We're T-minus two hours and counting to nerd launch, when Sight & Sound Magazine will announce the results of the latest installment of their decennial film poll (you can follow the live announcement on Twitter). If you've never read Sight & Sound or their poll before, it's basically the mother of all movie lists: hundreds of critics and directors submit personal top tens, and the highest vote-getters are anointed the greatest films of all time. That's the way it's been once every ten years since 1952 and, God willing, that's the way it always will be.
Cinephiles love making lists almost as much as they love films, or maybe more; I suspect a few I know only watch the movies so they can participate in the list-making. The greatest motion pictures of all-time, the best movies of 2012, the worst films of the year so far, ten classic movie farts — in this day and age, there is a list (or two or fifty) for every era, genre, and director. And, yes, there are even lists of classic movie farts (multiple lists!) and by all means, let's all sit here now and try to think of the films that belong on them.
Why? Why do we obsess over these lists? In the runup to the big announcement, Sight & Sound published an insightful piece from critic Michael Atkinson called "Listomania!" In it, Atkinson tries to solve the riddle of the geeks: why do cinephiles love making lists? The urge, he says, may be "a genetic reflex – a primal-brain instinct for prioritizing materials and works, gathering a communal agreement about the prioritization, and understanding what we have wrought as a society by asking, simply, which is best, which exemplifies us?" Or, he writes, it may be another form of film criticism:
"This is what criticism does: assesses, categorizes, compares, celebrates, lionizes, and winnows away the chaff. A tally of how we momentarily view cinema’s peak manifestations is an integral part of the dialogue – a part that’s fueled by love, by a desire to exalt. (As Madness used to say: 'Don’t watch that, watch this!') When explication and theorization is done, what do we have besides our transported experiences, our ecstatic exchanges with cinematic tissue?"
When Sight & Sound releases its list today, there is sure to be lots of complaining from certain fanboyish wings of the online movie lover community about what was included and left out (By the way: don't be that person who leaves the "'The Dark Knight' isn't on this list, so therefore it's invalid!" comment. Just don't). But contrary to its reputation, and prestigious as it is — even Roger Ebert, loud and vocal hater of all lists, contributes — Sight & Sound is not the definitive list of the greatest films of all time. And that's precisely why it's useful.
The fact that it's only held once a decade, and that each decade's results are available to compare against the others, makes the poll a snapshot; a Polaroid that is never fully developed. The 2012 results will surely be different than they were in 2002, and they'll be different again in 2022. The canon is constantly in flux, as defined by history, scholarship, and the always fickle whims of personal taste. This is a survey that will never be concluded; by Sight & Sound or by anyone else.
That, I think, is where the urge to list comes from. We'll never be complete in our moviegoing knowledge — there will always be a new filmmaker to explore or a new genre to discover — but making a list says we're trying. Making a list is an act of generosity; it says "Here is what I have seen and loved, and here is what you should see if you haven't." It is a way to share and make communal an art form that is largely experienced in solitude. It is a way to start a conversation: with other movie lovers and with our collective cinematic past.