The results of the 2012 Sight & Sound Poll are out and the collective wisdom of hundreds of critics and directors asserts that Vertigo is, notwithstanding what everyone has said for the past 50 years, better than Citizen Kane; one white, male, overweight raconteur and curmudgeon nudging another off the pinnacle. I don’t agree: I don’t think it’s even Hitchcock’s best movie, and it’s not my favourite either (which is a different thing, but more on that later).
Every time one of these polls is staged, the same quibbles arise. What’s the bloody point of it all? Well, the first point is to shift copies of Sight & Sound (or Film Comment or Empire or whatever) and then, on a more altruistic note, to raise awareness of the richness of cinema as an art form, to encourage people to see some movies again or for the first time and to provoke debate and discussion and dialectic. Obviously nobody is arguing that Citizen Kane was, in some empirical and absolute sense, the best film ever until 2002, but that this has now ceased to be the case, as if helium has usurped hydrogen as the lightest element.
The other gripe concerns the selection of those who vote in the poll, and with it the whole nature of elitism in the creation of a canon. “But my favourite film is Star Wars [or The Godfather or The Shawshank Redemption or Dirty Dancing] so why should I care what Mark Kermode or Quentin Tarantino thinks?” The answer of course is that Kermode and Tarantino have almost certainly seen Star Wars, whereas I’m not sure how many diehard devotees of Star Wars have seen Vertigo or Kane or Tokyo Story (number three on the list and top of the directors’ picks). And when you’ve seen Star Wars and Vertigo and several thousand other movies of all genres and periods and countries, you start to realise that there’s a difference between your own favourite film and the film you consider to be the best. (Back to Hitchcock: I suspect Rear Window or Psycho are among his best, but my favourite is Spellbound, even though I’m well aware of its glaring faults. And as for Welles, I’d pick The Stranger or Chimes at Midnight over Kane.) So ultimately there’s nothing wrong with having Star Wars as your favourite film, but without any critical context, why do you expect us to care?
That said, a well organised poll does tend to say something about the sampled group. I always think of the time customers at the David Lean Cinema in Croydon were asked to pick the best film of all time; confronted with the glories of Hitchcock and Welles, Ozu and Kurosawa, Bergman and Ford and Wilder and Ed Wood, they picked that epic of love and loss and duty and windy bonnets, Mrs Brown. If only Hitchcock had replaced Kim Novak with that nice Judi Dench, there would surely be no arguments.
PS: In the New Statesman, Ryan Gilbey – one of the voters – queries the dearth of recent movies in the list.