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A few calm words about The List

The king is dead. Long live the king. Welles' "Citizen Kane" has been dethroned from the Sight & Sound list of the greatest films of all time, and replaced by Hitchcock's "Vertigo." It's not as if nobody saw this coming. The list first appeared in 1952, and "Vertigo" (1958) made the list for the first time only in 1982. Climbing slowly, it placed five votes behind "Kane" in 2002. Although many moviegoers would probably rank "Psycho" (1960) or maybe "North by Northwest" as Hitch's best, for S&S types his film to beat was "Notorious" (1946). That's the one I voted for until I went through "Vertigo" a shot at a time at the University of Virginia, became persuaded of its greatness, and put it on my 2002 list.

But let's remember that all movie lists, even this most-respected one, are ultimately meaningless. Their tangible value is to provide movie lovers with viewing ideas. In the era of DVD, all of the films on the list are available; in 1952, unless you had unusual resources, most of them could be found only in a few big cities.

What surprised me this year is--how little I was surprised. I believed a generational shift was taking place, and that as the critics I grew up with faded away, young blood would add new names to the list. Kieslowski, perhaps. Herzog. Fassbinder. Scorsese. Lynch. Wong Kar-Wai.

What has happened is the opposite. This year's 846 voters looked further into the past. The most recent film in the critics' top ten, as it has been for years, is Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey" (1968). The two new films are silent: Vertov's "Man With a Movie Camera" (1929), and Dreyer's "The Passion of Joan of Arc" (1928). Murnau's great silent "Sunrise" (1927) is also on the list--three silents out of ten, and no Chaplin, Keaton or Eisenstein.

Why not more recent directors? To make the list, a director is punished if too many of his films are voted for. He needs an "official masterpiece." With Buster Keaton that film used to be "The General" (1927), but after the restoration of all of his films his votes have become scattered, I suspect, among "Sherlock Jr.," "Steamboat Bill Jr." and other treasures.

It is a delicious irony that Ozu's "Tokyo Story" (1953) is in third place, in the very week it disappeared from IMDb's Top 250 after that site tweaked its rules. Jean Renoir made many great films, but "La Règle du jeu" ("The Rules of the Game," 1939) has become the default choice. For years John Ford's "The Grapes of Wrath" was called not only his best film but, by some, the greatest American film. His "The Searchers" (1956) was widely disregarded on release, but is now in the Pantheon. Fellini's "8 1/2" is now his go-to film, although I prefer "La Dolce Vita."

Then we have a separate list voted on only by film directors. They give first place to "Tokyo Story," have a tie between "Citizen Kane" and "2001," then go to "8 l/2," Scorsese's "Taxi Driver," Coppola's "Apocalypse Now," a tie between Coppola's "The Godfather" and "Vertigo," and then Tarkovski's "Mirror" and De Sica's "Bicycle Thieves." Four of these titles are from the 1970s, made since "2001."

The absence of two names surprises me--Ingmar Bergman and Akira Kurosawa. In a poll conducted by a British magazine, there are no British directors. [Note 8/2: Except for Hitchcock! Duh.] For all of the cheering for the French New Wave, no Godard, Truffaut or their shipmates. Did anyone in Japan at the time foresee the ascendency of Ozu? It took an American critic, Donald Richie, to take his films to the Venice Film Festival and prove he was not "too Japanese" for export. Only Coppola has escaped the "official masterpiece" curse, with the directors giving "Apocalypse Now" the recognition it deserves.

In the new issue of Sight & Sound, the magazine will break the voting down farther, telling us which directors had the most total votes. They will also release the actual ballots; reading who 358 film directors voted for can be revealing about their own work.

For years people have been telling me they just don't see what's so great about "Citizen Kane." Now they tell me they just don't see what's so great about "Vertigo." My answer will remain the same: "You're insufficiently evolved as a moviegoer." Or, more simply, "You're wrong."

Let's close by returning to "Vertigo." Every time I've gone through any film a shot at a time over several days, someone in the audience has noticed something amazing. When I was at the University of Virginia, we got to the point when Scottie (James Stewart) rescues the unconscious Madeleine/Judy (Kim Novak) from San Francisco Bay and takes her unconscious back to his apartment. He gently undresses her and puts her into bed.

"His action is incredible," I said. "He's changing an unconscious stranger."

"She's not unconscious," said a voice in the dark.


"She's pretending. That wasn't Madeleine attempting suicide, but Judy playing Madeleine. She's pretending to be unconscious."

And Scotty saved her, did not ravish her, treated her gently, and tucked her in. That may help explain why the next time we see her, coming into the living room and joining Scottie, she has a glow in her eyes. Madeleine went into the bedroom, and Judy came out. It's then she starts to love and pity him. Oh, this is an even deeper film than it seems.    

The Critics' Top Ten Greatest Films of All Time:

Vertigo (Hitchcock, 1958) Citizen Kane (Welles, 1941) Tokyo Story (Ozu, 1953) La Règle du jeu (Renoir, 1939) Sunrise: a Song for Two Humans (Murnau, 1927) 2001: A Space Odyssey (Kubrick, 1968) The Searchers (Ford, 1956) Man with a Movie Camera (Dziga Vertov, 1929) The Passion of Joan of Arc (Dreyer, 1927) 10. 8 ½ (Fellini, 1963)The Directors' Top Ten Greatest Films of All Time: 1. Tokyo Story (Ozu, 1953) 2. (tie) 2001: A Space Odyssey (Kubrick, 1968) 2. (tie) Citizen Kane (Welles, 1941) 4. 8 ½ (Fellini, 1963) 5. Taxi Driver (Scorsese, 1976) 6. Apocalypse Now (Coppola, 1979) 7. (tie) The Godfather (Coppola, 1972) 7. (tie) Vertigo (Hitchcock, 1958) 9. Mirror (Tarkovsky, 1974) 10 Bicycle Thieves (De Sica, 1948) 

 Click here to instantly search the web for streaming information on the Top 50 films on the list, from the useful Go Watch It.

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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