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BFI Sight and Sound Greatest Movies of All Time

Updated: Dec 6, 2021

Sight and Sound is the BFI’s film magazine. You can get a subscription off the BFI website. Every decade, the magazine asks critics, programmers, and curators from all over the globe to nominate their ten best movies ever made. The top 100 are made up of the films with the most votes. The last poll was made in 2012, and the next looks to be next year, 2022. In 2012, 846 of the top critics, programmers and curators were asked. It was their biggest ever poll.

In 1952, Sight and Sound held the first of their polls. 63 critics from the biggest film-producing countries responded out of 85 invited to pick what they thought to be the ten greatest films of all time. The question was brandished “disturbing”, “impossible”, “barbarous”, “silly”, and “lousy”. One critic was so appalled at being asked because he had seen “exactly 5,777 films.”. After some debate, there was a lot of disagreement as to the criteria of the films, and the overall number to be nominated. Ten was kept, although considered “unreasonable”. One contributor asked, “why not 50?” after sending in 15 choices. Another offered 2 and a half.

The month before, Sight and Sound had published the ‘Brussels Referendum’. This was 60 international directors asked to send in their ten best films of all time. Their top ten were as follows:

1. Battleship Potemkin (Sergei Eisenstein, 1925)

2. The Gold Rush (Charles Chaplin, 1925)

3. Bicycle Thieves (Vittorio de Sica, 1949)

4. City Lights (Charles Chaplin, 1930)

5. La Grande Illusion (Jean Renoir, 1932)

6. Le Million (Rene Clair, 1930)

7. Greed (Erich von Stroheim, 1924)

8. Hallelujah! (King Vidoe, 1929)

9. Dreigroschenoper (G.W. Pabst, 1931)

Brief Encounter (David Lean, 1945)

Intolerance (D.W. Griffith, 1916)

Man of Aran (Robert Flaherty, 1934)

Bicycle Thieves (1949)

The four in ninth place all tied on votes. There were notable runners-up, including Broken Blossoms (1919) and Birth of a Nation (1914), both D.W. Griffith films.

In comparison, the critics’ top ten were:

1. Bicycle Thieves (Vittorio de Sica, 1949)

2. City Lights (Charles Chaplin, 1930)

The Gold Rush (Charles Chaplin, 1925)

4. Battleship Potemkin (Sergei Eisenstein, 1925)

5. Intolerance (D.W. Griffith, 1916)

Louisiana Story (Robert Flaherty, 1948)

7. Greed (Erich von Stroheim, 1925)

Le Jour se Leve (Marcel Carne, 1939)

The Passion of Joan of Arc (Carl Dreyer, 1927)

10. Brief Encounter (David Lean, 1946)

Le Million (Rene Clair, 1931)

La Regle de jeu (Jean Renoir, 1939)

The notable runners up from the critics included Citizen Kane (Orson Welles, 1940) and Hallelujah! (1929) came joint nineteenth, while it was eighth from the directors.

In 1962, just over 100 global critics were asked the same thing as in 1952. Citizen Kane (1940) topped the list, L’Avventura (Michelangelo Antonioni, 1960) took second and La Regle du jeu (1939) came in third. Bicycle Thieves dropped to joint sixth, while a couple of new films slotted in as well.

In 1972, 89 critics submitted their views. Citizen Kane (1940) stayed at number one and would for the subsequent three polls. La Regle du jeu (1939) moved up to number two and Battleship Potemkin (1925) had a new surge in popularity. Several films made since the previous poll made the top ten and the notable runners up saw 1950’s and 60’s films out numbering the 20’s and 30’s films, bar the top three.

1982 saw the poll runners starting to rethink how to manage the criteria, regarding the growing popularity of video, cable, satellite and laser disc technology. Citizen Kane (1940) and La Regle du jeu (1939) retained their respective top two spots. 1954’s Japanese classic Seven Samurai (Kurosawa Akira) tied with 1951’s classic Singin’ in the Rain (Stanley Donen & Gene Kelly) for third. Vertigo (Alfred Hitchcock,1958) and The General (Buster Keaton & Clyde Bruckman, 1926) moved up out of the runners up places into the top ten.

Tokyo Story (1952)

The critic’s kept their consistent top two in the 1992 poll, but the rest of the top ten changed a fair bit. Tokyo Story (Ozu Yasujiro, 1952) took third, Vertigo (1958) moved up to fourth. The Passion of Joan of Arc (1927) was voted joint sixth with Battleship Potemkin (1925), Potemkin keeping its top ten place for the fourth decade in a row. 1968’s science-fiction classic 2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick) made tenth place.

In 2002, over 500 films received just one vote, so the range of films being nominated exploded. Citizen Kane (1940) retained its top spot for the fifth and final time, La Regle du jeu (1939) was dropped to third by Vertigo (1958), which took second. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) rose to sixth, Tokyo Story (1953) slipped to fifth and they cheekily put The Godfather (1972) and The Godfather Part II (1974) were given fourth place as one combined film. Singin’ in the Rain (1951) returned in tenth place, Battleship Potemkin (1925) retained another top ten spot in joint seventh with a new film in the top ten, Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (F.W. Murnau, 1927) which shows how the film industry transverses time, and a new generation of film lovers can still be inspired by the pioneers.

So finally, we come to the most recent poll, in 2012. This time, Sight and Sound published it as the Top 100 Greatest Films of All Time. I won’t list them all (click the link for that!) but I will highlight some.

Vertigo (Alfred Hitchcock, 1958) took the top spot from Citizen Kane (1940), while Tokyo Story (1953) jumped back up to third. Five of the top ten were all made before 1950 and none were made after 1968, with 2001: A Space Odyssey in sixth. Man with a Movie Camera (Dziga Vertov, 1929) made a surprise appearance in eighth. La Regle du jeu (1939) slipped to fourth and Battleship Potemkin (1925) fell out of the top ten, voted in eleventh.

The oldest film was Intolerance (D.W. Griffith, 1916) coming in 93rd. The most recent film was Mulholland Dr. (David Lynch, 2001) in 28th. Casablanca (Michael Curtiz, 1942) took joint 84th, Blade Runner (Ridley Scott, 1982) came in joint 69th, and The Godfather (1972) finished ten places higher than The Godfather Part II (1974), finishing 21st and 31st respectively (both joint in those positions).

Alfred Hitchcock not only directed the ‘Greatest Movie of All Time’ but had Psycho (1960) in joint 35th (joint with Metropolis (Fritz Lang, 1927)), North by Northwest (1959) in joint 53rd with another of his films, Rear Window (1954).

Excluding the US (with 36), France takes the biscuit for most films in this top 100. French filmmakers were involved in 27 films selected. Italian filmmakers were part of eleven of the top 100. Japanese filmmakers made seven and filmmakers from the UK were involved in six.

This poll is a real reflection of how the world sees film. As the years pass, films fall out and back into the public consciousness, and new filmmakers in the future will change the polls going forward. But you will see old films slot into the next few Top 100 polls and you will also see others drop out. One question remains though...

Which films, if any, from the 21st Century will join Mulholland Dr. (2001) in the next Top 100?

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