Starburst Memories: The Sight & Sound Greatest Films Poll

Every decade, SIGHT & SOUND, the BFI’s house magazine, conducts a poll of the greatest films ever made according to its specially selected group of critics. Dom-Dirk reviews his archive in anticipation of the immanent publication of the 2012 poll.

I suppose being a man, I’ve always been fascinated by lists and obviously film lists score highly.

Sight & Sound first started in 1931 and was a quarterly magazine with articles about film and it’s sister publication, The Monthly Film Bulletin having the more substantial reviews in it for the British Film Institute. To celebrate Sight & Sound’s 20th Anniversary in 1952 they decided to ask a panel of critics to choose their all time favourite films. A panel in Berlin had done it in 1948 and Eisenstein’s “Battleship Potemkin” came out top. So how did their first poll go? Well “Bicycle Thieves” came out top with 25 votes and in joint second place were two Chaplin films “The Gold Rush” and “City Lights” with 19 votes each. They have then decided to revisit the poll every ten years to see how things have changed.

I don’t have the 1952 issue (with Marlene Dietrich on the cover), but I do have the issues since then, so I will look at each issue, discuss the top two choices and look at Derek Malcolm’s own choice from 1972 onwards.

The 1962 issue features Monica Vitta on the cover in the recently completed “The Eclipse” (quite apt given the no.2 choice of film in their top ten). In the issue Pauline Kael talks about the recent film concentrating on “West Side Story”, “La Dolce Vita”, “The Misfits” and “Breakfast At Tiffanys”. There are reviews in the issue on “Last Year At Marienbad”, “La Notte”, “The Hustler”, “The Innocents” and “Judgement At Nuremberg” and so to the top ten itself, No.1 is “Citizen Kane” with 22 votes and at no.2 is “L’Avventura” with 20 votes. “Citizen Kane” had not made it even into the 52 poll (as explained in my “Citizen Kane” piece), but “L’Avventura” was only two years old and had been booed off the stage when it premiered at Cannes, almost unthinkable now to have a film such as “Black Swan”, “The Social Network” or “Inception” at no.2, well perhaps not all that unthinkable given “Inception” position in the IMDB Top 250.

In 1972 Anthony Perkins & Orson Welles graced the cover in Claude Chabrol’s “La Decade Prodigieuse”, there was an interview with Bernard Herrmann, an article on “A Clockwork Orange” and reviews of “Walkabout”, “Days & Nights In The Forest”, “Straw Dogs” and Monte Hellman’s “The Shooting”. In the Top 10 “Citizen Kane” remained top with 32 votes and the no.2 choice was Jean Renoir’s “La Regle Du Jeu” with 28 votes, a gap of four votes this time from 2 in ’62.

Derek Malcolm had started writing for The Guardian and chose “Earth”, “Sons Of The Desert”, “La Regle Du Jeu”, “Fantasia”, “The Magnificent Ambersons”, “Day Of Wrath”, “Ugetsu Monogatari”, “Wild Strawberries”, “An Autumn Afternoon” and Jean-Luc Godard’s “Vivre Sa Vie” (It’s My Life).

In 1982 Peter Greenaway’s “The Draughtman’s Contract” was on the cover and inside the words “Now on video” are everywhere, something that was unheard of ten years earlier, you could actually own these films! Channel Four was also coming. There were adverts for “Heat & Dust” and “Gandhi”, a photo shoot from “Local Hero”, an interview with Satyajit Ray and reviews of “A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy”, “The Draughtman’s Contract” and “Diva”. “Citizen Kane” was still no.1 with 45 votes and “La Regle De Jeu” was still no.2 with 31 votes, the gap was even greater.

Derek Malcolm still chose “An Autumn Afternoon” and “Ugetsu Monogatari”, but swapped his Welles choice for “Touch Of Evil”, he added “Barren Lives”, “Rio Bravo”, “Wild Strawberries”, “El”, “The Enigma Of Kasper Hauser”, “Madame De….” And Satyajit Ray’s wonderful “Charulatta”.

1992 was the first time I had bought the issue new and Tim Roth was “Dead meat in ‘Reservoir Dogs’”  – a film that changed all our lives. There were articles on Ridley Scott’s “Director’s Cut” of “Blade Runner”, Chen Kaige’s “Farewell My Concubine” and the big reviews were on “The Waterdance”, “Sneakers”, “Sister Act” and “Peter’s Friends”. The big difference in the 92 issue was the fact that S&S had joined up with the Monthly Film Bulletin in 1991 (Jodie Foster in “The Silence Of The Lambs” graced the cover) and so it was monthly plus you could buy it at your local newsagent – unheard of before! “Citizen Kane” was still no.1 with 43 votes and “La Regle De Jeu” was still 2 with 32 votes, the gap was slipping!

Derek Malcolm chose “Madame De…” , “Rio Bravo”, “Barren Lives” , “El” and “Touch Of Evil” again, swapped his Mizoguchi to “The Life Of Oharu”, changed his Ozu to “Tokyo Story”, altered his Bergman to “The Seventh Seal” , Ray’s “The Music Room” was more his taste this time around and Laurel & Hardy were back with “Sons Of The Desert”

By 2002 the cover was taken up with the poll and DVDs’ were now ruling the roost! In fact there is an advert for “The Hustler”, new to DVD, the review of which, as I had previously mentioned, appeared in the 62 issue. There was an interview with Ingmar Bergman and the reviews included “Goldmember”, “The Bourne Identity”, “Insomnia” and “Men In Black II”.

“Citizen Kane” was still no.1 with 46 votes, more votes than ever, but it’s lead was only 5 as Hitchcock’s “Vertigo” was no.2 with 41 votes.

Mr Malcolm still writing for The Guardian chose “The Music Room”, “Rio Bravo”, “The Seventh Seal”, “Touch Of Evil” and “Tokyo Story” again, but swapped his Mizoguchi again to “The Story Of The Late Chrysanthemums” and added “The Spirit Of The Beehive”, “Dekalog”(Cheating here, as it is ten films in itself!), “The Time To Live & The Time To Die” and Bunuel’s “Tristana”

So what will happen in 2012? I have a feeling “Citizen Kane” might be ousted, maybe by “Vertigo”, maybe by Renoir, I hope something from the last ten years makes it in, Lynch’s “Mulholland Drive” deserves it, but that is already 11 years old!

13 responses to “Starburst Memories: The Sight & Sound Greatest Films Poll

    • If I was cynical, I would suggest that the BFI has been preparing the ground with supporting publications and programming. If I was cynical.

      • To be honest I think the only reason Kane was knocked off its perch is because they drastically altered the voting pool. Orders of magnitude bigger, and now encompassing bloggers and online critics. It’d be interesting to look at the subset of votes from only those who would’ve been eligible in 2002, I’m betting we’d see a lot less change.

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  2. So, my copy of sight and Sound has finally arrived and I have poured myself a pint of woolly ale and studied the results. Nick James, the editor is at pains to explain that this year’s poll is a more democratic affair because it has cast its net wider than ever before. The first list was a poll of 145 lists and this year there were 846 lists in contention (my request must have been lost in the post). It is surprising that there were so few surprises given the range of potential.

    Some observations:

    – 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY isn’t even Kubrick’s best film, never mind the 6th greatest film of all time

    – The Top 100 films makes interesting reading and gives an indication of what may come thrugh in the future – Dom’s favourite MULLHOLLAND DRIVE at 28

    – Would The Godfather one and two been top if the rules hadn’t changed from 1992 when it was considered one film?

    – In the Post Star Wars world, IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE was the highest scoring at joint 24

    More follows …

  3. While I was away last week, I spent some more time studying the latest issue of SIGHT AND SOUND. The new look really does feel more substantial. There’s a really interesting article by Simon Callow (yes, the shouty one), about Welles’ F FOR FAKE.

    Out of interest, this is the All Time Greatest Films since Star Wars:

    1) Apocalypse Now (1979)
    2) In The Mood For Love (2000)
    3) Mulholland Drive (2001)
    4) Stalker (1979)
    5) Shoah (1985)
    6) Satantango (1984)
    7) Close Up (1990)
    8) Histoire(s) Du Cinema (1998)
    9) Raging Bull (1980)
    10) Blade Runner (1982)

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  8. Hi Dirk, I am a collector and have decided to sell some items. In the items I intend to sell I have the Marlene Dietrich Sight and Sound Magazine yellow cover that you are missing
    in your collection. I will put it
    in ebay.
    Please email me if you have any interest in this issue.



    I have a few still left . October 1953 red cover Sight and sound Quarterly. Orson Wells Autumn 1968 Red Cover.
    Very Good condition considering the time it was printed.

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