The greatest films of all time
Nick James introduces the Sight & Sound Greatest Films of All Time poll.
To many of you it’s probably a familiar story. Every ten years, from 1952 onwards, Sight & Sound has conducted a worldwide poll of critics in order to decide which films are currently regarded as the greatest ever made. (Vittorio De Sica’s neorealist parable Bicycle Thieves won the first iteration only four years after it was shot. Famously, Citizen Kane has won ever since.) We’re proud that the longevity of this poll means that it’s widely regarded as the most trusted guide there is to the canon of cinema greats.
About a year ago, the S&S team met to consider how we could best approach the poll this time. Given the dominance of electronic media, what became immediately apparent was that we would have to abandon the somewhat elitist exclusivity with which contributors to the poll had been chosen in the past and reach out to a much wider international group of commentators. We were also keen to include many critics who had established their careers online rather than purely in print.
To that end we approached more than 1,000 critics, programmers, academics, distributors, writers and other cinephiles, and received (in time for the deadline) precisely 846 top-ten lists that between them mention a total of 2,045 different films.
As a qualification of what ‘greatest’ means, our invitation letter stated, “We leave that open to your 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.”
Each entry on each list counts as one vote for the film in question, so personal rankings within the top tens don’t matter. And one important rule change compared to 2002 was that The Godfather and The Godfather Part II would no longer be accepted as a single choice, since they were made as two separate films.
What the increase in numbers has – and hasn’t – done is surprising, but we’ve certainly achieved a consensus on what represents ‘great cinema’ that now has a greater force of numbers behind it.
Since 1992, we have also conducted a separate directors’ poll, likewise dominated by Citizen Kane through 1992 and 2002. Over 350 directors have contributed. Leaving to one side what’s number one this time, I can say that you’ll find a pronounced difference between the filmmakers’ top tens and those of the critics – not to mention many more fascinating sub-themes…
Our writers advocate films for consideration, from Citizen Kane and Vertigo to Mulholland Dr. and Beau Travail – and back to L’Atalante and The House on Trubnaya Street.
Henry K. Miller exhumes Sight & Sound’s very first exercise in film canon-making, from 1942.
Eight international correspondents post-mortem the biggest-ever iteration of our celebrated film polls.
Our previous Sight & Sound polls are currently archived as follows:
The 2012 top ten BFI Southbank season
Our 10 Greatest Films of All Time screened at the BFI Southbank throughout September. Watch the trailer!