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Sights & Sounds: A Decade of Devouring the Critics’ Best Film Poll

July 31, 2012 by Simon Kinnear in Opinion with 1 Comment

Sight & Sound September 2002 cover

The long wait is over.  Later this week, the results of the new Sight & Sound critics’ poll – something they’ve been doing every ten years since 1952, and something which has been won by Citizen Kane every ten years since 1962 – will be announced.

But the real wait won’t be over until I get my hands on a copy and see what everyone has voted for.

See, the actual results are staggeringly boring – Hitchcock, Eisenstein, Kubrick, yada yada.  It’s the dead hand of a consensus that was formed many decades ago and still holds sway with only minor variations. And I say that as someone who thinks that Kane deserves its throne.

Yes, there are hopes that (for the first time since L’Avventura gatecrashed the top 10 only two years after its release) a new film will appear in the results. There Will Be Blood? Let’s hope so.

But I’ll be more excited to see if Punch-Drunk Love gets a vote.  You see, for the past 10 years, I’ve been periodically devouring the 2002 results, and I still find points of interest in the actual lists of what people voted for and (occasionally, if they’ve offered a running commentary) why.

Where most of my old film magazines end up in the loft, the September 2002 of Sight & Sound is still out, graffit’d with highlighter pen annotations when people’s choices chimed with my own.  And even when I’m out, I can still access it because the BFI kindly made the whole thing available in interactive form on its website.

For starters, it’s a chance to find out which critics (and directors, because Sight & Sound asks working filmmakers as well) you really agree with.  Mark Kermode, for example, is dead wrong about his obsession with The Exorcist, but I only started to pay attention to him after discovering his equally enduring love for The Devils. Now, there’s a scary movie.

Similarly, I started paying closer attention to Roger Michell, who in 2002 I only knew from Notting Hill, after learning we share a love for Sidney Lumet’s The Hill.  The flipside: I rapidly lost interest in Sam Mendes when he revealed a list of stone-cold classics that read like he’d quickly run off to check the 1992 results before making his own choices.  (Will he vote for a Bond film this time around? Will he bollocks.)

You can see why Mendes might toe the line.  It’s a lot of pressure to stick your head above the parapet and face ridicule from peers and audiences alike.  But the best lists do just that.  George A. Romero’s 2002 list is endlessly re-readable, an ironic dialogue with the “entertainment staff at Village Voice” who Romero imagines snickering over his choices.

Secondly, it’s a chance to test your perception of somebody against their actual preferences. Paul Schrader listed The Searchers, Vertigo and Pickpocket. Of course, he did. They’re the basis for Schrader’s own screenplays for Taxi Driver, Obsession and American Gigolo.  Meanwhile, the overexcitable Quentin Tarantino’s top 10…listed 12 films. (Surprisingly, you’ll have heard of most of them, belying his reputation for rooting around in the sawdust of the grindhouse.)

It gets even more exciting when it’s personal.  One of the first people I looked up in 2002 was Laura Mulvey, the doyenne of 1970s film criticism but also my M.A. tutor – ie someone I acutually knew.  Her choices were as follows:

  • Jeanne Dielman… (Akerman)
  • Liebelei (Ophuls)
  • Love Me Tonight (Mamoulian)
  • The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (Ford)
  • Man with a Movie Camera (Vertov)
  • Pyaasa (Dutt)
  • Through the Olive Trees (Kiarostami)
  • Two or Three Things I Know about Her (Godard)
  • Voyage to Italy (Rossellini)
  • Xala (Sembéne)

This explained why I saw five of these films on her course, and only missed out on a sixth because I was away the day she screened Pyaasa.

Thirdly, do tastes change? My list of 2012 would be radically different to that of 2002. What will Peter Bradshaw’s be like?  The reason I ask is that, a couple of years ago, Empire invited critics to contribute to its own top 500 of all-time.  Bradshaw was involved, which was obvious to anyone who had spent years memorising the Sight & Sound list. Bradshaw’s 2002 choices were:

  • The Addiction (Ferrara)
  • Andrei Roublev (Tarkovsky)
  • Black Narcissus (Powell, Pressburger)
  • Crimes and Misdemeanors (Allen)
  • In the Company of Men (LaBute)
  • Kind Hearts and Coronets (Hamer)
  • Paths of Glory (Kubrick)
  • Raging Bull (Scorsese)
  • Singin’ in the Rain (Kelly, Donen)
  • Tokyo Story (Ozu)

All ten of these films – yes, even The Addiction – made the Empire list. Coincidence?

Fourthly (although we might have to wait for a bit), when the BFI puts the 2012 Sight & Sound poll online you can go crazy teasing out connections.  In 2002, only two people voted for Russ Meyer’s Faster Pussycat Kill Kill.  One was a critic, the other was a director.  Guess who?  [Scroll to the bottom for the answer.]

Fifthly, some filmmakers made their own commentaries.  My opinion of Michael Mann took a tumble after I read his toe-curlingly pretentious summary of Apocalypse Now:

Coppola made the ephemeral dynamics of the mass psyche’s celebratory nihilism, its self-destructive urges and transience, concrete and operatic. A fabulous picture.

I still don’t know what “ephemeral dynamics” are.

Finally, don’t discount envy and ambition.  Ten years ago, I promised myself that – by 2012 – I’d be doing something to warrant getting into the Sight & Sound list.  I’ve fallen short of that goal, but reaching the point where I’m paid to have an opinion, and somebody might actually read it, is good enough for me.  And the Sight & Sound poll had a tremendous influence in getting me even this far.

Plus: let’s be honest. They don’t really want a guy voting for Martin Brest’s Midnight Run. Nobody did in 2002. Why have the Citizen Kane of foul-mouthed 1980s mismatched-buddy movies when Sight & Sound has the real thing?

So here’s my advice. When you buy Sight & Sound, just ignore the fact that (yawn) the overrated Vertigo has made the top 5 yet again, and dive into the individual lists.  Seek out your favourite critics or filmmakers, find out who voted for them and see what else they voted for. Then check who else voted for those films.

Ignore the consensus and look to the margins.  The true value of the Sight & Sound doesn’t lie in who wins, but in the undiscovered gems that the best experts in the industry recommend that you watch.  The Sight & Sound poll is the best film education you’ll get for the next decade.

Who voted for Faster Pussycat Kill Kill? Jonathan Ross and John Waters.  When you think about it, it had to be these two, really, didn’t it?

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One Comment

  1. My Top 10 Favourite Films » KinnemaniacAug 9, 2012 at 10:00 amReply

    […] A week on, and I still haven’t grabbed a copy of this month’s Sight &Sound. No matter: I have a decade to read the Critics’ Best Films Of All Time. […]

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