If you are a classic film fan by now you have the news about the latest Sight and Sound critics' poll concerning the greatest films of all time. Ever since 1962 the poll, held once every decade by the British Film Institute's official magazine, has resulted in Citizen Kane (1941) being voted the greatest film of all time. This year that did not happen. Instead, Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo (1958) took the top spot, while Citizen Kane came in at number 2. To say that cineastes were taken aback would be a minor statement.
Indeed, it seems that the moment the poll was published Twitter, Google+, blogs, and various other sites on the internet with filled with debates over the poll's results. Some people were taken aback that Citizen Kane, voted the greatest film of all time in the Sight and Sound poll five decades in a row and a film that generally tops every other film, should lose to, of all things, an Alfred Hitchcock film. Yet others are thankful that a film that they considered overrated has at last been dethroned by a more worthy adversary, particularly one directed by a cinematic master. Still yet others have had reactions somewhere between these extremes.
As for myself, I must say that I generally find myself disagreeing with such polls. Indeed, as far as I am concerned the greatest film of all time is neither Citizen Kane nor Vertigo, but Seven Samurai (1954). As to which is better, Citizen Kane or Vertigo, I would have to give that honour to Citizen Kane. Not only do I think Citizen Kane was the more revolutionary of the two films, but I also think it has a more fascinating story. In fact, while I do love Vertigo, it isn't even my favourite Alfred Hitchcock film of all time. That would be North by Northwest (1959), followed by Rear Window (1954) and The Lady Vanishes (1938). I am not sure Vertigo would rank in my top 50 greatest films of all time, although it might rank in my top 100. On the other hand, Citizen Kane is what I consider the third greatest film of all time, after Seven Samurai and Casablanca (1942).
Beyond the fact that I believe The Seven Samurai should have topped the poll, I do have other issues with it. Namely, I do not think Tokyo Story is the third greatest film of all time. In fact, while I like the film well enough, I do not think it would even rank in my top 100, let alone my top 50. While my top 50 would have multiple Stanley Kubrick films, 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) would not even make the cut. Instead, my top Kubrick film would be Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964), which I would place in the top ten greatest films of all time. While Some Like It Hot (1959) would make my list, I would also include Billy Wilder's The Apartment (1960), which would be my fourth greatest film of all time. Anyhow, I could go on, but I believe that one can see now that I do have issues with the poll, as I am sure many film buffs do.
Indeed, in many respects the reaction of cineastes to this poll comes as no surprise to me. I do not think I have ever seen results of a poll on the greatest films of all time or a list someone has simply made with which film buffs ever totally agreed. The fact is that what makes film great is largely subjective. What one person considers the greatest film of all time, another might consider to be utter rubbish. Oh, there are those films that generally make lists of the greatest films of all time: Citizen Kane, Casablanca, Gone with the Wind (1939), and so on. There are also so those directors who are certain to have multiple films on lists of the greatest movies of all time: Sir Alfred Hitchcock, Federico Fellini, Francois Truffaut, Billy Wilder, and so on. Even given these two facts, there will always be room for debate as to what is the greatest film of all time.
Given that determining what is the greatest film of all time is something that is very subjective, such polls as those conducted by Sight and Sound might seem pointless. After all, even with several critics voting a certain film to be the greatest of all time, there will always be many who will disagree with that result. That having been said, I think such polls serve two purposes. The first is that they do get film buffs talking about the films themselves. This can actually be helpful in learning why others love a particular film and can even bring a new appreciation to a particular film that one had not yet realised. I rather suspect that there are many out there who will watch both Vertigo and Citizen Kane with a new set of eyes.
Second, I think such polls can be useful in directing film buffs to classic films that they might not have seen yet. This might not be so important for experienced cineastes who may have seen the vast majority of the films on any given list, but it can be very important to those new to classic film. I rather suspect that most fledgeling classic film fans will seek out such films as Citizen Kane, Casablanca, and Gone with the Wind. Without such lists they might not seek out Seven Samurai, 8 1/2 (1963), or La Règle du jeu (Rules of the Game 1939). In this respect, then, such polls and lists can act as viewing guides for classic film buffs, letting them know films that they should seek out.
In the end, then, it perhaps does not matter whether one takes issue with the results of any given poll or the choices on any given list. The fact that such polls and lists of the greatest films of all time spark conversation about film and can lead film buffs to watch many of the films that make such lists is enough to make them important. One might disagree that Vertigo is the greatest film of all time, but he and she will surely talk about it and they might seek out other films on the list.