Examining the ‘new’ greatest films of all time

Life Editor and non-expert James Watson dissects the top ten entries in the latest British Film Institute’s “Sight and Sound” poll


Courtesy of BFI

Every 10 years, the British Film Institute (BFI) asks directors, artists and critics around the world to submit 10 films that they would deem to be “the greatest of all time” in their “Sight and Sound Critics’ Poll.”

James Watson, Life Editor

Polls, polls, polls. We love polls, don’t we folks? Political polls, census polls, Fizz polls. We put a lot of faith in polls. There is a whole cottage industry in politics dedicated to predicting the outcomes of elections through polls. There are even famous pollsters like Anne Seltzer and Nate Silver that people wait with bated breath to hear from every election cycle. The truth is, whether we like it or not, we look to numbers for assurance and confirmation. But there is one poll that defies all others — one that brings film Twitter to its knees. 

Every 10 years, the British Film Institute (BFI) asks directors, artists and critics around the world to submit 10 films that they would deem to be “the greatest of all time” in their “Sight and Sound Critics’ Poll.” The results are averaged and released to the public to much fanfare. This is the list — the most definitive canonization of the modern history of cinema — and as such, it’s not without strong opinions. 

So as someone with typically strong opinions, I figured it was time for my take on the new canon. This is why I, James Watson, will comb through and analyze each entry of the top 10 2022 BFI Sight and Sound Critics’ Poll and attempt to justify or refute their positions. My credentials? Non-existent. But I’ve had a few of my reviews in this paper by now — and, frankly, they haven’t all been duds — so hopefully you’ll trust my judgment. 

  1. “Singin’ in the Rain” (1952)

It’s a movie so good Damien Chazelle literally repackaged it for contemporary audiences this year with “Babylon” (but that’s a whole separate can of worms). Even today, it remains a tremendously creative, boisterous and fairly radical piece of classic Hollywood. Having it in the top ten is a no-brainer. 10/10 — no notes. 

  1. “Man with a Movie Camera” (1929)

I’m lucky enough to have seen this as a part of my First Year Seminar class in the fall of 2022 (Shoutout to Professor Hallberg). Frankly, it’s hard to imagine auteur theory existing without this staggering document. Rather than a typical narrative-based film, it’s more akin to something you would find on display at the Museum of Modern Art. Not much that words alone can do for it, so go check it out for yourself. It is certainly as crucial to the history of cinema as the Muybridge horse. 

  1. “Mulholland Drive” (2001)

This is a big one. “Mulholland Drive” may only be 22-years-old, but even so, it makes a strong case for being one of the best films of the 21st century. If you need any more evidence, consider that this is only the third time “Mulholland Drive” has been eligible for the Sight and Sound Critics’ Poll — and now it’s in the top ten. David Lynch’s Los Angeles odyssey is an intricately constructed nightmare that is as pointed and satirical as it is surreal and horrifying. Everybody loves “Mulholland Drive,” and you should, too. Honestly? It may be the greatest movie ever made. I’d put it at No. 1. 

  1. “Beau Travail” (1999)

For the four-dimensional experience, listen to “Rhythm of the Night” by Corona while reading this bit — trust me. I am thrilled to see Claire Denis’ masterwork, “Beau Travail,” featured so prominently here. A tactful examination of toxic masculinity and codas of perceived strength, Denis’ stunning dance of desire is transcendent. The direction, blocking and movement are otherworldly. Want a masterclass in subtext? Here you go. If enough of us start organizing and lobbying now, we can get it in the top five by 2032. 

  1. “2001: A Space Odyssey” (1968)

What is there to say, really? A totemic work of human artistic achievement. Stanley Kubrick was cooking with something truly mythical when he put this to celluloid. The first and last great sci-fi film…sorry. It should come as no surprise that the BFI Directors’ Poll had this at No. 1. 

  1. “In the Mood for Love” (2000)

This formal, melancholic drama is considered Wong Kar Wai’s greatest achievement by many. While I would argue another feature of his, “Chungking Express,” is a more exciting, dynamic and imaginative film with just as much emotional resonance, having any of his work in the top 10 is the logical thing to do. 

  1. “Tokyo Story” (1953)

Yasujirō Ozu makes it look easy. Seriously, he just seems to point the camera and land on the most intricate, beautiful compositions possible. I don’t have much to say (maybe because I’m pretty lukewarm about it), but I’m happy that Ozu is being recognized this high on the list.  

  1. “Citizen Kane” (1941)

Never heard of it. Charles Foster who? Orson what? What’s this thing I keep hearing about… deep-focus something? Newsflash: I’m pretty sure John Ford invented that two years earlier in 1939 with “Stagecoach.” Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, I suppose. But, fine, keep it at No. 3 for the principle of it. 

  1. “Vertigo” (1958)

I’ve tried not to be contrarian throughout this review (ignore the previous entry), but I can’t do it here. I like Hitchcock a lot, but I can’t get behind “Vertigo.” The acrophobic thriller is undeniably well-made and well-acted, but nothing revelatory can be found within its frames. This doesn’t even crack the top five in the BFI Directors Poll — so I’m really not sure who keeps going to bat for this one. There is a remarkably easy solution — simply replace “Vertigo” with “Paddington 2.” 

  1. “Jeane Dielman, 23 Commerce Quay, 1080” (1975)

Try saying that three times fast. Two hundred minutes of “every day I get up and put on my silly little outfits and do my silly tasks,” but somehow it’s more captivating than most major blockbusters released today. If you don’t think dropping a potato can be as exciting as “Avatar 2,” then you need to let Chantal Akerman into your life. (I’m saying this without a shred of sarcasm, I assure you.) My only qualm is that the discourse around poor Ms. Dielman is certain to be dreadful for the next 10 years. Get ready for insane takes like “the ‘greatest’ movie of all time is three hours of nothing. It’s so boring. Why didn’t you guys pick something fun? The movies should be fun.” Ugh. It would not necessarily be my pick for the top spot, but it’s such a daring and left-field choice that I truly have nothing but respect for it. 

In conclusion, great job, BFI voters. In fact, you guys did a tremendous job. Not only is this a great list, but this decade’s poll is the most diverse it has ever been — featuring 11 female filmmakers in the top 100 and four in the top 10. Additionally, more Black filmmakers have been featured in the top 100 than ever before.

To close, I would like to present my very own Sight and Sound ballot that the BFI definitely asked me to submit on the record: No. 10 “Nashville” (1975), No. 9 “Do the Right Thing” (1989), No. 8 “Stop Making Sense” (1984), No. 7 “Titane” (2021), No. 6 “Mulholland Drive” (2001), No. 5 “The Birdcage” (1996), No. 4 “Beau Travail” (1999), No. 3 “All That Jazz” (1979), No. 2 “A Woman Under the Influence” (1974) and No. 1 “Heat” (1997). I look forward to hearing back from you, BFI. 

Want to see some of these films for yourself? Throughout 2023, A/perture Cinema in downtown Winston-Salem will be doing monthly screenings of some of the entries featured in this year’s poll. You can find more information at their website.