Gilbey on Film: The Sight & Sound Poll

Modern cinema makes a paltry showing in the Sight & Sound poll of the greatest films of all time.

Picture the scene: the newspaper magnate Charles Foster Kane is gravely ill in bed at his crumbling mansion, his staff bracing themselves for the worst. In a misguided attempt to raise the old fellow’s spirits, his butler brings him a hot-from-the-printers copy of the September 2012 issue of Sight & Sound, which is dominated by the once-a-decade poll of the greatest films of all time as voted for by hundreds of international critics, film experts and filmmakers. Slowly Kane turns the pages until he reaches the countdown of the Top 10:

10. 8 ½ (Federico Fellini, 1963)
9. The Passion of Joan of Arc (Carl Theodor Dreyer, 1927)
8. Man with a Movie Camera (Dziga Vertov, 1929)
7. The Searchers (John Ford, 1956)
6. 2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick, 1968)
5. Sunrise (F.W Murnau, 1927)
4. La Règle du jeu (Jean Renoir, 1939)
3. Tokyo Story (Ozu Yasujiro, 1953)

And then he freezes in horror. The blood halts in his veins. He scrunches shut his disbelieving eyes and opens them to behold page 53 again as if for the first time. Slowly he reads:

2. Citizen Kane (Orson Welles, 1941)

He has but one breath left in his body, and he uses it to gasp his final word before expiring: “Vertigo…”

It’s true. After remaining in the top spot for five consecutive polls—50 years, in other words—Citizen Kane has been nudged aside by Hitchcock’s 1958 masterpiece, a study in obsession that remains as disturbing and complex after all this time. The rest of the poll is pretty much the old guard in a slightly new order. Are those who voted paralysed by history or are the finest films really located in the distant past? Admittedly, when Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves took the number one position in the first poll in 1952, only four years after it was released, cinema was a far younger art form, and voters had fewer titles from which to choose. (Bicycle Thieves now stands at number 33, by the way.)

But there is no equivalent newcomer on this latest poll. I had expected Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood (from 2007) or David Lynch’s Mulholland Dr. (2001) to make a significant showing, but only the latter made it inside the top 100 (at no. 28). Among the other comparatively new entries are Kar-Wai Wong’s In the Mood for Love (2000) at no. 24, Claire Denis’s Beau Travail (1999) at no. 78 and Edward Yang’s A One and a Two (2000) at no. 100. (In the Mood for Love already looks set for longevity: the writer-director Paul Schrader included it in his aborted book project modelled on a film counterpart to Harold Bloom’s The Western Canon. This was published eventually as an essay in Film Comment magazine, accompanied by a list which accepted alongside canonical works by Dreyer, Renoir, Ozu, Fellini and others the occasional latter-day titles—In the Mood for Love, Alexander Sokurov’s Mother and Son, the Coen brothers’ The Big Lebowski.)

The magazine which is hitting shelves this week contains only a small sample of the 800-plus critics’ and 350-plus directors’ lists submitted for the poll. (All lists will be on the magazine’s website from 15 August.) But a cursory glance at that sample reveals the merest smattering of post-2000 titles, among them Palme d’Or-winners such as Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life and Cristian Mingiu’s Four Months, Three Weeks, Two Days. In a short statement accompanying his own Top 10, the critic and broadcaster Matthew Sweet offers a suggestion as to why modern cinema makes such a paltry showing, and why his choices remained tied largely to pre-1950 titles: “[S]o much in cinema of the last 50 years seems a refinement or a reworking of work from its first 50… And a picture from 1980 or after still feels too young for canonical status.”

I didn’t share those reservations when asked to contribute to the poll (an honour in itself when you have grown up poring over the results, as I have). For what it’s worth, here is the top 10 which I submitted to the Sight & Sound poll:

10. Thirty-Two Short Films About Glenn Gould (François Girard, 1993)9. The Palm Beach Story (Preston Sturges, 1942)
8. Touki-Bouki (Djibril Diop Mambéty, 1973)
7. Safe (Todd Haynes, 1995)
6. Barry Lyndon (Stanley Kubrick, 1975)
5. Groundhog Day (Harold Ramis, 1993)
4. Accattone (Pier Paolo Pasolini, 1963)
3. The Thin Red Line (Terrence Malick, 1998)
2. The Godfather Part II (Francis Ford Coppola, 1974)
1. McCabe and Mrs Miller (Robert Altman, 1971)

The challenge in compiling such a list rests on the division between “great” and “favourite”, and I tried to bridge that chasm in my choices. Groundhog Day is a good example—the artist and director Gillian Wearing, who also put that film in her top 10, describes it as “the perfect mix of mainstream and arthouse cinema.” (By the by, I love what the lists reveal about individual filmmakers: Wearing’s choice of Groundhog Day alongside other lingering mysteries like L’avventura, Last Year in Marienbad and The Exterminating Angel clearly marks her out as someone resistant to the definitive.) So Groundhog Day was an easy choice and a right one: it’s highly enjoyable (hence “favourite”) but also intellectually and philosophically challenging, with a storytelling format that could only exist in cinema (hence “great”).

My number one choice, my favourite film, is Robert Altman’s stoned western, McCabe and Mrs Miller, released (coincidentally) in 1971, the year I was born. If the titles on the list had to meet the criteria of expanding and shaping the listmaker’s ideas about cinema, this film is fully up to the task. Its use of sound, editing, music and cinematography remains innovative; its inquisition into myth is eloquent and affecting (and not just the myths of the western: its irreverence toward its stars, Warren Beatty and Julie Christie, still feels revolutionary).

Like most great films, it spills off the screen and into our thoughts and emotions; at the risk of ending up in Pseuds’ Corner, I have to say that it seems to me less a collection of images and sounds than some kind of excavated ruin, with a texture and a smell of its own. Partly this is achieved through the zoom shots which take the viewer right into the grain of the celluloid (the equivalent, perhaps, of cherishing the bite and hiss of vinyl in this digital age), not to mention Altman’s famous use of overlapping dialogue, with Leonard Cohen’s remorseful songs weaved throughout.

But it’s more than that: Altman’s technique was always fully immersive, and you leave his films feeling that you have been marinated in them; there’s nothing passive about watching his work. McCabe and Mrs Miller is, I think, Altman at his most heartfelt and lyrical, but also with fire raging in his belly. I came across the film as part of a triple-bill of his work in a London repertory cinema (now, sadly, full of plush seats and given over to first-run releases) in the late 1980s, and it changed fully who I am. I can still like you if you don’t like the film, but I can’t say I won’t try to change your mind.
 

Hitchcock's Vertigo has topped the once-a-decade Sight & Sound poll

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

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As the falcon flew towards us, its face looked alarmingly like Hannibal Lecter’s muzzle

In your faces, twitchers!

The BBC2 programme Springwatch may have made the RSPB’s reserve at Minsmere in Suffolk the Mecca of popular birdwatching, but Cley on the north Norfolk coast is still its Alexandria, a haven for wanderers of all species and a repository of ancient and arcane knowledge. I learned what little I know about birding there in the early 1970s, sitting at the feet of the bird artist Richard Richardson as he gave his sea-wall seminars on the intricacies of behaviour and identification. Richard could put a name to any bird, but he never believed that this process rigidly defined it.

The reserve at Cley has been gentrified recently, with smart boardwalks and a solar-powered visitors’ centre, but something of its old, feral spirit remains. On a trip early this winter, we were greeted by birders with the news: “Saker! Middle hide.” Sakers are big, largely Middle Eastern falcons, favourites with rich desert falconers. No convincingly wild individual has ever been seen in Norfolk, so it was likely that this bird had escaped from captivity, which reduced its cred a mite.

The middle hide proved to be full of earnest and recondite debate. The consensus now was that the bird was not a saker but a tundra peregrine – the form known as calidus that breeds inside the Arctic Circle from Lapland eastwards. We had missed the first act of the drama, in which the bird had ambushed a marsh harrier twice its size and forced it to abandon its prey. It was now earthbound, mantled over its dinner on the far side of a lagoon. It was bigger than a standard peregrine, and in the low sun its back looked almost charcoal, flaring into unusually high white cheeks behind its moustachial stripes.

Then it took off. It swung in a low arc around the perimeter of the lagoon and straight towards our hide. It flew so fast that I couldn’t keep it focused in my binoculars, and for a moment its face looked alarmingly like Hannibal Lecter’s muzzle. At the last minute, when it seemed as if it would crash through the window, it did a roll-turn and showed off the full detail of its tessellated under-plumage. In your faces, twitchers!

It was a thrilling display, but that didn’t entirely quieten the identity anxieties in the hide. One or two dissenters wondered if it might be a hybrid bird, or just a large but eccentrically marked common peregrine. The majority stuck with the tundra option. This form migrates in the autumn to sub-equatorial Africa, and days of north-easterlies may have blown it off-course, along with other bizarre vagrants: an albatross had passed offshore the day before.

Calidus means “spirited” in Latin. The Arctic firebird treated us to ten minutes of pure mischief. It winnowed low over flocks of lapwing, scythed through the screaming gulls, not seeming to be seriously hunting, but taunting a blizzard of panicky birds skywards. At one point, it hovered above a hapless tufted duck that dived repeatedly, only to resurface with the quivering scimitar still above it. Then it took another strafing run at the hide.

Does it matter whether the peregrine was a rare variety, or just an odd individual? Naturalists often categorise themselves as either “lumpers”, happy with the great unlabelled commonwealth of life, or “splitters”, rejoicing in the minutiae of diversity. I swing from one to the other, but, in the end, I can’t see them as contradictory positions.

The bird from the tundra was a hot-tempered peregrine to the core. But its strange facial markings – however much their interpretation panders to the vanity of human watchers – are the outward signs of a unique and self-perpetuating strain, adapted to extreme conditions and yet making a 6,000-mile migration that might take in a visit to a Norfolk village. Lives intersect, hybridise, diverge, in the counterpoint between what Coleridge called “uniformity” and “omniformity”.

Next week: Felicity Cloake on food

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage