Press Play presents Sight & Sound Film Poll: Critics' Picks, a series of video essays featuring prominent film critics on films they selected for Sight and Sound magazine's poll of the greatest films of all time. New videos will premiere regularly until the poll results are announced later this summer.
In speaking with critics voting in this year's Sight & Sound Film Poll, one detects an emerging theme of canonical distension, as participants attempt to distill their experience with 117-odd years of great cinema down to ten titles. More than a few have expressed the need to increase the ballot to twenty slots or more. Others complain that the proceedings seem certain to cement the placement of standard titles like Citizen Kane, The Rules of the Game and Vertigo, with little chance for other titles, especially from more recent years, to enter the top ten. Are we at a point in film history where a top ten poll does more harm than good in reflecting the best that cinema has to offer? Whatever the case, as argued here earlier, the poll's significance – both in how it forms tastes in cinema, and how it is formed itself – can't be taken for granted.
Here on Press Play we've been conducting an ongoing conversation on how to shake up the Sight and Sound Poll and its resulting canon. Along these lines, it was fascinating to learn how film critic Ignatiy Vishnevetsky produced his top ten list for the poll when faced with more titles than he could possibly narrow down – over 90 in fact. The video explains his method, which, as he says, "is as good as anyone's," and then explores one of its intriguing results, the inclusion of three films from 1981. This year is not commonly known as being one of the best in movie history, but it is reflected as such in Vishnevetsky's list with Brian De Palma's Blow Out, Albert Brooks' Modern Romance, and Andre Techine's Hotel des Ameriques. This sets up an excellent opportunity to make an argument for why cinema from this particular year should be considered among the best ever made. Vishnevetsky does so with an astute exploration of filmmaking following the creative surge of '60s and '70s European New Wave and post-New Hollywood filmmaking, and before the advent of '80s commercialism.
What I like about what I will henceforth dub the Vishnevetsky Method to listmaking (again, watch the video for his explanation) is how its initial sense of randomness actually opens bracing new perspectives on canons and cinemas with a charge of rediscovery. For example, I decided to try the Vishnevetsky Method (though using a paperless, salad bowl-less version which I'll describe below) with my own list of 122 films that I considered for my own top ten. My results were as follows:
1. Outer Space (1999, Peter Tscherkassky)*
2. Histoire(s) du Cinema (1998, Jean-Luc Godard)
3. Yesterday Girl (1966, Alexander Kluge)
4. Sansho the Baliff (1954, Kenji Mizoguchi)
5. Intimate Confessions of a Chinese Courtesan (1972, Chor Yuen)
6. Days of Being Wild (1991, Wong Kar-Wai)
7. Love and Duty (1931, Bu Wancang)*
8. Pandora's Box (1929, G.W. Pabst)
9. Aparajito (1957, Satyajit Ray)
10. Bienvenido Mister Marshall! (1952, Luis Garcia Berlanga)
* indicates a title that I actually listed in my official Sight & Sound poll ballot.
Although I am passionate about Asian cinema and Chinese cinema in particular, I didn't expect this exercise to yield three Chinese titles; out of 122 possible titles that I listed for this exercise, 16 are Chinese language, a 1.5 of ten average (my actual top ten has two). But the presence of the three titles – Intimate Confessions of a Chinese Courtesan, Days of Being Wild and Love and Duty stimulate intriguing connections and arguments on behalf of their greatness, not just as exceptional Chinese language films, but films that in their own way pushed the edges of what was possible, not just in Chinese cinema but all cinema. It's a topic certainly worth devoting a video essay in the future.
For those who don't have access to a salad bowl or paper, here's the paperless, salad bowl-less version of the Vishnevetsky method that I devised through digital resources. Follow these steps to get your own randomized top ten list:
1) Make a numbered list of every film you would consider putting on your top ten list. Make sure each film has a number associated with it.
2) Visit this link: http://www.random.org/integers/
3) In the first field "Generate 100 random integers" replace 100 with 10.
4) In the next field "Each integer should have a value between 1 and 100," replace the number 100 with the number of films you've listed.
5) In the next field, select one column for format.
6) Move to Part 2 and select "Get Numbers"
7) Ten numbers will automatically generate at random. Match those numbers with their corresponding title. List those films in the order of those numbers.
8) Congratulations, you have a randomized top ten list! See what canon-changing insights you can derive from it, and feel free to share in the comments.
Ignatiy Vishnevetsky is a film critic for Mubi Notebook and co-host of Roger Ebert Presents At the Movies.
Kevin B. Lee is Editor in Chief of IndieWire’s PressPlay Video Blog, Video Essayist for Fandor Keyframe, and contributor to Roger Ebert.com. Follow him on Twitter.