What is the greatest movie ever made?
It seems like a highly subjective question that is impossible to answer. However, in 1952 the magazine of the British Film Institute took it upon itself to come up with an answer to the question.
They surveyed an international group of film professionals to ask them what they thought the greatest films of all time were.
They have conducted the survey every decade for the last 70 years.
Learn more about the Sight and Sound Decadal Survey and the greatest movies of all time on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.
Whenever you get into discussions of what is the greatest of all time, regardless of the subject, it is going to elicit controversy.
The impetus behind the survey conducted by Sight and Sound Magazine was simple enough. Try to determine what is considered by critics to be the greatest film of all time.
The methodology that Sight and Sound used was extremely simple, and with only some minor changes, it has been the method used for every survey taken since 1952.
Each of the critics was given a blank sheet of paper and asked to write down what they considered to be their ten greatest movies of all time, in no particular order.
The results were tabulated by simply counting what film was mentioned on the most lists. That’s it.
There was no weighted ranking system.
So, the film which they dubbed the greatest was simply the film that was put on the list of the ten best by the most critics.
Of the 85 critics which were sent surveys, 63 responded.
Some of the flims I’m going to go through you might have heard of, some you might have seen, and I’m guessing for most of you, there are a lot of flims you’ve never heard of.
Here were the results of the 1952 poll, with the year the film was released and the director.
Tied for tenth: Le Million, a 1931 French comedy by Rene Clair, Rules of the Game, a 1939 French comedy/drama by Jean Renoir, and Brief Encounter, a 1945 romantic drama by British Drector David Lean.
In ninth place, The Passion of Joan of Arc. A 1928 French silent movie by Carl Theodore Dryer.
In eighth place, Le Jour Se Lève, a 1939 French film by Marcel Carne.
In seventh place, Greed. A 1924 silent film by Hollywood director Erich von Stroheim.
In sixth place, Louisiana Story. A 1948 fictional documentary by Robert J. Flaherty.
In fifth place, Intolerance. The 1916 epic silent film by D.W. Griffith.
In fourth place is Battleship Potemkin. A 1925 silent film by Soviet director Sergei Eisenstein.
In third place, The Gold Rush, 1925 by Charlie Chaplin.
In second place, City Lights, 1931, by Charline Chaplin.
In first place, listed on 25 of the 63 ballots, was the 1948 Italian film The Bicycle Theives by director Vittorio De Sica. It tells the story of a man who looks to recover his stolen bicycle which he needs for his job to feed his family.
The thing to remember for this list, is that film making was really a young artform at this time.
Ten years later, in 1962, they decided to do it again. There was now a new generation of film critics, a decade worth of new films, and a longer perspective to appreciate what came before it.
In this survey, number 10 through 6 were: L’Atalante, 1934 by Jean Vigo, La Terra Trema 1948 by Luchino Visconti, Ivan the Terrible, 1944 by Sergi Eistenstine, Bicycle Thieves, and Battleship Potemkin.
Number five was the 1953 Japanese film Ugetsu, by Kenji Mizoguchi.
Number four was Greed.
Number three was Rules of the Game.
Number two was the 1960 Italian film L’Avventura by Michelangelo Antonioni.
Number one was Citizen Kane. The 1941 debut film by Orson Wells.
I’ve previously done an entire episode on Citizen Kane, so I won’t spend too much time on it, but this was the start of Citizen Kane becoming known as the greatest film of all time. It just missed the list in 1952 by one vote.
You can also start to see a trend in this second poll, with some movies taking decades to become appreciated.
In 1972, there were some new films, some old films coming back on the list, and a reshuffling.
Tied for 10, ??Ugetsu and Wild Strawberries, the 1957 film by Ingmar Bergman.
Ninth, The Magnificent Ambersons, the 1942 sophomore release by Orson Wells, and much of the entire second act was purposefully destroyed by the film studio.
Eight, The General, a 1926 film by Buster Keaton.
Seventh, the Passion of Joan of Arc.
Sixth, Persona, 1966 by Ingmar Bergman.
Fourth, 8 ½, the 1963 Italian comedy-drama film by Federico Fellini.
Third, Battleship Potemkin.
Second, Rules of the Game.
And first, again, was Citizen Kane.
In 1982, there were a few new additions to the list.
Tied for tenth was The General and The Searchers, a 1956 film by John Ford.
Ninth, Vertigo, a 1958 film by Alfred Hitchcock.
Eight, The Magnificent Ambersons.
Sixth, Battleship Potemkin.
Fourth, a new entry. Singing in the Rain, a 1953 musical by Gene Kelly.
Third, another new entry, the Seven Samurai, the 1954 Japanese epic by Akira Kurosawa.
Second was again Rules of the Game, and first was again Citizen Kane.
In 1992, there were only three new additions to the top ten.
10th was 2001: A Space Odyssey. The 1968 science fiction flim by Stanley Kubrick.
9th Battleship Potemkin.
8th Pather Panchali. The 1955 drama by Indian director Satyajit Ray.
7th The Passion of Joan of Arc.
5th The Searchers
3rd Tokyo Story. The 1953 Japanese drama was directed by Yasujir? Ozu.
First and second were, for the third survey in a row, Citizen Kane and Rules of the Game.
1992 also saw a separate survey that was given to film directors, which I’ll get to in a bit.
In 2002, there were only three new films.
At ten, Singing in the Rain, the 1952 musical directed by Gene Kelly.
Nine, 8 ½
Eight, Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans. The 1927 silent film by F. W. Murnau.
Seven, Battleship Potemkin
Six, 2001: A Space Odyssey
Five, Tokyo Story
Four, The Godfather and The Godfather Part II, collectively, from 1972 and 1974 by Francis Ford Coppola.
Third, Rules of the Game
And number yet yet again, Citizen Kane, for the fifth consecutive survey.
In 2012, they made a few changes to the voting. First, related flims like the Godfather movies were to be treated as separate films. Second, they sent the survey out to significantly more critics. It increased from 145 critics in 2002 to 846 critics in 2012.
Despite increasing the number of voters sixfold, there was only one new addition to the top 10, but there was a reshuffling of the results.
At ten, 8½
Nine, The Passion of Joan of Arc
Eight, Man with a Movie Camera. The only new addition to the list, was the 1929 Soviet experimental film by Dziga Vertov.
Seven, The Searchers.
Six, 2001: A Space Odyssey
Five, Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans
Four, Rules of the Game
Three, Tokyo Story
Two, Citizen Kane, the first time in fifty years it wasn’t ranked first.
The new number-one film was Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo.
The eighth Sight and Sound survey was conducted in 2022. The number of film critics was expanded yet again, this time being sent to over 1,600 critics worldwide.
I’ve waited all year for the results of this decade’s survey to come in just so I could do this episode. As with past surveys, there are a few new films on the list, which is to be expected, and some major reshuffling.
The results of the 2022 Sight and Sound Survey are:
Number ten, Singin’ in the Rain
Number nine, Man with a Movie Camera
Number eight, Mulholland Drive, the 2001 mystery film by David Lynch.
Number seven, Beau Travail. The 1999 French film directed by Claire Denis.
Number six, 2001: A Space Odyssey
Number five, In the Mood for Love. A 2000 romantic drama by Hong Kong director Wong Kar-wai
Number four, Tokyo Story.
Number three, Citizen Kane
Number two, Vertigo.
The new number one film, and quite frankly one which shocked me, was one that never appeared in the top ten before. The 1975 Belgian film Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, by director Chantal Akerman. The first woman to direct a film at the top of the list.
The film, which will just refer to as Jeanne Dielman from here on out, is a very slow-paced depiction of three days in the life of a single monther. It has extended scenes of her cooking and doing other mundane tasks.
The reason why it was so surprising is because it was ranked just 36th in 2012.
The director’s poll which began in 1992 has many of the same films as the critics poll every year, but with some other films which have never been in the critics top ten.
In the four surveys by directors since 1992, the number one films have been Citizen Kane, twice, followed by Tokyo Story in 2012, and 2001: A Space Odyssey in 2022.
Other films appearing on the directors list include Raging Bull and Taxi Driver, by Martin Scorcese, Lawrence of Arabia by David Lean, Apocalypse Now, by Frances Ford Coppola, Mirror by Andrei Tarkovsky, Dr. Strangelove by Stanley Kuberik, and Rashomon by Akira Kurosawa.
So what can we gleen from these lists?
First, is that great movies are seldom appreciated when they are first released. I remember when Mullholland Drive came out and there was a lot of debate in film forums about the movie. It has taken 20 years for opinion to settle.
The 2012 list only had two films from the previous 20 years in the top 100.
The 2022 list has only nine films from the last 20 years in the top 100.
The second thing you’ll notice is that there have been very few films to make the list in any year which have been huge box office hits. Star Wars and Marvel movies might be fun, but they aren’t necessarily groundbreaking examples of filmmaking.
The reason why I’ve taken such an interest in this survey is because I’ve been a huge film buff. Before I started traveling full time I amassed a collection of over 750 DVDs…a lot of good having that many DVD’s does for me now.
Most of my collection consisted of classic and foreign films. Many of the flims which have been on the Sight and Sound lists over the years.
So, I thought I’d end with my own personal top ten list. If I was contacted by the folks at Sight and Sound Magazine, and if anyone is listening and are looking to diversify your voters to include podcasters I am available in 2032, here is what my ballot would have looked like.
My ten films in no particular order.
1) Lawrence of Arabia, the 1962 film by David Lean. This is my favorite film, and I think the greatest film ever made. Steven Speilberg agrees with me. The 70 mm cinematography is jaw dropping. They recently came out with a 4k version which is absolutely beautiful. I watch this movie at least once a year and because of it I visited Wadi Rum in Jordan. But for the music and the fonts on the credits and titles, you could think this film was shot today.
2) Patton. The 1970 film directed by Franklin Schaffner starring George C. Scott. This is, I’d say, the best biographical study of a person put to film. George Patton was an arrogant, abusive, brilliant general who got the job done when we needed someone like him.
3) Citizen Kane. Yes, this is a great film. It has earned its spot on all the lists. While Orson Wells did make other great films, he sadly peaked at the age of 25.
4) The Passion of Joan of Arc. This is, in my opinion, the greatest silent film ever made. Joan is portrayed by Renée Falconetti. It is the only film she ever appeared in and it was one of the greatest performances in history. The film was actually thought to be lost until a copy was found in a Danish insane asylym. True story. The first time I watched this, I just sat in silence for like five minutes after it was over.
5) Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters the 1985 film by Paul Schrader. Schrader is better known as the screenwriter for Raging Bull and Taxi Driver. This film is four different depictions of the post-war Japanese novelist Yukio Mishima. Despite an American director and producer, the flim has an all-Japanese cast, filmed entirely in Japan and in Japanese. Mishima will be the subject of a future episode, as his life story is pretty incredible.
6) The Red Shoes, the 1948 drama Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. The film stars Moira Shearer, who was an acclaimed Scottish ballerina in her first acting role. It tells the story of a woman who is forced to choose between her art and her finance by a demanding head of a ballet company
7) Ameile, the 2001 French film by Jean-Pierre Jeunet. Starring Audrey Tautou, who most people probably know from the Da Vinci Code, this is the ultimate feel good movie. Again, I actually visited sites in Paris because of this flim.
8) An American in Paris, the 1951 dance musical by Vincente Minnelli. Starring Gene Kelly and a very young Leslie Caron, it is usually ranked behind Singing in the Rain as a musical, however, for me it is the best musical film ever made, and the music was written by Geogre Gershwin.
9) 2001: A Space Odyssey. The greatest science fiction movie hands down.
10) A Lion in Winter, the 1968 film by Anthony Harvey.. Katherine Hepburn, Peter O’Toole, Anthony Hopkins, and Timothy Dalton, have a dysfunctional royal family get together for the holidays. It is just a great film.
Many honorable mentions go to: A Man for All Seasons, Amadeus, Magnolia, Dune (the new version), the Seventh Seal, Koyannisquatsi, The Third Man, Barry Lyndon, Once Upon A Time in the West, Goodfellas, Bridge Over the River Kwai, Beckett, and All About Eve.
Many of you listening to this might not have seen any of these films. The fact remains that classic films can be hard to find. Hardly any of these films are on Netflix, and they almost never appear on television.
However, if you engage in your own self-taught film school, there are l streaming services that have almost all of these films.
In particular, the Criterion Channel. They literally have a section dedicated to the Sight and Sound list, and they are the company that often does the digital transfer for many classic films. A subscription is cheaper than Netflix, and no, I don’t have any sort of business relationship with them. They are just the best source for classic films.
If you want to share your list of the greatest films of all-time, just head over to the Facebook group.
If you just like following along with film discussions, sadly, you’ll have to wait another decade until the next Sight and Sound Survey comes out.
The Executive Producer of Everything Everywhere Daily is Charles Daniel.
The associate producers are Thor Thomsen and Peter Bennett.
I have two reviews for you today. The first comes from listener Sycarbon from Apple Podcasts in Canada. They write:
A great dose of general knowledge every day
I learn so much everyday with this podcast. Definitely my favourite.
Thanks, Syncarbon. You spelled favorite with a “u”, so I definitely know you are from Canada.
The next review comes from listener go fish 123 from Apple Podcasts in the UK. They write:
Love what you are doing. My favourite episode is the one about your podcast itself. Can you do an episode on karate? and yes, I am a member of the completion of club.
Thanks go fish! I certainly can put karate on this list, although it might appear in an episode about martial arts generally. Also, I don’t know if we have actually opened a British branch of the Completionist Club yet. You might be the first member, or at least the first in the UK who has notified me.
Remember, if you leave a review, you too can have it read on the show. Also, check out the Facebook group. We now have over 700 members, and 700 people can’t be wrong.
…well, historically, 700 people can be very wrong, but in this case they are not.