After polling 62 critics from around the world, the BBC has come up with a list of the 100 greatest American movies of all time. In addition to the list, the package also includes comments on the Top 25 by the likes of Glenn Kenny, Stephanie Zacharek, Molly Haskell, Tania Modleski, Jonathan Rosenbaum, and Armond White. (I voted as well: My complete list is here.) As the BBC explains, “All different kinds of critics are represented here, from daily
newspaper reviewers, magazine critics, bloggers and broadcasters to
authors of book-length academic criticism and the final Top 100 was
calculated via a simple point system (10 points for each
#1 pick, 1 point for each #10 pick). The criteria was simple: any film
made by a U.S. studio or funded in some way from an American source
qualifies as an ‘American film.’ The director of the movie did not have
to be born in America and the film did not have
to be made in America. In fact, 32 films on the list were directed by
film-makers born outside the US, reflecting America’s immigrant
Today, no first-time director in his mid-twenties would be given such complete control of a major project. And no first-time director could possibly come to Hollywood with Welles’ naive ignorance and arrogance about what could be achieved. In 1941, Welles was both beginner and expert, undergraduate and professor, young Charlie and old Charles Foster. And if he never had the boundless freedom and energy to make another film like Citizen Kane, neither did anyone else. It’s terrific.
As with any such poll, it’s important to treat the results for what they are: an expression of loose consensus rather than a statement of any one critic’s opinion: Its predilections reflect the movies everyone loves more than the ones individuals are passionate about; its blind spots are the product of dissension as well as ignorance. Still, it’s worth noting a few trends.
The Auteurist of the Auteurs
Between them, four directors take up 20 of the poll’s slots: Alfred Hitchcock, Steven Spielberg, Billy Wilder, and Stanley Kubrick each make the list five times. Hitchcock ranks the highest of them, with three movies — “Vertigo,” “Psycho,” and “North by Northwest” — in the top 13, while Spielberg is the lowest: His highest-ranking film, in 38th place, is “Jaws”; the other four ranked 75th or lower. It’s worth noting that of the four, two are foreign-born — Hitchcock was British, Wilder Polish — and Kubrick spent most of his life in England. Coming in just below the Big Four, Martin Scorsese, Howard Hawks, and Francis Ford Coppola each make the list four times, while John Ford, Charlie Chaplin, and Orson Welles each notch a trifecta. That’s 41 slots occupied by the work of 10 directors.
Not Much Diversity
As you might suspect from that familiar list of names, the poll is short on directors who aren’t white men. How short? The list of 100 movies features only four directed by black men — two by Spike Lee, one each by Steve McQueen and Charles Burnett — and only one (co-)directed by a woman: 1943’s “Meshes of the Afternoon,” by Maya Deren and Alexander Hammid. That doesn’t, of course, mean that there weren’t more votes for women or directors of color, but that these were the only ones critics tended to agree on.
The ’70s Rule
The “Godfathers” may be the only movies from the 1970s to make the top 10, but that decade’s output dominates the overall results. The 1940s and ’50s finish strong, with the silent era and the new millennium finishing roughly even at five and six movies apiece. Here’s how it breaks down.
And here’s the top 10, with selected commentary.
The Top 10 American Movies of All Time
1. “Citizen Kane”: “It is a stylistically shape-shifting masterpiece of cinematic high modernism, and a scandalously gossipy melodrama. It is a Proustian consideration of time and consciousness and a grab-bag of often hilariously quotable lines. It is a mystery story whose solution is as plain as the nose on your face. It is a story that is about storytelling, especially those we tell about ourselves.” —Glenn Kenny
2. “The Godfather”: “There are some great movies you want, or need, to see only once or twice in a lifetime, but ‘The Godfather’ stands up to repeated viewings, revealing yet more riches from the shadows each time.” —Stephanie Zacharek
3. “Vertigo”: “Alfred Hitchcock uses all of cinema’s tools to build a waking nightmare, which feels like an endless spiral of grief and regret.” —Jean-Philippe Guerand
4. “2001: A Space Odyssey”: “It moves from the abstract to the factual and back to the abstract again with elegant precision in a manner that echoes man’s own evolutionary journey. Within the cosmic confines of that pilgrimage, man’s relationship with technology is incidental, a rung in the stairway to heaven.” —Ali Arikan
5. “The Searchers”: “The Searchers has been increasingly appreciated as the great American historical epic, influencing everything from Taxi Driver to Star Wars, and forever revising the myth of conquering the frontier.” —Liam Lacey
6. “Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans”: “Murnau’s mastery of image combined with the power and resources of Hollywood to create what many believe is the high-point of the silent cinema – a film whose enormous influence can be felt to this day.” —Bilge Ebiri
7. “Singin’ in the Rain”: “The most remarkable movie musical made by the US film industry, which, by the way, has made the most remarkable musicals in the world.” —Mauricio Reina
8. “Psycho”: “Denounced by some for its misogyny and praised by others for its destabilising of gender roles, the film has elicited countless interpretations. In the end it defies them all and confounds the spectator with its chilling final scene in which ‘Mother’ speaks through her imprisoned son, murderer Norman Bates, protesting her innocence to the unseen accusers she knows are staring back.” —Tania Modleski
9. “Casablanca”: “This was a troubled production, an assembly line product from a director (Michael Curtiz) rarely considered a major auteur. It didn’t even have an ending until the last minute. Now it’s remembered, correctly, as perfection.” —Jordan Hoffman
10. “The Godfather Part II”: “It’s an operatic masterpiece with Shakespearean overtones whose cast (lead by Robert De Niro and Al Pacino), music (by Nino Rota) and gloomy lighting (by cinematographer Gordon Willis), have all become legendary.” —Isabella Regnier