dielman is a much safer bet. Director Chantal Akerman was hardly an outsider – she was part of the European film establishment and her work is very much the sort of thing that chin-stroking critics and theorists who think that they are smarter than you have long adored. It strikes me that ultimately, voting for this movie has not quite the revolutionary move that some seem to think it is. The result may be a kick in the teeth for the whiskery film critic establishment from the young Turks – but if the aim was to make the poll appear less elitist, then replacing a mainstream thriller with a ponderous and little-known social drama must surely count as a massive fail.
Anyway, the campaign for Let Me Die a Woman to reach the top slot in 2032 begins here.
* I’m aware that this is a generational assumption. These are both old movies and there will be increasing numbers of people – film writers included – who have never seen them, and if they have, are not dazzled by techniques now long since absorbed into the everyday. That said, Jeanne Dielman is also nearly 50 years old. For audiences disinclined to watch anything older than they are, it seems an unlikely viewing choice.
** Film directors have been slightly less snobby in their less publicised BFI poll – they have voted 2001 A Space Odyssey into the top slot.
*** Daisies sits at #28 on the list, which isn’t bad. And I voted for it, so I did my bit.
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