Earlier this month, Sight & Sound released the results of its "Greatest Films" poll, in which critics collaboratively, although not necessarily deliberately, selected Vertigo as the best movie of all time, unseating Citizen Kane, which had earned the top spot for five consecutive (every-10-years) polls dating back to 1962. Now, as Scott Tobias of the A.V. Club put it, we have to "orbit around a different sun." At least, cinephiles do. It's questionable if the general public — in this country, anyway — is even aware of the Sight & Sound poll or ignored news of Vertigo's ascendance amidst headlines about the London Olympics, the presidential race, sporadic mass shootings and so on. That said, I'm not sure cinephiles should place much significance on the poll either, or that we do. After all, any universe in which Vertigo wasn't already a masterpiece, or in which Citizen Kane is ruled to be somehow less magnificent than it was in July, is a dark one, which is why it seems like overstatement to suggest that the cinematic stars have been realigned. Rather, the 2012 Sight & Sound poll, in which no movie more recent than 1968's 2001: A Space Odyssey made the top 10, strikes me as little more than an unremarkable rearranging of the china cabinet — the same cherished cinematic heirlooms still in neat little rows, now with the saucers to the left of the teacups. No big deal.
In recent weeks, in the movie obsessed corners of the Twitter-blogosphere, or whatever we're calling it these days, there have been countless reactions to the Sight & Sound poll, which of course makes perfect sense, because the movie obsessed corners of the Twitter-blogosphere are made up of countless reactors — people like me, and (let's be honest about the readership of The Cooler here) probably you, who have opinions about cinema and yearn to share them, 140 characters at a time or in longer, rambling missives. From Peter Bogdanovich to Greg Ferrara, some have found the Sight & Sound poll "absurdly reductive" and "insulting" (I agree), while others like Jim Emerson and Matt Singer have been fascinated by the outliers (I am, too). And then there are all the "If I had a Sight & Sound ballot" pieces that have popped up all over the place, some of them boringly redundant (which doesn't make them insincere), others charmingly unpredictable. But this post isn't about any of that, at least not first and foremost. Because for all the problems and oddities that are inherent to an exercise in which 846 cinephiles from 73 countries are challenged to select just 10 great films each from the entire, ever-expanding cinema catalog, what bothers me isn't what the Sight & Sound list implies about cinema but what it suggests about cinephiles, me included.
If the latest top-10 is even remotely close to accurate, cinephiles have some serious explaining to do. Vertigo (No. 1), Citizen Kane (No. 2), 2001 (No. 6), The Searchers (No. 7) and 8 1/2 (No. 10) — these are great films that fittingly dominate the attention and enthusiasm of cinephiles. The other half of the list? Although Tokyo Story (No. 3) and Rules of the Game (No. 4) get name-dropped occasionally, I truly can't remember the last time I've come across a mere reference to, never mind a detailed appreciation of, Sunrise (No. 5), Man with a Movie Camera (No. 8) or Passion of Joan of Arc (No. 9). You can tell me that says more about me than about the movies, and to a degree you're right. I have many blind spots as a movie lover, and pictures from the 1920s, not to mention major swaths of foreign cinema, are certainly hiding in that darkness, waiting for me to come around with my headlamp to discover for myself the too many cinematic treasures that until now I've only read about. I don't have an aversion to these pictures, let me be clear, but I'm also not a member of the Dziga Vertov fan club (assuming there is one), nor do I spend my reading time perusing message boards related to silent film (although maybe I should). Still, this can't only be about me, can it? Recognizing that Sight & Sound doesn't weight its poll but simply tallies the number of times a film is listed, doesn't it seem impossible that almost half of the 10 movies that received more votes than any others spend nine of every 10 years in near anonymity, spared from the intense analysis and unfettered praise that gets heaped on so many of the other movies in the top 250 (and out of it) with irrepressible regularity?
In 1952, when the Sight & Sound poll debuted, this kind of thing could all be explained away. There were fewer voters then and, even more significant, fewer forums in which to champion great films, especially great films of generations past. But that's not an issue anymore. Not at all. We're sneaking up on a full decade dominated by a blogging/social-media boom. Unless you're one of the few print writers still out there, there's no strict limit on essay length anymore, nor a cap on the number of pieces one can write. Not to mention, even critics who do write for print publications often have a blog, too, in which they can be let off the leash to run free. Simply put, technology has enabled nearly anyone on the planet to champion whatever film they want, at whatever length they want, however often they want. It's also given us the ability to access almost any movie we want, instantly on demand, or, at worst, after a short delay while a DVD is shipped from your nearest Netflix facility. Meanwhile, YouTube is full of cinema — from classic clips to mashups to video essays. How is it possible that in an environment such as this the apparent widespread love of Man with a Movie Camera (to pick just one) is so closeted? (Are all 846 participants hanging out in a private chat room?) If the adoration is true — and, yes, I have my doubts — what will it take to get cinephiles to demonstrate it willingly, instinctively and compellingly in public? You'd think it would be easy.
Let me pause now and recognize that not everyone who participated in the Sight & Sound poll approached it from the same angle. If there's one thing Sight & Sound does right it's to leave the definition of "greatest" open to interpretation. "You might choose the ten films you feel are most important to film history, or the ten that represent the aesthetic pinnacles of achievement, or indeed the ten films that have had the biggest impact on your own view of cinema," the Sight & Sound invitation letter states. But since I'm already up on this soapbox, let me rise up on my tippy-toes to state what I hope would be obvious: ranking greatness is hard, but recognizing it, if you have just a shred of self-confidence, is absurdly simple.
A great movie is one that as you're watching it, and after, makes you think, "This is fucking great!"
That's it. That's the criterion. (Singular, please note.) Aesthetically, a great movie can have the surgical precision of The Shining or the handheld sloppiness of The Blair Witch Project. Thematically, it can be as depressing as Woman Under the Influence or as joyous as Raiders of the Lost Ark. It can be as laborious as something by Tarkovsky or as lively as something by Michael Bay. It can be as long as Shoah or short as something by Stan Brakhage. And so on. All that matters is that you think it's fucking great (not necessarily the first time you see it, but eventually and repeatedly over time), and, especially if you're a critic, that you can articulate why without simply describing what happens.
It's impossible to ignore that the Sight & Sound top 250 is dominated by films that, relative to the whole, are older and darker, more ambiguous and ponderous, less mainstream or funny. Even Vertigo, so well known, so adored, so colorfully composed, exemplifies that trend when we consider it against Alfred Hitchcock's other works. As Tom Shone wrote, "Vertigo has always struck me as the Hitchcock film for those who don't really like Hitchcock all that much (it's long, hasn't got much in the way of jokes and the plot doesn't work, when he is known for his economy, wit and storytelling), or at least wish very much that he had been French." Wouldn't you know it, many of the more recent films to crack the top 250 go along with the trend: The Tree of Life, Cache (Hidden), The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, There Will Be Blood, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives and Melancholia. (A major exception: WALL-E. Then again, that charming animated flick begins with a long dialogue-free sequence that predicts mankind's almost total annihilation of the environment; it's also the only Disney movie to be recognized. So maybe it isn't much of an outlier after all.)
Just like the high school quarterback can show up at prom with a long-legged, flat-stomached, big-breasted date without any of his buddies bothering to ask if he actually likes spending time with the gal, when it comes to ranking great films there's no safer approach for critics than to keep the list grim and/or challenging and/or pre-1977 and/or non-American. That's probably always been true, but each time a new Sight & Sound list comes out looking like this one, the trend gets another big breath of life. Meanwhile, critics seem pressured to show diversity in their favorites, as if it's unthinkable to suggest that the same guy who made the best film of all time might also have made the second- and third-best. Thus, the Sight & Sound list feels less like a trip around the world — messy and sprawling and organically diverse — than like a vacation at Epcot, where everyone pretends to love all cultures equally.
The idea, many argue, is that critics are being responsible preservationists, protecting great movies from around the world and across eras for future generations. But that ignores that these films are already preserved: in previous Sight & Sound surveys, among other tributes. If at this point all we're doing is dusting off the various wonders of the cinematic world and patting ourselves on the back for remembering that they exist, why not lock down this list and start building a new one, letting the collection of great movies grow along with cinema itself? Because as it is now, we are creating slaves to the groupthink of the past — not prescribing which films new movie-lovers should watch so much as telling them which movies they should love. Big difference.
This will seem like an extremely odd tangent, but bear with me: Last week former Sports Illustrated writer Joe Posnanski's Joe Paterno biography was released. I haven't read it, but I have no doubt that it's written with the greatest attempt at sincerity. (If you've ever read Posnanski, you don't doubt that either.) I'm equally confident that the book is inescapably flawed. When Posnanski started his project, he was telling the story of one of the great icons of character in college sports. Accordingly, the book was planned for release around Father's Day. Posnanski hadn't written a word, hadn't really made use of his exclusive access to the Paterno family, but already both the author and publisher were fairly confident what the story would be. Posnanski would find minor flaws in the man, sure, but mostly he'd find greatness, because that's exactly what decades worth of legend building had conditioned Posnanski to see. Posnanski wasn't wearing rose-colored glasses so much as the legend of Joe Paterno had created a rosy aura around the coach. Paterno's character and greatness were irreproachable, at least where it counted.
While Posnanski was writing his book, the Jerry Sandusky scandal became public, and in turn the disguise was pulled from Paterno, and suddenly this great saint looked to most people like a nefarious demon. All it took was the most disgusting crime in the history of college athletics. The point here isn't that Posnanski's original perception of Paterno was entirely wrong. Humanity is complex, and I bet Posnanski, like many of us, is still wrestling with the reality that the same guy who ignored heinous crimes against children also had a positive impact on the lives of many young men. The point is this: Paterno had reached a place that his greatness was no longer questioned, and that led people to willingly overlook some of the smaller flaws that, who knows, just might have helped point the way to a deeper, darker truth, if only someone was willing to follow the trail.
You see where I'm going with this, and it's an extreme and imperfect comparison. I admit that. Movies and people aren't the same, nor are their "crimes." Still, there's a similar danger in deciding you'll find greatness before you discover it, and cinephiles (by which I mean movie fanboys and fangirls, because that's what we are, whether we kneel in awe of Nolan or Kiarostami) fall into that trap all too often — especially the young ones most likely to place too much stock in the Sight & Sound list.
If this seems like a rejection of Sight & Sound poll, well, it is to a degree. But the poll isn't the real problem. The problem is us. Cinephiles. All it takes to correct the poll, to correct cinephelia as a whole, is a willingness to operate from a place of absolute personal honesty. We need to open ourselves up to the possibility that what other cinephiles deemed great in 1952 doesn't look so great to us 60 years later, or as great as what has come after it (and the reverse, too, of course). We need to ditch this notion of over-praising movies we "respect," which is almost always code for "I didn't like it as much as I think I'm supposed to, but I'm not about to look like an idiot by saying so," and let our heart and our gut guide us. Too many cinephiles that I know feel passionately about too many recent movies, funny movies and completely accessible movies to make me think that the Sight & Sound list is the best reflection of which movies cause even the nerdiest of film nerds to exclaim, "This is fucking great!" And if I'm wrong about that, we cinephiles have only ourselves to blame, because then it's clear we're spending far too much time talking about all the wrong movies. (It would help dramatically if we waited to talk about films until after they were released, but that's another rant for another day.)
It's only fair to note that while I didn't have an official ballot (nor do I deserve one), I declined an invitation to submit my own top 10 for a collection of pieces at The House Next Door. I wasn't protesting the whole Sight & Sound-inspired exercise. I was simply preserving my sanity. Ask me to name the 10 greatest films I've ever seen and I'm going to quickly say something like, Rear Window, Sunset Blvd, Chinatown, The Graduate, Star Wars ... and then before I can say On the Waterfront, or name a single movie by Terrence Malick or David Lean, I'm going to realize I've already filled half my list and neglected too many other movies that mean so much to me, that are fucking great on so many levels, and that's going to make me feel stressed and depressed, and where's the fun in that? Of all the lists I've read, my two favorites are by two of the most heartfelt cinephiles out there, Steven Boone, who recognized the impossibility of selecting from the entire film catalog and thus created his own little angle of approach and went with it, and Kevin Olson, who realized that the only way to do it right was to do it from the heart.
I admire the people who had the balls to put their name on a top-10 list, especially those who felt they were making picks that opened themselves up to criticism from the rest of the movie-obsessed masses (you know, like when Michael Mann put Avatar and Biutiful on his top 10 and folks leaped at the chance to call him crazy or use his picks as evidence that he's overrated as a filmmaker, or similar hogwash). Quentin Tarantino's list of 12(?!) included The Great Escape, and as much as that movie means to me (um, hello!), would I have listed it in my top 10? I'd like to think so, but probably not. The pressures of groupthink are difficult to overcome, even when you're fully aware of them.
It's not that I doubt the sincerity of any of the official Sight & Sound ballots, or the unofficial ones that, coincidently or not, happen to mirror the results of the accessibility-averse voting consensus. Nor am I concerned that the films on the top 10, or even the top 250, are unworthy of praise. Indeed, all of those films are worth watching and grappling with, ideally with our minds open to the possibility that they aren't great anymore, if they ever were, rather than lining up for a prescribed opinion. No, what's wrong with this picture is that the Sight & Sound top 10 makes it clear that too many of us feel guilty about what truly gives us pleasure or remain tightlipped about the greatest movies we've ever seen. Either way, we lose.
As always, there are exceptions. Heck, The House Next Door wouldn't exist if not for Matt Zoller Seitz's need to write about The New World. And then there's Farran Nehme Smith, who constantly spreads her love for those classic black-and-whites, without ignoring the contemporary. And there's Sheila O'Malley, who, if you haven't noticed, thinks that Elvis Presley is worth paying attention to and isn't afraid to show it. And so on, including so many other cinephiles — me included in this, too — who every now and then are bold enough to create a new conversation around our favorite films when one doesn't already exist. On the whole, though, if the Sight & Sound list is an accurate indication of the movies we find fucking great, we're failing as ambassadors for cinema. And if it's inaccurate, we're failing, too.
It's clear what we have to do. The way to protect and promote cinematic greatness isn't to fill out impossibly incomplete eclectic lists every few years. It's to shout about the movies that move us from the highest mountaintops — regularly and repeatedly. Or, you know, at least name-drop them in our Twitter feeds once in a while.
It's the act of championing movies instinctively and passionately that illuminates true greatness.