Is Sight and Sound’s List of 100 Greatest Films Too Tasteful?

To our chief critics, news that “Jeanne Dielman” topped the magazine poll was a welcome jolt. If only there had been more room for the weird and messy.

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By A.O. Scott and Manohla Dargis

Last week, the British film magazine Sight and Sound released the results of its decennial poll of what it calls “the greatest films of all time.” In 1952, the first year the magazine conducted its survey, Vittorio De Sica’s neorealist classic “Bicycle Thieves” was voted No. 1. Ten years later, it was supplanted by Orson Welles’s “Citizen Kane,” which held that position until 2012, when it was knocked from its berth by Alfred Hitchcock’s “Vertigo.” This year, Chantal Akerman’s 1975 tour de force, “Jeanne Dielman, 23, Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles,” supplanted “Vertigo,” shocking the world (OK, some movie people). The Times’s chief film critics discussed the poll and what it means.

A.O. SCOTT Before the poll results were published, I was prepared to let loose with a rant about the nullity of list-making, the barbarism of conducting criticism by vote and the utter emptiness of the idea that one movie could be the best of all time.

Don’t get me wrong: I still believe all those things. (And also, less high-mindedly, I’ve always been a little hurt that Sight and Sound never asked for my 10-best list.) But the ascension of “Jeanne Dielman” to the top spot was a welcome jolt to the critical system.

MANOHLA DARGIS I never expected that Akerman’s brilliant, formally austere, intellectually uncompromising, three-hour-and-21-minute slow burn about an alienated Belgian housewife who turns tricks — which Akerman directed when she was 25 — would have more support than the usual old-school favorites. I mean, wow!

Still, I wonder what Akerman, who died in 2015, would have made of this. It’s worth noting that she didn’t contribute to the previous poll. The day that this latest one hit, Isabel Stevens, Sight and Sound’s managing editor, tweeted that when the magazine asked Akerman to contribute to a different survey in 2014, she replied, “I don’t really like the idea, it is just like at school.” Akerman said she’d think about it but didn’t understand this desire to classify everything, adding, “It is tiring and not really necessary to do these kinds of things.”

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It almost feels insulting to include Akerman in this exercise, and yet human beings are invested in creating and maintaining hierarchies, so canon formation feels inevitable.

SCOTT We do love to rank and sort! This year, Sight and Sound expanded its reach, soliciting ballots from more than 1,600 critics, almost twice as many as in 2012. (The directors’ poll is a separate undertaking, in which Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” captured the top spot.) As with some of the recent Oscar victories, you can see evidence of generational and other demographic shifts. There were two films directed by women on the 2012 list, and only one by a Black director. This time around there were nine women — including two films each from Akerman and Agnés Varda — as well as seven by African and African American filmmakers, including Spike Lee, Charles Burnett, Barry Jenkins and Djibril Diop Mambéty.

There has been some predictable grumbling about how this inclusiveness must be a sign that political concerns have overtaken aesthetic judgment, a claim that indicates either bad faith or proud ignorance about the social bearings of art. The bigger shock to me is that it took so long for the greatness — and the influence — of movies like “Jeanne Dielman,” Varda’s “Cléo From 5 to 7,” Barbara Loden’s “Wanda,” Burnett’s “Killer of Sheep” and Lee’s “Do the Right Thing” to be recognized in this forum.

To me, and to many of the voters, I suspect, those movies clearly belong in the company of more established classics like “Citizen Kane,” “Vertigo” and Yasujiro Ozu’s “Tokyo Story.” But the presence of newly consecrated masterworks also changes our understanding of the old ones, refreshing them with new meaning. You see new patterns and affiliations when the poignant household observations of “Tokyo Story” are in conversation with the rigorous attention to domestic alienation in “Jeanne Dielman.”

DARGIS I think that’s exactly right. Akerman and Ozu and Renoir and Burnett are all giants. That said, I think the overall list is too narrowly shaped by respectable, consensus favorites from two familiar traditions: Hollywood and the art film. That pretty much defines my selections, too (I’ll share them below), and I wish I’d made room for weird, messy, disreputable movies, for a genre masterwork like George A. Romero’s “Night of the Living Dead,” a movie that is forever lodged in my being, and for more avant-garde filmmakers.

Much of this is about the creation of taste and how films are categorized and elevated, packaged and sold, and how and when they cycle in and out of favor. “Citizen Kane” dominated for so long not simply because it’s a masterwork, but also because Welles was a film martyr who legendarily fought Hollywood, and he was a ubiquitous cultural presence as film studies were becoming institutionalized. Importantly, “Kane” was repeatedly shown on broadcast television, and it was a repertory-house staple. Availability also may help explain why “Vertigo” — which was restored in 1996 to wide acclaim — rose to the top in 2012.

I assume that availability at least partly clarifies why there is just one silent movie on the critics’ Top 10: Dziga Vertov’s 1929 “Man With a Movie Camera.” Scandalously, there are only nine silent movies total on the entire list of 100 films, none made before the 1920s. If this list looks different than it did 10, 20, 30 years ago, it’s less because critics and directors are now hewing to some phantom politically correct agenda; it’s because of factors like the decline in rep houses, the rise of film festivals, shifts in home entertainment, changes in the industry and in film schools. The mainstreaming of feminist film theory helped “Jeanne Dielman,” but surely so did the fact that it’s now streaming, including via the Criterion Collection.

I also assume that D.W. Griffith’s “Intolerance” (which tied for 93rd place in 2012) fell off the list not because the poll’s contributors are in P.C. lock step or worried about rebuke. Rather, the kind of spurious formalism that long dominated film discourse — and which insisted that the racism in Griffith’s “The Birth of a Nation” was less important than his artistry — is no longer tenable to many of us. There are, after all, many other filmmakers to celebrate instead. It’s notable that for this poll, only the directors showed love for Roman Polanski, choosing “Chinatown” as the 72nd greatest — it hasn’t changed in 10 years, but everything else has.

SCOTT Back in 1952, when the first Sight and Sound poll was published — heavy on silent films, by the way, since the other kind had only been around for 25 years or so — the academic discipline of film studies did not exist. Like literature before it, film has in the decades since been partly annexed by classroom study. I suspect that many critics under 40 first encountered a lot of these movies that way, including “Jeanne Dielman,” which is a staple of the syllabus in courses on feminist film, European art cinema and the tradition of the avant-garde.

One thing that hasn’t changed, at least among critics, is the tenacity of the auteur idea: the assumption that film is above all a director’s art. The canon of auteurs has expanded beyond the certified Old Masters of classical Hollywood, Japanese and European cinema. Some of those guys have at least for now been pushed into exile — we miss you, Howard Hawks — to make room for new consensus figures like Akerman, Varda, Wong Kar-wai and David Lynch. But the auteur principle remains durable, perhaps partly as a protest against the hegemony of I.P.-driven corporate “cinema.”

The directors’ list is in some ways more populist, with more room for genre. The critics are still a bit wary of horror, science fiction, comedy and animation, which is represented for the first time with two films by the great Hayao Miyazaki. It does seem strange, though, to contemplate a survey of all of film history that leaves out Walt Disney and Chuck Jones.

DARGIS I wish that Jones had made the cut, though Warners, his old studio, continues to keep him alive in some fashion, just as Disney makes sure that Walt maintains a grip on our hearts, minds and wallets. The industry takes care of those it can exploit, another reason I contributed to the poll: I want people to discover other movies. So, while I share Chris Marker’s 1992 reservation about the poll partly because favorites change (though mind you, he did single out “Vertigo”), here are my current 10 beloveds in order: “Au Hasard Balthazar” (Robert Bresson), “The Godfather” (Francis Ford Coppola), “Jeanne Dielman,” “Flowers of Shanghai” (Hou Hsiao-Hsien), “The Gleaners and I” (Varda), “Tokyo Story,” “Killer of Sheep,” “Little Stabs at Happiness” (Ken Jacobs), “There Will Be Blood” (Paul Thomas Anderson) and “Shoes” (Lois Weber).

So, Tony, what would you have submitted?

SCOTT I thought you’d never ask! Picking just 10 movies is a brutal discipline, and I’ll try to pretend that I’m voting before knowing how everybody else did. Here’s a list I might have submitted, in chronological order: “The Gold Rush” (Charlie Chaplin); “La Terra Trema” (Luchino Visconti); “What’s Opera, Doc?” (Chuck Jones); “Big Deal on Madonna Street” (Mario Monicelli); “La Dolce Vita” (Federico Fellini); “Cléo From 5 to 7” (Varda); “Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take One” (William Greaves); “Do the Right Thing” (Spike Lee); “Paris Is Burning” (Jennie Livingston); “Happy as Lazzaro” (Alice Rohrwacher).

Let’s check back in 2032 and see how it all holds up.

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