Sight and Sound magazine has again issued two lists of the allegedly greatest films ever made—one lineup based on a poll of critics, the other on a poll of directors. At a time when movie listicles are as common as sweeping trend pieces extrapolated from two tweets and a vibe, this might not seem like anything special. But the Sight and Sound surveys have maintained a special distinction among cineastes, mostly by virtue of appearing only once every 10 years. Besides giving them an aura of rarity and value, this lets you chart the course of highbrow (or at least upper-middlebrow) opinion over the decades, watching one motion picture's stock rise as another one falls.
Ten years ago, the big news was that Orson Welles' 1941 film Citizen Kane was no longer in first place. In the great continental drift that is film-buff fashion, this was the equivalent of Pangea splitting: While Kane had not made the top 10 in the first critics' poll, way back in 1952, it had topped the list in 1962 and stayed there for half a century. When Sight and Sound started surveying filmmakers as well as critics, Kane dominated the new poll too. But in 2012, the directors voted for Yasujirō Ozu's family drama Tokyo Story and the critics voted for Alfred Hitchcock's immortal mindfuck Vertigo. A decade later, Kane has not regained its throne: The directors have crowned Stanley Kubrick's evolutionary epic 2001: A Space Odyssey, while the critics have selected Chantal Akerman's Jeanne Dielman, 23, Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, the least salacious movie ever made about a prostitute. Old Kane is now second on the directors' list (back ahead of Tokyo Story) and third among the critics (still behind Vertigo).
But the really big change this year is that the two top 10s now include some movies made after I left elementary school. In the last pair of polls, the most recent movie in either top 10 was Francis Ford Coppola's Vietnam tale Apocalypse Now, which came out in 1979. The most recent movie to have ever made one of the top 10s was Martin Scorsese's boxing drama Raging Bull, also from the Carter era. This year, by contrast, the critics have Wong Kar-wai's In the Mood for Love (2000) at No. 5, Claire Denis' Beau Travail (1998) at No. 7, and David Lynch's Mulholland Dr. (2001) at No. 8. And the directors have In the Mood for Love and Abbas Kiarostami's Close-Up (1990) in a tie for No. 9.
Now, I'll understand if some of you are reluctant to call those movies "recent." When Mulholland Dr. made its Cannes debut, my Reason colleague Fiona Harrigan was not quite 1 year old. But I saw that movie in its first run on a date with my now-wife, and I will pretend for as long as I can that it is still contemporary.
If you look at the lower ranks of the Sight and Sound top 100s, of course, you'll find some more recent material. The critics' poll has room for such modern fare as Moonlight, Parasite, and Get Out, and the first two of those made it onto the directors' list too. But these lists have their limits. You can make a pretty good case that many of the best motion pictures of the 21st century have been TV shows, but there is no television here; I don't know if that's a product of the voters' preferences or the pollster's rules. You'll know these lists are forward-looking when they have room for, say, BoJack Horseman.
They'll be truly forward-looking when they have room for the vernacular videos that go viral online. No, I'm not saying I've seen a TikTok that's on par with Citizen Kane. I'm just saying that cinema is a lot larger these days than what gets screened in theaters, and that at some point these other sorts of moving pictures are going to find their way into the canon. Some of them have danced around the edges already. The very first Sight and Sound top 10 had room for Robert Flaherty's Louisiana Story, which was, among other things, an extended advertisement for Standard Oil. If you've already let in an ad, you might as well let in a Tumblr GIF. I mean, it would have to be a really good Tumblr GIF. But in principle…
In that spirit, the most contemporary-feeling choice on these lists may be Maya Deren and Alexander Hammid's Meshes of the Afternoon, an experimental short that made it all the way up to No. 16 on the critics' list this year. It's not new at all—it came out in 1943, when it was my parents, not Fiona, who were not quite 1 year old—but its hypnagogic imagery has been an influence not just on arthouse directors like David Lynch but on music videos and other creative ephemera. More than any other item on the list, it's easy to imagine a fragment of Meshes flickering in a tweet, a Facebook status, or an Instagram story, lending its uncanniness to an internet that itself feels awfully uncanny already.
But then again, Citizen Kane is pretty GIFable too. I shouldn't neglect the old standbys.