10 Disagreements With the Sight and Sound Poll's 250 Greatest Films List

Editor-at-Large; Los Angeles (@http://twitter.com/marshalclark)
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10 Disagreements With the Sight and Sound Poll's 250 Greatest Films List
BFI's Sight and Sound Magazine has released a slew of new information about their "Greatest Films of All Time" poll, which is carried out once a decade and, this year, is comprised of votes from 846 critics and cinephiles from around the world. More to point, we now have a new list of "The 250 Greatest Movies of All Time" to argue over!

Granted all arguments with these sort of lists are arbitrary and subjective, but then again, so are these sort of lists. And thus, I present the top ten questionable, baffling and straight up wrong decisions in this list.

A bit about my own method: I thought mostly about the lists in terms of logical alternatives to movies with which I disagree. For example, I resisted arguments like "Paris, Texas is worthless except for the awesome ending with Nastassja Kinski. Get it off this list."

I also tried to think about the list in terms of "greatest" and not "favorite." and thus I did take the movie's influence on cinema and how well it has aged into consideration rather than yielding immediately to whatever irrational love I have for certain fun movies. Thus, my "replace Paris, Texas with The 'Burbs" argument didn't make the list either. Except in a few cases I avoided trivial ranking arguments like "I like La Dolce Vita way better than 8 1/2." Also, as is usually the case with rules, I bent and broke them sometimes. 

So take a look at the list on the BFI site (which includes lots of time-killing goodies including every single critic's ballot), and then chime in with your own suggestions, arguments and praise in the comments.

*Note: Many movies tied for certain places, which is why some numbers below repeat.

1. Replace The Big Sleep (#202) with Kiss Me Deadly.
Yes, Humphrey Bogart's chemistry with Lauren Bacall is great, and yes, Howard Hawks' Film Noir was something of a milestone for the genre. But I'll argue that, besides the performances, the film has not aged so well, especially once you've read the sucker-punch of a novel by Raymond Chandler on which it was based. On the other hand, the subversive, apocalyptic and at times satirical bleakness of Robert Aldrich's Noir masterpiece Kiss Me Deadly seems more bold and ahead of its time on each viewing. And if we're going to give Chandler props here, I'd take his conflict-ridden collaboration with Billy Wilder on Double Indemnity over The Big Sleep as well.


2. What the hell is Nicolas Roeg and Donald Cammell's Performance doing at #110 while Roeg's Don't Look Now is #127 and Walkabout isn't even on the list?
Performance does have the distinction of being one of the only movies that gave me a headache solely by virtue of the ridiculous editing, and this NSFW music video scene with Mick Jagger is amazing. But really, Roeg's montage-heavy, go-for-broke style was used to a much more affecting, thrilling and eye-opening end in his later films like Don't Look Now, Walkabout, and Bad Timing (Also not on the list). Performance is worthwhile, but more as a fascinating, psychedelic relic from the 70's.

teorema.jpg 3. Replace Salo: 120 Days of Sodom (#202) with Teorema
Since it is indeed one of the most shocking and brutal movies ever made, Salo: 120 Days of Sodom tends to get a lot more attention than most of Pier Paolo Pasolini's other films. But, while it shows incredible conviction and honesty as a fetishistic criticism of Fascism and consumerism, it's also far more shallow and straightforward than many of the Pasolini's other films. In its place, I nominate Teorema, in which Terence Stamp plays a mysterious visitor (God? The Devil?) who seduces an entire bourgeois family and changes each of their lives in a different way. Upon seeing it for the first time, Roger Ebert wrote, "I don't feel ready to write about this mysterious film; perhaps, a week from now, I'll decide it is very bad, a failure. But perhaps it is the most brilliant work yet by that strange director." Now that filmmakers as disparate as Takashi Miike (Visitor Q) and  Ry-Russo Young and Lena Dunham (Nobody Walks) have found the film interesting enough to make their own version of it, I think it's safe to say that it's a bit closer to brilliant.


4. Splitting Hairs: A Matter of Life and Death (#90) vs. The Red Shoes (#117)
Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's A Matter of Life and Death is a fine movie -- funny, romantic and often visually inventive. But compare it with the intensity, energy, emotion and action of their next film, The Red Shoes, and it seems completely lifeless and forced in comparison. I say this after watching the two films within a few days of each other. Also, as far as fantasies about the afterlife, Ernst Lubitsch's Heaven Can Wait is much funnier and more touching. Which brings me to number 5.

designforliving.jpg 5. The list missed the two best Ernst Lubitsch movies.
It was nice to see the screwball comedy master (sorry, Preston Sturges) was well-represented on the list with Trouble in Paradise (#117), To Be or Not to Be (#144) and The Shop Around the Corner (#202). I like all of those movies! But in terms of laughs or creatively sticking it to the censors, nothing rivals Lubitsch's Design For Living, which is possibly the most cheerful, hilarious movie about a threesome ever made. Also, none of these choices are quite as touching as Heaven Can Wait, which somehow sustains its manic comic energy while poignantly tackling tragedy and heartbreak.

daysofbeingwild.jpg6. Is In the Mood for Love (#24) really so much better than all of Wong Kar Wai's other movies?
I'm seriously asking. I won't dispute that the film is a formally and visually amazing movie that mines emotional depths that many equally-stylized movies don't dare to even seek. But Kar Wai's Chungking Express (#144), Days of Being Wild (not on list) and even Fallen Angels (not on list) do that too -- and they actually bring a sense of fun and discovery to the mix! Though, judging by the number of comedies on this list, maybe critics don't like fun?


7. Critics don't seem to like fun.
There is likely some exclusion bias in this list since it's totaling scores of so many critics' top ten lists, but still, how about a little respect for some of the greatest blockbusters and crowd-pleasers of all time? You know, the ones that have transported and touched more people than all four Yasujiro Ozu movies on the list combined? With Bergman, Fellini, Rossellini and even boredom-master Antonioni taking up four spots or more each, it would have been nice if critics were able to make room for at least Ghostbusters, Back to the Future or Raiders of the Lost Ark.

7. Give Max Ophuls' pulpy melodramas some love.
This one's probably a bit unfair since I fell happily asleep during The Earrings of Madam De... (#93) -- though I loved Letter from an Unknown Women (#154). But I'm still sad that some of Ophul's less highbrow Hollywood work never gets recognition. For example, his melodrama/noir Caught, in which Robert Ryan plays a rich tyrant who loves his pinball machine more than his wife, creates a claustrophobia, suspense and sense of awe and disbelief that I don't know that I've seen in any melodrama before. I won't say he tops Douglas Sirk in this department, but he definitely creates a mood as unique and interesting as any found in Sirk's films. His follow up, A Wreckless Moment is a real gem too.

thesilence.jpg9. The Silence has aged better than most Bergman movies on this list.
No disputing that Cries and Whispers (#154), Persona (#17), The Seventh Seal (#93), Wild Strawberries (#63) and Fanny and Alexander (#84) are all great movies, but, with the possible exception of Persona, I honestly believe that The Silence is one of the most accomplished, daring movies Bergman ever made. As two women and a child wander around a hotel on a fictional Island occupied only by men, you'll likely be reminded of David Lynch, Stanley Kubrick's The Shining and Woody Allen's Stardust Memories (OK, so that last one is intentional...). But the balance of anguish, humor, surrealism and sexual energy that Bergman somehow weaves together here still hasn't been matched.

thetrial.jpg10. Orson Welles made a much better literary adaptation than The Magnificent Ambersons (#81).
I understand the apologetic love for Welles' follow-up to Citizen Kane, with many critics calling it a near-masterpiece that was ruined by heavy studio interference in the editing room. But Welles also made an actual masterpiece out of a difficult-to-adapt novel with no studio interference. Yep, his version of Franz Kafka's The Trial with Anthony Perkins is nearly perfect on its own terms, and is reportedly considered by Welles to be his best film.

And... I'm beat. Your turn to go wild! How about the omission of Rebel Without a Cause or Nagisa Oshima's entire filmography? Where is Samuel Fuller? And if they're going to put Psycho at #34 how about a shout out to Michael Powell's equally amazing voyeuristic thriller Peeping Tom? Or what about the great offbeat picks that made the list like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Two-Lane Blacktop? Chime in with your own thoughts below. 
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Ben UmsteadAugust 17, 2012 1:58 PM

I am pretty much in agreement on your disagreement. In particular the presence of Performance and the absence of Walkabout. Also those fun, smart blockbusters... those woulda been the three I picked, though one would think Jaws and Star Wars woulda ended up on the list, at least for those that were measuring this list in any historical significance. And The Silence does hold up incredibly well, and The Trial... well why is it seemingly forgotten?

My gripe? And perhaps it isn't that big a surprise what with the "fun" films not showing up... where is the animation? We've got a few Miyazaki's way, way down the ladder, and that's it. No Fantasia or other early Disney or what about stop-motion? King Kong makes an appearance, but... Okay, can't get much further on an empty stomach, and we could all gripe and grapple on this 'til the cows came home.

Tom StoneAugust 17, 2012 2:35 PM

Fantastic to see some small recognition for Back to the Future. Given it's the greatest movie of all time and all.

SjeksterAugust 17, 2012 5:03 PM

I'm no movie expert, so I haven't seen a lot of those 250 movies, but I am glad to see it seems to be very diverse, at least when it comes to country of origin. Most greatest movie list revolve around Hollywood movies for the most part, like IMDB. Not surprising of course, given that the majority of the users of those sites are from America, or at least western countries, who seem to have been brought up with lots of Hollywood movies. So it is great to see a lot of movies from Europe and Asia on this list.

Pretty interesting to see that most movies are from 1970 or before. Is that because of nostalgia, because of the age of the critics, or just because movies from then are just considered to be better?

Jason GorberAugust 17, 2012 5:05 PM

Excellent work - a =slew= of films I haven't seen, either on or off the list.

STAR WARS made it to 171, and (comically) is dated 1997, but clearly JAWS and RAIDERS are worthy contenders, near perfect films be they.

That said, I love lists like this because of the disagreements and shuffles, the "not this but that". After all, if we're going to throw my list in the mix I'd have a Coen in there, for sure (Lebowski? No Country? Miller's Crossing? Oh Brother? All the above?!)

Plus, BREAKING THE WAVES should be at least top 20. There, I said it.

Mr. CavinAugust 17, 2012 6:11 PM

I never take lists all that seriously, and I certainly don't take the ranking to mean more than the inclusion itself (unless I reframe it: "this is their favorite David Lynch movie?" or "TOTORO is the only animated movie better than WALL-E?" --to cite two examples of recent eye rolling). That said, I do feel like they've produced a fairly elegant list. If a budding film lover were to spend a year or two watching this list only, they'd end up with a pretty good working knowledge of cinema history (minus any much useful information from the eighties).

Had I written this there would be more Almodóvar and Dassin and Clouzot. And Huston for god sakes. I was happy to see Tourneur get some props; though I might have had to add another title or two. I would have consciously tried to veer a little farther from the Criterion Collection, possibly to the detriment of my own version. About that: do you feel like Criterion and the like are doing a particularly good job covering the critical base, or do you think these labels themselves are defining what movies are considered important in one way or another? A lot of this list has been released in the last decade by boutique labels like Criterion's, and I wonder if they'd have been here, otherwise. I know that the act of curating important artifacts in some way involves husbanding our idea of what an important artifact really is. So which came first here, the chicken or the egg?

Ben UmsteadAugust 17, 2012 8:20 PM

Excellent points, Mr. C. This is most certainly the most interesting and diverse top 250 I've seen put together by a large group like this.

I'm curious to know if there were many under 35 critcs and curators, because that'd clue us in on the "Criterion factor" and how many folks saw some of these. I know as someone who came of age movie-wise during the last decade Criterion was hugely important in how and what I saw.

Ben UmsteadAugust 17, 2012 8:21 PM

And I totally didn't notice Star Wars on there! Perhaps because of the funky date...

Mr. CavinAugust 17, 2012 8:47 PM

Thanks! Your comment got me thinking about it, so I went to look at the site itself. I had not bothered to look at any of the supporting material at all. I thought the voters' personal comments were very interesting, and now I wonder how much time I want to waste there. The site presents a pretty woeful lack of bio on the contributors, but it's enough to keep pushing the research if someone really wanted to put the time in. With all the academics and critics, I'd say the median age is probably not all that young.

The movie that made me start thinking along these lines was Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, by the way. An excellent movie, but I have trouble imagining it would have been on so many top ten lists five years ago.

And that is the methodology here--each voter selected a top ten--which is as good a way to make a ranked database as any other. But that also means that what we have is two hundred an fifty of people's "favorite movies", and the rankings reflect the number of times certain titles were remembered across the voter base. I only point this out because, one, all critics will be more narrow minded when considering ten movies than they will when considering more; and two, the systems is handicapped in favor of agreement in a way that promotes averages (for example, if everyone picks the very same movie for the number ten spot, but different movies for one through nine, that tenth movie will likely end up number one in the final tally).

Ben UmsteadAugust 17, 2012 9:52 PM

It's a wild stab in the dark, but I'd imagine out of the couple hundred critics and programers, there were maybe 40-60 under 35. It's a real guess, but I think many younger critics work at publications that were not contacted to participate. The way things are tallied in averages is a handicap, but it seems to be how many lists are made anywhere, everywhere. I'm not any kind of math man, so why is this? I can't imagine other ways being much harder.

Mr. CavinAugust 17, 2012 11:06 PM

Ha. Somebody else is gonna have to field that one. As far as I know, any method of compiling a specific list from such a sea of data is going to have to rely on averages (or adjudication, which is certainly more biased), and any possible alternate method will tend to have its own particular weaknesses one way or another. Ultimately, the only point of these things is to get people talking, anyway: "Hi, I'm Cavin. Let me demonstrate my love of movies by bitching about this list."

Kevo42August 18, 2012 2:00 AM

The problems I have with these kind of lists, is that they are all based on the idea that the critics don't really tell the movies they love, but the movies the feel are important. In the end, you always have the same kind of list with 4 Ozu movies and 4 Dreyer movies in the top 20. Ok, they are good in what they do, but is there a need to have so much of these kind of movies so high ranked.

Also, I don't really like the fact that directors have several films in a list that is so short (250 films is not as much as one would would think of) : I come back to the Ozu and Dreyer thing : once you've understood that they are significant film makers (and no doubt they are), you can simply write the most voted movie they made and write into parenthesis : you can also watch from them ...

The fact that so many Hitchcock films are so high ranked is also interesting : it's like there would be no good thrillers, or spionnage movies, or horror movies, or genre movies after he died. And like it was pointed out in the article : almost no recent movies, and no blockbuster or fun movies (except it's in black and white). Movie is a serious business, which you can only enjoy from a distance.

Sometimes, I wish they would make a list pro genre, like the one Franck Darabont made for Empire when they put their 500 : http://www.empireonline.com/features/frank-darabonts-favourite-movies/

But all in all, I don't think it's easy to make such a list : it's always more a reflexion of the people that make it (here lots of old aged critics and film archivists) that what the good in itself (in a Platonian way of thinking) would be.

Ben UmsteadAugust 18, 2012 2:07 AM

Film fans: we know how to bitch and moan about what we love. When the lists come out we getta squawkin', even those of us who really have no need for lists. Funny stuff. Bottom line: cinema is the most vast and varied well to drink from the skies above.

Brian ClarkAugust 18, 2012 5:22 AM

Mr. C -- I agree about more John Huston, Almodovar and definitely Clouzot. Also, I kind of think CAT PEOPLE is at least as influential and essential as OUT OF THE PAST.

The Criterion point is an interesting one. It is a label that plays a huge role in determining what is canonized for the younger generation in some ways. It doesn't bother me so much, (though I recall director Noah Buschel -- whom I admire very much -- wrote a column about how it DID bother him). It's a really interesting point though. I mean, if Criterion put out A WRECKLESS MOMENT instead of Earrings of Madam de... how would that affect most most young Americans' opinion of him? But, People who are really passionate enough to go deeper into film certainly have the means available to them.

Also, a lot of the people surveyed are academics and archivists, so chances are they have seen a lot of movies that we don't even have access to.

I should note too -- I like this list! There are a lot of movies on here that make me really happy, and some that I haven't seen that it's time to look into, and while I bemoaned no BACK TO THE FUTURE etc. , I'd rather have this than the usual imdb stuff with inception as the number 5 movie ever made or whatever. And yeah, you can spend a LOT of time looking through ballots and critic commentary on the site. It opens up a whole new world of movies beyond the lists.

Brian ClarkAugust 18, 2012 5:23 AM

Apparently Lebowski got more votes than Fargo and No Country For Old Men combined.

I read that on Twitter.

Mr. CavinAugust 18, 2012 8:35 AM

What I sense you are saying, Brian Clark, is that there's something wrong with Jules Dassin? I mean come on, man: any stupid list that doesn't include Rififi and for sure Thieves' Highway and Naked City isn't worth the pixels it's been coded with. Everybody knows that! Even Criterion knows that, jeeze.

I'm just kidding, of course. Thanks for pointing me toward that Noah Buschel column, I'm interested in exploring this question further. As for Back to the Future, honestly, I think I'd rather see Time Bandits on this list (along with Raiders... and your other choices), although an argument could easily be made that Sixteen Candles was, far and away, a more important and influential movie than either.

https://www.google.com/accounts/o8/id?id=AItOawloye1LDRuuNk-HzohYiB5pfptbY9tzl2gAugust 18, 2012 9:27 PM

Yeah, where IS Sam Fuller. That man is ridiculously underrated, but he is one of the great directors of all time.

Speaking of Fuller, his family has been trying to wrap a documentary on his life and work, including never-before-seen WWII footage Sam shot in person while on the front lines. They're online raising money for post costs, help out if you can, and help spread the word even if you can't: http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1209470946/a-fuller-life

Brian ClarkAugust 20, 2012 4:27 AM

If it's even half as good as his autobiography, that movie will probably be amazing.

Brian ClarkAugust 20, 2012 4:32 AM

Yeah, John Hughes!
As for Dassin -- want to fight?
Nah, Rififi probably should have been there, you're right. I just like Jean-Pierre Melleville's heist movies better! I always forget what the rest of Dassin's movies were actually about after I see them, so even though I remember thinking they were good, they are strangely fuzzy in my mind. This is just how it went down.

James MarshAugust 20, 2012 6:35 AM

Scrolling through the comments, I see that Mr. Cavin did make the point that I'm about to make, which really goes a long way to quashing some of the debate about "how did A rank above B?" and "where are the films from director X, Y or Z?"

All of these perceived revered and influential critics and programmers and curators from around the world were aked by the most prstigious film magazine around to name the 10 films they deemed the best ever made. Only 10, with no preference for ranking. It takes a brave/arrogant/stupid soul to then bust out a list that deviates too far from commonly accepted classics.

It's a damn good question to ask "Where is Sam Fuller?" in a list of 250 films, but how many people would genuinely name a Sam Fuller in their all-time Top 10? Because, at the end of the day, that's what has really been asked of these experts, not to rank every film ever made.

I think the only truly positive thing that this kind of list does do is highlight the films which are highly regarded at the moment that perhaps we have not gotten around to seeing, or perhaps even heard of. I agree that it is thanks to the Criterion Collection, Masters of Cinema and other such labels, that I am even aware of films like JEANNE DIELMAN or AU HAZARD BALTHASAR, and now that they feature so prominently here, I am further encouraged to seek them out sooner.

Is IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE really Wong Kar Wai's best film? Maybe, or maybe it's CHUNGKING EXPRESS. The problem here is that they are all fairly similar and ITMFL gained far and away the highest profile internationally, so is most likely the one most people have seen. When learning that FALLEN ANGELS, DAYS OF BEING WILD and FALLEN ANGELS are very similar, cinephiles may apply their time elsewhere - and hence, ITMFL gets their vote at times like this.

Is there much of a point to what I'm saying? Not really, but I think it really does underscore what great work Criterion and the rest are doing to make so many titles of classic World Cinema so easily accessible and revered as a result.

Brian ClarkAugust 20, 2012 6:58 AM

Of course you're right. This list is one of the more interesting ones published anyway since it surveys such a wide net of film experts. But yes, it is still arbitrary in its own way and imperfect. On the other hand, it's a great jumping off point for discussing films we love and a nice check-in with global film culture.

Incidentally, I do suspect that THE NAKED KISS or PICKUP ON SOUTH STREET or even HOUSE OF BAMBOO may make my top ten films list, if I were ever tasked with something like that.

huffy08August 24, 2012 12:56 AM

Not to bash the S&S list, because it does serve an important role, but I much rather the director's list take center stage over the critics' list. Critics always seem to vote based on trends or historical importance as opposed to what they feel. I'm sorry, I know it's a masterful work of film making but I don't see how anyone post-Stalinist USSR can look at Battleship Potemkin and say "Damn, now that really moved me." That and the fact that they refuse to acknowledge a film until it's at least a decade (or three) old makes these lists appear somewhat phony. On the flipside directors seem much more willing to vote where their heart is.
And I also agree with the bit about fun films being excluded. I've got Miyazaki and Spielberg on my top 50 list right next to Herzog and Tarkovsky and I don't see how anyone can argue that those directors aren't tremendous talents. Why critics ignore them because their movies are loved by millions as opposed to thousands is beyond me.

C TraresOctober 16, 2012 10:49 PM

I am so happy to hear some love for the Burbs! My favorite movie!

UnEnfantPerduAugust 27, 2014 3:53 PM

I've only seen 5 Ozu films so I guess I'm no expert. Is I Was Born But better than Back to the Future or Raiders of the Lost Ark. I certainly believe so. Ditto The Only Son, Late Spring, Tokyo Story and An Autumn Afternoon. Surely the votes towards Tokyo Story hindered the position of the other Ozu films rather than any of the "fun" blockbusters. (Wait now I Was Born But isn't fun?).