Every few months, Twitter rediscovers Orson Welles’s conversations with the actor Henry Jaglom in the late 1970s, in which the filmmaking colossus spits a number of sick burns at the creatures he believes to be destroying the art form that banished him. Alfred Hitchcock is self-seeking and lazy, and Woody Allen is pathetically insecure, says a bloated and alcoholic screen legend-turned-Hollywood outcast. The Jaglom conversations expose how easily an uncompromising sense of artistic ethics can slip into bitterness. They are also the candid reflections of an egotist who knew better than nearly any other director in history just how quickly reputations could evaporate and how unimportant genius can be in the end. You get the sense he knew his inferiors would vault past him one day.
Which indeed they have, at least according to the hundreds of critics, academics, and film programmers who participate in the British publication Sight and Sound’s semi-authoritative poll to determine the greatest films of all time, which has been conducted once each decade since 1952. The latest was published on Dec. 1 and featured a new top pick, Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, which is now ranked two spots ahead of Welles’s Citizen Kane. Kane topped the list between 1962 and 2002, when Vertigo displaced it. In 2002, Welles’s Touch of Evil, The Magnificent Ambersons, and Chimes at Midnight held the 19th, 40th, and 97th spots on the top 100, respectively. All three are out of the top 100.
Welles is not the only American modern critics have spurned. Rio Bravo, 63 in 2012, dropped off the list, as did The Godfather: Part II, 31st in the last vote. Intolerance, the first and greatest of the high-concept blockbusters, is now intolerable, probably because DW Griffith directed it. New Hollywood took a beating. Outrageously enough, Nashville is gone from the top 100. There’s no Robert Altman, period — and no Howard Hawks, Roman Polanski, John Cassavetes, Terrence Malick, PT Anderson, or even Elaine May. If we are to believe the voters, few of the glories of the American studio system, the chief wellspring of influence and agita for nearly every serious (and unserious) film culture on earth, are among the greatest films ever made in terms of their artistic achievement or influence on the medium.
The Sight and Sound voters aren’t really anti-American. The top 100 includes about as many American films in 2022 as it did in this century’s other two votes. What’s shifted is what critics from around the world seem to admire in our film canon and in film in general. Touch of Evil is an all-time great because it contains its God’s-eye crane shots and slow-building sexual menace within a fairly conventional gangland murder plot. Welles was a rebel, but he understood that the strictures of popular filmmaking could accommodate almost infinite weirdness. The Night of the Hunter, the highest-ranked black-and-white American film noir on this decade’s list at a well-deserved 25, and a movie that didn’t even make the list in 2002, is something else entirely, a nightmare journey into the sanctimonious undercurrents of the country’s values and myths. You get the sense that voters view America the same way Chantal Akerman does in the 1976 film essay News From Home, a new entry on this year’s list (52), in which her mute postcard of ’70s New York is overlaid with voice-overs of increasingly anxious letters from her mother in Belgium: America is the looming embodiment of a nearer and all-pervading disquiet rather than a source of inspiration.
But it is not only in the case of American film that critics have eschewed spectacle and storytelling in favor of abstraction and novelty. Film snobs adore Abbas Kiarostami’s Close-Up, a slow, dense, and sometimes hard-to-follow meta-experiment from 1990 in which real people gradually become actors in a movie about themselves, but it has little to sustain itself beyond this admittedly influential core conceit (in contrast to the same director’s more straightforward and all-around astounding The Wind Will Carry Us). Only a scholar is likely to be able to explain why it is the 17th-greatest movie ever. Among the list’s Russian entries, the graduate seminar-pleasing experiment Man With a Movie Camera is ranked ninth, which is 55 spots ahead of Battleship Potemkin, Sergei Eisenstein’s world-historical breakthrough in the narrative arts.
This year’s poll has been lauded for its inclusiveness. It is by far the largest poll the magazine has ever held, with over 1,600 respondents. But inclusive of what? There are a record 10 films by female directors, including Dielman. Many are deserving — Daughters of the Dust, Julie Dash’s stunning 1991 meditation on time and memory in the Gullah community of the South Carolina Sea Islands, probably really is roughly the 60th-greatest film in history. But it is curious that a list whose voters aimed to rectify the exclusion of female filmmakers from the canon can’t seem to find any worthwhile movies directed by women that are newer than a quarter-century old. Meanwhile, unlike in past editions, there isn’t a single entry from Latin America or South America. Astonishingly enough, there is nothing from Poland, while lone entries from Greece and Armenia have dropped off the list in recent decades.
The question of whether the comparatively patriarchal society of past decades was in fact more conducive to the creation of great female-directed films than our own is of course beyond the scope of a mere critics poll to address. In any case, Dielman was made in 1975, a product of the sexist old world the voters now feel so obligated to improve. In its citation, Sight and Sound says Dielman, which is about the oppressively monotonous existence of a single mother in Brussels who moonlights as a prostitute, presents “a feminist perspective on recurrent events of everyday life.” The list’s 73rd-ranking film just 20 years ago, Dielman seems to have been elevated to the top spot out of a predictably contemporary misreading: When our anti-heroine finally leaves her apartment in the movie’s final third, we discover that the entire landscape of 1970s Brussels is just as dreary and lifeless as her claustrophobic home and that the domestic trappings of the film’s first two hours are a subtle bit of misdirection. Akerman’s mother was a Holocaust survivor, and the discomfort shading every second of Dielman emanates from recent and unnamable horrors that postwar Europe, and maybe the human race in general, had buried even deeper than any traditional sexism.
Akerman was a careful storyteller, not a theorist or a polemicist. Over the course of a prolific 40-year career whose true impact is still being understood, the Belgian director translated the murkiest, most intimate, and most volatile psychic states into a narrative visual language that was never too abrasive to be unwatchable but that didn’t drift into triviality or cheap comfort. She killed herself in 2015 at the age of 65. The smart money says there will be more than two of her films in the 2032 poll.
The slow, quiet Portrait of a Lady on Fire owes something to Akerman. But as Sight and Sound concedes, the supposedly 30th-greatest film of all time is a work whose urgency is anchored in its own time. Per the magazine, Celine Sciamma’s 2019 story of a sapphic affair between a portraitist and her subject, an unstable young woman forced into a marriage with an Italian nobleman she has never met, “demonstrates Sciamma’s ability to make a timelessly beautiful film that also crystallizes the gender politics of her era.” It shines with baubles guaranteed to delight today’s critics, like an abortion subplot, a near-total lack of male dialogue, and naval-gazing meta-elements about artistic creation that may or may not be autobiographical, if a viewer can even be made to care. Compared to Dielman, and to many of the 99 other movies in the top 100, Portrait is a sometimes brilliant, sometimes grating exercise in the didactic. What would Orson Welles have said about this three-year-old film’s swift elevation to the very top of the film canon? Even the famously liberal director suspected that the values he embodied were vanishing into an unloved and misunderstood past. And that was nearly 50 years ago.
Armin Rosen is a New York-based reporter at large for Tablet.