Critic’s Notebook

Is ‘Vertigo’ really the greatest film of all time?

Kim Novak and Jimmy Stewart in Alfred Hitchcock’s “Vertigo.”
Paramount Pictures
Kim Novak and Jimmy Stewart in Alfred Hitchcock’s “Vertigo.”

The king is dead, long live the king. In the seventh decennial Sight & Sound poll of the greatest films of all time, announced at the beginning of August, Orson Welles’s “Citizen Kane” has finally been crowded out of the top spot by Alfred Hitchcock’s “Vertigo.”

This matters less than you may think, but more, too. Administered since 1952 by the editors of the much respected film magazine published by the British Film Institute, the Sight & Sound poll is the closest the cinema has to a canonical list. Publications like Entertainment Weekly, websites like Amazon, and the blooming of a million film blogs have made enumeration an inescapable fact of modern media engagement. Lists — of favorite movies, music, kitchen appliances, ex-lovers — have become the shorthand to identity, with each of our Facebook pages allowing us to delineate the artists and entertainers who define us. I rank, therefore I am.

But lists are ephemeral, ever-changing. The Sight & Sound poll changes too — witness Welles’s overthrow after five decades at No. 1 — but because it has existed for so long and takes place every 10 years, it’s a list in slow-motion, created specifically with an eye for posterity. It takes the deep view. It wants to be trusted.

Turner Entertainment Company
Orson Welles (left) and Joseph Cotten in ‘‘Citizen Kane,” the former top film in the Sight & Sound poll.

So, can you trust it? I imagine a generation of uncombed young movie freaks looking at the Sight & Sound ranking and laughing themselves silly. Some of them are emboldened by the rise of the Internet fan-blog mentality and look to the epic action-fantasies of modern Hollywood as the source of greatness. Where’s “The Dark Knight,” they’ll want to know, or Peter Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings”? Other whippersnappers will wonder where the revolutionary provocations of the past two decades are: no Quentin Tarantino, no David Fincher, only one David Lynch in the expanded Sight & Sound top 50 (but it’s the right one: 2001’s “Mulholland Dr.”). The voters of the Internet Movie Database will surely marvel over the exclusion of 1994’s “The Shawshank Redemption,” a perfectly fine film that sits atop the IMDb’s “Top 250” — higher than “The Godfather”! — but has probably never once been a critic’s Top Anything.

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The Sight & Sound poll is purposefully elitist. This was the first year the editors expanded the voting ranks from dozens of critics, film programmers, academics, and distributors to more than 1,000, a response to the reach of the Internet and its boundless voices. Surprisingly, the basic top 10 mostly held firm. “Vertigo” and “Citizen Kane” switched the top two slots from the 2002 ranking, while Yasujiro Ozu’s “Tokyo Story” (1953, No. 3), F.W. Murnau’s “Sunrise” (1927, No. 5), Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” (1968, No. 6), and Federico Fellini’s “8 1/2” (1963, No. 10) all stayed on the list. John Ford’s “The Searchers” (1956, No. 7) was back after going missing in 2002. (The full list can be found at

Perhaps most shocking was the disappearance of Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Godfather” (1972) from the top 10. The film and its sequel, 1974’s “The Godfather Part II,” had jointly held the No. 4 slot 10 years ago, but a rule change prevented film series from being voted in together.“Godfather” now perches at No. 21 and “Part II” is at No. 31 — below Coppola’s mystical blowout “Apocalypse Now” (1979, No. 14).

Some might say that’s crazy. All right, I say that’s crazy. But the absurdity of lists voted by more than one person is that they never reflect personal taste. What the Sight & Sound poll reflects, instead, is the high priests of world cinema decreeing what matters in the long run. It’s not so much a Eurocentric list as a non-American-centered list (even though half the movies in the top 10 were Hollywood productions). It values observation over plot, insight over visceral impact, art as much as craft, and contemplation over action.

It also betrays an idea of what movies can be that remains important — critical, even — but is less and less in vogue with the values and expectations of the greater public. In a sense, the poll has always served that function. Let’s not forget that “Citizen Kane” was coolly received by the public; it continues to disappoint younger cinephiles who come to it expecting instant rapture and find a brooding, novelistic memory play whose breakthrough techniques have long since been absorbed by the mainstream.


The ascension of “Vertigo” to the top spot is unexpected, too. It’s perhaps Hitchcock’s most emotional movie, his most pained, possibly his most personal. It’s certainly among his weirdest, with its bifurcated plot, two-in-one heroines, Jimmy Stewart exploring the darkest aspects of his aw-shucks persona, and that long, long drive through the streets of San Francisco (it’s only boring because we’re not the ones obsessing over Kim Novak).

If the Sight & Sound voters value anything, it’s the singularity of a filmmaker’s vision — this is an auteurist’s list with a vengeance. There are directors in the 50 who might be considered warhorses if the films of Ozu, Fellini, Ingmar Bergman, Robert Bresson, and Jean-luc Godard weren’t still numinous with passion and possibility. On the other hand, great craftsmanship is undervalued: Spielberg doesn’t make the list at all. “Singin’ in the Rain,” “Some Like It Hot,” and Buster Keaton’s “The General” are the top 50’s only concession to the notion of movies as pure escapist entertainment.

That’s an inherent flaw in elitism: It believes that everything important has to feel important. Yet the Sight & Sound poll’s longevity and rarity keep it honest — the modern moviegoer, not the list, is the pendulum that has swung. In 1968, there was at least a place for a holy mind-trip like “2001” in the commercial culture; the film was discussed, argued over, lionized, resisted, and worshiped. By contrast, audiences last year were beside themselves with fury over Terrence Malick’s “The Tree of Life,” an art-house meditation on family and the universe that came in at No. 102 in the Sight & Sound voting. “Life” isn’t a perfect film, but that wasn’t its perceived sin — daring audiences to try something different and use their imaginations was.

That’s a marker of how hidebound our assumptions of what a movie can and should be have become, and how expert Hollywood is at catering to those assumptions. As that great, eccentric movie lover Henri Langlois once said, “When you feed people crap, they lose their taste buds.” The Sight & Sound poll only looks like the film version of haute cuisine. In fact, it’s a reminder that there’s much more out there than burgers and fries.

Ty Burr can be reached at tburr
. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.