I’ve said it about the movie lists that I make, I’ve said it about the AFI lists and other like bodies, I’ve said it about awards shows. The value in a list or a ranking of movies is about what the people making the lists want to tell you about themselves. How do they want to present themselves? In the case of the still unknown number of people who voted in this latest Sight and Sound poll, it’s difficult to say from individual to individual and probably useless to psychoanalyze the people who have shared their ballots. What we can do is to look at the group and decide what the group at large, the body of critics who submitted their ten films, has shown us about itself.
I’ve decided to look at ten movies in this top 100 for right now and talk about them as statements of what’s new since 2012, what’s the same, what they have to tell us about the state of movie criticism, and what that says about the corpus of 1,600 critics who granted us this new version of canon.
1 / Beau Travail, directed by Claire Denis, #7 — The Jump
Of all the movies that were in the top 100 in 2012, no film made a bigger jump than Beau Travail. It came in at 78 in 2012, and now it’s seventh, where The Searchers was ten years ago. If not for Jeanne Dielman becoming the new top-ranked movie in this poll, there’d almost certainly be more conversation about how this is the second-highest a movie directed by a woman has ever gotten on this list. It’s far from the biggest jump that any movie made to get onto the list this year; if you don’t include the eight brand new films, Beau Travail is just twelfth. The reason why this interests me is because it’s an absolute coagulation of a film that was already solidly canonical. The comparison I’d make is to Tokyo Story, which got enough votes for recognition in 1962 (six…cannot overstate how much bigger the field is now) but didn’t really cement itself as a decade-in, decade-out contender for greatest movie ever made until 1992, when it finished third. Again, other people will talk about Jeanne Dielman and what that means, and maybe eventually I’ll get there myself, but I have this gut feeling that no movie will ever repeat at the top of this poll again. In 2032, my guess is we’re talking about how Jeanne Dielman fell, but we may well be talking about how Beau Travail rose.
2 / Man with a Movie Camera, directed by Dziga Vertov, #9 — The Survivor
In 2012, there was one movie in the top 100 from the 1910s. There were nine movies from the 1920s, including three in the top ten. In 2022, the movie with the highest rank and oldest age is Man with a Movie Camera, repeating as the highest-ranked documentary in the poll. Sunrise and The Passion of Joan of Arc have both fallen out of the top ten, with Sunrise edged out at 11 and Joan tied for 21st. Greed, which rose all the way to fourth in 1962, is out of the top 100; so is Un chien andalou, one of the foundational documents of surrealism as an art movement. Two caveats here. First, that the Sight and Sound poll has historically been pretty open to newer movies. Bicycle Thieves was named the greatest movie of all time in 1952, a scant four years after it premiered. L’Avventura was called the second-greatest movie of all time in 1962, fewer than eighteen months after its release. (There’s been some hubbub about a movie we’ll talk about later, yes, you know what it is already. Without stepping on that movie’s toes too much, I think the five-decade entrenchment of Citizen Kane at the top of the list has made people think about this poll as being much more stolid than it actually is.) Second, that as the number of films increases, the likelihood that we lose movies from distant decades to make room for movies from more recent times is just part of doing business.
All the same, seeing Man with a Movie Camera as the only silent film in the top 10 is sobering. Only one silent movie moved up from 2012; Sherlock, Jr. rose five spots. Every other 1920s film from the 2012 poll dropped, and in some cases precipitously. Two of the three biggest drops for films that maintained a top 100 spot were silents. We’re coming up on the centenary of The Jazz Singer, which is generally given as the first talkie, and I wonder if it’s possible for modern critics and programmers, even the most sophisticated modern critics and programmers, have the capability to feel something about a silent film which is not just awe at the technical proficiency or intellectual bona fides of the film. I’m not innocent here. When I did my mock Sight and Sound ballot in May, I included Battleship Potemkin. (I guess Koyaanisqatsi is technically a “silent film,” though I don’t know that anyone leaps to define it that way.) When I ranked my top 250 American movies this summer, I called Sherlock, Jr. the greatest of American silent films. I am so curious to see where other silent films, especially non-Chaplin, non-Keaton, and non-Eisenstein numbers, come in as we receive more information about the voting. Will there be any in the top 250 this time around? I wonder what Kevin Brownlow would say.
3 / Singin’ in the Rain, directed by Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly, #10 — The Symbol
Once again, American cinema fairly dominated the Sight and Sound list. As in 2012, thirty-four American pictures (give or take a 2001) made the top 100, and while it’s the first time since 1952 that an American movie didn’t top the poll, American movies (give or take a 2001) still hold down five of the top ten spots. The filmic Yanks are doing fine for themselves. Why I’m bringing up Singin’ in the Rain, which is making its third appearance in the top ten since 1982 (when it was third!), is because I wonder if it’s becoming metonymic as we get further from Technicolor Hollywood. Casablanca, which jumped twenty-one places from 2012 to 2022, is another good example here. The congestion that’s created by the march of time means that it’s harder to build the representation into these lists that (I’m going to guess, and we’ll see if I’m proved right when ballots are released) a lot of people are drawn to building. If you want to include a classic Hollywood film, it seems likely that Singin’ in the Rain and/or Casablanca got that nudge. Given that there are no longer any movies by William Wyler, Howard Hawks, or post-Citizen Kane Orson Welles on this list, and that no films by Nicholas Ray or Vincente Minnelli or Clarence Brown or George Stevens have leapt up to replace them, Singin’ in the Rain might well be this flag bearer for a time and place. (Blasphemously, I think this is kind of a soporific choice to represent that era! I’ll show myself out.)
4 / Cleo from 5 to 7, directed by Agnès Varda, #14 — The REALLY BIG Jump
Lois Weber, Dorothy Arzner, and Alice Guy-Blaché are all still waiting for their moments in the Sight and Sound spotlight; Lina Wertmuller is not in this top 100 either. But like Chantal Akerman, who has two movies in the top 100, Varda also strikes twice, with Cleo and The Gleaners and I. Depending on your genre definition of Godard’s Histoires du cinema, which is one heck of a definition to try to unravel, that might make Varda the only director to have a fiction and non-fiction film in the poll. In any event, Varda now has the highest-rated film of the nouvelle vague to her credit, as well as the movie that made the biggest jump from 2012 to 2022. In 2012, Cleo was in a tie for 202nd place. Now it’s alone at fourteenth, a 188-spot rise that is greater than any other movie made over ten years. I don’t know that this is a symbolic choice; in fact, I’d wager that this has a lot of genuine passion behind it considering how many other Varda films are deserving of this kind of consideration. But it’s emblematic of the group that rose the most from 2012 to 2022.
Here’s the list of directors who made the films that moved up 100 spots or more: Varda, Jane Campion, Vera Chytilova, Charles Burnett, Barbara Loden, Hayao Miyazaki, Martin Scorsese, Spike Lee. For those of you keeping track at home, that’s one white guy, and even then Goodfellas is almost a one-for-one replacement for Raging Bull, which ranked fifty-third in 2012 and was the third-highest movie to drop from the top 100. Otherwise, it’s women and people of color. This is clearly a different electorate than 2012, which, of course, was the point. I’m not Jordan Ruimy, whose article on this subject I’m not linking to, and I don’t think that this is some kind of plot to make sure that everyone is needlessly inclusive and thus the truly deserving films are knocked out. I do think it’s a case where if you get ballots from almost twice as many people as you did in 2012, and that a number of those people are, fittingly, not just white guys, then yeah, you’re likely to see different movies rise and fall.
5 / Meshes of the Afternoon, directed by Maya Deren and Alexander Hammid, #16 — The Short
Shorter even than Un chien andalou, Meshes of the Afternoon is now the shortest film to have ever climbed so high in the Sight and Sound poll. Zéro de conduite, back when Jean Vigo was still fashionable, was a popular choice in the early years of the poll, albeit one that’s almost three times as long as Meshses; Un chien andalou, which is a couple minutes fatter than Meshes, has had its moments. But this one, a smidgen under fourteen minutes long, has risen higher than any film of its length. Perhaps Meshes of the Afternoon is “The Dead” of short narrative film, created so vividly and perfectly that even a story with more substance pales in comparison to it. There’s some credence to the idea that this one is exceptional, since Un chien andalou has fallen out of the top 100, Zéro de conduite has been absent from this class for years now, and La jetée has dropped some since 2012. Like Jeanne Dielman, which had obvious support beforehand, there were some clues that Meshes was likely to gain some support on this poll. I’m thinking of the 2015 poll from the BBC which put Meshes of the Afternoon fortieth in a list of American movies, directly in front of Rio Bravo and Dr. Strangelove.
6 / Daisies, directed by Vera Chytilova, #28 — The Breakthrough
That was my first thought when I saw Daisies on this list, which, reasonably, is above Rashomon in the poll. It’s the third-highest climber of any movie that made the top 250 in 2012, eclipsed only by the aforementioned Cleo from 5 to 7 and The Piano, and there were certainly plenty of clues that it’d move up substantially. It’s really available in a way I’m sure it was not twenty or thirty years ago. It’s been getting a bunch of retrospectives. It has come to represent the Czech New Wave more than any other movie of the period. Maybe Criterion releases are not the best way to think about a movie’s representation, but given this voting body, I don’t think it’s such a bad place to start. Daisies was first released by Criterion as part of their Eclipse Series package “Pearls of the Czech New Wave.” Now it’s the only one of those five which has an individual spine number. Again, the point is not to defame a great movie, which Daisies most certainly is. I mostly wonder, as I wonder about the placements of Night of the Hunter and A Matter of Life and Death, if good recent restorations can have a serious effect on a poll such as this one.
7 / Portrait of a Lady on Fire, directed by Céline Sciamma, #30
8 / L’Atalante, directed by Jean Vigo, #34
— The French
Get Out oughta thank its lucky stars that Portrait of a Lady on Fire jumped onto this list at 30, ahead of a tie at 31: 8 1/2, Mirror, and Psycho. Otherwise I think there’d be way more pushback for it. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Portrait of a Lady on Fire is the highest-rated film of the 2010s by this poll, and the closest corollaries for it that I can find are probably In the Mood for Love and Mulholland Drive. Even though both of those movies were skipped by their initial poll, they both landed in the top thirty in 2012, and now both are top ten. Maybe Portrait is on its way for that kind of canonical enshrinement. This is a topic that other people have gotten into and will get into and will absolute chew into cud, so I’ll leave it for them. What is so funny about Portrait of a Lady on Fire, to me, is that it leads a new wave, hyuk hyuk, of canonical French films into the Sight and Sound poll.
In 2012, with 101 movies represented, there were twenty-two French movies in the nominal Top 100. In 2022, with 100 movies represented, there are twenty-one French movies represented. In the past two polls, France has ensured that at least half the poll is either French or American; these are the only two nations with double-digit entries in either year. Anyway, you might think that there’d be a lot of overlap between the French movies of 2012 and the French movies of 2022, and you’d only be wrong in spirit to think so. I’ve uploaded the dropped/added films for the French, and likewise the dropped/added films for the Americans. Pink means dropped, blue means it was in the 101-250 range in 2012, green means it is brand new. Compared to the Americans, you can see the trend.
The dropped French films, on average, came out in 1946. The new French films, on average, came out in 1986. It’s less stark for the Americans; the average dropped film came out in 1957, where the average added one came out in 1983. And the Americans lost ten different directors and added ten different directors…unless you want to say that they added nine and dropped nine given the Raging Bull–Goodfellas thing. The French dropped five and added four, which means that the French representatives on the Sight and Sound list are more compressed than they were the previous year; given the release dates of the films that were added and dropped, there’s been a change in the types of French movies that the critics value. Classic French cinema from the 1940s and before has been pared down. According to the Sight and Sound poll, it is now represented by The Passion of Joan of Arc, L’Atalante, and The Rules of the Game, all of which have dropped nine places or more from 2012. Marcel Carné has been in the top 10, and now has been eliminated from the top 100. Jean Renoir has been essentialized. To me, the fact that Grand Illusion is no longer in the top 100 is far more shocking than the demotion of The Godfather Part II or Wild Strawberries. Made between the wars, it is perhaps an even sharper document of the European upper-class than The Rules of the Game, but perhaps it’s outdated now like Children of Paradise appears to be outdated, a statement of a broader France that no longer exists. I mean, shoot, I prefer Portrait of a Lady on Fire to L’Atalante, but it is really fascinating that Portrait is on a rocket while L’Atalante is, presumably, sticking in the mud a little bit.
You can see this shift happening in other countries too, although it’s less pronounced because there are fewer examples to pull from. South Korea and Thailand are here in the top 100 for the first time via Parasite and Tropical Malady, both 21st Century films. New Zealand has arrived with The Piano from 1993. Meanwhile, Italian film and Russian film have both stayed more or less the same. No Italian film later than 1968 has broken through; there are technically no Russian films on this list, only Soviet ones. On the whole, this shift towards newer pictures, which mathematically tends towards movies by women, in the West, people of color, means that we’re getting a lot of the same sources while changing the individuals providing those sources. One of the great snubs in this top 100, and I do mean that with the implication that someone else has her spot, is the Argentinian Lucrecia Martel. None of Luis Bunuel’s films are here, including his significant store of Mexican pictures. Carlos Reygadas is not here. Nor did Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma slip in despite age not being a factor for the critics who brought In the Mood for Love, Mulholland Drive to the top ten and Portrait of a Lady on Fire and Parasite to this list. Cuba is absent, and so is the rest of the Caribbean; Glauber Rocha and the Brazilian contingent he leads have been shut out. The canon is reevaluating France, which is well and good, but there has been a lot of energy expended to reevaluate France or the American studio system with very little passion to evaluate the Western Hemisphere sans the United States.
9 / Rear Window, directed by Alfred Hitchcock, #38 (tie) — The Mirror
Rear Window jumped fifteen spots from 2012 to 2022, and is a member of a group of risers which are focused on cinematic recursivity. In other words, you can tell which critics have gone to grad school. Here I’m interested less in movies brand new to the list or brand new to the top 100, and more interested in films which rose which are movies about movies, moviemaking, etc. Offhand:
Ali: Fear Eats the Soul is so closely connected to All That Heaven Allows that it’s undoubtedly part of every critic’s mindset when s/he watches it. Close-Up skirts the line between documentary and fiction with a deftness that scarcely any other film can claim; I wouldn’t say it’s Abbas Kiarostami’s most affecting work, but with the possible exception of Certified Copy it’s the most intellectually rigorous. If you’ve seen Mulholland Drive you know what I mean and if you haven’t, meet me behind Winkie’s Diner. Singin’ in the Rain is special not just because it spoofs the fraught transition to sound, but because of the sequence where Gene Kelly makes movie magic by lifting the curtain for Debbie Reynolds and for all of us in the auditorium. And Sherlock, Jr., despite being almost one hundred years old and thus a little fragile by the standards of the ’22 poll, is all about believing you’re a character on the screen and how things might change or be altered by your presence there. Rear Window is the granddaddy of this group, surely, the first one in the group that looks at the way cinema might be a malefic presence, or at least not so benign and exciting as the possibilities of Singin’ in the Rain would invite us to believe. Truly, there may not be another film in the American cinema which understands the horror of looking, the dehumanization of the gaze in all its fetishistic wonder, until Blue Velvet. Rear Window, a psychoanalytic dream just as much as Meshes of the Afternoon, is showing how even an older film can continue to rise in the eyes of the critics, just as a Hollywood movie at the Oscars tends to do pretty well for itself.
10 / L’Avventura, directed by Michelangelo Antonioni, #72 (tie) — The Has-Been
One of my favorite sight gags in any movie I’ve ever seen is in The Squid and the Whale, where Jeff Daniels says that one of the people working at the hospital looks just like Monica Vitti. It’s kind of an eye-rolling statement until Baumbach lets us see her for herself, and damn if that young woman doesn’t look just like Monica Vitti.
Michelangelo Antonioni and Ingmar Bergman were not similar filmmakers in much the same way that John Adams and Thomas Jefferson were not similar politicians. Yet they’ve been tied together by cosmic circumstance in identical fashion, for Antonioni and Bergman worked in the same era and then happened to die on the same day. July 30, 2007 was for modern cinema as July 4, 1826 was for the new American nation. Two men who had been instrumental in shaping how we thought of the very concept bodily left that concept forever. But it wasn’t until December 1st, 2022 that Antonioni, Bergman, Parajanov, and Bunuel died, and perhaps on a similar day in 2032, Bresson and Dreyer will all but join them. Antonioni had two films on the list in 2012, lost L’eclisse in 2022, and L’Avventura fell more than fifty spots from ’12 to ’22. Ingmar Bergman had four films on the list in 2012, and Persona is now the only survivor. It drops only one spot, from a tie at 17 to sole possession of 18, but Fanny and Alexander is gone, as well as the fruits of his 1957 annus mirabilis, Wild Strawberries and The Seventh Seal. The Color of Pomegranates is surely in that 101-250 range, but it’s not here anymore. Luis Bunuel, one of the foremost arthouse directors of all time, no longer has any film in the top 100. Robert Bresson has lost Pickpocket, A Man Escaped is teetering on the edge of exclusion from the top 100, and Au hasard Balthazar has dropped. Similarly, Dreyer has lost Gertrud, the second-highest film from the 2012 100 not to appear in the 2022 100, The Passion of Joan of Arc is no longer even a top-20 entry, and Ordet is hanging on with its dead/alive fingernails at the edge of the top 50. Even Andrei Tarkovsky, the synecdoche for “European arthouse” in Letterboxd, Film Twitter, and film shitposting parlance alike, wasn’t immune. All three of his films on the 2012 list have persisted to 2022, but all of them dropped at least twelve spots.
This is probably a topic that could fill a very long magazine supplement or a short book, but I wonder what it says that this genus of Euroexistentialist filmmaking no longer has the same kind of support from the critics’ poll. (The directors’ poll, which I confess I have barely looked at, is much kinder to this group on the whole. There are two Antonionis, two Dreyers, four Bressons, four Bergmans, and a Bunuel there.) Are critics over it? Is it neither sufficiently intellectual nor sufficiently entertaining? Does it all smack of an era we’re trying to prove to ourselves that we’ve left? (Is it perhaps that no one wants to be the arrogant picture of toxic masculinity that Jeff Daniels plays so well in The Squid and the Whale? I’m sorry. I said I wouldn’t psychoanalyze, but I’ve been really well-behaved this post and I think I deserve a little treat.) Everyone returns to their priors when they look for reasons why things change, and mine tends to be about the misapprehensions and misgivings that modern critics tend to have about religious films. Bergman, Bresson, Parajanov, Dreyer, and Tarkovsky are perhaps best understood through a religious lens, or at the very least a spiritual one. Antonioni and Bunuel are the mirror image, understood well when they’re put in opposition to a religious-signifying elite. How can Ordet or Au hasard Balthazar or Andrei Rublev resonate fully without some appreciation of their religious text? Do Antonioni’s films make as much sense if you don’t care about the way that Catholicism’s grip on Italian culture was loosening, or Bunuel’s for Catholicism in Spain and Mexico, or Bergman’s for Lutheranism on Sweden, or Parajanov for Armenia’s specific brand of Christianity under the Soviet bootheel? Perhaps this helps to explain why Terrence Malick, who many observers expected to see make the top 100, didn’t crack the list, or why the more spiritually questioning Raging Bull yielded to Goodfellas.
I like this new list pretty well, and there are so many titles that I’m excited to see get their place in the sun. That coexists with an uneasiness I feel with the ’22 results, because I can’t help but hear this faint echo in them that I frequently hear scrolling through Twitter or clicking through Letterboxd. It sounds a little bit like Charles Ryder after he leaves Brideshead for what he is sure will be the last time: “‘I have left behind illusion,’ I said to myself. ‘Henceforth I live in a world of three dimensions – with the aid of my five senses.'”