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The great movies (almost) nobody voted for

OK, this is where it really gets interesting. Forget the consensus Top 50 Greatest Movies of All Time; let's get personal. Sight & Sound has now published the top 250 titles in its 2012 international critics poll, the full list of more than 2,000 movies mentioned, and all the individual lists of the 845 participating critics, academics, archivists and programmers, along with any accompanying remarks they submitted. I find this to be the most captivating aspect of the survey, because it reminds us of so many terrific movies we may have forgotten about, or never even heard of. If you want to seek out surprising, rewarding movies, this is a terrific place to start looking. For the past few days I've been taking various slices at the "data" trying to find statistical patterns, and to glean from the wealth of titles some treasures I'd like to heartily recommend -- and either re-watch or catch up with myself.

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I know we're supposed to consider the S&S poll a feature film "canon" -- a historically influential decennial event since 1952, but just one of many. I don't disagree with Greg Ferrara at TCM's Movie Morlocks ("Ranking the Greats: Please Make it Stop") when he says that limiting ballots to ten all-time "best" (or "favorite," "significant," "influential" titles is incredibly limiting. That's why I think perusing at the critics' personal lists, the Top 250 (cited by seven critics or more) and the full list of 2,045 films mentioned is more enjoyable pastime.

It's wise to remember that, although the top of the poll may at first glance look relatively conservative or traditional, there's a tremendous diversity in the individual lists. Even the top vote-getter, "Vertigo," was chosen by less than one quarter of the participants.

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I guess if you really wanted to make a "boring" list, you could start by asking a bunch of people what films they felt were most significant landmarks and they'd feel compelled to check off the usual suspects. You'd probably get results resembling the syllabus for an early intro-to-film-history course: "The Birth of a Nation," "Battleship Potemkin" ( #11), "Metropolis" (#36), "The Gold Rush" (#154), "The Passion of Joan of Arc" (#9), "Rules of the Game" (#4), "Citizen Kane" (#2), "Bicycle Thieves" (#33), "Rome: Open City" (#183), "Rashomon" (#24), "The Seventh Seal" (#93), "8 1/2" (#10) and other canonical classics that were officially endorsed as standard "texts" in the formative days of university cinema studies departments. Not that there's anything wrong with acknowledging such cinematic landmarks -- most of these also happen to be indisputably great movies.

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Scott Tobias ("The radical visions in Sight & Sound ") addresses the complaints raised in some quarters that the list is safe and "stodgy" because there aren't enough post-1960s movies on the list:

But that argument is wrong, for two seemingly contradictory reasons: The list should be stodgy, and the list isn't stodgy in the least.... [T]he stability of the Sight & Sound list is a big part of what gives it value: For film critics and historians--and would-be critics and casual historians--the poll is the compass pointing north, the absolute baseline for an education on the medium. Every critic who submitted a ballot deviated from the Top 10 either partially or wholly--just as any film fanatic heads down their own personal tributaries--but the consensus of the many has given the study of film a useful foundation. A radically altered Sight & Sound list would be weak and destabilizing; breaking into the Top 10 should be slow and carefully considered. For now, just losing "Citizen Kane" [to second place, for the first time in 50 years] is radical enough, like having to orbit around a different sun.

Now here's the second point: Many of the films on this list are fucking crazy. If you can imagine yourself going back in time and seeing any of these films for the first time, nearly all of them are mini-revolutions, breaking so firmly with what people expected cinema to be that they were often misunderstood or hated. There's nothing "stodgy" about "The Rules Of The Game," which had to be removed and drastically re-edited due to mass outrage and a government ban. "Tokyo Story" and "The Passion Of Joan Of Arc" violate the most basic rules of how a film is supposed to be shot, the former by breaking "the 180-degree plane" and the latter by abandoning spatial relationships altogether. "2001: A Space Odyssey" attempts nothing short of accounting for existence itself--and doesn't even get to the space part until after a long prologue about a breakthrough in ape evolution. "The Searchers" remains an absolutely chilling rebuke to what we expect from John Wayne, John Ford, and the American Western itself. If you were to add, say, "Pulp Fiction," to the list, that would be a relatively stodgy choice in this company, despite being a sensation in itself.

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I'd go even further: The movies in the S&S Top Ten are still ahead of their time, their innovations and formal experimentation still too radical for many of today's audiences. That doesn't mean they are, or ever were, "difficult" to watch ("2001" was a mainstream hit when first released by MGM), but several were initially commercial flops for various reasons that now seem difficult to comprehend ("Vertigo," "Citizen Kane," "Rules of the Game"). Some of them are genre pictures ("Vertigo" a psychological thriller; "The Searchers" a western; "Tokyo Story" a family drama; "2001" a science-fiction picture) -- but they're also, as Tobias says, radical experimental films ("Man with a Movie Camera," anyone?) -- especially now, when movies have generally become so safe, so conservative. Very few international filmmakers are taking the kinds of risks, stretching the boundaries of the medium, that these "classics" do. It's not that the Top Ten hasn't been influential (you can see Renoir's influence in Robert Altman, Kubrick's in David Fincher, Ozu's in Wim Wenders and Jim Jarmusch), but who is even venturing out on the trails they blazed, much less striking out in new directions?

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Chris Chang (whose personal list is one of my favorites) wrote: "If your top ten is not daft then it is, by my definition, insincere." I wouldn't go that far (who's to say what's "daft" any more than what's "best"?), but I like what Milan Pavlovic (maker of another of my favorite lists) said: "I am still convinced that most of my favorite films are among the greatest ever made, so with only a few regrets I dare to name these ten."

In his invitation sent to prospective participants in what is billed as "The Greatest Films Poll," Sight & Sound editor Nick James left the selection criteria entirely up to each voter:

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.

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Consequently, in keeping with the notion that film criticism is in large part autobiography, I wrote: "These are movies that made me who I am and shaped my love of cinema. I would also defend each and every one of them as an awe-inspiring work of art." Dan Sallitt (another of my favorite lists) described a similar approach: "As I get older, my ten-best list looks a bit like a cubist self-portrait, with the temporal layers of my personality thrown together helter-skelter."

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And so, we have some of my all-time favorites such as Jonathan Glazer's "Birth" (thanks to Chris Chang), Terence Davies' "The Long Day Closes" (thanks to Michał Oleszczyk and two others), Jerzy Skolimowski's "Deep End" (thanks to Florence Maillard), Martin Scorsese's "New York, New York" and Joel and Ethan Coen's "No Country for Old Men" (thanks to Milan Pavovic) -- all films I seriously considered for my own Top Ten list.

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Which, by the way, is here¹ (alphabetically, as in all cases, with rank and total number of poll votes in brackets):

"Barry Lyndon" (Stanley Kubrick, 1975) [#59; 25 votes] "Chinatown" (Roman Polanski, 1974) [#78; 21 votes] "Citizen Kane" (Orson Welles, 1941) [#2; 157 votes] "Late Spring" (Yasujiro Ozu, 1949) [#15; 50 votes] "Nashville" (Robert Altman, 1975) [#73; 22 votes] "Only Angels Have Wings" (Howard Hawks, 1939) [#154; 11 votes] "Our Hospitality" (Buster Keaton, John G. Blystone, 1923) [#447; 3 votes] "Sansho Dayu" (Kenji Mizoguchi, 1954) [#59; 25 votes] "Trouble in Paradise" (Ernst Lubitsch, 1932) [#117; 14 votes] "Vertigo (Alfred Hitchcock, 1958) [#1; 191 votes]

I'm happy that my choices are well-distributed among the top 500 or so, from the #1 choice to #447. (If I'd chosen "Sherlock, Jr." as my Keaton, as I did in 2000, that would have boosted it to a tie for #57 on the Big List, alongside Welles' "Touch of Evil" and Visconti's "The Leopard.") Every film on this list has earned its place, as I regard all of them with the utmost affection and esteem, but I will confess to wanting to boost the standings of "Our Hospitality," "Barry Lyndon" (which I cited instead of "2001: A Space Odyssey, my 2002 choice), "Late Spring" (my favorite Ozu), "Only Angels Have Wings" and "Trouble in Paradise." The other half of my list is the same as in 2002.

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Maybe some people can (or see a reason to) separate what they love from what is "best." Some do love to use words like "objectively" when speaking of evaluating the worth of art, but not me. I find the attempt bewildering. We can acknowledge, "objectively," what is there, but these lists require subjective evaluation. What a movie what means, how it works, how it affects us, can never be objectified -- though criticism is at its most rigorous and rewarding when it favors attentive observation over vague but clever or pretty generalizations.

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So, I will most likely continue to well up at the end of "The Searchers" (#7) and "No Country for Old Men" (#588); I have little response to "Lawrence of Arabia" (#81), largely because its aesthetics (apart from certain widescreen views of the desert and Peter O'Toole's face) don't particularly move or excite me. (How's that for a generalization; in fairness -- a quality that is probably overvalued in criticism, as it is in "news" reporting where it becomes manufactured bias -- I should say that I have studied "The Searchers" and "No Country for Old Men" shot by shot, and came to love them all the more. I've never felt compelled to do that with "Lawrence of Arabia.")

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Though I understand where Chris Chang is coming from, I'd be more inclined to say that if none of the "greatest" films in the Sight & Sound Top 250 (or even Top 50) are among the most profound movie experiences you've ever had, then... well, I'm not going to question anyone's sincerity, but I'd have to wonder if you weren't being willfully contrarian or idiosyncratic. I'd want to know what it is you're responding to in your choices that you don't find in the others. (I have encountered critics and non-critics whose values I may understand, but don't share. We don't respond to, look for, or desire the same kinds of things from movies.) I feel much the way Dave Kehr does about these values: "All long-take, mise en scène movies, with the partial exception of Intolerance. Perhaps this is my knee-jerk reaction against the current mania for machine-gun editing." So, I guess there's a little contrarianism in me, too.

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Glenn Kenny posed the nature of the dilemma very nicely:

As it happens, the four films on the list which might conceivably be seen as 'consensus' picks --"Citizen Kane," "Psycho," "Singin' in the Rain," "The Searchers" -- are also ones close to my heart, or at least the formation of my sensibility. The other six came to me after a lot of internal debate over whether I was being different for the sake of being different or whether these were not in fact truly great films that, when the time comes for these sorts of surveys, do not get the proper recognition for being the imaginatively prodigious, paradigm-shifting, galvanic works that I believe they in fact are.

As for the appeal of the "new," I think that's the worst thing about contemporary pop culture. What's "new" this week, or this month, or this year, isn't likely to be truly fresh or innovative or even novel (in the short-term sense); it's just whatever is being released, promoted, advertised, and/or "viral."

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Toronto writer Alexander Huls ("The 'Greatest Films Ever' List Includes Nothing From the Past 40 Years? Good") acknowledges it's "preposterous" to say that the past few decades have produced no films "worthy of inclusion in the Top Ten ("2001" was made in 1968; the newest movies in the Top 50 are Wong Kar Wai's "In the Mood for Love" and Edward Yang's "Yi Yi" from 2000):

If a movie is a masterpiece, it should be ranked as a classic, regardless of how old or young it is--right? Since 1968 (or the 1970s if you're looking at the Top-50 list) cinema has offered countless great, widely acclaimed films. The critical question, as voiced by New Statesman's Ryan Gilbey: "Are those who voted paralysed by history or are the finest films really located in the distant past?"

That, Huls believes and I concur, is a misinterpretation of The List, which shows that "the canonization process is very, very slow." As it should be:

We need time to judge whether a great movie truly deserves to be called a classic. Hyperbole comes easily in the heat of the film-watching moment, and in the afterglow it can be all too easy to proclaim it a masterpiece when it might not even hold up to a second viewing (ahem, "American Beauty").

That's why the real gauge of greatness is the tried-and-true test of time. A real classic can't just seem timeless. It must show itself to be. There are many movies that are substantial enough to resonate a few years past their release, maybe even a decade, before they lose something and vanish from the forefront of film appreciators' minds. And there are some films that don't become acknowledged masterpieces till years later. A true classic reveals itself when it survives 20, 30, or 40 years and still manages to resonate deeper than most other films.

Of course, new films should be allowed to challenge the throne. It just should be tough for them to succeed. After all, a 50- or 10-spot list presents a zero-sum game. In order for a contemporary film to appreciate, it requires the depreciation of a classic. Yes, there are present-day works that could stand next to past cinematic greats (personally, I think "The Tree of Life" could be in the Top 50 right now), but they need to not just pay their dues first--they need to prove they are as good, if not better.

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Compare the Sight & Sound list, with its view over the long term, to the top ten percent of the more "democratic" (and short-term trend-swayed) public rankings on the IMDb's Top 250, on which a new release is liable to land in its opening week. (Among 2012 releases, "The Dark Knight Rises" is now at #18"; "Marvel's The Avengers" is at #57):

1) "The Shawshank Redemption" (1994), 2) "The Godfather" (1972), 3) "The Godfather, Part II" (1974), 4) "Pulp Fiction" (1994), 5) "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly" (1966), 6) "12 Angry Men" (1957), 7) "Schindler's List" (1993), 8) "The Dark Knight" (2008), 9) "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King" (2003), 10) "Star Wars: Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back" (1980)11), "Fight Club" (1999), 12) "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" (1975), 13) "The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring" (2001), 14) "Inception" (2010), 15) "Goodfellas" (1990), 16) "Star Wars" (1977), 17) "Seven Samurai" (1954), 18) "The Dark Knight Rises" (2012), 19) "The Matrix" (1999), 20) "City of God" (2002)21), "Forrest Gump" (1994), 22) "Once Upon a Time in the West" (1968), 23) "Casablanca" (1942), 24) "The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers" (2002), 25) "The Silence of the Lambs" (1991).

Ten of these are installments in series. Most popular directors: Christopher Nolan (3), Peter Jackson (3), Sergio Leone (2), Francis Ford Coppola (2).

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Now consider this: In the 2012 Sight & Sound poll, not a single critic voted for Steven Spielberg's "Schindler's List" (IMDb #7; Oscar's best picture of 1993 -- although other Spielberg movies were cited, including "Jaws," "CE3K," "E.T.," "A.I." and "Minority Report"), John Schlesinger's "Midnight Cowboy" (Oscar's best picture of 1969), Robert Zemeckis's "Forrest Gump" (Oscar's best picture of 1994), Ridley Scott's "Gladiator" (Oscar's best picture of 2000), Paul Haggis's "Crash" (Oscar's best picture of 2005 -- though one voter did select the Cronenberg film), Steven Soderbergh's "sex, lies, and videotape" (Palme d'Or winner at Cannes, 1989), David Lynch's "Wild at Heart" (Palme d'Or winner, 1990), Hector Babenco's "Pixote" (winner of LA, NY and National Society of Film Critics' best foreign language film award, 1981), Shane Carruth's "Primer" (Sundance Film Festival winner, 2004), Alfonso Cuarón's "Children of Men" (2006)... And no votes for other pop phenomena such as Sam Mendes' aforementioned "American Beauty," Christopher Nolan's "The Dark Knight" or "Inception," M. Night Shyamalan's "The Sixth Sense," Spielberg's "The Color Purple," Brian De Palma's "Casualties of War." All of these movies were the subject of passionate popular and critical discussion (and, in some cases, controversy) when they came out. But while they may have had an impact on pop culture, they apparently aren't regarded so highly by critics today as they once were.

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Likewise, only two critics put Arthur Penn's once-canonized "Bonnie and Clyde" on their lists. And only one vote apiece for such acclaimed films as "Last Tango in Paris," "Yojimbo," "Gandhi," "To Kill a Mockingbird," "A Place in the Sun," "The African Queen," "Reds," "Peeping Tom," "The 39 Steps," "Scarface" (both the Hawks and De Palma versions), "Dog Day Afternoon," "Foreign Correspondent," "The Blue Angel," "Born on the Fourth of July," "La collectioneuse," "Day for Night," "Titanic," "The Departed," "Fight Club," "Les Diaboliques," "Dirty Harry," "1900," "Funny Games" (1997), "Grey Gardens," "The New World," "The Insider," "Harold and Maude," "Inglourious Basterds," "Kiss Me Deadly," "Knife in the Water," "Lancelot du Lac," "Withnail & I," "Lolita," "The Navigator," "La Ronde," "The Big Red One," "Rope," "The Tree of Wooden Clogs," "The Sweet Hereafter," "The Wicker Man" -- most of which are still considered "must-see" pictures in their day.

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So, I think I'll conclude this post (though I'm not done with The Big List -- and all 358 of the directors' individual ballots are due to be released August 22) with my own 25 Favorite Movies That Nobody Voted for in the 2012 Sight & Sound Critics Poll -- and I'd be perfectly happy if any ten of these great movies were to be substituted for the entire ballot I actually submitted. In no particular order and off the top of my head:

"Housekeeping" (Bill Forsyth, 1987), "Le Boucher" (Claude Chabrol, 1970)"Ball of Fire" (Howard Hawks, 1941) -- Sugarpuss O'Shea!!!"Fast, Cheap & Out of Control" (Errol Morris, 1997), "Scarlet Street" (Fritz Lang, 1945), "Carrie" (Brian De Palma, 1976), "Animal Crackers" (Victor Heerman, 1930), "Cutter's Way" (Ivan Passer, 1981), "The Brood" (David Cronenberg, 1979)"A Year of the Quiet Sun" (Krzysztof Zanussi, 1984)

"Avanti!" (Billy Wilder, 1972), "The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada" (Tommy Lee Jones, 2005), "The Devil is a Woman" (Josef von Sternberg, 1935), "California Split" (Robert Altman, 1974), "Hail, the Conquering Hero" (Preston Sturges, 1944), "The Thing from Another World" (Christian Nyby/Howard Hawks, 1951), "Never Give a Sucker an Even Break" (Edward F. Cline, 1941), "High Hopes" (Mike Leigh, 1988), "Suspicion" (Alfred Hitchcock, 1941), "Straw Dogs" (Sam Peckinpah, 1971).

"Easy Living" (Mitchell Leisen, 1937), "Ride the High Country" (Sam Peckinpah, 1962), "Heaven Can Wait" (Ernst Lubitsch, 1943), "Choose Me" (Alan Rudolph, 1984), "The American Friend" (Wim Wenders, 1978), "Seconds" (John Frankenheimer, 1966), "After Hours" (Martin Scorsese, 1985), "Victor/Victoria" (Blake Edwards, 1982), "Altered States" (Ken Russell, 1980).

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OK, I'm just about listed out here (and you probably are, too), but just to illustrate my point further, I could make just as good, just as valid, a Top Ten list from the boldfaced titles below (from slots 50-100 in the consensus poll), even if you leave out the ones I've already selected:

* On my Sight & Sound ballot in 2002** On my Sight & Sound ballot in 2012*** On my Sight & Sound ballot in 2002 & 2012 Bold entries: Seriously considered for my Top Ten!

Italicized entries: Haven't seen

53) "Rear Window" (Alfred Hitchcock, 1954)= "North by Northwest" (Hitchcock, 1959)= "Raging Bull" (Martin Scorsese, 1980)56) "M" (Fritz Lang, 1931)= "Touch of Evil" (Orson Welles, 1958)= "The Leopard" (Luchino Visconti, 1963)59) "Sherlock Junior" (Buster Keaton, 1924)*= "Sansho Dayu" (Kenji Mizoguchi, 1954)***= "The Mother and the Whore" (Jean Eustache, 1973)= "Barry Lyndon" (Stanley Kubrick, 1975)**63) "Modern Times" (Charles Chaplin, 1936)= "Sunset Blvd." (Billy Wilder, 1950)= "The Night of the Hunter" (Charles Laugton, 1955)= "Wild Strawberries" (Ingmar Bergman, 1957)= "Rio Bravo" (Howard Hawks, 1958)= "Pickpocket" (Robert Bresson, 1959)69) "A Man Escaped" (Bresson, 1956)= "Blade Runner" (Ridley Scott, 1982)= "San soliel" (Chris Marker, 1982)= "Blue Velvet" (David Lynch, 1986)73) "La Grande Illusion" (Jean Renoir, 1937)= "Les Enfants du Paradis" (Marcel Carne, 1945)"The Third Man" (Carol Reed, 1949)= "L'eclisse" (Michelangelo Antonioni, 1962)= "Nashville" (Robert Altman, 1975)***78) "Once Upon a Time in the West" (Sergio Leone, 1968)= "Chinatown" (Roman Polanski, 1974)***= "Beau Travail" (Clair Denis, 1998)81) "The Magnificent Ambersons" (Welles, 1942)*= "Lawrence of Arabia" (David Lean, 1962)= "The Spirit of the Beehive" (Victor Erice, 1973)84) "Greed" (Erich von Stroheim, 1925)= "Casablanca" (Michael Curtiz, 1942)= "The Color of Pomegranates" (Sergei Parajanov, 1968)= "The Wild Bunch" (Sam Peckinpah, 1969)= "Fanny and Alexander" (Bergman, 1984)= "A Brighter Summer Day" (Edward Yang, 1991)= "Partie de campagne" (Renoir, 1936)= "A Matter of Life and Death" (Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger, 1946)= "Aguirre, the Wrath of God" (Werner Herzog, 1972)= "Intolerance" (D.W. Griffith, 1916)= "The Earrings of Madame de..." (Max Ophuls, 1953)= "The Seventh Seal" (Bergman, 1957)= "Imitation of Life" (Douglas Sirk, 1959)= "Touki-Bouki (Diop Mambety, 1973)= "Yi Yi: A One and a Two" (Yang, 2000)

The rest of my (non-repeating) 2002 selections and how they ranked this time:

183) "The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie" (Luis Buñuel, 1972) *202) "Kings of the Road" (Wim Wenders, 1976)*

* On my Sight & Sound ballot in 2002** On my Sight & Sound ballot in 2012*** On my Sight & Sound ballot in 2002 & 2012Bold entries: Seriously considered for my Top Ten!

Italicized entries: Haven't seen

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