Thursday, December 22, 2022

The “Greatest Films of All Time”

Many of you know that I'm something of a cinephile. I studied film at NYU back about a million years ago and I'm always interested in the best of international and classic cinema. So it is with a strong interest that I check out the once—every—decade film critics' poll held by England's Sight & Sound magazine. They poll hundreds of critics from around the world, and the last two poll results have seen some interesting upsets. Sight & Sound has widely diversified the electorate, making a conscious effort to make a more international and gender—diverse poll, which in 2012 lead to the upset of Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo unseating the 50—year reigning champ Citizen Kane from the #1 spot. But this decade's poll — with an even more diverse electorate nearly double the size of the 2012 group — made a much more controversial choice, electing Belgian director Chantal Akerman's nearly 3½—hour, minimal, 1975 feminist masterwork Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles for the top spot, the first film by a female director ever to crack the top ten (an honor it shares in this poll with the Claire Denis film Beau Travail, which is in seventh place). Fans of Hitch and Welles need not fear, as they still hold the #2 and #3 spots respectively, with a personal fave, Yasujiro Ozu's Tokyo Story a strong fourth.

In all the furor in the film press about the “wokeness” of the top choice and inclusions of films like Get Out, Portrait of a Woman on Fire, and Moonlight, what doesn't seem to have been talked about is how much the same the poll is, how much it still adheres to the accepted canon of “great films.” Citizen Kane has been in the top three since the 1952 poll and is still third; Vertigo, widely misunderstood on its release, has slowly grown in stature since the 1972 poll until it unseated Kane and now moves to second place; Tokyo Story first popped up in the lower reaches of the 1962 poll, then fell back until it surged to third place in 1992, dropped to fifth in 2002, back to third in 2012 and currently holds at fourth. And with some notable exceptions (not just the #1 film, but also Beau Travail and two other more recent entries — Wong Kar—wai's exquisite In the Mood For Love and David Lynch's enigmatic Mulholland Drive), the rest of the top ten have been kicking around these charts for some time as well: Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey (which topped the concurrent poll of film directors this time out), Dziga Vertov's silent experimental work Man with a Movie Camera, and the Hollywood classic Singin' in the Rain are no strangers to the upper reaches of these lists; nor are the #11 choice Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans, Jean Renoir's #13 La règle du jeu (The Rules of the Game), John Ford's #15 The Searchers, or Ingmar Bergman's cryptic #18 entry Persona.

All of this is really to say that the more things change, the more they stay the same. In 1962's poll, it was the height of contemporary critical fashion to vote for Michelangelo Antonioni's then–new film L'Avventura, which was in a tight race with Citizen Kane and La règle du jeu right up until the end, ultimately placing second beneath Welles and above Renoir (the film is tied for #72 in this decade's poll), and the magazine's write–up of the poll refers to Welles and Antonioni (plus French director Jean Vigo, whose L'Atalante placed tenth) as the “experimentalists” of the day (in contrast to those referred by the writer to as “giants” — Chaplin, Eisenstein, etc.) — not necessarily the canonical directors they're thought of as today. In 1972, two films that had been released since the previous poll — Persona and Federico Fellini's — both made the top ten, with three more post–1962 films hitting from 11–20. In fact, 1982's poll is the first ever to NOT have something from the previous decade in its top 10, with still the most current film in the polling, a pattern repeated in 1992, where Kubrick's 2001, from 1968 and then 24 years old, was the most recent film in the upper reaches of the poll; 2002 continued the pattern, with Francis Ford Coppola's first two Godfather films — from 1972 and 1974 respectively, thus 30 and 28 years old respectively — the most recent titles in the front. 2012 shook things up with Vertigo claiming the top spot, but it was business as usual up top — the most recent film in the top 10 was again 2001, now not only 44 years old itself, but the futuristic year of its title eleven years past. And for what it's worth, Jeanne Dielman tied for 36th place in this poll, beneath the first appearances of both the more recent In The Mood For Love and Mulholland Drive.

Partly this is a simple function of time — as more movies are released and written about, the canon becomes more ossified, with articles repeating what previous articles have said about the greatness of certain films (and really, nobody worth taking seriously denies the greatness of Kane, Vertigo, La règle du jeu, The Passion of Joan of Arc, and so forth) and thus further ensconcing them into the upper parts of the poll. But time also allows us to do a couple other things — discover more that we haven't seen before, and to become sated with that which we have. I'd never argue with the idea that Citizen Kane is great, but I've also seen it so many times now that if I never see it again in my life it will live just fine as a fond memory; I'd rather spend time looking at just how Welles put together his late–career masterpiece assembled from bits and piece of Shakespeare, Chimes at Midnight (AKA Falstaff). Or… watching Jeanne Dielman.

I don't think I've ever had more friends and family asking me about a specific film they've never seen than when the news broke that Chantal Akerman's film had topped the new poll. And it is with some reticence that I recommend her work — writing for The New Yorker HERE, Jessica Winter notes that “I suspect that the Sight and Sound voters who truly love Jeanne Dielman, as opposed to merely admiring it… are those who can enter a meditative state when watching it.” I am definitely in the latter camp where she identifies in the former camp, but she nails what the article calls the “revelatory tedium” of the film — watching events unfold in real time from a static point of view forces us into different modes of viewing, and not everyone is game for what it asks of you. If we're not waiting for the next cut to advance the story (the average length of each shot is about a minute, with some running to several minutes where most Hollywood films are about 3–4 seconds per shot), then what do we look at? Where does our mind go while the title character makes a meatloaf, drinks coffee, washes dishes? If you let it, the film retrains your way of watching — it's not for nothing that it's considered one of the landmarks of film loosely grouped under the category of “slow cinema” — and there's nothing like it out there. Add to this that it forces us into identification with the lonely housewife portrayed so perfectly by Delphine Seyrig and the work she does daily as she slowly unravels over the course of three days.

And Akerman's other film in the poll this decade, 1977's News From Home, does something similar — over silent documentary footage Akerman and her brilliant cinematographer Babette Mangolte shot (you want to know where to put your eyes in these shots? Just scan around each frame and drink in Mangolte's fantastic lighting), the director reads letters written to her by her mother, sound is added in to emphasize a feel and effect of the city rather than its reality, and the total effect is a poignant, dreamlike reverie of family relationships, of being out on your own for the first time, and more. It ends with a ten–minute shot (not the only one in the film) taken from the Staten Island Ferry, a shot Jim Jarmusch would later copy for his debut feature Permanent Vacation. Both of them — and much more from Akerman's catalog — simply put you into a different way of experiencing film viewing, and both of them are masterpieces that deserve the accolades they are currently reaping (unfortunately too late for Akerman, who died by suicide in 2015, to have felt the honors).

Her films are not new — this has been simmering in the polls for over 45 years now — but plus ça change, I for one am invigorated that there are new, vital films that are included in the polls, whether they are my personal faves or not. I'm happy in addition to Akerman taking the top spot that Daughters of the Dust, Killer of Sheep, Daisies, Close–Up, Wanda, and others have made headway this decade, even if it means that my personal cinema hero Luis Buñuel got bumped from the top 100. Cinema should always be pushing at boundaries and canons should always be a living thing, subject to revision. I can't wait for the 2032 poll — maybe we'll see something by Cheryl Dunye or Guy Maddin or Pedro Costa or Cristian Mungiu or Lee Chang—dong or Radu Jude, or maybe more by Claire Denis (Beau Travail isn't even my favorite of hers) or Apitchatpong Weerasethakul. Or maybe my old pal Buñuel will be back in the electorate's good graces. Whatever happens, I'll be watching.

- Patrick Brown

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