The world has a new greatest movie of all time. Jeanne Dielman, 23, Quai du Commerce, 1080 Brussels, a 1975 austere feminist masterpiece written and directed by Chantal Akerman, tops Sight and Sound magazine’s most recent ten-year critics’ poll. The online universe is full of such lists, but every decade since 1952, the British Film Institute’s governing body has been delivering the stone tablets that matter most to committed filmmakers.
Akerman’s film is only the fourth title to take the No. 1 spot in 70 years. Vittorio De Sica’s bike thieves triumphed in the first poll. Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane took over in 1962 and reigned until 2012 when Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo took the crown. This year, Vertigo and Kane follow Jeanne Dielman in second and third place. Completing the top 5 are Yasujirō Ozu’s Tokyo Story and, perhaps surprisingly, Wong Kar Wai’s In the Mood for Love.
The current survey, compiled from input from more than 1,600 professionals (including this author and Tara Brady of The Irish Times), reflects the direction of cinematic discourse over the past decade. Since 2012, studios and film festivals have been under increasing pressure to encourage more diversity. The restricted visibility of female directors was particularly embarrassing. In 2012, only two titles by women filmmakers made the top 100; Beau Travail by Jeanne Dielman and Claire Denis. This year’s 100 includes 11 female features, four of which made the top 20. Beau Travail shot up from 78th to 7th.
Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Brussels, plays Delphine Seyrig as a widow who survives three days largely alone in her Brussels apartment. She prepares food. She has sex with customers. Everything seems stable at first – albeit mundane – but by day three cracks are showing in her stubborn demeanor. The film’s rise to its current status as the most admired feminist film in the European canon has been slow and steady. The film premiered in the 1975 Directors’ Fortnight at the Cannes Film Festival and was not released in the United States until 1983. Running at a daunting 201 minutes, only occasionally interrupted by heavy action, the film has impacted generations of acolytes. “You could say it felt like there was a before and after of Jeanne Dielman, just like there once was a before and after of Citizen Kane,” noted Laura Mulvey, professor of film studies at the University of London when she heard about his triumph in the poll.
Jeanne Dielman was ranked fourth in a simultaneous Sight and Sound poll of the world’s filmmakers. This list was headed by Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.
The new list of critics is also more racially diverse. Amazingly, only one film by a black director made the Top100 in 2012 – Touki Bouki by Djibril Diop Mambéty. The current list includes seven, including relatively new titles like Barry Jenkins’s Moonlight (#60) and Jordan Peele’s Get Out (#95).
The Sight and Sound list seems to be a tiny bit closer to contemporary. In 2012, the survey opened for online publications for the first time. Many more critics came along and it is believed that the average age of voters has fallen. But to the wry amusement of longtime poll-watchers, the middle year of the top-ranking films did indeed pass backward. The average release year for the 2002 top 10 was 1949. In 2012 it was 1946. With 21st century films like In the Mood for Love and David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive, both from 2001 ending up in the 10, the current one is rising Average skyrocketed to a stunningly young 1967.
In the coming days, however, it will be argued that the Sight and Sound roster still seems rooted in the past. After all, no film in the last 20 years has made it into the top 25. Is that a problem? If movie fans want to enjoy a list with The Dark Knight or Paddington 2 number one, there are thousands available on the internet. Those committed to cultural amnesia won. There is hardly a film released on the busiest streaming services before 1970. Linear television is even less interested in such Bronze Age relics. The Sight and Sound 100 provides a place where the curiously archaic notion of canon can be cultivated and discussed.
It is fascinating to watch critical tastes bow to the prevailing winds. In 1952, Charlie Chaplin had films at number two and three on the charts. He appeared only once in the subsequent top 10. The most notable prostration to novelty came in 1962, when Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’Avventura somehow made it to second place just two years after its release. It has since slipped backwards and is now trading at 72.
The current poll sees the end of a stubborn run. Up until this week, Jean Renoir’s The Rules of the Game was the only film to have ranked in the top 10 every year since the poll began. Even as young as 13, it could return for decades to come. Dziga Vertov’s Man with the Movie Camera, down nine places from 2012, appears to have replaced Battleship Potemkin as the Soviets’ favorite silent classic.
The most notable departure from the top 100 is certainly that of David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia – only fourth in 2002. Could political waves be made against this ambiguous study of British heroism? Roman Polanski and DW Griffith films, which are controversial for a variety of reasons, are also eliminated from the broader list.
More has changed this year than at any time in the history of the survey. “The arrival of Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Brussels, at the top of the 2022 Sight and Sound survey signals a startling shift in critical taste,” confirmed Mulvey. The canon is in flux.
Donald Clarke’s top 10
- Frankenstein’s Bride (James Whale, 1935)
- Ugetsu Monogatari (Kenji Mizoguchi, 1953)
- The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1947)
- The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (Jacques Demy, 1964)
- Sweet Smell of Success (Alexander Mackendrick, 1957)
- The Happiest Days of Your Life (Frank Launder, 1950)
- I know where I’m going! (Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger, 1945)
- Stalker (Andrei Tarkovsky, 1979)
- All Heaven Allows (Douglas Sirk, 1955)
- Lady Bird (Greta Gerwig, 2017)
Tara Brady’s top 10
- The Seekers (John Ford, 1956)
- The Rise (Larisa Shepitko, 1977)
- Au Chance Balthasar (Robert Bresson, 1966)
- All About Eve (Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1950)
- Barry Lyndon (Stanley Kubrick, 1975)
- Andrei Rublev (Andrei Tarkovsky, 1966)
- All Heaven Allows (Douglas Sirk, 1955)
- Yojimbo (Akira Kurasawa, 1961)
- His Girl on Friday (Howard Hawks, 1939)
- Beauty and the Beast (Jean Cocteau, 1946)
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