The 2022 Sight & Sound Poll of the Greatest Films of All TimeAlex Graham
The results of the Sight and Sound poll of the Greatest Films of All Time were announced earlier this month. The prestigious, once-a-decade poll, which has been conducted since 1952, is widely regarded as an arbiter of the canon of cinema. This year’s results bear the unmistakable influence of film-school fads and rabid identity politics.
This year’s list is noticeably more diverse than the previous one. The number of films made by black directors that appear on it increased from one to seven, and the number of films made by women increased from two to eleven. Either these films were previously unrecognized for their greatness, or they were deliberately selected in light of their creators’ identities. The latter is more plausible. The much larger pool of participants this year — nearly double that of the 2012 poll — suggests that the pollsters were keen to recruit non-white and female critics who could be counted on to diversify the list. They also polled academics and writers in addition to film professionals.
The film that topped the list was Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles. Akerman, a favorite among academics and film students, was a Jewish feminist whose work revolves around the lives of women. Her filmmaking style involves documenting ordinary life in real time, with no concern for plot development. Plots are symbolic of the patriarchy because they are reminiscent of the projectile motion involved in male urination. (Or something like that.) I am sure someone out there has written a dissertation about this. I tried to watch Jeanne Dielman, but it was like watching paint dry, and I am someone who liked 2001: A Space Odyssey. The emperor has no clothes. The film is over three hours long and mostly consists of a woman doing chores around the house. This culminates in the murder of one of her clients (she is a prostitute), signifying her liberation from female “oppression.”
Akerman’s News from Home is also on the list and is ranked 52nd. This film actually does have some poignancy to it, as letters from Akerman’s mother back home are read aloud over melancholy depictions of urban solitude and alienation. It is not exactly one of the greatest films of all time, though. News from Home is much less politically charged than Jeanne Dielman, which likely explains its lower ranking.
Of the new entries directed by women on the list, the most glaring addition is Céline Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire, which came in 30th. The film is about a lesbian affair in eighteenth-century France. Critics have praised it for eschewing the “male gaze,” which is an accurate assessment, as the characters never have sex. This choice is very characteristic of the tastes of NPR-listening liberal film snobs, who go nuts over dreary, subdued period romances and hate anything sexy (Blue Is the Warmest Color, Showgirls).
Barbara Loden’s Wanda, which came in 45th, is even drearier. The eponymous protagonist, another disillusioned housewife who turns to prostitution, is dull and vacuous. The unflinching honesty with which it depicts her pathetic circumstances is commendable, but it is a slog.
Claire Denis’ Beau travail made it to the top ten, moving from 78th to 7th place. Either its towering artistic merit was not fully recognized a decade ago, or critics like the fact that it is a female-directed film about colonialism in Africa with a gay subtext. It’s safe to assume the latter is the case. Wong Kar-wai’s In the Mood for Love similarly catapulted from 72nd to 5th place. Perhaps its foreign arthouse cachet compelled respondents to put it on their lists. I found it boring.
David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive went from 82nd to 8th place. Blue Velvet, meanwhile, came in 84th. Mulholland Drive is one of my all-time favorite films, but Blue Velvet is unquestionably Lynch’s masterpiece. Mulholland Drive won out presumably because it is popular among academics and film students, as it is open to postmodernist interpretations. I hope that someday Lynch gets canceled so these people will stop watching it. (I am sure they would be willing to denounce it if it ceased to be fashionable.)
The list is heavy on French New Wave films, with four films by Godard, two by Agnès Varda, Francois Truffaut’s The 400 Blows, Jacques Rivette’s Céline and Julie Go Boating, and Chris Marker’s La Jetée. The emphasis on New Wave cinema is another nod to film-school sensibilities. Academics and film theorists love New Wave films because they lend themselves to critical analysis, and because French auteurs tended to be Leftist existentialists and Marxists. This is not an indictment of New Wave films per se; The 400 Blows is a great film. But is Cléo de 5 à 7 really the 14th-greatest film of all time? And La Jetée, a 20-minute-long experimental film about time travel, is an interesting curiosity, but it’s not a masterpiece.
The high rankings of Citizen Kane (2nd) and Dziga Vertov’s 1929 experimental silent film Man with a Movie Camera (9th) also hint at the influence of film schools on this list. Both films pioneered a variety of filming techniques, and are probably studied by most film students — Man with a Movie Camera demonstrates a wide range of techniques, making it ideal for classroom instruction — but they are not especially remarkable beyond their cinematography. One has the suspicion that respondents selected them because they felt they ought to. The impulse to signal one’s credentials would explain the questionable placements on this list — both the film school favorites and the affirmative-action picks.
The highest-ranked film by a black director was Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing, which came in 24th place. It follows black men who confront a local pizzeria owner and start a riot. The title invites viewers to consider whether the black characters did “the right thing” by attacking the owner and inciting the mob to destroy the pizzeria. The film has received widespread acclaim; it’s not hard to see why.
It was inevitable that Jordan Peele’s Get Out and Barry Jenkins’s Moonlight, which have been showered with accolades and critical praise, would make the list. Last year, the Writers Guild of America deemed Get Out the greatest screenplay of the twenty-first century, which is a joke. The film is predictable, derivative, and uninteresting. Critics loved it because it depicts white people as sociopathic, unhinged villains and flatters notions of black supremacy, as the white characters want to inhabit black bodies because they admire their allegedly superior physical attributes. The black characters are the only likable characters in the entire film. Moonlight is a coming-of-age film about a gay black man. Critics gushed over its juxtaposition of arthouse aesthetics with depictions of black working-class life.
If the pollsters and respondents genuinely wanted to increase the profile of “marginalized” directors, they would not do so in this manner, as it discredits every single high-profile director who happens to be female, non-white, etc. If favoritism is non-existent, then one knows that acclaimed female or non-white directors earned their status, but otherwise, people will default to the assumption that they are merely the beneficiaries of affirmative action. This is unfortunate in the case of those who are genuinely talented and accomplished. This is likewise evidence of the fact that the primary goal of Leftist reformulations of the canon is to spite white men, not to pay homage to talented women or non-whites.
There are a few improvements to the new list over the 2012 one: A Clockwork Orange and Aguirre, the Wrath of God (massively overrated) were removed, and The Leopard and Spirited Away were added. But for the most part, the list is markedly worse, and the 2012 list itself was far from perfect. In what world are Do the Right Thing and Portrait of a Lady on Fire among the 30 greatest films of all time, while Lawrence of Arabia; The Wild Bunch; Fanny and Alexander; La strada; The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly; Chinatown; and The Deer Hunter (all knocked from the list) aren’t even in the top 100? The task of compiling a numbered list of the 100 greatest films of all time is arguably a fool’s errand, but this does not negate the fact that objective standards of beauty and artistic merit exist. The above-named films are greater by any measure than the affirmative-action picks.
There are also several films that are serious contenders for this list, but never had a chance, because they either are too politically incorrect (Triumph of the Will, Birth of a Nation, Gone with the Wind) or insufficiently highbrow for film school snobs (Master and Commander, the Lord of the Rings trilogy, The Dark Knight trilogy — these all have a politically incorrect streak and arguably fall under the first category, too).
There are still a handful of all-time greats on the list (Vertigo, Rashomon, Apocalypse Now, Blade Runner, 2001: A Space Odyssey), which allows the poll to maintain prestige and some semblance of credibility while subtly modifying the canon.
The 2022 Sight & Sound poll is one of many examples of Leftist attempts to redefine artistic greatness. Anyone who values beauty and excellence must resist this trend.
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