How is it that Citizen Kane gained the reputation as the greatest film ever made?
It’s not some conspiracy, or just a general assumption. There’s a specific reason for it, and it has everything to do with the British Film Institute.
In 1952, the British Film Institute’s magazine, Sight & Sound performed a poll of film critics to find out what they considered to be the greatest films ever made. That poll gets repeated every ten years, was last done in 2012, and will be done again in a couple of years.
From 1962 to 2002, Citizen Kane was the first on the list, eventually falling to the second spot in 2012 to Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo.
So, what is this thing that seems to hold so much sway over the minds of people?
No, not those kinds of polls. There are no computer models or weights to be added. The Sight & Sound poll is really just that. They have a list of critics, the number of whom has grown greatly over the decades. The 1952 poll involved 63 responding critics who answered the question, “What are the Ten Best Films of All Time?”
The critics didn’t really like the question, but they did end up responding. The most possible votes a movie could receive was 63 (the number of critics voting), and each critic submitted a list of ten films. The movie that had the most mentions would be listed as number one, then the next would be number two, and so on. The first list of a top ten actually had twelve movies on it because of ties with the number one movie receiving twenty-five mentions.
Now, think about that for just a second. Sixty-three critics gave top ten lists to the Sight & Sound magazine, and only twenty-five of them had this number one movie anywhere on their lists. That leaves thirty-eight critics who did not think that this film was one of the top ten movies ever made. Is that a majority decision? Does that mean that all film critics considered this film to be the best ever?
Nope. It means that of a poll of sixty-three critics, twenty-five of them thought that this film was one of the greatest films ever, not necessarily the greatest film ever.
What was that movie? It was Vittorio de Sica’s Bicycle Thieves, that exemplar of Italian neo-realism that told the story of a man who gets a job because of his ownership of a bicycle who promptly gets his bicycle stolen and the relationship he tries to salvage with his son at the same time. De Sica is one of those great filmmakers that most people don’t seem to recall at all, not even for his best films (my favorite of which is Umberto D).
Do you know what movie wasn’t on the 1952 list at all? Citizen Kane. It was tied for 13th place with La Grande Illusion by Jean Renoir and The Grapes of Wrath by John Ford.
A decade passed and things changed. Orson Welles grew in the esteem of most film critics and his first feature took the top spot in 1962 that it wouldn’t relinquish for fifty years. That sort of staying power is what gave Citizen Kane its reputation as the greatest movie ever made. For most people who hear about Bicycle Thieves their first thoughts aren’t about how it was one considered the greatest film ever made, but just that it’s a depressing Italian movie their film professor forced upon them in college or that movie that Tim Robbins saw in Robert Altman’s The Player. By 1962, it had fallen to seventh place with only 16 mentions, tied with Sergei Eistenstein’s Ivan the Terrible (both parts, apparently). It has not appeared in the top ten since.
The movie that interests me on this list, though, is Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’Avventura. I’ve only seen it once about fifteen years ago, so I don’t really trust the rating I gave it on Netflix DVD (three of five stars). However, I do remember being fairly bored by the film as I watched it. I can’t talk to its merits at all right now (don’t stop yourself from sharing if you have strong opinions), but L’Avventura is definitely one of those movies that critics tend to champion.
Released in 1960, it was number two on the 1962 list before dropping to number five in 1972 then number seven, and falling off the top ten never to come back in 1992 (it still received mentions, just not enough). So, does that mean that in 1962, L’Avventura was the second greatest movie ever made, then the fifth, then the seventh, and so on? This time 70 critics voted and a grand 20 of them mentioned L’Avventura. Citizen Kane received only 22 mentions.
Looking at these numbers, I’m going to be honest, I’m not sure how this list is supposed to be useful at all in terms of finding out what the best movie ever is, and I think that’s the real point to take away from stuff like this.
Looking over the first list from 1952, I see nine movies I’ve seen and three movies I’ve never even heard of. Of the three movies I’ve never heard of, none of them ever made another list, but it still seems like a good bet that there’s some quality in them. Louisiana Story, Le Jour Se Leve, and Le Million may not be the best movies ever and, in fact, they may have aged horribly, but are they worthy of being completely forgotten? I don’t know, but I feel like they probably deserve a watch.
Out of all the lists from 1962 on, I’ve seen every movie except two (there’s a good amount of repeats in the lists, so the number of films overall really isn’t that large). Those two are L’Atalante by Jean Vigo, a French director who is considered one of the great French directors though he only made a handful of films, and Pather Panchali by Satyajit Ray, an Indian filmmaker with a great reputation (both are currently in my Netflix DVD queue).
You know what other movies are in these lists? Seven Samurai, Singin’ in the Rain, The General, The Searchers, The Godfather (parts I and II), and Vertigo. There’s a lot of art film representation (the sort of things that critics love) but there’s also some westerns, comedies, and musicals.
I view the collection of lists in much the same way that I view the list of Best Picture winners at the Oscars: probably films of quality that deserve a look.
Two Films to Rule Them All
846 critics responded to the 2012 call for top ten lists producing at least one mention of 2,045 films. Of the top film on the list (Vertigo) 191 critics mentioned it at any point in their lists. That’s under a quarter of the respondents who thought that Alfred Hitchcock’s mystery was one of the top ten films ever made. Does that result actually translate to critics calling it the best movie ever? By one measure, for sure, but when less than a quarter of critics surveyed agree that it should be on the list at all, I don’t think that’s much of a consensus. Am I arguing that Vertigo is bad? Not in the least. I’m not arguing its actual merit at all, just that the basic assumption of the list is kind of stupid.
However, I will make note of the fact that two films have appeared on every single list from 1952 to 2012. Those are Jean Renoir’s The Rules of the Game and Carl Theodore Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc.
Renoir’s film is a tragedy wrapped in the guise of a farce, and it’s one of the most effectively sad movies you can see, and Dreyer’s film is one of my personal favorites, the story of the trial and execution of the nationalist hero at the hands of foreign paid corruptocrats. That makes me more right in my opinion than you. *emoji with tongue sticking out*
The Actual Point
No, I don’t actually think that highly of my own opinion. I’m just a guy on the internet.
However, the point I take away from the Sight & Sound polls is this: Cinema is a very large place. Filmmakers have been at work for over a hundred years and have produced tens of thousands of movies, most of which I’ll never see. Running through the complete Top 100 of the 2012 poll, I see a lot of movies that I’ve seen and know, more that I’ve seen and forgotten, and more that I’ve either just never seen or even never heard of.
I’ve been watching movies for a while with a large focus on seeing films I’ve never seen before, and here’s a list of a hundred supposedly great films and it’s got stuff on it I’ve never seen. I can’t wait to see them.
Lists of films are inherently political, designed to try and get the reader to the compiler’s point of view about what makes that list great. I don’t love lists because I find them, er, definitive. No, I love them because they point me in directions of cinema history that I had ignored, forgotten, or didn’t even know were there.