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'Citizen Kane' fave film of movie elite

"Citizen Kane" "The Godfather" and "The Godfather, Part II" "8 1/2" "Lawrence of Arabia" "Dr. Strangelove" "The Bicycle Thief" "Raging Bull" "Vertigo" "Rashomon" "Seven Samurai" "Le Regle du Jeu" ("The Rules of the Game") "Tokyo Story" "2001: A Space Odyssey" "The Battleship Potemkin" "Sunrise" "Singin' in the Rain"

It is now, once again, as official as such things can be: "Citizen Kane," directed by Orson Welles, is the greatest film of all time. So declare 108 movie directors and 145 movie critics from all over the world, in the 2002 Sight & Sound poll to determine the best films ever made.

Sight & Sound, the magazine of the British Film Institute, has been conducting its poll every 10 years since 1952. Because it is world-wide and reaches out to voters who are presumably experts, it is by far the most respected of the countless polls of great movies--the only one most serious movie people take seriously.

"Citizen Kane" routinely wins such polls, but of course all polls are a matter of apples and oranges, and it is instructive that even though it won, "Kane" was voted for by only 39 percent of the directors, and 32 percent of the critics. Altogether, the two groups nominated 885 different films, and somewhere in the world there are serious cineastes who believe William Castle's "The Tingler," Radley Metzger's "The Opening of Misty Beethoven" and Russ Meyer's "Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!" belong on the list.

Because some great directors divided their support among several different titles, the magazine also compiled lists of great directors.

Welles places first among both directors and critics, but it is interesting to find four names here that are not represented among the top ten films: Billy Wilder, Ingmar Bergman, Jean-Luc Godard, and John Ford. Perhaps they diluted their chances by making too many good films.

Scrutinizing the lists uncovers countless trends. It is clear, for example, that the directors have lost interest in silent films, and include none of them among their favorites. The critics include two ("Sunrise" and "Battleship Potemkin"). Both groups have abandoned their long-standing affection for silent comedy, and neither Charlie Chaplin nor Buster Keaton made either list this time.

Only four films are on both lists ("Kane," "The Godfather 1 & 2," "8 1/2" and "Vertigo"). The critics prefer Kubrick's "2001" but the directors like his "Dr. Strangelove." Only the critics picked a musical "Singin' in the Rain"), and neither group picked a single Western (Ford's "The Searchers" was fifth among the critics in 1992). In combining the votes for the first two "Godfather" films, the editors set themselves up for a controversy, because some participants voted for one and not the other.

It seems clear this time around that "Vertigo" has moved decisely onto the lead as Hitchcock's most respected film. The critics put it in second place, just five votes behind, and the directors had it in a tie for sixth. Such Hitchcock titles as "Notorious," "Rear Window" and "Psycho" (1960) are often the choices of other polls, but with the serious crowd, "Vertigo," Hitch's most autobiographical film, usually leads.

The moviegoer of some enthusiasm will have heard of most of the films on both lists, but a few titles are not widely known, probably including Renoir's "Le Regle du Jeu" ("Rules of the Game"), Ozu's "Tokyo Story" and Murnau's "Sunrise," a silent film by the German master which shared the very first Academy Award. What is fairly clear from both lists is that the critics and directors think great movies stopped being made circa 1980. The newest film on the director's list is Scorsese's "Raging Bull" (1980), and the critics select nothing since "Godfather, Part II" (1974), which may have gotten in on the coattails of the 1972 film.

None of the most-heralded films of more recent decades made the cut. Not "Pulp Fiction," with votes from three critics and four directors, or "Schindler's List" (one critic, one director), or "Fargo" (two critics), or von Trier's Dogma standard-bearer "Breaking the Waves" (four critics, one director) or Kieslowski's Three Colors trilogy, ignored by the directors, which got two critic's votes for "Blue," one each for "White" and "Red," and three for the trilogy as a whole.

Comparing the 2002 list to the 1992 list, it's as if time didn't stand still, exactly, but moved sideways. "Raging Bull," "The Godfather" and "2001" were also the newest films 10 years ago. Now they are ten years older and nothing has come along since worthy of the S&S voters' attention.

When non-pro moviegoers are polled, the results are much more current. The Internet Movie Database, which is the most-used worldwide movie web site, polls its users and accumulates thousands of votes. Five of its top ten films were made since 1990: "The Shawshank Redemption" (1994); "Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring" (2001); "Schindler's List" (1993), and "Memento" (2000). The IMDb rates "The Godfather" first, "Citizen Kane" fifth.

What does this mean? Well, it might mean that if you have labored for a lifetime watching films and know a lot about them, you believe the cinema has gone to hell since about 1980. Or it may mean that the IMDb's voters are mostly voting on recent titles (they rate each film individually with a point system, instead of composing lists of 10), and "Citizen Kane" has done amazingly well. Or it might mean absolutely nothing at all. That's the thing about these polls.

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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