K&M Commentary: Sight & Sound 2022 and the Futility of List-Making

Compiling lists. It’s something we film critics rush to do at the end of every movie year. Like a sacred rite, we needlessly toil and labor over what ten or so films we should christen as the very best of the year. Admittedly, it’s more fun for some of us than it is for others. And we’re often tempted to attach an undue importance to these things. Yet like good creatures of habit we still perform our ‘duty’, despite how meaningless it is when it comes to something as arbitrary as picking out movies.

Perhaps the mother of all futile lists comes from the British Film Institute’s Sight and Sound magazine. In 1952, the 90-year-old publication conducted their first Sight and Sound poll to determine the “Greatest Films of All Time”. Every decade since, S&S has invited a handpicked group of film critics and filmmakers to participate. To their credit, the decennial S&S list has been held in pretty high regard, in large part due to the exclusive nature of their voting body.

But criticism of that very exclusivity has led to big changes, and calls for diversity has culminated in the recently announced 2022 poll results which have shaken things up and sparked quite the conversation about the credibility of the list and the BFI’s approach. In 2012 the BFI expanded its international voter base from 145 to 846 “critics, programmers, academics, distributors, writers and other cinephiles”. But the only notable change came at the top where “Citizen Kane” was dethroned by “Vertigo”after a five-decade reign. So for 2022 the BFI went further, boosting its roll to a whopping 1,639 participants. A big shift was all but guaranteed.

Immediately after the results were announced knee-jerk reactions poured in. Some were complaints rooted in a near pharisaical interpretation of movie canon, coming from those who treat the S&S list as some sacred entity – a holy place where the sanctity of the old canon is to be preserved and protected. Others quickly rose to the list’s defense, vehemently branding and dismissing any possible reservation or hint of skepticism.

Naturally when you’re selective in nearly doubling your number of voters, chances are there will be some significant changes. But that doesn’t automatically imply some clandestine, behind-the-scenes conspiracy. At the same time, it’s certainly fair to ask questions, especially when such dramatic changes have taken place. When all-timers like “The Godfather Part II”, “Raging Bull”, “Rio Bravo”, “Chinatown”, and “Touch of Evil” get booted out of the Top 100.

Perhaps the biggest case for curiosity is found in the S&S poll’s new number one film, Chantal Akerman’s “Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles”. For the record, I like “Jeanne Dielman” and admire Akerman’s avant-garde boldness. And seeing a female directed film in the top spot for the first time is exciting.

But “Jeanne Dielman” is a movie I’m guessing few outside the inner sphere of film cinephilia have heard of, and it’s probably the least accessible film on the entire 2022 list. It’s a movie I’d only recommend to a small handful of people I know; where for well over three hours we watch the titular character carry out such everyday tasks as washing dishes, taking a bath, peeling potatoes, and polishing shoes.

But maybe that’s the point. Perhaps S&S is simply meant to be a tool to introduce new movies to potential new audiences. Of course that begs the question, why call your list “The Greatest Films of All Time” if it’s merely meant to be a conversation starter. Deep down I suspect there’s a smorgasbord of motivations behind what movies get chosen, especially in such a polarized climate and where sentiment is so often shaped and molded by what’s trending on Twitter.

Still, not everyone is sold on the organization’s intent and even less enthused by the results. Paul Schrader (a terrific filmmaker who has never been shy about sharing his thoughts) called “Jeanne Dielman” a favorite of his but questioned its relatively speedy ascent to the top spot. “It feels off” he wrote, “as if someone had put their thumb on the scale.” Of course Schrader was quickly crucified and his comments written-off rather than considered. I’m not onboard with everything he said, but some points make sense. After all, the BFI wanted some much-needed diversity, and they got their intended results.

Which gets back to “Jeanne Dielman”, a fascinating movie that’s sure to be an eye-opener for some and like watching paint dry for others. Is it the “greatest film of all time” as the Sight and Sound poll proclaims? Honestly, I doubt it would crack my personal Top 100. And seeing it catapult to #1 is almost as surprising as seeing Jordan Peele’s “Get Out” on a list missing the likes of Hawks, Altman, Buñuel, Lubitsch, Cassavetes, Malick, Farhadi, and the Coen brothers.

But all of that speaks to my own choices. And ultimately that’s all these lists are – personal expressions of preference and passion. And the Sight and Sound poll shouldn’t be looked at as anything more than a collection of such expressions. Sure, there may be some agendas at work and some old guard gatekeeping. Yes, it has broadened its scope while calling into question its validity. But who cares. Have fun discussing, debating, and (hopefully) discovering new movies. Just don’t take any of it too seriously. In the end, none of it really matters much. As for where the S&S poll goes from here…I guess we’ll see in ten years.

13 thoughts on “K&M Commentary: Sight & Sound 2022 and the Futility of List-Making

  1. Great piece and intelligent analysis, Keith.

    I thinks the new “number one” smacks of intellectual clickbait of the highest order. But if it gets a film conversation started (and increases the Sight and Sound circulation) then I’m all for it.

  2. Nice piece! I love writing and reading lists myself, and I’ve always viewed them as what they are, personal choices for the author. I can’t say I get too up in arms over lists that differ from what I’d put on there. What I did appreciate about Sight and Sounds’ new list is putting Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles on my radar because I’ve never heard of it. I doubt it will live up to the title of “the best” because films that aren’t The Godfather rarely do when they’re given that title, but if I ever find it, I’ll give it a watch.

  3. Great post, Keith. I have always felt movies are no different than any other artistic endeavor. Rankings and lists are what they are – one person’s thoughts and feelings based on their unique perspective, likes, and interests – having no bearing at all on what I like or don’t like.

  4. I have no issues with Jeanne Dielman being named Best Film ever by Sight and Sound though I feel like it is there to please a certain demographic and that’s not what lists should do. Plus, there’s films by women that I think are better than Jeanne Dielman in my opinion. I don’t know if the film is in my personal top 100 films ever but I do think it’s a film people need to see. I’m just surprised that in that list of 100 films. There’s only 3 films I haven’t seen on that list so far: Wanda, Tropical Malady, and Histoire(s) du Cinema.

    • It definitely wouldn’t crack my Top 100. I like the movie, but when compared with the many great works of cinema, I can’t imagine it being #1. Then again, how much should we put in such lists.

  5. To me that number one pick had the feel of a stunt rather than the selection of the movie a high percentage of critics felt was an all time great. But I also thought it does reflect current tastes, where making a pick for the sake of diversity rather than strictly on artistic merit is the most important thing.

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