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Film Obsessive Takes on the 2022 Sight & Sound Greatest Films Poll

Photo: Criterion Collection.

As we reported last week, Sight and Sound’s eighth decennial critics’ poll selecting the 100 Greatest Films of All Time brought out some changes, not only at the top of the list, where Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles replaced Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, but throughout. New films and directors appeared for the first time, some shooting up the list, while others fell precipitously in or from the rankings. Our staff has been obsessing over the 2022 Sight & Sound poll results and the fervent discourse they’ve generated. Here’s our take!

On the new “Greatest Film of All Time,” Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles …

Delphine Seyrig sits in her kitchen and drinks from a glass in eanne Dielman, 23 Commerce Quay, 1080 Brussels
Delphine Seyrig in Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles. Photo: The Criterion Collection.

: Many have argued that the list is kowtowing to contemporary mores and social standards of political correctness by elevating films by women and non-whites. This is a perspective we should acknowledge but perhaps ought to waste little time on. Films originating from women and non-white sources have traditionally been shut out of the historical canon, in preference to the auteurist canon of Hollywood and European films, the “classic” era of filmmaking where the industry was at its economic peak, and its peak of homogeneity, suffering from strict national censorship and almost exclusively white male authorship. The writers of Cahiers and their ilk established the precedent for what “worthy” films and their makers look like, in most cases, like themselves. The inclusion of contemporary films from more diverse sources may chafe with the personal biases the modern-day followers of such canons bring to such a list, and throw up some unpredictable results, but by striving to represent the full breadth of cinema as a global art form, they’re doing God’s work.

: Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles at the top of the list is a shock, I’ll admit, a bolt out of the blue I did not see coming! The Sight & Sound list has always skewed toward the canonical—while also doing a fair amount of work to codify that canon. Now let me say Jeanne Dielman is a great, great film. Like Welles had with Kane, the young director surrounded herself with her friends and contemporaries and made her own damn thing her own damn way, putting the tripod where she pleased (her own sleight eye-level height) and refusing to move it, even when her protagonist disappeared offscreen. Jeanne Dielman‘s refusal to kowtow to the conventions of plot-driven narrative or classical editing sequences is feminism itself. And the film is, if the very slowest of slow burns, an expressly cinematic experience.

So while my own choices for the Top 10 did not include Jeanne Dielman, favoring Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing for the #1 spot, I have no quibble at all with this new no. 1, just the fourth ever in the poll’s history. (For the record, though, I likely would have listed it somewhere in the 20s or 30s, where it rested in the 2012 poll, with Larisa Shepitko’s The Ascent and a couple of other female-directed films in front of it.) It’s a well-deserved honor for Akerman and her accomplishment and will surely drive more and more people to see the film. And its placement is all the more likely to stir even further healthy debate about “what kind of film” should be called “The Greatest of All Time.”

: Ever since Paul Schrader made his intriguing Facebook post about what Jeanne Dielman’s #1 crowning meant for the shifting trends in film discourse over the past ten years, I’ve been thinking what exactly constitutes the “historical continuum” vs. the “politically correct rejiggering” he seems to blame for this new ranking, and I can’t help but come to the conclusion that they’re virtually the same thing: the latter is just the former seen through a less charitable light.

Yes, as he mentions, it’s difficult to deny that Jeanne Dielman is not just a great film (never has more than three hours of monotony been so infuriatingly memorable and jarring), but a deeply influential one. Its reshaping of the aesthetics of feminist cinema and its distinct thematic approaches to patriarchal repression is more than enough reason to place it so highly on this list, and the fact that the film has essentially won what amounts to the greatest popularity contest in film history, counted from the votes of over 1600 cinematic figures (about twice the amount of the last poll’s voters) should be enough for most people to realize that its growing popularity is reflective of how expanding the diversity of voters by a wide margin can lead to significant yet expected shifts in what kinds of films, from what kinds of filmmakers, are praised as “great” to begin with. As with all new developments in artistic spheres, this is not a manipulated appeal to the “PC woke”-types as the phrase “politically correct rejiggering” might suggest—if it was, Vertigo would probably have landed far, far lower on the list than just #2—but a natural process reflective of demographic changes, or in other words, a historical continuum.

Sure, it’s possible, as Schrader says, that this new #1 ranking may do the film no favors and lead it to it being remembered as a symbol of the “politically correct rejiggering” that he so plainly rejects, but it’s worth considering the specific kinds of people who we know will choose to remember this decade’s poll in such an uncharitable light, and how productive many of these people’s approach to seeing film really is once you take their other related opinions on cinema into consideration. The rampant commercialization of film as a medium has blinded many audiences to the diversity of film, but Jeanne Dielman‘s #1 spot is a rejection of that canonically entrenched homogeneity, and a deeply welcome change that will only grow on us over time. Perhaps Vertigo will overtake it once again within the next ten years, but the mark has been made, and there is no going back—all for the better, in my opinion!

On this year’s Top 10 …

Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung in In the Mood for Love.
Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung in In the Mood for Love. The Criterion Collection

: For the Top 10 to have remained as static as it otherwise did is remarkable given the jump of Jeanne Dielman into the #1 spot. Much of the Top 10 stayed the same, with Kane and Vertigo next and perennial choices Tokyo Story, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Man with a Movie Camera, and Sunrise (all richly deserving!) all remaining.But the presence of relative newcomers Wong Kar-Wai’s In the Mood for Love, David Lynch’s Mulholland Dr, and Claire Denis’ Beau Travail—all of them esoteric, nonconventional, moody, and allusive—is equally meaningful. If there is going to be greater change in the Top 10 (Jeanne Dielman aside), I think we’re more likely to see it in 2032. Even then, I don’t anticipate the top of the list to change as radically as the rest of it.

: Any of the next five films directly behind Jeanne Dielman from #2-#6 (Vertigo, Citizen Kane, Tokyo Story, In the Mood for Love, or 2001: A Space Odyssey) better fit the “best ever” profile. From my own (albeit more American) tastes, I’m a Casablanca (#63) or The Godfather (#12) kind of cinephile, but that’s why folks like me separate “best” from “favorite,” even when both descriptors could fit.

Christopher (Daniel Kaluuya) falls into a deep hypnotic state in GET OUT
Daniel Kaluuya in Get Out. Photo: Universal Pictures.

: I was surprised how many films from the last decade appeared: Get Out at #95, Parasite at #90, Moonlight at #60, Portrait of a Lady on Fire at #30. Critics tend to prefer to have some historical distance from the films they consider “the greatest of all time.” To give readers a sense of what I mean, a recent piece in the New York Times pointed out that no film younger than twenty-five-years old had made the cut since 1992 when 2001: A Space Odyssey entered the Top 10, where it has remained.

For a more global reach, [the list needs] something from Latin America! I was surprised none of Luis Buñuel’s Mexican films landed on the list (I shudder to think that The Exterminating Angel has lost its lacerating edge for younger voters). A film I saw only recently that I’ve been recommending to people is La Otra, a “horror noir” from the Golden Age of Mexican Cinema starring Dolores del Río in a double role. It’s as wonderfully melodramatic as Douglas Sirk’s Imitation of Life, which sits at #75, and I say this as someone who loves Sirk.

: If anything there’s too many sacred cows (and donkeys) milling around, taking up space, conspicuous by their irrelevance. I’m not usually one to pull my hair out over the inclusion of a film made from a perspective I don’t share, but I’d run that dismally infantile sad donkey movie out of here with a pitchfork.

I’ve personally seen only 80/100 of the films picked, with the most glaring omission being the new number one, along with some other guilty blind spots like Close Up (#17), Playtime (#23), Shoah, and Daisies (#27 and 28). But as far as those I have seen, I’ve not much cause for complaint. Au Hasard Balthazar, Breathless, Ordet, L’Avventura and 8 1/2 are all bores but I’m used to seeing them elevated and familiar with the arguments in their favor (for the record, I have zero issue with the inclusions of Passion of Joan of Arc, Pierrot le Fou, Blow Up, A Man Escaped or La Dolce Vita, they’re all much, much better films). There are some personal picks I’d never have left out myself, that acclaim continues to elude The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, my pick for number one, is a source of frustration I’m equally acclimated to. I’m sorry to see Bicycle Thieves fall so far, that’s a movie that hasn’t aged a day and that I don’t think anyone could argue against. I’d have liked to have seen a few more British films included too, If… being a notable exclusion in my opinion, as is The Cook the Thief His Wife and Her Lover, and though it’s much maligned these days, Gandhi really, really ought to be here. I’d also have thrown Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould, Das Boot, The Human Condition, Dog Day Afternoon and Ghost in the Shell onto my ballot.

Still though, there’s many films I love here and I’m glad to see included, some films I’m even surprised to see make the cut. I’m very fond of anything Miyazaki, and although I’d have put my vote in for Princess Mononoke, I’m glad to see both My Neighbour Totoro and Spirited Away included. Do the Right Thing should’ve been put on this list the moment it came out and it’s an absolute joy to see The Leopard and Daughters of the Dust included, they’re wonderful films and it’s nice to see them under the spotlight. I just rewatched Get Out the other night, and although I still prefer Nope, it’s a terrific movie and I’m glad to see it included.

Like it, 2019 releases Portrait of a Lady on Fire and Parasite drew some flack from conservative voices who felt it “too soon” to grant such recent releases into the prestigious listing. However, recency bias be damned, those two are the definition of “instant classics” and it’s healthy to have something fresh on the menu. After all, what’s the point of remaking this list every ten years if not to shake things up and add some new blood. Bicycle Thieves had only been out four years when it topped the first list in 1952! Sometimes you know a masterpiece when you see one!

Though the list is more ethnically and culturally diverse than ever, there are still exceptions. For example, it has been pointed out that not a single film from Latin America made the cut, with acclaimed films from Brazil, Mexico, Chile and Argentina all excluded. Brazil alone has 6 films in the Letterboxd Top 100 (three of which make the top 20).

: I’ll start with the statement that I don’t believe that it´s possible to name 100 greatest films, much less 10, let alone one greatest film in the world. Because by which criteria we compare Meshes of the Afternoon with The Godfather, or Spirited Away with Ordet. But still, these polls reveal some things. This year’s list shows the ongoing process of re-evaluation. Things are changing in the world, values and priorities are changing. Which of them come out to be permanent, or at least long-lasting, and which are just transient—we’ll probably see it from the next poll, in 2032. Without a doubt films by female directors (and/or about women) are represented to a much higher extent than in previous polls.

Apart from Jeanne Dielman, Claire Denis’ Beau Travail moved from 78th to 7th place. Portrait of a Lady on Fire is in the list. It was nice to see Daisies at the 28th place and Cléo from 5 to 7 at 14th place. Comparing this year’s poll results to the list from 2012, there are also few films I wish had stayed in the top 100. One of them is Parajanov´s The Color of Pomegranates. I was surprised by the absence of Buñuel, even Un Chien Andalou stayed out of the list. Ingmar Bergman is only presented with one film: Persona. I could hardly imagine that few years ago. One thing I’m sure of thinking about these results, is that perception of cinema is changing. Where are we headed—I’m not sure yet. But it is very interesting process to observe.

 Bibi Andersson and Liv Ullmann face the camera and embrace in Ingmar Bergman Persona
Bibi Andersson and Liv Ullmann in Persona. Photo: Janus Pictures.

:  My biggest curiosity going into this new list was seeing the influence of one of the worst intellectual evils permeating through the current circles of film criticism. That blight is Recency Bias. Yes, there have been extraordinary movies made in the last five to ten years. However, something that new to the landscape has yet to fully prove itself and stand a few tests of time. It takes years to grow an ironclad legacy from critical darling to a true standard bearer. Of the youngest movies of the Top 100—Parasite (#90), Moonlight (#60), Get Out (#95), and Portrait of a Lady on Fire (#30)—three of them are slotted correctly to the bottom half to begin their eventual climbs of aging and appreciation. For Portrait of a Lady on Fire to land as high as it did is too much too soon. A spot in the Top 30 would have been more appropriate, recency bias be damned, for Parasite or Moonlight, two films with multiple Oscars and higher rankings from “Best of the Decade” lists written by so many lauded critics that comprised this voting pool.

Those wise to this process (and I don’t mean #FilmTwitter) knew the new Sight & Sound list was going to skew more foreign and be newly peppered with more feminist and minority-led inclusions. Freshening and diversification was sorely needed. That newer collective lens was not kind to classic Hollywood. The highest-ranked film from 2012 that did not return was The Godfather Part II, previously #31. Other traditional titles that were bounced off included Raging Bull, Nashville, Chinatown, Rio Bravo and Lawrence of Arabia.

If you step back further, there were zero selected films from the following directors: Steven Spielberg, Terence Malick, The Coen Brothers, Clint Eastwood, Frank Capra, Robert Altman, David Lean, Howard Hawks, Woody Allen, Ang Lee, Sidney Lumet, Norman Jewison, Roman Polanski, Christopher Nolan, Milos Forman, David Fincher, John Huston, Denis Villeneuve, George Cukor, Guillermo del Toro, Elia Kazan, Alfonso Cuaron, William Wyler, Mike Leigh, Sydney Pollack, Alejandro González Iñárritu, Paul Thomas Anderson, or Quentin Tarantino.

Exemplary cornerstone classics like Schindler’s List, Fargo, It Happened One Night, Annie Hall, 12 Angry Men, Network, Pulp Fiction, Unforgiven, Memento, Amadeus, On the Waterfront, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, There Will Be Blood and many others who could have been incredibly worthy inclusions.

: You know what I find marvelous about lists like these? That cinema itself is so rich in its diversity, more so in form perhaps than in the gender, ethnicity, or origins of its makers. By what connection do films like Au Hasard Balthazar, Do the Right Thing, and Playtime find themselves in the same conversation? Only on the Sight & Sound Top 100, where they rank #25, 24, and 23 respectively!

I’d advocated earlier, though, for greater representation of female and black directors and stories on this list, and 2022 is an improvement in these regards while still reflecting the fact that the industry worldwide has historically been dominated by white males of European descent. A few of them are a bit less represented than before: Ingmar Bergman, for instance, is now represented only by Persona, with Wild Strawberries and The Seventh Seal having fallen off the list.

But so many of the films to appear here for the first time are so wonderful, it’s a delight to see them appear, and if more viewers make it a point to see them—from Get Out and Moonlight to Portrait of a Lady on Fire and Parasite—all the better!

That said, I still would have hoped to see a few of these gems begin to appear: Pan’s Labyrinth, All That Heaven Allows, City of God, Double Indemnity, Mad Max: Fury Road, Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, The Act of Killing, The Bride of Frankenstein, Logan, or WALL*E, if all for different reasons.

On the biggest surprises in the 2022 results …

: I don’t know how the top spot itself isn’t the biggest surprise about this year’s Sight & Sound list. As aforementioned, there is a “Murderer’s Row” of five stone-cold celebrated icons behind it, and it’s Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles ascending to the elite mountaintop. Anyone who says they saw that result coming is lying to you. Let the reign of the French single mother with gentlemen callers begin! We’ll see how the tastes (hopefully with tempered recency bias) change again in 2032.

:: The biggest revelation for me is seeing such a clear indication of shifting priorities among voters and a new generation of critics participating in canon (re)formation. I was thrilled to see Mulholland Drive at #8 and In the Mood for Love at #5, two films under twenty-five years old that I would have included on my own Top 10 list (the former is my favorite film).

Betty and Rita are covered in blue at Club Silencio in Mulholland Drive
Laura Harring and Naomi Watts in Mulholland Dr. Photo: Universal Pictures.

: Troma films, known for their shlock horror, aren’t where one typically expects references to movies like Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles. Yet, the trailer for The Thingy: Confessions of a Teenage Placenta (a.k.a. The Miracle of Life) sarcastically remarks that it’s, “slower than Jeanne Dielman.” All mockery aside, given the prolonged presentation of their respective characters every day ordinary routines, there’s a weird similarity to the films. That’s not to imply one directly inspired the other, but certain elements can creep into the cinematic DNA of moviemaking. Directors sometimes end up using them without realizing it, and now, the risks and stylization writer/director Chantal Akerman utilized in the making of Jeanne Dielman may have a better opportunity to influence filmmaking overall.

Lists like the “Sight and Sound Greatest Films of All Time” are more for a niche audience than general consumption. These are films aspiring moviemakers should watch to expand their cinematic toolbox and for cinephiles to debate, whether championing as gems or deriding as overrated. And that matters because there is a trickle-down effect in creativity.

Putting Jeanne Dielman in the number one slot is going to be good for cinema in general. While casual audiences will probably skip it, and I dare say that’s okay, those dedicated to film will give it a shot. How many enjoy it is hard to say, but it will influence viewers regardless. Furthermore, over time, the diversified methods of storytelling seen in the current list will trickle out into more mainstream productions.

Written by Film Obsessive

This article was written by one or more members of the Film Obsessive staff.

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