The Sight & Sound 2012 critics poll: disappointment and hope

Plenty of analysis has already been done on the top 50 films from Sight & Sound’s 2012 critics poll. Indiewire has a whole series running on the poll, including a lament about the lack of female representation. As I mentioned in the comments in my previous post, I had three big disappointments in this year’s list, which was compiled from the top ten lists of 846 professionals.


Newbies but goodies

The most recent film in the top ten is from 1968, indicating that virtually no consensus has had time to emerge in the last 40-odd years about what constitutes great contemporary cinema. It’s also disappointing that the most recent film from the top 50 is Mulholland Dr. (not a favorite, though at least it wasn’t Inland Empire), and that it came in at 28 (with 40 votes). By contrast, many analysts have already noted that the silent era is well-represented, with three of the top ten films being silent films made between 1927 and 1929, though only five of the top 50 (if I understand the list correctly), are silent, and they are, ironically, clumped up into the top twelve slots, with Battleship Potemkin missing the tenth slot by one vote, and L’Atalante close behind.

I’m very glad that the silent era is well-represented, and I don’t know that newer films are more or less deserving of the distinction of being in the top ten (or 50), but it does seem to be such a shame that four decades of wonderful cinema are barely represented, once all the votes have been tallied. Here’s the tally of films in the top 50 from each post-60s decade:

1970s: 7 (Apocalypse Now, The Mirror, The Godfather, Stalker, Godfather II, Stalker, Taxi Driver, Jeanne Dielman)

1980s: 1 (Shoah)

1990s: 3 (Satantango, Close-Up, Histoire(s) du Cinema)

2000s: 2 (In the Mood for Love, Mulholland Dr.)

That’s 13 films from the last 40 years, with more than half of those clumped into the vaunted 70s, and the 80s getting particularly short shrift. No films from the 1890s through the 1910s made the top 50, either — but the 1920s get six films, three of which are in the top ten. The fact that the 80s are the least well-represented decade suggests one of two things: critics are ignorant of how much great cinema was produced in that decade (unlikely, especially given Ignatiy Vishnavetsky’s top ten), or it remains an especially problematic decade for critics to grapple with. The latter seems much more likely, indicating that maybe it’s not that the decade is of particularly low quality, but that there’s no consensus at all on the criteria by which the quality of that decade can be judged. I’m hopeful that this won’t be as much of a problem by 2022. (For instance, Roger Ebert picked The Tree of Life to represent contemporary cinema as his “propaganda title,” in faith that it “will only increase in stature over the years.”)


Animated discussion

No animated features appeared in the top 50 at all. Few techniques have been as pervasive and formative to the evolution of the medium as animation; you wouldn’t know it from this list. I’m sure that many individuals put animated films in their top tens, yet there is apparently no common agreement on what constitutes greatness in animation. Most surprising to me was that Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, despite being the bombshell that cracked open the family film market and legitimated animation as a feature length art form, didn’t even get 29 votes for the purposes of commemorating its historical significance.

A big reason for this oversight might be that animation is still considered to be inseparable from the light, family film ghetto, and the selections do trend toward the monolithically “serious,” which is sort of justified, sort of not. In America (and, I would guess, around the world), most animated features are designed for the broadest appeal and being kid-safe. This generates an awful lot of mediocrity. Yet there’s undeniably a lot of greatness. While not a favorite of mine, Disney’s Beauty and the Beast is often cited as a highwater-mark of excellence in animation, alongside the near-contemporary Lion King. Arguments could also be made for earlier Disney triumphs, including Bambi or Pinnochio.

My pick would’ve been Fantasia, a work of extraordinary beauty and boldness as a commercial experiment. And that brings me to the other problem with the complete omission of animated cinema. A lot of it is not for kids. International stop-motion masters like Jan Svankmajer or the brothers Quay make experimental cinema with philosophical and political themes. Japan has produced a number of features that may be cute or genre bound, but are not the bubblegum equivalents of most of Disney’s canon. Anyone who has experienced Grave of the Fireflies would not dismiss the potential of animation to be used to very serious ends indeed. I don’t think that “seriousness” need be a criterion for greatness, but if it is, then it certainly cannot exclude animation.


Why so serious?

Which actually leads me to my third big disappointment: none of the top ten are comedies, and only five of the top 50 comfortably fit in that genre. Many of the dramas are witty or contain comedic elements, but Singin in the Rain’, which ranked tenth in the 2002 poll, is knocked down to 20th place this year. The others that made the cut are The General (34), Some Like It Hot and Play Time (tied at 42 with Pather Panchali, Gertrud, Pierrot Le Fou, and Close Up), and City Lights (tied at 50 with Ugetsu monogatari and La Jetee). I could see someone making the case for Pierrot Le Fou as a comedy, but we all know that Godard only does tragedy.

Comedy is hard. I get it. Most people don’t share the same sense of humor, whereas more people seem to have the same sense of tragedy. In some ways, it’s easier to make people cry than to make them laugh. But this is one area in which I would’ve thought the prejudice toward the old masters might have worked in comedy’s favor. Keaton and Chaplin are the uncontested gods of silent comedy, with The General and City Lights probably their most universally-admired films. Yet neither could crack the top 20. Tati has enjoyed a well-deserved critical resurgence in the last decade or so, with Play Time, again, probably being his most universally-admired film — to no avail.

Excepting Wilder’s one film, screwball comedies are nowhere to be seen. No satires of the 60s and 70s, like Dr. Strangelove or Network. None of the popular comedies of the 80s and 90s, like This Spinal Tap or Groundhog Day. (What am I thinking — the 80s? We already know how these people feel about that decade.) As much as I acknowledge how particular people can be about their tastes in what they find to be funny, it seems odd that voters in 2012 found so little room for laughs, whereas previous polls at least acknowledged comedy as a cornerstone of world cinema. Chaplin’s The Gold Rush and City Lights tied for second place in the inaugural 1952 poll (which also featured Le Million), with Keaton’s The General making appearances in 1972 and 1982. Singin’ in the Rain also made the list twice. Not every poll has featured a comedy, but comedies have been a presence throughout the poll’s run.

As Tim Robey put it in The Telegraph, “ The question the poll does concretely answer is how much critical tastes change in a decade, and in what direction.” Maybe critics just don’t feel like laughing these days. I can understand that, but I also think that whenever you don’t feel like laughing is probably right about when you need to laugh the most.

Once all the ballots are released, I expect to see quite a few comedies in there. I suspect that quite a few of the same filmmakers will be represented — Chaplin, Keaton, Tati, Allen, Wilder, Hawks, Capra — but with different choices for the best film from each. As disappointed as I am that comedies are underrepresented in the top 50, I expect that they’ll be very well represented in the 2,000 titles assembled from all those ballots. Dramas will undoubtedly outnumber the comedies, but hopefully not by such a skewed margin, and that actually leads me to the last point I wanted to make in this post.


Consensus nonsensus

Pretty much every headline has been crowing about Vertigo bumping Citizen Kane from the #1 slot after 50 years of domination. Were I a newspaper editor, that would be my lede, too. But I think there’s a more important thing to consider with this year’s poll: more professionals have participated than ever before. By quite a lot. This has meant that more titles than ever have been tallied, and it does mean that the top vote-getters have gotten more votes than every before — but not proportionally. Vertigo got 191 votes, which beats Kane by a comfortable 34 votes. But those 191 are out of 2,045. That amounts to a little more than nine percent of the total votes cast.

As a block of votes, it’s more than any other film, but it is not a statistical majority. If a political party in a parliamentary system got nine percent of the vote, they would not be able to dictate policy. This is why I’m hopeful about the representation of comedies: there may not be any single comedy with a significant chunk of votes behind it, but comedy as a broad category might actually be as well represented as the top-ranked film.

Another way to think about it is this: Vertigo got the most votes of any single film, but it did not get the most votes. Of the 846 people polled, only 191 named Vertigo in their top ten. This means that only about 22 percent of those polled rank it as among the greatest films of all time. Conversely, this means that 78 percent of those polled do not place Vertigo among the ten greatest films of all time.

What this tells me is that, contrary to the claims of Nick James, who says, “we have achieved a consensus on what represents ‘great cinema’ that now has a greater force of numbers behind it,” the force of numbers is not behind this new consensus. There is no plurality of votes; the majority is far more diffuse and variegated than ever. As consensuses go, this is far less conclusive — and far more exciting.

Don’t get me wrong: there is significance to the fact that the top ten has remained relatively stable, as well as the fact that Vertigo has edged out a longstanding favorite. And this list is very useful as a jumping off point for discussion about trends in taste, aesthetic priorities, and the like, let alone canonicity. That’s just it, though. What “canonicity” means is less a thoroughbred consensus on the best of the best, and more a small nexus of overlapping tastes and priorities that radiate outward in increasing webs of diversity. Assuming that the next poll follows the same methodology and a similarly expanding pool of critics, I expect that this trend will continue.

Even if the top ten (or top 50) remains a bit blinkered on things like gender, age bias, animation, genre, etc., the overall group of selections will hopefully continue to diversify and include representatives from more countries, genres, time periods, techniques, and everything else. Perhaps the individuals ballots will not bear out these hopes. But even a bias toward works that are already “canonical” has experienced some major slippage. I find that to be an intriguing move in the critical debate, at least as it’s expressed in lists like this.☕


About tardishobbit

Reads. Writes. Watches movies. Occasionally stirs from chair. Holds an advanced degree in heuristic indolence. View all posts by tardishobbit

2 responses to “The Sight & Sound 2012 critics poll: disappointment and hope

  • Kevin M. Pearson

    Decent response to a culturally ingrained. I tried to find muster to build up a debating response to the list but alas, it all fell short. At the end of the day it is critics and filmmakers going list crazy and mainly just using previous lists as their main basis for what resonates as “greatest” this or that. Since the list itself has been going on since 1952 and fewer changes than you would expect have occurred in the 60 years since, I honestly think the Sight and Sound list will be a moving relic that everyone wishes moved a little more or was an umbrella for more kinds of filmmaking over time and around the world, but alas, I feel the changes will always be fewer instead of more, and I feel the most watching by my eyes will if Citizen Kane continues to drop in the coming years now evidence it can dislodged from its pedestal. Not the biggest fan of Vertigo. Very much love Citizen Kane, but could I every easily say it (or any film) was the best ever? Weird thing to split hairs over when comparing and contrasting excellent and different cinemas. At the end of the day it mainly reminds me why I retired from the list business. Too hard and impossible to rank movies that have very different experiences and senses of artistic logic.

    • mjschneider

      Thanks for the response, Kevin. It is hard to rank/compare movies with very different priorities… but I think we do that anyway, don’t we? Perhaps not formally, but we all have our favorites, we all have those movies we love (that nobody else seems to love) or movies we hate (that everybody else seems to love), or the ones we want to talk about all the time simply because nobody else seems to be talking about them. Or because everybody else is talking about them.

      Beyond that, I think canonicity is an intriguing concept. I don’t think we’ll ever have a definite, one-size-fits-all canon that everyone agrees upon, but I also don’t think that there’s no such thing as a canon, when there clearly is one, even if it’s defined amorphously and contentiously. The fact that S&S changes so slowly is frustrating, but not entirely unreasonable. The fact that it changes at all should be celebrated, even with its methodological drawbacks.

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