Tuesday, 7 August 2012

"The Greatest Films of All Time"

I am back from my summer break and the first post of the season will be about last week's major list event, the release of Sight & Sound's decennial list of the "Greatest Films of All Time". It has generated a lot of blog posts, tweets, facebook status updates and face to face debates the world over, so it has been a very successful launch. It has also been attacked and ridiculed. The purpose of it has been questioned, it has been called racist, sexist and boring (the last complain was I believe from me in my initial show of displeasure on twitter and facebook). However.

Calling the list racist and sexist (and/or calling the contributors racist and sexist) is unfair. The list is the sum of  846 top-ten-lists from people all over the world, and it is quite possible that these lists were filled by works made in Africa, South America, the Middle East, and films by women. But even if every list was, say, gender neutral (having as many men as women filmmakers represented), the final list might still not reflect that due to the way the process works.

I made a top ten list (which I posted here three months ago) Of the ten films I listed only two would have counted had my list been part of the 846. By this I mean that La règle du jeu (Jean Renoir 1939) and Journey to Italy (Roberto Rossellini 1954) were the only ones on my list that were mentioned on other lists as well, so they would have been the only ones that ended up on the final list. My other eight films would never have been heard of again. So even if they had been made by female African filmmakers, that would not have mattered in the least for the final list.

It was inevitable that the list would end up looking pretty much the way it did. Why? Because in order to get many votes a film would have to be known by a large number of people. I think it is safe to assume that everybody who contributed had seen Vertigo (Alfred Hitchcock 1958) and Citizen Kane (Orson Welles 1941) and it is no surprise that they come out on top. The Senegalese film The Price of Forgiveness (Mansour Sora Wade 2001) is a great film but since hardly anyone has seen it, it does not matter how good it is, it still could not win. The same is true for the magnificent Humanity and Paper Balloons (Sadao Yamanaka 1937). It is mainly due to statistics that these 50 films ended up on the list. Let's call it an example of the weak law of large numbers.

At film festivals it is often the case that they have an audience award. Everybody gets to vote on the films they have seen and the film that gets the most votes wins. Democratic and fair. Only it is not in the least fair. Film A might have been shown three times in a relatively small venue, perhaps seen by 250 people, whereas Film B was shown four times in large venues, perhaps seen by 2500 people. So even if 100% of those 250 who saw Film A voted it "the best", and only 11% of the 2500 voted Film B "the best" it would still get more votes, and that is not fair at all. There is something similar going on with this list.

So it is of course wrong to say that these are the 50 best films of all time. It is not even necessarily the case that the 846 contributors think that Vertigo is the best film ever made. It would still have ended up as the overall winner as long as enough people considered it good enough to be among the top ten. (It would be different if the contributors were asked to name just one film each.) But you could say perhaps that these are the most liked well-known films of all time. They are the films that are shown on most film history courses, they are the films most written about, they are the films that end up on these lists. It is a closed set, a self-perpetuating process. This is why I think this list is somewhat meaningless. It has been said that this is a cinephilic list, but it really is not. It should have been much more diverse for it to have been a cinephile's list. It has also been said that this list is great to use for newcomers, in order to explore cinema history. But again, it really is not. There is not much history there, too much is lacking. The only valuable purpose of it is to see what the lowest common denominators are among scholars and critics today, and its function as a water cooler subject at film journals and department of cinema studies.

What would be interesting is a list of all the 2045 films mentioned on the 846 individual lists. That list has the potential to be much more varied, interesting and historic.


This is not to deny that many of the 50 films on the list are very good. Some I find fantastic, and are on my top 50 too, namely these eight:
Sunrise (F.W. Murnau 1927)
La règle du jeu
Journey to Italy
Seven Samurai (Akira Kurosawa 1954)
The 400 Blows (François Truffaut 1959)
Breathless (Jean-Luc Godard 1960)
Taxi Driver (Martin Scorsese 1976)
In the Mood for Love (Wong Kar-Wai 2000)


  1. Neat and analytical, as always. Keep up the good work.

  2. "What would be interesting is a list of all the 2045 films mentioned on the 846 individual lists. That list has the potential to be much more varied, interesting and historic."

    Which is what Sight & Sound will eventually (the 15th of this month I think) publish on their site. Then the fun *really* begins.

  3. A great read, I would also consider the possibility that many of the films that did not make the cut suffer from region locks or lack of accessibility, particularly Japanese silent films, which remain only in fragmented pieces in most cases, or as you noted Senegalese films that are simply not released globally. I would venture to say that if some of these films were made more accessible, even half as much as Citizen Kane is, they would move up list quite quickly.

  4. Thanks Ivan for those nice words!

    Yes, I saw that Adam.

    Travis, yes indeed. Availability is just as important as artistic quality.