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The greatest of all time

An obscure German film ascends to the top of the list by Philip Martin | December 11, 2022 at 1:53 a.m.

A couple of weeks ago, for the first time in its 70-year history, British magazine Sight and Sound's "Greatest Films of All Time" critics' poll ranked a film directed by a woman as the greatest of all time.

"Jeanne Dielman, 23, Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles," a 1975 drama written and directed by Belgian auteur Chantal Akerman, now tops the list, unseating Alfred Hitchcock's "Vertigo" (1959), now No. 2. Orson Welles' "Citizen Kane" (1941), which had held the top spot for 50 years before that, is No. 3.

This is big news in movie circles. There is a lot of outrage, and pushback on the outrage. And while you might not care that a bunch of film critics spit out their espressos at the news, you might be curious why a relatively obscure movie released nearly 50 years ago would suddenly climb from the No. 35 spot on the Sound and Sight list to No. 1.

Consider that Sight and Sound made a big effort to get 1,600 critics, scholars, distributors, curators, archivists and others to vote in this poll, about twice as many as in previous years. A lot of these new voters were younger and more female and more ethnically diverse than the general population of old white guys who traditionally vote. Add to that that some of those old white guys have died or retired in the past decade.

The results are surprising. Akerman is a unapologetically feminist director who uses minimal plots as a way of exploring the loveliness and horror inherent in ordinary moments of ordinary lives. Her films don't heighten reality, but instead subdue it. She works with drudgery, exploring the obsessive-compulsive thoughtlessness of daily life. She's a real laugh riot. And she killed herself in 2015.

"Jeanne Dielman" is a three-hour, 21-minute movie about a single mother who works as a prostitute to provide for her young son. It's set over the course of three days, and we observe her routine as she cooks, cleans, cares for her child and has joyless and unerotic sex with three male clients. The strategy is to show the audience everything that is generally left out of the movies. (Spoiler alert: On the third day she snaps and stabs her client to death with a pair of scissors. Then she returns to her routine.)

This is not the sort of movie most people would go out to the theater to see. Yet it's undeniably powerful, and highly influential. Gus Van Sant and Peter Handke have acknowledged its impact on them.

Is it the "greatest" of all time? That's a silly question.

Art is not a competition. We can't line the films up like Michigan and Georgia and have them settle it on the field. It doesn't make sense to argue that Michelangelo is a greater artist than Picasso. Anointing any movie the greatest ever would be a stupid exercise except for the fact that all these hierarchical rankings are designed to do one thing: start conversations about films or books or music. Or, more cynically, to start a conversation about, to draw attention to, the person or institution proffering the list.

In January I decided my favorite movies of all time were (in no particular order) Francis Ford Coppola's "The Godfather" (1972), Arthur Penn's "Bonnie and Clyde" (1967), Mike Leigh's "Naked" (1993), Jonathan Glazer's "Under the Skin" (2013), Spike Lee's "Do the Right Thing" (1989), Jane Campion's "The Piano" (1993) , Peter Bogdanovich's "The Last Picture Show"(1971), Alain Renais' "Hiroshima, mon amour" (1959), John Ford's "The Searchers" (1956) and Hayao Miyazaki's "Spirited Away" (2001). And, in a bit of a cheat, Krzysztof Kielowski's "Three Colors Trilogy," which consists of three films released in 1993 and 1994.

I wonder how I could have omitted Bernardo Bertolucci's "The Conformist." Or Martin Scorsese's "Taxi Driver" or "Raging Bull."

If I were voting in a prestigious international critics poll, would I have listed the same films? Maybe, but I might have felt it insufficiently representative of world cinema or the silent era. While my general instinct is to let the ballot serve as a

snapshot of my thinking at a particular moment in time, I understand why someone might want to vote tactically or strategically, and how thinking about the adjective "great" could change one's perspective.

After all, the Sight and Sound poll is, according to the Associated Press, "the largest of its kind and the results have been regarded as an authoritative canon since it was first conducted in 1952." The very gravity of the thing might discourage some from voting for, say, Martha Coolidge's "Valley Girl" (1983), no matter how much they love it.

Paul Schrader is a director ("First Reformed") and screenwriter ("Taxi Driver") who started out as a film critic and often has provocative and compelling things to say about his chosen field. He wrote about the poll on his Facebook page:

"For 70 years, the 'Sight & Sound' poll has been a reliable if somewhat incremental measure of critical consensus and priorities," he wrote. "Films moved up the list, others moved down; but it took time. The sudden appearance of 'Jeanne Dielman' in the No. 1 slot undermines the S&S poll's credibility. It feels off, as if someone had put their thumb on the scale. Which I suspect they did.

"As Tom Stoppard pointed out in 'Jumpers,' in democracy it doesn't matter who gets the votes, it matters who counts the votes. By expanding the voting community and the point system, this year's S&S poll reflects not a historical continuum, but a politically correct rejiggering. Akerman's film is a favorite of mine, a great film, a landmark film, but it's unexpected No. 1 rating does it no favors. 'Jeanne Dielman' will from this time forward be remembered not only as an important film in cinema history, but also as a landmark of distorted woke reappraisal."

"Jeanne Dielman" will now be a notorious film that some people will regard as a kind of affirmative action champion chosen to unset the established order. While the new notoriety will invariably lead many to watch at least the first 15 minutes or so of the movie, one wonders if the raised profile is worth the asterisk. "Jeanne Dielman" deserves to be considered on its own merits, not as an instrument of anti-patriarchal warfare.

On the other hand, it seems important to note that in the 2012 poll, "Jeanne Dielman" was one of only two films directed by women in the Top 100. The other was Claire Denis' "Beau Travail" (1999). That doesn't feel right.

And though there are 11 films directed by women on this year's list including "Beau Travail," which now comes in at No. 7, Agnes Varda's "Cleo From 5 to 7" (1962) and Julie Dash's "Daughters of the Dust" (1991), that still feels low. (Though when you consider the problems women have traditionally had in Hollywood, maybe not.)

Before this year's poll, only one film from a Black director, Senegalese filmmaker Djibril Diop Mambéty's "Touki Bouki" (1973), was represented in the Top 100. This year it's joined by "Daughters in the Dust" (1991), Spike Lee's "Do the Right Thing" (1989), Charles Burnett's "Killer of Sheep" (1978), Barry Jenkins' "Moonlight" (2016), Jordan Peele's "Get Out" (2017) and and Ousmane Sembène's "Black Girl" (1966).

"Do The Right Thing" and "Killer of Sheep," both American classics, had never before made the list. What's more understandable is how few films from the past decade do make it--we're not really able to judge a movie until it's been out for a while.

Although the 2012 list featured only two 21st-century films, "In the Mood for Love" and "Mulholland Drive" (both released in 2001), this year's list also includes "Moonlight," "Get Out," "Spirited Away," Varda's 2000 documentary "The Gleaners and I," the 2004 Thai romantic psychological drama "Tropical Malady, " and two films from 2019, Céline Sciamma's "Portrait of a Lady on Fire" and Bong Joon-Ho's "Parasite."

Aside from toppling old stand-bys from the very top of the mountain, the Sight and Sound list looks good, maybe even a little chalky. "Jeanne Dielman" is not Louis C.K.'s "Pootie Tang" or "Top Gun: Maverick." It's a fine film. Maybe it's ranked a little higher in this poll than appropriate, but I'm not convinced it matters that much.

Neither is Dennis Doros, a film distributor and archivist and Sight and Sound voter who had a hand in the restoration of "Killer of Sheep" some years back. He posted on his Facebook feed:

For y'all who are terribly upset with the Sight and Sound No. 1 choice, then you:

1. Are 99 percent more likely to be male.

2. Probably voted for 'Vertigo' or was perfectly fine with that choice in 2012.

3. Really, really care about polls as a validation of your taste and education.

C'mon people, it's a time to celebrate cinema, have fun seeing everybody's choices, and perhaps, just maybe, be inspired to watch some films you haven't seen before.

For the record, I think only one of my choices made the 100 ("Killer of Sheep," of course!), but I'm not going to get bent out of shape that no one considers "Begone Dull Care" the greatest film of all time, you a**holes that didn't vote for it!!!

(For the record, "Begone Dull Care" is an eight-minute Canadian animated film from 1949 that consists of scratches and paint applied directed to film stock accompanying the music of Oscar Peterson. You can watch it here:

There is a saying, variously attributed to speakers like Henry Kissinger, law professor Wallace S. Sayre and the 18th-century lexicographer Samuel Johnson, that the reason academic politics are so vicious is because the stakes are so small. It's harder to imagine any stakes smaller than whether "Vertigo," "Citizen Kane" or "Jeanne Dielman" is some kind of cinematic GOAT.

Here are the films (with their British release dates) at the top of Sight and Sound's survey:

Sight and Sound's greatest films

1. "Jeanne Dielman, 23, Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles" (Chantal Akerman, 1975)

2. "Vertigo" (Alfred Hitchcock, 1958)

3. "Citizen Kane" (Orson Welles, 1941)

4. "Tokyo Story" (Yasujiro Ozu, 1953)

5. "In the Mood for Love" (Wong Kar-wai, 2000)

6. "2001: A Space Odyssey" (Stanley Kubrick, 1968)

7. "Beau Travail" (Claire Denis, 1999)

8. "Mulholland Drive" (David Lynch, 2001)

9. "Man With a Movie Camera" (Dziga Vertov, 1929)

10. "Singin' in the Rain" (Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly, 1952)

11. "Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans" (F.W. Murnau, 1927)

12. "The Godfather" (Francis Ford Coppola, 1972)

13. "The Rules of the Game" (Jean Renoir, 1939)

14. "Cleo From 5 to 7" (Agnès Varda, 1962)

15. "The Searchers" (John Ford, 1956)

16. "Meshes of the Afternoon" (Maya Deren and Alexandr Hackenschmied, 1943)

17. "Close-Up" (Abbas Kiarostami, 1989)

18. "Persona" (Ingmar Bergman, 1966)

19. "Apocalypse Now" (Francis Ford Coppola, 1979)

20. "Seven Samurai" (Akira Kurosawa, 1954)

  photo  Jeanne Dielman (Delphine Seyrig) goes about three days in her life in “Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du commerce, 1080 Bruxelles.” (Photo illustration by Philip Martin)


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