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‘Sight & Sound’ Top 50: Editor Nick James Talks Changes in List and Voters

'Sight & Sound' Top 50: Editor Nick James Talks Changes in List and Voters

Finally, the citadel has been stormed. Orson Welles’s masterpiece “Citizen Kane” is no longer  “The Greatest Film of All Time,” according to the latest poll from the influential British magazine “Sight & Sound.” The magazine has conducted these polls every 10 years since 1962, and “Citizen Kane” emerged at number one five times. Finally it has been dethroned – in favour of Alfred Hitchcock’s “Vertigo.” (Full list of 50 is here; a “Vertigo” trailer with James Stewart and Kim Novak is below.)

Why the change? Why now? You could argue that the critical consensus has simply shifted slightly away from Welles. But above all, the “Sight & Sound” poll itself has changed – and broadened its reach considerably.

Announcing the result at London’s BFI Southbank film complex, S&S editor Nick James observed that the poll’s previous exclusivity seemed “no longer viable.” For the 2002 poll, just 145 critics, mainly English-speaking, cast their votes in the form of Top 10 lists. This time, according to James, the net was cast wider: responses were obtained from 68 countries, critics who started their careers online were invited, as were non-critics: film curators, academics, distributors and festival programmers among them.

The magazine approached a total of 1,000 people (including this writer). “We received 846 replies,” James disclosed. “From all their Top 10 lists, there were 2,045 films.” This constituted a far larger “long list” than in any previous S&S poll.

James has made no secret of the fact he would be happy to see a new Greatest Film of All Time. Announcing the Top 10 titles in ascending order – “8 1/2,” “The Passion of Joan of Arc,” “Man with a Movie Camera,” “The Searchers,””2001: A Space Odyssey,” “Sunrise,” “La Regle du Jeu” and “Tokyo Story,” he finally arrived at the number two selection. “It’s been toppled at last!” James shouted as an image from “Citizen Kane” appeared on the screen behind him.

“Vertigo” received 191 votes to Kane’s 157 – a clear victory. Hitchcock’s film was a felicitous choice for the BFI (British Film Institute), which publishes the magazine: Hitchcock has been the subject of a huge retrospective at the BFI’s London theatres this summer.

But if this marks a changing of the guard, it’s a somewhat gradual one. The poll’s voting population may be younger and more wide-ranging, but the most recent film in the Top 10 is Kubrick’s “2001” – now 44 years old. Three of the top 10 films were from the silent era. As James noted, the highest-ranking film from this century was Wong Kar-Wai’s “In the Mood for Love,” which tied for 24th place.

A separate poll of some 350 directors placed “Tokyo Story” top, followed by “2001” and “Citizen Kane.”

The top 10 films in the main poll will be screened in a special month-long season at BFI Southbank, starting September 3.

The poll results coincide with a revamp of “Sight & Sound,” which is celebrating 80 years as a film magazine. (It was formerly known as the Monthly Film Bulletin.) It will have 32 extra pages, a digital edition of the magazine is in process, and a digital archive of the magazine’s every issue has been compiled.

There had been fears that “Sight & Sound”’s editorial stance might be compromised by its publisher the British Film Institute’s broader powers, granted them by the UK government last year. But all signs point to S&S maintaining its reputation for spiky independence and incisive film criticism.

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