Claiming gold in the film Olympics

At the end of last week the British Film Institute’s Sight & Sound magazine published the results of its landmark Greatest Films poll. Polls like this are designed to generate a lot of heat and discussion, and this latest poll did exactly that.

Columns like this immediately start analysing the results and pontificating about how it reflects on current film tastes and what it means for the future of cinema.

Being the BFI, of course, their poll is different from most other magazine surveys, which rely, largely, on reader input.

Invariably, in these polls, recent films and long-running franchises come out top of the lists. The Lord of The Rings films, Stars Wars, James Bond, Alien and Indiana Jones all regularly dominate the final tally.

One look at the BFI Sight & Sound list will reveal that none of these modern touchstones are anywhere to be seen. Instead the list consists of older films and foreign language movies. Even silent films are not forgotten.

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It’s a poll that takes the long view. It’s a cinema census which is conducted every 10 years and since 1952 has been charting the changing priorities of cultural cinema.

One of the defining aspects of the BFI list is that it is a genuinely international celebration of the lasting power of film. It embraces and acknowledges the global dominance of Hollywood but refuses to be bullied by the marketing folk or their obsession with the latest sensation.

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Hollywood is represented in the BFI’s top 10 but so are films from Japan, France, Germany, Russia and Italy. Disappointingly, Britain is the one major film-making nation which fails to appear anywhere in the Top 50. I would argue that this is a serious oversight. Surely there has to be room for Ealing’s The Ladykillers or Kind Hearts and Coronets in there somewhere? What about Lawrence of Arabia? Or even something like Atonement?

Voting is subjective but a lot of care has been taken to make this poll as democratic as possible and reflect the tastes of a global audience.

Sight and Sound’s editor, Nick James, in his introduction to the poll findings, said they had greatly expanded the voting this year to reflect the growth in online film journalism.

This year more than 1,000 critics and academics were invited to take part, providing 846 top-10 lists nominating 2,045 different films.

When the poll was last conducted, in 2002, it was drawn from a comparatively miserly 145 lists. He said that as the field was considerably broader this year, they had expected a more eclectic and possibly more contemporary collection of titles.

This didn’t happen – many of the old favourites still appeared, although there was a dramatic shake-up in the rankings of many former top 10 giants.

The big news was that Citizen Kane was dethroned for the first time in 60 years by Alfred Hitchcock’s psychological masterpiece Vertigo – a film that first appeared in the BFI poll only in 1972.

Other shifts didn’t grab the headlines in the same way but were none-the-less very dramatic. For the first time ever Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin failed to make the final 10, replaced by the Russian silent Man With A Movie Camera.

Other films with substantial drops in popularity are Singing In The Rain and The Godfather Parts One and Two – all dropped out of the upper echelons of the chart, as did other old reliables such as Bicycle Thieves, Rashomon and Scorsese’s Taxi Driver.

Although there is a lot of focus on classic films, there have been some new entries – the highest being Won Kar Wai’s In The Mood For Love (2000) in at 24 and David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive (2001) entering the chart at 28.

The most recent film to earn multiple nominations is Terence Malick’s The Tree of Life, which was in cinemas last year. It clocked up 16 votes and was in 101st place.

But, as a rule, most of the contributors tended to avoid nominating recent films for the simple reason that one of the requirements for an all-time classic is the ability to stand the test of time. This is why it is not unusual to see three silent films in the top 10.

But the real question that lies at the heart of the poll – something that all the respondents have had to wrestle with – is how do you define what is the greatest film of all time?

Are the greatest films those which broke new ground – either technically, pioneering new ways of telling a story or ways of using film creatively – or films which have a great re-watch value: movies which you return to time and again?

The answer was different for each voter.

Sight & Sound editor Nick James said in his introduction that when asked for a definition he was unable to supply one.

In the official letter of invitation he said the term “greatest film” was open to individual interpretation.

A look at the list also proves that commercial success has no part to play in a film’s placing in the chart. It is all about a film’s influence and its ability to get people talking.

Vertigo, for example, was not well received on its original release in 1958. It was dismissed by one learned broadsheet paper as “slow, wordy and, apparently, casual”. It was a view shared by audiences and it died at the box office.

Nevertheless, time has been on its side and it has now been declared The Greatest Film of All Time.

This was backed up – although in a significantly different running order – by the directors’ poll.

This separate poll run concurrently with the main survey lends the BFI lists added gravitas and was introduced in 1992. It provides an opportunity for a global selection of contemporary film-makers to nominate the people who have inspired them.

This time 350 directors responded and such household names as Paul Greengrass, Quentin Tarantino, Mike Leigh and Guillermo Del Toro have been placed alongside more obscure international film-makers. Meanwhile, top-flight names such as Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola are in the enviable position of nominating their influences while figuring in the lists of others.

I have to say that just to come up with 10 films is hard enough, but to make each film a nominee for the greatest film of all time is a tough call.

As one of my colleagues said the other day, trying to compare a silent classic like Chaplin’s The Gold Rush with James Cameron’s Avatar is akin to comparing a goldfish with an ironing board. It simply can’t be done in any meaningful way.

And yet we love compiling lists and, as the BFI Sight & Sound vote proves, even academic, upmarket institutions can’t resist putting the cat among the cinematic pigeons and coming up with a once-a-decade poll just to get people talking.

For the record, my choices would have been (had they asked me): The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence (Ford); Some Like It Hot (Wilder); The General (Keaton); North By Northwest (Hitchcock); Edward Scissorhands (Burton); Singing In The Rain (Kelly/Dohen); The Shawshank Redemption (Darabont), Fargo (Coen), Casablanca (Curtiz), The Philadelphia Story (Cukor).

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