Last weekend, the British Film Institute and its journal, Sight and Sound, published two lists purporting to cite the greatest films of all time. One was produced by a poll of critics; the other, by a poll of directors. These days, such surveys are more plentiful than oily movie-theater popcorn: From the American Film Institute to The Village Voice to Time Out, there are several rival canons for cineastes to choose from, each blessed by a different group of gatekeepers. But Sight and Sound is the king of the hill. It not only has been conducting its polls for a long time--its first list was published in 1952--but it does them every 10 years, thus giving them a flavor of rarity and value even as the actual number of such lists explodes.
The results themselves offer few surprises: Citizen Kane tops both of the Sight and Sound lists, as it always does, and the other films, though worthy, are essentially a collection of usual suspects. What's more interesting are the voters' individual ballots, which are as colorful and eccentric as the consensus is stuffy and bland. George Romero, a director best known for his terrific zombie movies, threw in King Solomon's Mines, commenting, "Here's another one that will make the entire staff at the entertainment desk of Village Voice snicker." John Waters included the wonderfully cheesy B-movie The Tingler, notable as the first horror movie to invoke the drug LSD. The critic Jonathan Rosenbaum, after making room for the bizarre French serial Les Vampires and a couple of short films, declared that "it's no longer necessary to mention Chaplin, Godard, Hitchcock, Ozu, Renoir or Welles"--not because he dislikes them, I think, but because he could count on his colleagues to give them their votes.
As Roger Ebert notes, Kane actually appeared on only 39 percent of the directors' lists and 32 percent of the critics', indicating that the final tally isn't a consensus so much as an assemblage of those pictures that are somewhat likely to pop up on a personal list of favorites. In the case of Kane--an important film, yes, but how many people really believe it's the best of all time?--its presence may have more to do with obligation than affection.
If these polls reflect the desire to create a canon--or, less pretentiously, the desire to give video store customers a convenient checklist--then individual lists are a means of self-expression not unlike decorating a living room, with points given to those who strike the right balance between that which everyone professes to admire and that which gives a personal stamp. As with interior decorating, the effort and effect will probably be visible only to those who are similarly obsessive about what is, objectively speaking, a trivial and somewhat silly activity. Unlike interior decorating, making lists is cheap--it reflects what you've consumed and remembered, not what you own--and thus has a special appeal to geeky young males without considerable means. The prototypes are the characters in that ode to list-making, the book and film High Fidelity--which itself made my own appropriately geeky top 10 list of movies released in the year 2000.
Lists look authoritative; they suggest a conversation that's come to an end. Inevitably, though, they do more to start conversations than to stop them. Already, dissident rivals to the new Sight and Sound list are cropping up. The political site CounterPunch, for example, has posted a set of alternative lists, including one from (cough) me.
I tried to get them to accept a top 20 list instead of a top 10, but they wouldn't budge. Since CounterPunch wouldn't publish the long version, I'm going to put it here instead. With 21 films--yes, I've tossed in another one--it may seem absurdly long, but I still had to leave out W.C. Fields, Frederick Wiseman, and The Bride of Frankenstein, so it actually reflects a lot of sacrifice. Besides: the last time I did this, my editors asked for 24 movies. So it could be worse.
* Ace in the Hole - Billy Wilder, 1951
* The Apartment - Billy Wilder, 1960
* Being There - Hal Ashby, 1979
* Chinatown - Roman Polanski, 1974
* Dr. Strangelove - Stanley Kubrick, 1964
* Duck Soup - Leo McCarey, 1933
* The Exterminating Angel - Luis Buñuel, 1962
* F for Fake - Orson Welles, 1973
* The 400 Blows - François Truffaut, 1959