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Everyone has a greatest films list. Roger Ebert. AFI. If you have a Letterboxd account, you probably have one too.

It is not irregular for me, in conversation, to casually suggest that a recent film I’ve seen might be one of the greatest films I’ve ever seen.

But not all lists are created equal.

Sight and Sound, part of the British Film Institute, publishes a greatest films list every decade since 1952. It polls great film directors along with the world’s foremost film critics, academics, writers, and programmers. It is the one person in your friend group who went to an Ivy League school. It’s the person at the restaurant who pays with an Amex Black card.

This list defines the cultural consensus for what we believe to be a great film, and its the reason you keep being told that Citizen Kane is the greatest film ever made. Its publication is wildly anticipated in film communities.

Here are some of the most interesting takeaways.

Women in film

For decades, the poll, by its own admission, under-served female filmmakers. In 2012, there were only nine female-directed films among the top 250.

In 2022, that number rose dramatically. In the Top 20 films, four are female-directed, including the current top spot, Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles.

Naturally, there have been dissenting opinions on the inclusion of so many women on the list, most notably from filmmaker Paul Schrader:

The sudden appearance of ‘Jeanne Dielman’ in the number one slot undermines the S&S poll’s credibility. It feels off, as if someone had put their thumb on the scale.

‘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.

Debating Schrader on this feels like an exercise in futility. But the arrival of more women in film has done something unique for the list.

It’s made it interesting.

For decades the list was a game of musical chairs where everyone was trying to see whether Vertigo, Citizen Kane, or Tokyo Story would be the last ones seated. Now, in the top 10, there is a more than three-hour-long film that watches a woman peel potatoes. There’s a film about the French Foreign Legion with deep homoerotic undertones and dance sequences set to The Rhythm of the Night. There’s an experimental short film in which a woman continues to find a key in strange places.

More women on the list brings more unique viewpoints, more visual inventiveness, more creativity. Women have broken through in so many areas in the arts over the past few decades. Directing retains a high barrier for entry.

To show off the scope and talent of female filmmakers in a list such as this, even if it’s limited, demonstrates that the next great frontier is women behind the lens.

The biggest loser on the list

Courtesy of Gaumont.

People will point to Citizen Kane having fallen so far, despite not reaching #1 a decade ago. But the real fall from grace in this decade’s Sight and Sound list is The Rules of the Game.

Its director, Jean Renoir, son of impressionist painting master Auguste Renoir, might be the greatest director to have ever lived. But according to this list’s rankings, he is nowhere near as relevant as he once was.

His supreme masterpiece, The Rules of the Game, has dropped nine places and is now his only film on the list. Nowhere is Bondu Saved from Drowning, French Cancan, A Day in the Country, or Grand Illusion—my personal choice for the best film he’s ever made.

The Rules of the Game concerns the upstairs/downstairs relationships within a wealthy French manor. Considering how prescient the film feels when it comes to the power dynamics between the wealthy and their servants, and the need for films today to tackle those topics, it’s a surprise his films aren’t even more top of mind.

Mad Max: Fury Road might be the greatest action film ever made

Apichatpong Weerasethakul and Edgar Wright might be as different as two filmmakers alive can possibly be. Yet both of them picked Mad Max: Fury Road as one of the best films ever made.

They, along with Bong Joon Ho, have clearly signaled that along with Moonlight, Fury Road is the definitive movie of the new century.

Action movies do not fare well in the Sight and Sound poll. While Timecop and Exit Wounds are both excellent films, you’ll never find them on a list like this.

For Fury Road to have stepped into such hallowed territory suggests that George Miller’s epic may unimpeachably be the greatest action film ever made.

SS Rajamouli’s list isn’t kidding with you

Sight and Sound films are supposed to be primarily art-house, sophisticated, the kind that can be discussed in a coffee shop.

The Telugu director of RRR didn’t get the memo. This is Rajamouli’s list:

Forrest Gump
Mayabazar
Raiders of the Lost Ark
Kung Fu Panda
Aladdin
Braveheart
Apocalypto
Ben-Hur (1959)
Django Unchained
The Lion King

This list is the blockbuster of blockbusters. This list can draw a direct line to the wild, action-comedy escapades of Rajamouli’s films.

Any man with the courage to put Kung Fu Panda on his list of greatest films deserves recognition.

Blockbuster. Courtesy DVV Entertainment.

We are what we eat

One of the pleasures of Sight and Sound’s list is going through the director’s polls, seeing their favorite films, and discovering how their interests have seeped into their work.

Some of the more generic choices, from Citizen Kane and Vertigo to 8 1/2 are not as revealing because of their ubiquity. It’s the unique choices that truly show the director’s voice.

Bong Joon Ho selected both Zodiac and The Housemaid, films that could be spiritual predecessors to Memories of Murder and Parasite respectively. Is it that hard to see how In the Mood for Love influenced Moonlight from Barry Jenkins’ list? Or how the playful fun of Rio Bravo and Howard Hawks inspired John Carpenter?

Taking a position of “we are influenced by what we watch” is not special in filmmaking. What’s fascinating is just how close those influences actually are.

Charles Burnett continues to be the most unique voice in film

America’s great secret treasure is Charles Burnett. His masterpiece Killer of Sheep is one of the earliest and best examples of American neorealism. And for decades it was impossible to get your hands on it.

Burnett is finally being seen as the master he is. And his list shows off his unique voice.

I consider myself a cineaste, and I had not heard of half the films he selected.

A World War II film called Decision Before Dawn. An Ousmane Sembène film called Emitaï, set in French-colonial Africa. A propaganda film meant to promote Ceylon tea which Graham Greene called one of the best examples of montage ever made. A film about a sex worker who seduces a missionary.

Every so often on a director’s list, you’ll see a unique, unknown film that stands out from the rest. Charles Burnett list is made up of these unknown treasures.

Fitting for someone who’s had the career he’s had.


Other observations

-Wes Anderson’s film list being exclusively French could not possibly be any more on-brand.

8 1/2 is regularly a favorite film of directors, yet it doesn’t break the top 20 of the final list.

-Black filmmakers remain under-represented in the final list, with no black-directed film breaking the top twenty, and only seven in the top 100.

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Casey Karaman is a writer, performer, improviser, and teacher who has worked with the Washington Improv Theater. He has performed in multiple theater productions, most recently in Second City's production...