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Let the best films roll

Goran Gocić


The poll for the best films of all time was invented in Brussels in 1951, when Festival mondial du film et des beaux-arts de Belgique asked 63 filmmakers around the world to pick their favourite ten titles of all time. The winner was the Soviet silent feature Battleship Potemkin.

Perhaps the censors from Brussels were really onto something when they recently banned Russian media, bearing in mind that Battleship Potemkin is still the greatest propaganda film ever made. Based on a real event – a 1905 mutiny by sailors on a tsarist warship in the Black Sea – it is as good as war cinema is ever going to get. Note the most notorious montage sequence in the almost 130 years long history of cinema: the Odessa steps.

A year later, Sight & Sound magazine followed the Belgian challenge by also inviting cinema critics to vote for the ten best films of all time. It proved to be an eccentric idea: one of them protested, stating that he had seen exactly 5777 films: how could he possibly make up his mind selecting just ten? The winner of the poll was the Italian neorealist drama Bicycle Thieves.

Several influential international cinema polls have been conducted since then but none had British authority. The Sight & Sound poll has been referenced and revered: it has repeatedly gathered film specialists from all over the globe and since 1992, filmmakers have also voted in a separate section. 

The ritual of the Sight & Sound poll has become some sort of cinematic census, taking place every ten years.


The List of Lists: all-time greats

I compiled the Sight & Sound lists 1952–2022 by cinema critics into one. These are the best titles of all time – as definitive as it gets.

Citizen Kane, Welles (1941)

The Rules of the Game, Renoir (1939)

Battleship Potemkin, Eisenstein (1925)

Vertigo, Hitchcock (1958)

Tokyo Story, Ozu (1953)

, Fellini (1963)

2001: A Space Odyssey, Kubrick (1968)

The Passion of Joan of Arc, Dreyer (1927)

Singin’ in the Rain, Donen/Kelly (1951)

The Searchers, Ford (1956)

The absolute champion of the Sight & Sound polls so far – at least in the sense that Don Quixote is often considered to be the best novel of all time – proved to be Citizen Kane, which rose to the top of the poll in 1962 and held that position five consecutive times. The biopic of Yankee media mogul Charles Foster Kane – the Logan Roy of his generation – turned into a very American story: one of success. Orson Welles argues that his hero’s triumph is Pyrrhic. After 82 years, Citizen Kane still looks innovative: Charles’s crumbling marriage, for example, is depicted succinctly in 2 minutes and 15 seconds.

Welles seems to be, as Borges noted, a ‘genius in the German sense of the word’. But Jean Renoir – a son worthy of his father, the painter Auguste – reveals a different, Gallic talent that comes together with humour, spontaneity and charm. His tragicomedy The Rules of the Game encompasses not only French cinema but also the entire ambition of film, as the seventh art, to inherit the mantle of theatre.

As proof that the best films are adaptations of mediocre novels, is the French thriller D’entre les morts, written by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac. Sir Alfred Hitchcock turned it into his finest feature. Its hero lives in fear of heights and of falling, but don’t we all when it comes to falling for someone? The leading character Scottie is an obsessive fetishist, which is also an inherent attribute of watching motion pictures. Vertigo progressed gradually upwards in the poll over the years, grabbing first position in 2012 and second in 2022.

Tokyo Story, a Japanese exercise in minimalism, is about ageing. It is ludicrous to think that the man who wrote and directed it, Yasujiro Ozu, died when he was only 60. The film is in the Shomin-geki tradition, a genre of Japanese film that focuses on the everyday lives of ordinary people. But ‘straightforward’ might be a more suitable word to describe this simple, touching story about a retired couple, brushed aside by their busy relatives. The characters are frequently shot like TV presenters, talking straight into the camera, as straightforward as humanly possible.

Made in tandem with an Arthur C. Clarke novel of the same title, the Science Fiction classic 2001: A Space Odyssey is still surprisingly contemporary, despite the fact that it is now 55 years old. In the film, humankind is aided by an extraterrestrial machine but challenged by a man-made one. Today’s encounters with artificial intelligence contain an identical dilemma, as demonstrated by the astronaut Bowman’s rivalry with supercomputer Hal 9000. Note the boldest jump-cut in the history of cinema, when Stanley Kubrick projects us forward no fewer than 4 million years from an ape man to a spaceship.

A French selection: 10 personal favourites

As a film critic, I voted in the Sight & Sound polls twice; in 1992 and 2012. The 20 year gap prompted a decision to select a different set of films on these two occasions. 

Napoléon, Gance (1927)

The Rules of the Game, Renoir (1939)

The Strange Ones, Melville (1950)

Ugetsu, Mizoguchi (1953)

A Man Escaped, Bresson (1956)

Andrei Rublev, Tarkovsky (1965)

Chelsea Girls, Warhol (1966)

Two or Three Things I Know About Her, Godard (1966)

The Phantom of Liberty, Buñuel (1974)

Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom, Pasolini (1975)

Napoleon and Salò created an explosive combination on the eve of the Yugoslav civil war. One Sight & Sound reader even wrote an angry letter in protest against my particular choices and Sight & Sound published his letter in the next issue. In my defence against this 30yearold attack, I would cite a 50yearold statement by Kubrick about his adaptation of Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange: ‘Choosing a subject does not mean I am advocating it as a way of life.’ 

Chelsea Girls has been described as the ‘Iliad of the American underground’ and, for me, sums up the essence of Western nihilism embodied in the modern Narcissus. Not only this, but Warhol also clearly anticipates the age of music videos and reality TV shows that would follow decades after his daring experiment in the 1960s. This choice was an obvious one for me since my first book was Andy Warhol and the Strategies of Pop (1997) with photography by Warhol’s assistant Billy Name. 

20 years later: my 2012 choices

The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser, Herzog (1974)

Mirror, Tarkovsky (1974)

The Empire of the Senses, Oshima (1976)

The Elephant Man, Lynch (1980)

Sans Soleil, Marker (1982)

Holy Blood, Jodorowsky (1989)

Time of the Gypsies, Kusturica (1988)

Ju Dou, Zhang (1990)

Blissfully Yours, Weerasethakul (2002)

Dogville, Von Trier (2003)

Time of the Gypsies is a synthesis of all films about Roma ever made and an essential work of ethnographic cinema. When he saw the film, a French tycoon sent a blank check to its director, Kusturica, to fill in the amount he needed for his next film. The Palme d’Or winner Underground was born of that initiative. When I saw the film in 1989, it was not yet clear that I would become a film critic, let alone write my study Emir Kusturica: Notes from the Underground (2001).

Blissfully Yours is perhaps the most literal embodiment of Roland Barthes’s concept of jouissance in the medium of cinema. I presented an idea that bliss is the key ingredient of art in general to my colleagues at the Conference on the Balkan Cinema at Yale University in 2003.

The highly original Thai filmmaker Weerasethakul decisively abandons the dramatic conception of cinema and explores possibilities of the medium to conquer yet uncharted territories. Besides, this was also a personal choice because Blissfully Yours most closely captures the spirit of my best selling novel Thai, published in 2013.

Welles taught himself to direct by watching Stagecoach 40 times. Truffaut did the same by watching The Strange Ones 25 times. For me, it was Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil, a film-essay and the best documentary ever made. ‘I’ve travelled the world several times, Marker remarks, ‘Now only banality interests me.’

2022, The List expands: a female lead

Before 2012, a small number of critics were invited to vote and usually only between 50 and 150 people cast their votes. In 2012, however, Sight & Sound broadened its remit and 846 critics participated in its poll. In 2022 it gathered almost twice as many, the largest crowd so far.

Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, Akerman (1975)

Vertigo, Hitchcock (1958)

Citizen Kane, Welles (1941) 

Tokyo Story, Ozu (1953)

In the Mood for Love, Wong (2001)

2001: A Space Odyssey, Kubrick (1968)

Good Work, Denis (1998)

Mulholland Drive, Lynch (2001)

Man with a Movie Camera, Vertov (1929)

Singin’ in the Rain, Donen/Kelly (1951)


I was surprised to learn that Luis Buñuel was not even represented in the top 100 films in 2022. Perhaps David Lynch had inherited his place? For the most talented American filmmaker of his generation, the non sequitur and unstable identities remain his credo. 

Lynch’s Mulholland Drive surfaced in 28th position in 2012 and made it to the top ten in 2022. An attractive blonde newcomer to Hollywood meets her dark-haired peer who suffers from amnesia. Instead of discovering what has happened to them, they spiral out of reality, drowning in a Lynchian vortex together with the audience.

Although not a single film by a woman has ever appeared on the Sight & Sound top ten before 2022, I am happy to report that this latest list boasts two. A dozen other female filmmakers made it to the top 100, including Jane Campion, Vera Chytilová, Maya Deren and Agnès Varda. Perhaps more women got a right to vote last year?

Number six on the list, Good Work, is a peek into an exclusively male world. French writer-director Claire Denis and cinematographer Agnès Godard portray the young and able soldiers from the Foreign Legion in the manner of Edgar Degas’ ballerinas. But a feature conceived and shot in Belgium took the leading position in this list by storm. 

Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles is an unrelenting view of everyday life over three days, depicted meticulously in three and half hours; of a woman maintaining her apartment while she raises a teenage son and works as a part-time prostitute. A feature written, directed, acted, photographed and edited by women portrays life as a prison, a mere collection of chores. 

What starts in Brussels, returns to Brussels. Just like Marker, Chantal Akerman reaches for banality in order to summon the sublime. The contemporary heroine is Donna Quixote, charging at the housework. The 1967 musical Hair celebrated the Age of Aquarius; Jeanne Dielman is the perfect dirge for the Age of Covid.