The Act of Seeing for the first Time and the Ideal Cinema: Sight & Sound’s Best Films of All Time

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How do you measure the value of art? Influence, innovation, inspiration…  Every ten years since 1952, the London based magazine Sight & Sound has compiled the lists of the best critics and filmmakers in order to compile the ten best “greatest” films of all time. The 2012 edition marks the first time since 1962 that Citizen Kane has not been voted to the top spot, it was just barely unseated by Alfred Hitchcock’s paranoid masterpiece Vertigo.

As shocking as some people are making this out to be, the significance (or lack thereof) of this event is rather arbitrary. It is of some interest that though released in 1958, Vertigo first placed the list only in the 1982 edition, and has since climbed the ranks to finally hit number one. It is easy to make a lot of this growth in popularity but it is unlikely it reflects very much, except for the changing face of the dominant pedagogy in the cinematic community. If anything – it should be remarkable how LITTLE the list has changed overtime. Even when the films themselves get shifted and replaced, the trend towards older, canonical works persists. Though this is obvious at this point, it should force us to reflect exactly the qualifications used to evaluate art, and why it is so difficult to break the mould. I suppose, it even puts into question the role of the critic. I have no desire to take down Citizen Kane or Vertigo or any other film that has made the top ten – I think (more or less) they are all great films; some of them count among my personal favourites. What I want to do, or at least propose is an alternative way of thinking about list-making and the canon.

There have been many filmmakers and critics over the years who have questioned the canon. From Eric Rohmer to Jonathan Rosenbaum, it seems just about everyone has questioned, theorized and philosophized about the nature of listmaking. Not exclusive to filmmaking, some of the greatest minds of our times have asked why we are so often compelled to categorize, list and order just about everything… in particular art. Umberto Eco, one of the greatest living novelists and art critics, wrote a book entitled “The Infinity of Lists”. The book is little more than a short essay and anthology of different lists and works of art, but nonetheless reveals truths and compulsions associated with the human desire to list. He expands his definition to works of art themselves, like still lives or scenes of massacre that suggest through excess a listing or measurement, as he says, they imply a sort of “etc”. Does this desire to evaluate and categorize great works serve as a means of bringing order to our lives, or is there some greater poetic meaning to them?

Would it be unfair to suggest that there is a sheep mentality to the making of the canon? I am making an assumption that there is something disingenuous about the lists being made, which I don’t want to do, but as far as I’m concerned the impersonalized nature of this exercise seems to lack any real thought. I find it particularly strange, that contemporary cinema is consistently slighted in this process. It is as if cinema has been at a stand-still for decades; that the best days are behind us. Sure, one can argue that a classic has to earn its status, by surviving the “test of time”, but I would have a hard time believing anyone who tried to tell me that Citizen Kane has aged any better than other films released the same year, such as How Green was my Valley, Ball of Fire, The Lady Eve or Sullivan’s Travels (don’t even get me started on the neglect of genre cinema).

Looking at the films, it is not a matter of historical importance that places on the list. It is something ethereal, a qualified “greatness” that persists and endures. However, looking back at the first incarnation of the list, the only other time Citizen Kane did not hit the number one; we have Bicycle Thieves at the top. That film represents an ideological stand-point, and at that point in history represented a very particular aspiration for that cinema aspired to be (i.e. cinematic realism). I think though this kind of politicizing has an air of exclusiveness that might be limiting, it similarly creates a change in focus that could potentially lead to thinking of cinema and the canon in a new way.

Theoretically, the cinematic ideal should change from one person to the next and it is up from one individual to the next to determine what that might be. This, of course, is working under the assumption that the list of BEST films somehow differs from a list of personal favourites. I personally have no real problem with those who do not make this distinction, but for the purpose of this rant, I am suggesting the possibility (maybe even the need) for two lists, each with its own goal.

An ideal is always fun, even though it is often indecipherable and difficult to quite put into words. Even if you decide, as Bazin did, that realism and naturalism were the greatest aspiration of cinema… to put into terms exactly what that entails is a new game entirely. What do I think is the ideal of cinema? To evoke the act of seeing or hearing for the first time. I admit, it’s poetic, but that is the best way to describe my feelings towards film that stand out as being beautiful or wondrous to me. For me, this entails a cinema of textures both auditory and visual. Some of my choices, similarly reflecting on the act of seeing itself…  What is your ideal cinema and your list?

Part of the joy of the Sight & Sound list is the fact that there is little, if any room, to justify the inclusion of the list. It is a dry presentation of ten films, to be accepted or rejected, which is why I am not writing a justification for each individual choice?

  1. Window Water Moving Baby (Stan Brakhage)
  2. The Red Shoes (Michael Powerll & Emeric Pressburger)
  3. The Shining (Stanley Kubrick)
  4. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (Tobe Hooper)
  5. Lola Montes (Max Ophuls)
  6. Cache (Michael Haneke)
  7. Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (F.W. Murnau)
  8. Juvenile Hall (Frederick Wiseman)
  9. Lost Highway (David Lynch)
  10. Sombre (Phillipe Grandieux)


  1. ben says

    ‘window water baby moving’ is the correct title of the
    stan brakhage film?

  2. […] more: from Scott Tobias, Justine Smith, and The Film […]

  3. Justine says

    Smalley: Thanks

    Bill: Thanks Bill.

    You are definitely on the right track with the greatness of a film taking time to really “emerge”. Vertigo is a perfect example actually; as are many other films we now consider amongst the greatest of all time, like Raging Bull, It’s a Wonderful Life or Blade Runner. Not to mention the many older films that were simply unavailable or forgotten, buried by time for no good reason at all. It takes the right person to champion its cause, and boom! We a new “classic” is pulled from obscurity. It’s a fascinating phenomena really, a difficult one to right about – at least for me, but one that holds a lot of fascination.

    The system has changed, there is no denying. There was once a greater overlap, for sure. The way a lot of films are now made is closer to the production of FM radio than cinema. If it’s possible to make cinema mathematically, that is what they are aspiring to do. Create a success by measuring the previous success of other films. We would hope it doesn’t work, but box-office numbers don’t lie. It hurts me, but it works. I can’t blame them for continuing along that path…

    It will be interesting to see what films people will be talking about as the best of the 2000s in the next decades. I am sure you’re right, and there will certainly be some unexpected choices, as there always have been.

    It’s part of why these lists are so interesting and fun. I don’t have the patience or thoroughness to attempt to figure out exactly why a film like Vertigo was raised from obscurity (I have some conceptions, from Cahiers, to films being shown in film schools, etc.). I wonder if someone will be the Hitchcock of our day, my guess is Tony Scott, assuming he hasn’t already cemented his niche as arthouse-chic-action-trash.

    Gregor: Thank you muchly, I appreciate the follow!

  4. Gregor Young says

    A fascinating piece of work, Justine, I shall follow you on Twitter with great interest!

  5. Bill Mesce says

    A beautifully written piece, Justine, thoughtful, insightful, contemplative.
    I think one of the reasons contemporary cinema tends to get slighted is sometimes the greatness of certain films takes time to demonstrate itself. Contemperaneous judgments — pro and con — don’t always hold up not only in film, but anytime creative works are judged.
    And, not that this necessarily precludes greatness, but the last 30 years or so, mainstream commercial cinema — which produced so many of the supposedly great films of the past — has gotten so creatively funnelled to appealling to the narrowest demographic in, possibly, the history of American commercial cinema, that it’s gotten damned hard to make the kinds of movies that have made such lists over the years.
    We’ve actually had a similar discussion here on this site several times: the difference between the Oscar nominees and the box office chart toppers (not that the Academy always gets it right, but as a general gauge I think it makes the point).
    It’s not that movies were better back in The Day (there’s ALWAYS been a lot of crap), but there was a greater overlap between what a mainstream audience would pay to see and what is generaly perceived as the kind of “serious” moviemaking that makes such lists, and that’s evident in just looking at top earners year to year and decade to decade.
    I think there will come a time as perceptions change and the status of certain contemporary titles ripens that the current era will produce some “greats.” I think, however, for those of us who live long enough to see that time (more you than me), we’ll find they may have been overlooked in their time and not necessarily have been audience favorites.
    Remember: in his day, Hitchcock was thought of as “just” as grand entertainer. Even HE balked at his films being taken seriously.

  6. Smalley says

    Excellent work, Justine!

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