Kane gang

You’ll be aware that Sight & Sound magazine, a journal I do not hesitate to call “august”, polls critics, curators, academics and filmmakers every ten years to reach a learned consensus on the Greatest Films of All Time. And if you’re aware of that, you’ll also know that Citizen Kane was finally unseated in this year’s survey – the biggest ever, with 846 critics etc. polled – by Vertigo. The poll is designed to elicit debate and dialogue, so do not think it prescriptive. I personally like Kane, and appreciate its importance in the canon, but I rate Vertigo as my favourite Hitchcock, which is why I put it into my own Top 10.

I remain, I must admit, flattered and delighted to have been able to add my own voice to the 846 this decade, to have attained a foothold on the cliff face of critical consensus. I have been a Sight & Sound subscriber since the 90s who, up to now, has had his nose pressed up against the glass. So how did I manage to break through? What changed since 2002? Did the Film Editor of Radio Times suddenly become more critically legitimate? Nah. I’m candid enough to admit that I emailed the editor of the magazine and asked if I could contribute.

Hey, I’m not too proud to beg. Indeed, it is one of the basic home truths I always try to get across to students and anyone else who asks me for career advice: if you don’t ask, you don’t get. We’ll call it pester power. (It’s been established elsewhere that I asked if I could “have a go” at being a proper radio DJ when 6 Music was in its embryonic development stage, and this audacious request eventually landed me a day job at the launch of the network.) I’ve only ever written one piece for S&S, a labour of love feature about Gene Hackman, in 2005, and can you guess how I came to be commissioned to do that? Yes, by asking. Naturally, Nick, the editor, could have politely declined, and I would never have held it against him or the magazine, but I caught him at the right moment, and I achieved a long-held ambition.

So, yes, I asked if I could be asked what my Top 10 films were, and I just squeezed in as the portcullis was coming down, at the last moment. As a result of the rush, I had little time to pore over my choices, but for the record, these are they. (In the rules of the game, each choice gets the same point, so in a way, the qualitative order is for vanity only.)

APOCALYPSE NOW (Coppola, 1979)
THE GODFATHER PART II (Coppola, 1979)
RED RIVER (Hawks, Rossen, 1948)
ORDET (Dreyer, 1955)
BATTLESHIP POTEMKIN (Eisenstein, 1925)
VERTIGO (Hitchcock, 1958)
WINTER LIGHT (Bergman, 1972)
STARDUST MEMORIES (Allen, 1980)
RASHOMON (Kurosawa, 1950)
LAWRENCE OF ARABIA (Lean, 1962)

You can peruse and search and cross-reference the final results of the final poll here. You can also compare the 2012 Top 10 with those of previous years: 1952, 1962, 1972, 1982, 1992 (the first year a Directors’ Poll was included), and 2002. You can even search for every critic and point at their choices. Imagine if actual democracy was this transparent!

I am excited to know that I am “Voter 811“.

The reason I bring all this up again is partly because I was too busy, it seems, to blog about it when the results came out, and when the full thing went online. But it’s also because the BFI in London are showing the top ten films right through September. It’s a great season, and tickets are only a fiver, so if you’re in what I call “town”, have a look at the season and the dates. I’m certainly tempted to get down to the South Bank, as – tell nobody! – there are a couple of silents on there that I’ve never actually seen.

Don’t feel that the S&S poll is all about intellectual oneupmanship. It isn’t. And nor is it only about silent films or Russian films or obscure films. There are plenty more recent films further down the list. Plus, it takes time for a new film to settle into “classic” status. And critics are obviously wary of anointing a picture too early in its life. Hey, 80 years down the line, it’s far easier to say that The Passion of Joan Of Arc is one of the greatest films ever made.

I’m all for extending the debate here, of course.

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11 thoughts on “Kane gang

  1. Would you really choose to watch BATTLESHIP POTEMKIN over the POSEIDON ADVENTURE.

    I have been pouring over the list weeks now. There are some interesting choices in there – even Tarrantino’s DEATHPROOF makes an appearance!

    • I believe, in my heart, that Potemkin is a better and more important film than Poseidon, although it’s an excellent and valid debate to have. You have to be in the mood for a silent film. You have to be in the mood for a foreign film. You have to be in the mood for a black and white film. A 1970s disaster movie demands little, and you could watch one anytime, from part of the way through. There should be a list of films that fit this bill, to go alongside the “greatest”.

  2. Whilst the topic of Top10 films is always going to stir up pub (or in this case dinner party) Barry Normans into a frenzy of debate Vertigo is the most overated film I think I’ve ever seen. The ending is frankly about as underwhelming as it gets.

    Whenever I show the temerity to doubt Hitchcock’s credentials I always get the same responses from my friends such as “yeah but he was the first person to develop revolutionary editing techniques or his visual style has been copied by most big name directors” .

    Whilst I acknowledge he was a pioneer in many respects this shouldn’t mean that his all his films shouldn’t be given critical analysis as pieces of entertainment. You mention intellectual one upmanship perhaps as a tacit admission that in private many of those same critics who extoll the virtues of Hitchcock would secretly admit to loving a bit of Anchorman but would never have the balls to put it on a list in front of their peers and be seen as a intellectual pygmy.

    As for Hitchcock and the argument that “first is best” you wouldn’t trade in your spanky new iPhone for one of those bricks from the 80’s would you?.

    • Not sure about this “first is best” argument. I think people love Hitchcock for the same reasons as I do – and my love for his films was forged when I was a teenager, long before I had intellectualised my feelings. I love Hitchcock because he was popular – populist – but an amazing craftsman too, who buried all sorts of layers and symbolism into popcorn thrillers. I find Vertigo haunting, and I love the score, and it’s a story oft-repeated.

      Nobody’s “secretly” watching Anchorman – and if they are, they’re deluding themselves that anything apart from actual snuff or violent porn needs to be watched secretly. If you read Sight & Sound, you’ll see that its critics take each film at face value. I’m sure Anchorman was warmly reviewed, although I haven’t checked that.

      This is a poll, after all, so the less likely titles are all found at the bottom of the Top 250. Consensus always pushes the more obvious to the top, no?

      And, interestingly, I would trade in all music made in the 21st century for something made in the 70s.

  3. I’m about as far from being a film buff as you can get (Anchorman means nothing to me and I’ve a feeling that says it all) but when I’m watching Hitchcock even I know I’m in the hands of a great film maker. In fact, I think Hitchcock is the only film maker I’ve ever had that feeling from. I couldn’t begin to say what’s special about his work, there’s just something there: an intelligence, a sense of humour, a something.

    That said, I’ve always found Vertigo a little disappointing and I’d certainly rather watch Citizen Kane any day of the week. I don’t think either is the best film ever made – there’s not enough singing and dancing in either of them for one thing. Or umbrellas. But Hitchcock and Welles: what an episode of Parkinson that might have made.

  4. Hmmm….interesting Top Ten, which for me raises three interesting points:

    1) Most people wouldn’t have picked Stardust Memories as Allen’s best work. For me, Allen’s at his best when he isn’t aping one of his many influences (in this case Fellini, and 8 1/2). What happened to Annie Hall, Crimes and Misdemeanors, Hannah and Her Sisters, Manhattan…?

    2) Why Stardust Memories? Why not 8 1/2? I’m sure Woody would argue that 8 1/2 is the better film (but then again, he’d argue that none of his films are really that good anyway, so what does he know!).

    3) Finally, and most importantly, does this really mean that nothing’s come out in the past 32 years that tops Stardust Memories? If so, what does an ‘auteur’ have to do these days if he does want to top it? Or…are there simply no more auteurs out there any more?

    Don’t get me wrong, I love a good poll. But they do make you think….which, I suppose, is the whole point.

    • For me personally, Stardust Memories is my favourite Woody, although Manhattan, Broadway Danny Rose, Love & Death all close contenders. You’re right, you can’t trust Woody to pick a Woody film!

      I think there is a gestation period before a film can be comfortably and confidently classed as a classic. Maybe it’s 32 years? (I would argue that Magnolia is a classic, though, and that’s this century.)

      I tried to limit the choices in my own Top 10 so that all of my favourite directors got a go each, although I broke that cardinal rule for Coppola, as I could not separate Godfather II from Apocalypse Now. (Without thinking too hard about it, my Top 10 might have four Coppolas in it!) In this, I guess I contrived the list a little bit, but it struck me as too important not to bring a certain artificial fairness to bear. It’s not science though.

  5. Dear person who left a really interesting comment about statistics … I just accidentally pressed “delete” instead of “approve” when it arrived in my spam filter. Sorry about that! I won’t be offended if you don’t wish to post it again, but it was a valid point. (I think you are called Dirk?)

    • I’m not, but that’s the name of the blog I contribute to. It was something along the lines of…

      I don’t mind Kane being toppled by Vertigo, but there was a significant change in the voting rules this year: for the first time film bloggers and online critics were included which lead to the number of submissions being something like 5 times greater than in 2002. I’m not saying this is a bad thing, but from a statistics nerd point of view it does mean that you can’t compare the 2012 results to 2002 as readily as you can compare and contrast all the previous polls.

      I’d be interested in whether things like average age and distribution of nationalities changed significantly with the widening of the pool, for example. Maybe even the male/female ratio (I did use the word “nerd”, right?)

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