Film Polls

Alan Pavelin

Talking Pictures alias






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Film fans love lists, whether making their own or reading other people’s. Lists of best films, best
actors, best directors, best movie moments, or whatever. “Best film polls” have become an established institution, and each new such poll is eagerly pored over by enthusiasts.

These polls take broadly two forms: those conducted among the movie-going public, and those conducted among critics. The former, which almost invariably result in Star Wars being acclaimed the “best film of all time” (as if films have been made for millions of years!), are interesting from a sociological aspect but pointless from an artistic one. This is largely because most participants in these polls have seen only a tiny proportion of all films ever released (especially those made before the 1970s, the decade fondly believed by many to be when the cinema came of age), and only a small proportion of all the truly great films; ask them what they think of Sunrise, Man With A Movie Camera, or M, and their eyes glaze over. The “top 100" films produced by such polls invariably consist almost entirely of Hollywood productions of the past 25 years, with the occasional Gone With The Wind and Casablanca thrown in for good measure.

Critics’ polls, which for at least 40 years have named Citizen Kane as the “best film ever made”, are infinitely more interesting. Professional critics are highly knowledgeable and are likely to have seen most, perhaps almost all, of the great films from around the world over the past 100 years. They know that cinema came of age in about 1915, not 60 years later; that D. W. Griffith was far more innovative than any director working today; and that Hollywood has produced little more than one-third of the greatest films ever made. In particular their experience and knowledge of foreign-language movies extends way beyond Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Amelie.

It is also important, I believe, that these polls should be international, not just restricted to critics of one’s own country or culture. This is not because critics from other cultures are likely to be familiar with a somewhat different range of films (though they probably are), but because their whole way of seeing the world may be different though equally valid. For example, the society which most of us know has for generations been dominated by what might be called the ever-growing cult of individualism, whereas the “third world” still retains a much more communal way of looking at life. This manifests itself in cinema; countless European and American films are centred around a “lone hero” character, while African films, for example, are far more communally-based. This even affects the film style, in that the close-up, for example, is relatively rare in third-world cinema.

Another important aspect of critics’ polls is a statistical one, namely that the number of participants should be large. If 50 critics are asked for their “ten best” films and the results are aggregated, it is likely that the top film will receive about 10 votes, and ranking the results to produce an overall “top 100" or so becomes somewhat absurd. This was the case with a recent poll in the New York Village Voice magazine, when 50-odd leading American critics were asked for their “films of the century”. So small is this number that a ludicrous 100 films tied for 112th place. When a difference of a single vote can affect a film’s final position by up to 100 places, the whole exercise becomes something of a charade.

A further point about critics’ choices is that, like the rest of us, their preferences change from time to time. I have found that a film can “knock me for six” on a first viewing but begin to pall after one or two more, whereas another can make little impression first time round but subsequently reveals its riches. Again, fashions change over time; 50 years ago critics’ “best film” lists were dominated by Chaplin silents, Flaherty documentaries, and Italian neo-realism, all somewhat out of favour today.

While it can definitely be maintained that some films are “good” and others “bad”, the concept of an objectively-assessed “best film” is an illusion. Most critics do not place Citizen Kane in their “top ten”. I have found that the best way to find out which films I am particularly likely to enjoy is to seek out one or more critics whose “wavelength” I seem to share, and to follow their recommendations.

These thoughts are brought on by the publication in August 2002 of what is perhaps the most prestigious of all the critics’ polls, the 10-yearly one which the British Film Institute magazine Sight and Sound has been conducting since 1952. Around 150 critics, roughly equally divided between the UK, the rest of Europe, the US, and the rest of the world, were asked to nominate their “ten best”; a good balance geographically and a reasonable number in total. The well-publicised “top ten” showed Citizen Kane holding its top place, but by only 5 votes from Vertigo, which could well take over in 2012. With the help of the website at I have calculated the top 100, using the parallel “directors’ poll” as a
tie-breaker (for example, though Battleship Potemkin and Sunrise tied in the critics’ top ten, the former received more votes in the directors’ poll). I have made one significant change from the official list: Sight and Sound combined the votes for The Godfather and its sequel Part II, giving it an overall 4th position. I would regard them as two separate films, and have split the votes given by 8 critics for both parts, as if they were one film, between the two, so in my list each part appears separately but at lower positions than 4th. Finally, I would suggest that anyone who takes films seriously should aim to see at least 90 of the list below; if everyone who participates in the general public’s “best film” polls had done so, perhaps Star Wars would no longer come out at the top.

1     Citizen Kane
2     Vertigo
3     La Règle du jeu
4     Tokyo Story
5     2001: A Space Odyssey
6     Battleship Potemkin
7     Sunrise
8     81/2
9     Singin' in the Rain
10   Seven Samurai
11   The Searchers
12   Rashomon
13   The Godfather
14   The Passion of Joan of Arc
15= Touch of Evil
       À bout de souffle
17   L'Atalante
18  The General
19  The Godfather Part II
20  L'avventura
21  Jules et Jim
22  Au hasard Balthazar
23  Pather Panchali
24  Le Mépris
25  La dolce vita
26  M
27  The Story of the Late Chrysanthemums
28  Some Like It Hot
29  Les Enfants du paradis
30  Ugetsu Monogatari
31= Ivan the Terrible
33  Wild Strawberries
34  Barry Lyndon
35  Man with a Movie Camera
36  Psycho
37  Fanny and Alexander
38= Andrei Roublev
        La Grande Illusion
40= The Seventh Seal
       Taxi Driver
42   The Third Man
43   The 400 Blows
44   Modern Times
45   The Magnificent Ambersons
46   Lawrence of Arabia
47   Bicycle Thieves
48   Mirror
49   City Lights
50= Intolerance
52= Blade Runner
       Rio Bravo
55= Sansho Dayu
      The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance
      The Travelling Players
58= Shoah
      Two or Three Things I Know about Her
      Letter from an Unknown Woman
      Pierrot le fou
62  Sunset Blvd.
63  Apocalypse Now
64  Chinatown
65  North by Northwest
66= L'Age d'or
      Rear Window
70= Ikiru
      Voyage to Italy
      A City of Sadness
74= Vivre sa vie
       It's a Wonderful Life
       Breaking the Waves
       Madame de...
       Black Narcissus
       Sherlock Jr.
       Once upon a Time in America
84= Jeanne Dielman...
       A One and a Two...
88   Raging Bull
89   Casablanca
90= Persona
       The Conformist
92= The Gold Rush
        Pulp Fiction
        The Wild Bunch
        Last Year at Marienbad
        The Battle of Algiers
97= The Night of the Hunter
        The Leopard

If you’re a fan of film polls and surveys see:

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