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Meet the New Boss, Same as the Old Boss – Vertigo and Citizen Kane, Both Still the Best Films Ever Made

The Sight and Sound poll was released after ten years of cultural, economic, global and political change and emerged virtually unchanged from the decades preceding it.

When it was finally announced that Vertigo had, at last, squeaked by Citizen Kane to become the most admired film among critics it reminded me of an old couple staring at their salt and pepper shakers for fifty years until finally deciding to move the pepper to the left of the salt.  Then they sat back down and stared at them again.

It is a terrifying thing, to age ten years.   To age and not change is even more terrifying. Great films should not cease being great because you’ve grown out of them. They should not cease being great because YOU’VE changed. Had the 846 critics and film scholars they polled this year picked a new film from the list to supplant Citizen Kane, rather than one that’s been kicking around for decades, it might have been more credible. But it’s hard to look at the top two films on that list and think, yeah, that was a justifiable change, moving Vertigo one place up over Kane.  Most looked at it and thought huh? That’s because if this is the only radical shift you’re talking about in the world of film it is not that radical at all; it is like moving the pepper to the left of the salt.

What really changed were the number of critics taking part in the poll.  A huge increase. The number of voters picking Kane is nearly twice as many as did ten years ago, and yet with the new influx of voters,  people went for Vertigo.  In 2002 Sight & Sound polled 145 film critics, writers and academics, and 108 film directors. This year, they expanded their input enormously, tapping 846 critics and 358 directors to submit their individual Top 10 lists.  It isn’t just the same people. It’s a lot more of them :

1952  #1 Bicycle Thieves (25 mentions) neither Kane nor Vertigo made their top ten.
1962: #1 Citizen Kane (22 mentions) followed closely by L’avventura (20 mentions) – not a landslide, Vertigo didn’t make the top ten.
1972: #1 Citizen Kane (32 mentions), followed by Rules of the Game (28 mentions). L’avventura drops to #5 with 12 mentions, Vertigo still not in their top ten.
1982: #1 Citizen Kane (45), followed again by Rules of the Game (31 mentions). Vertigo finally makes the list at #7, in a tie with L’avventura and The Magnificent Ambersons, each with 12 mentions. 12!
1992: #1 Citizen Kane (42 mentions), followed by Rules of the Game (32). L’avventura gone. Vertigo jumps to #4 with 18 mentions.
2002: #1 Citizen Kane (46 mentions), followed by Vertigo closing tightly in  at #2 with  41 mentions. L’avventura is still gone. Rules of the Game drops to #3 with 30. The Godfather movies – as one movie – take the #4 spot.
2012: #1 Vertigo (with a staggering 191 mentions) at last jumps over Citizen Kane which still gets 157 mentions.

So, to me what this list ultimately tells me looking back on its arbitrary placement of films is that it doesn’t reflect, necessarily, the quality of film. It reflects what is trendy among critics at a given point in time. That is the only possible conclusion one can reach by watching how tastes have gradually shifted over the past seventy years.

To understand the meaning of this list, you have to ask yourself the following questions:

1) Why wasn’t Citizen Kane recognized as the greatest film ever made in 1952? Why was The Bicycle Thieves, the previously top-ranked film, dropped?  At least one observer has suggested that the advent of Cahiers du Cinema created a sea change in critical thinking. To me, it is all about influence. If the critics say it’s so, it must be so.

2) Why did L’avventura drop off the top ten entirely after 1982? It just wasn’t popular enough? Its impact didn’t prove durable as “the shock of the new” wore off? How can opinions shift so dramatically?

3) What, if any, did adding hundreds more critics do to effect the poll? Did Citizen Kane just become too stale of a pick to be sexy anymore as number one? Will Vertigo suffer a backlash itself in ten years time? What causes these opinions to shift?

To answer one question, did Vertigo suddenly “get better” than Citizen Kane? Of course not. The biggest change was the number of critics invited to participate in the voting. Citizen Kane will never, has never gotten a majority of vote; it isn’t that kind of movie or else it would have won the Oscar for Best Picture. It is an acquired taste. Both Vertigo and Citizen Kane are two films many contemporary filmgoers have never seen and its hard to convince those who have seen them how great they really are if “they don’t get it.” Keeping them preserved in amber on a critics poll, as Scott Tobias urges us to do because there is a validity in that, keeps the compass pointing north.

The list should be stodgy, and the list isn’t stodgy in the least. The Sight & Sound Critics Poll isn’t just a poll, it’s the poll. Citizen Kane has been called the greatest film ever made because Sight & Sound said so, whether people knew the poll was being referenced or not. In other words, it is the closest equivalent cinema has to a literary canon. And just as bibliophiles often resist the canon, there’s always going to be some discontent over the scads of worthy titles missing from the list and endless discussions over what should be there instead. (Vertigo’s ascendancy immediately had people shouting out a dozen other Hitchcock films that should have replaced it.) But the stability of the Sight & Sound list is a big part of what gives it value: For film critics and historians—and would-be critics and casual historians—the poll is the compass pointing north, the absolute baseline for an education on the medium. Every critic who submitted a ballot deviated from the Top 10 either partially or wholly—just as any film fanatic heads down their own personal tributaries—but the consensus of the many has given the study of film a useful foundation. A radically altered Sight & Sound list would be weak and destabilizing; breaking into the Top 10 should be slow and carefully considered. For now, just losing Citizen Kane is radical enough, like having to orbit around a different sun.

While I agree that the canon is important for historical perspective, I suspect when people look back on 2012 they will come to the same conclusions we reach today: 1) humans are easily influenced by what other people think of think of what they think.  2) the only remarkable thing about the shift is how remarkably stable it is..

The other glaring trait of the Sight & Sound Top 10, of course, is how male-oriented, how white it ultimately is.. This is something you would never see in a literary canon, for instance. If the only books deemed worthy for inclusion in a Top 10 were by male, mostly white writers, there would be cries from the rooftops.  We have been conditioned to think of these films as great because we’ve been conditioned to a white, male narrative.  Asian filmmaking has also been particularly influential but even among of these new voices, the templates are primarily male-driven.  How can any female or, say, black filmmaker ever crack that list? Like the Academy, we will have to wait another 50 years I suppose and by then I will be dead.

To that end, I am disappointed in these critics who reveal themselves to be, ultimately, no better than Oscar voters.  If it took Citizen Kane (released in 1942, made the list 20 years later) and Vertigo (released in 1958, made the list in 1982, 24 years later) ten years of changing opinions to even make the top ten, you can imagine how hard it is going to be for modern films to get in there. Maybe in ten years we’ll see something show up from twenty years ago.  Perhaps the reason it takes twenty years for a movie to attain  the critical establishment’s seal of approval is because they wait for a film to withstand the test of time. In that sense, the Sight & Sound poll represents the endurance of status, rather than the Oscars which are more about seizing a fleeting peak of PR.  Maybe in twenty years the films we love now, semi-modern films like The Silence of the Lambs or No Country for Old Men might show up.  I ain’t got time for this, though, my friends. I will be aged out.  Sadly. Mortality and all of that.

Because Citizen Kane and Vertigo are my two favorite films. I can’t argue with their placement and it’s a tough call choosing which one is better. I am glad I never had to make that choice — although I suspect, on pure technique alone I’d have to go with Citizen Kane, which has NO flaws whatsoever.  Vertigo, if you had to start picking them, has a clumsy scene or two in it.  Kane is perfection. No one has ever matched it.  And no salt and pepper shaker placement is going to convince me that it still isn’t the best film ever made.

Citizen Kane and Vertigo’s high placement could also have to do with the general notion of the displaced modern male in today’s society. Both films feature male leads who are deluded with their own self-importance, chasing illusions, chasing after blondes who forever elude them. They are both about the death of dreams, the delusions of power, the loss of control, the folly of unreasonable desire, and the price paid for obsession.  And they are both, in the end, about loneliness.

The other things Vertigo and Citizen Kane and probably all of their top 50 have in common is that they are all made by directors who exert absolute control of the frame.  This is why Martin Scorsese and the Coen brothers, Spike Lee and Kathryn Bigelow, and Jane Campion should also be on the list.  Perhaps one of you youngsters will be around to write about it when that kind of change takes place.