Brief, Probably Inconsequential Thoughts on the 2022 Sight & Sound Greatest Films Survey

Once a decade, to much fanfare and debate, British magazine Sight & Sound publishes its so-called “Greatest Films of All Time” poll. People take this seriously for some reason. The latest results were released last week, crowning a new champion and also, notably, kicking a bunch of established classics to the curb.

Much virtual ink has already been spilled about this in online film discussion circles. Personally, I think the whole endeavor is kind of silly, as I have little interest in ranking movies or forcing them to compete against each other in a winner-takes-all competition. Nevertheless, I’ve taken a close look at the list, if no for other reason than to remind myself of some blind-spots in my own film education.

Conducted every ten years, Sight and Sound polls prominent film critics to compile a list of the top 100 best movies ever. The first results, published in 1952, named Vittorio de Sica’s 1948 Bicycle Thieves (Ladri di biciclette) the top of the heap. After that, Citizen Kane had a strong five-decade winning streak until unseated by Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo in 2012. Since that time, the magazine has made a concerted push to expand its voting base to a larger and more diverse pool of critics, comprised of something other than just old white men.

Make no mistake, plenty of old white men still got their say. Even so, the changes brought a pretty significant shake-up to the list this year.

The Lists

2022 Lists2012 Lists
Critics’ Top 100 (2022) Critics’ Top 100 (2012)
Directors’ Top 100 (2022)Directors Top 100 (2012)

The New Number 1

Former winners Vertigo and Citizen Kane have been bumped down to second and third places, while director Chantal Ackerman’s lengthily-titled 1975 domestic drama Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du commerce, 1080 Bruxelles made a huge leap up thirty-five steps to take the top spot.

I have not seen Jeanne Dielman. I have no opinion on whether it’s a great movie or not. To be frank, I don’t think the film was even on my radar at all until Criterion released it on Blu-ray in 2017. I didn’t buy that disc and have not prioritized it at any of the semi-annual Barnes & Noble Criterion sales.

Is it wrong of me to assume that this dramatic boost in status is mainly a result of Sight & Sound inviting more female critics to vote? The movie was on the 2012 list, after all, and I’ve seen plenty of male critics write favorably of it. Still, one can’t help but see a political statement in this. I won’t be so obnoxious as to claim that it’s purely a so-called “distorted woke reappraisal” (as director Paul Schrader disappointingly did), yet I do have to wonder whether the film can hold its position (or anywhere near it) in the future.

On the one hand, I think it’s a good and worthy goal of film criticism to champion lesser-seen movies, especially those told from a perspective outside the Hollywood mainstream. On the other, let’s be perfectly honest about this, sitting for a three-and-a-half-hour Belgian drama about a housewife enduring the drudgery of her daily routine in real time is a big ask of most viewers.

The Ones I Have Some Qualified Opinions About

I went through the entire Top 100 list to tally up the number of films I’d seen, and came in at just shy of half with 45. That’s actually better than I expected, though of course still leaves me with a lot of catching up to do.

Of those 45, I’d say I agree that 20 or so of them deserve to be on the list, or at least part of the conversation for it. Among the others, some I last saw so long ago that I barely remember them and would need to revisit before making a declaration. Around 15 are movies that I do genuinely like, but have a hard time calling “greatest ever.”

For example, as much as I love Psycho (#33) and North by Northwest (#47), I don’t think we need four Hitchcock titles on the list, and am happy to let Vertigo (#2) and Rear Window (#40) represent him. I’m a big David Lynch fan, but I’ve always had mixed feelings about Mulholland Drive (#8). Blue Velvet (#84) belongs on this list, hell yes, but at the very least these two need to swap positions.

A handful are movies I don’t like and believe don’t belong here. As much as many people consider The Searchers (#15) an all-time classic, I find John Wayne Westerns incredibly corny and that one does very little for me. Genius though Stanley Kubrick was, Barry Lyndon (#45) bores me to tears. I dislike Jean-Luc Godard’s Contempt (#54) and his Pierrot le Fou (#86) left me cold the last time I watched it. (Keep Breathless at #38, though.) I also have never cared for Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust (#62). Forgive me if some of those are among your favorites.

The Cuts

Just as interesting as the titles that made the Top 100 list are those that were dumped off it entirely since the last poll in 2012. Those include some serious heavy-hitters like Raging Bull, Touch of Evil, Chinatown, The Magnificent Ambersons, The Seventh Seal, Grand Illusion, Children of Paradise, Nashville, Wild Strawberries, and Aguirre: The Wrath of God.

How did a towering masterpiece like Lawrence of Arabia get dropped from this list? How was it as low as #81 the last time?

I have to remind myself that a movie not appearing on this list doesn’t mean the voters think it’s “bad,” just that the list itself isn’t long enough to accommodate every movie that might deserve to be on it.

Still, no Lawrence? You’ve got to be kidding me with that.

The Directors’ Poll

In addition to its primary critics’ poll, Sight & Sound also surveys a number of notable filmmakers to compile a separate Top 100 poll for their choices. This year’s is topped by Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. I can support that. A number of the critics’ omissions I just noted do thankfully turn up on the directors’ list, along with some other interesting titles the critics forgot, such as Don’t Look Now (1973), The Conversation (1974), Jaws (1975), Eraserhead (1976), and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004).

Why Should We Care, Anyway?

I started this article saying that I don’t like ranking movies or making them compete, but then went and wrote a bunch of paragraphs complaining about how movies were ranked and which ones should be considered better than others. I’m aware of the hypocrisy. I think lists like this feed into our natural human desire to impose order and structure onto a chaotic world. That’s what makes them so entertaining and so frustrating.

Ultimately, the critics polled by Sight & Sound rating Jeanne Dielman the greatest film of all time doesn’t actually make it a better movie than any other title on the list, or than countless others missing altogether. It’s just a snapshot of where the conversation about film happens to be at this moment in time.

What may in fact be the most interesting takeaway from the 2022 poll is how much of it hasn’t changed. Fully 76 movies out of 100 were on the list in 2012 and remain on it in 2022. They may have jockeyed for position a little bit here or there, but given how many ties Sight & Sound allows for, not even as much as it might look at first. Perhaps that’s a reflection of a certain degree of stodginess (not to mention stubbornness) in critics’ circles, or perhaps it just means that some movies’ greatness can’t be denied.

We’ll see how this thing looks in another ten years.

Edited to Add:

I just re-read the section I wrote about Jeanne Dielman and realize that it sounds dismissive – first, as if female critics’ opinions weren’t as legitimate as the male critics’, and second, as if anyone who voted for the film did so only as a political statement. That wasn’t my intent, regardless of how poorly I may have expressed it. That said, elevating a rather obscure movie to the top of the Greatest Films list would raise an eyebrow no matter who directed it or what it was about. I’d ask anyone reading this to ask themselves three questions:

  1. Have you actually watched Jeanne Dielman yourself?
  2. If so, do you honestly feel it’s the greatest film of all time, bar none?
  3. Do you know anyone else who could answer Yes to both questions 1 and 2?

I suspect that very few people could answer Yes to any of those questions, much less all three of them.

Film criticism these days is widely devalued by the public, most of whom feel that critics are elitist snobs who only care about boring foreign art films nobody has ever heard of, not about real movies that real people want to see. Putting a 3.5-hour Belgian drama called Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du commerce, 1080 Bruxelles at the top of this list kind of plays into the stereotype, doesn’t it?

Don’t get me wrong, I love plenty of obscure movies that the average joe on the street will probably never watch. I believe I’d feel the same way if one of those suddenly shot to #1 from out of nowhere.

I’m not saying we should crown Avatar or Avengers: Endgame just because they’re the most popular and made the most money. However, I do think that if you’re going to name something the “Greatest Film of All Time,” some of the criteria for that title probably ought to include how well it plays for audiences or captures their attention, as well as how prominently it endures in the public consciousness over time.

In my opinion, to be the greatest of the great, the absolute pinnacle of the art form, a film should be both artistic and resonate with a mass audience, not just one or the other. I don’t think that’s unfair.

4 thoughts on “Brief, Probably Inconsequential Thoughts on the 2022 Sight & Sound Greatest Films Survey

  1. The press had a field day with the announcement of ‘Jeanne Dielman’, because an approximate 98,9% of all Belgians had never even heard of the movie. Sphinx, an acclaimed arthouse cinema in Ghent, Belgium, was quick to announce a screening, mostly to accomodate cinephiles eager to check it out. Funny note on the cinema’s website: ‘Take some time out of your schedule, the movie is 202 minutes long’. Haha.


  2. While I am always interested to see something new, the top film’s selection sounds like it was made by the same people you knew in high school who elevated mediocre (I’m being nice) work because it wasn’t mainstream. Their choice is more about showing everyone they’re different (and in their minds, “better”) because they happened upon an unusual piece of work most people didn’t know about. They usually picked a song so far from the mainstream, it sounded like the “music” Ross performed at The Central Perk.

    Julian’s fantastic comment about 99% of Belgium’s population not knowing of its existence would lend more credence to that scenario being likely than the merits of the film.

    I could be wrong and this movie is truly a rarely seen, special experience much like the Karl Urban/Lena Headey “Dredd” movie is to action fans, but something tells me it isn’t.


    1. It might be good, I have never seen it myself. A few friends of mine are really big fans. One of Belgium’s more mainstream directors (who has made quite a few stinkers in his time) called it ‘an unwatchable bore’, which in turn fueled a ‘Scorsese versus Marvel’-esque discussion.


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