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Sight & Sound 2022

Every ten years, Sight & Sound publishes the results of a poll of the best movies of all time. They are the most prestigious and consequential of these sorts of lists, and they're among the longest running: they've been published every decade since 1952. Starting in 1992, they started polling directors in addition to critics and compiled the results in separate lists. (I'll be speaking about the critic's list in this post.)

Bicycle Thieves topped the list in 1952. For the next five decades, Citizen Kane was king. In 2012, Vertigo supplanted it, but now in the newly published 2022 list we have a new one, the left field choice Jeanne Dielman, 23, Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975), directed by Chantal Akerman. It's not well known outside of certain circles, perhaps because it's less accessible than the other three winners: it's a more than three hour film about a woman stuck in her domestic routine. The film lingers long over the execution of ordinary household chores, repeatedly so as the days pass by. The story happens largely in its undercurrents, the tiny differences in the main character's performance from one day to the next. There is more to it, but I should not say more.

It's a great film, to be sure, but to pluck it from a pool of 500 or so other great films and set it up on top is not a move I would have predicted. Think pieces have already been written about why it rose to the top this time. There are elements of likely truth to them, but I'm not sure I agree with any of them.

The first explanation that came to my mind is the one I find most compelling, if a little too pat. During covid lockdown, we learned a lot about the psychological effects of isolation at home. I can't think of a film that better explores this feeling. The isolation in Jeanne Dielman has a different cause, but the slow unravelling of the main character is probably something more people can relate to than ever before.

I'm using weasel words like "probably" on purpose. I think there are trends and cultural shifts that you can see how the lists reflect, but I don't think it's so easy to attribute cause, make a moral judgment, or even to disentangle all the various changes from each other. Explaining the last ten years of cultural evolution is a lot to ask of a couple of Top 100 lists.

Yet some of the new articles about the new Sight & Sound lists are by authors with no such reservations. The go-to explanation is that one of the biggest recent changes in our culture is an inclination to self-impose diversity quotas on our lists of great art. Jeanne Dielman commonly tops lists of the greatest films directed by a woman and was the highest ranked female-directed film in the 2012 list. If enough Sight & Sound voters (who vote by submitting unranked Top 10 lists) purposely include a film directed by a woman on their ballots, it makes sense that Jeanne Dielman lands on top. Those putting forth this argument tend also to cite the the strong showing of other female-directed films in the Top 100: Cleo From 5 To 7 (Agnes Vardna, 1962), Meshes of the Afternoon (Maya Deren, 1943), Daughters of the Dust (Julie Dash, 1991), News From Home (Akerman, 1976), and Beau Travail (Claire Denis, 1999) all either appeared in the Top 100 for the first time or rose substantially in the rankings since the 2012 lists. Additionally, the post-2012 film Portrait of a Lady On Fire (Celine Sciamma, 2019) made a strong debut. Films by black directors such as Do the Right Thing (Spike Lee, 1989), Killer of Sheep (Charles Burnett, 1978), Black Girl (Ousmane Sembene, 1966), Moonlight (Barry Jenkins, 2016), and Get Out (Jordan Peele, 2017) all made strong showings. By contrast, such directors as David Lean, Robert Altman, Luis Bunuel, Howard Hawks, Josef von Sternberg, Terrence Malick, and Paul Thomas Anderson are missing, and the perennial picks as Lawrence of Arabia, Rio Bravo, Chinatown, Raging Bull, and The Godfather Part II are absent.

I don't think it's right to "pick a side" on this. I think it's reductive to say that the above explains everything but naive to think it doesn't play a part.

There are a couple of problems here. One is that one gets used to certain titles and directors being proclaimed the greatest of all time, resulting in conditioning cineastes into adopting the unspoken truth that some movies' spots on lists of great movies are sacrosanct. So we criticize any given individual list not just with our own personal tastes but also our sense of what is somehow right. Chinatown is a masterpiece, no doubt. Is it one of the hundred greatest films ever? Maybe. Do we think it must be in part because we've been told so by countless individuals and institutions for the last 60 years? Probably. Does it seem wrong when some new film that the unwashed masses love -- like Get Out, for instance -- takes a spot away from one of the standards? It did to me, at first, but I'm not so sure it is any less deserving than, say, Rio Bravo, another genre masterpiece with a political undercurrent. (One reasonable caveat is that we don't yet know how well Get Out will stand the test of time. Then again, no one who voted L'Avventura into the #2 spot in 1962, two years after that film was made, know if that one was going to stick either.)

I am adamantly against judging art with identity group quotas, so much so that I didn't even like categorizing them as I did above to summarize arguments others are making. On the other hand, I think it's sensible for lovers of film to reconsider film history periodically and perhaps discover great movies we missed before. And if we're going to open the doors to other contenders, we can't do it by requiring them to squabble over the few remaining Top 100 slots that the movies "everybody knows" are the best have already taken.

I've been careful not to say much about whether or not I agree or disagree with any of these inclusions or exclusions, because that's not the point. My list would look quite different from the Sight & Sound list, though with some expected and unexpected similarities. It would instigate its own kind of argument if I assembled one and anybody was foolish enough to take it seriously, because exclusive lists of great art is a foolhardy enterprise -- except as a means to instigate worthy conversation. In the end, lists like these are conversation pieces and a way to introduce movie lovers to some titles they might have missed before. As a result of this list, I watched Meshes of the Afternoon this morning (it's only 13 minutes long), and I found it striking, hypnotic, and revelatory. I neither know, nor at this point care, whether it would land on my personal Top 100 list, but I'm overjoyed that somebody pointed it out to me.

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