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Creating a New Film Canon: Sight & Sound’s Greatest Films of All Time

Once every decade, film critics, directors, and other industry workers, set aside their differences to contemplate the entire film canon. It seems a little daunting, especially from the perspective of budding film enthusiasts, out of the exponential number of films to choose from and to narrow it all down to a hundred. Still, a hundred is a convenient number, and it is always fun to compare the lists from the previous decade to map out the ever-mutating form of the film and the social conditions they are a manner of.

Credits: TripAdvisor

Compared to previous years, this year’s edition is the largest ever. Sight & Sound expanded its rolls from 145 critics, distributors, and selected academics and professionals to a generous 1,639 participating international film critics, academics, distributors, writers, curators, and archivists concurrently. This left a speculation that consensus might form around a new set of films, the first step in their slow journey towards consecration.

The shakeup at the top happened, and hysteria ensued. This year, the best film of all time, Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975) is, or rather was, directed by a woman – the deceased Belgian legend Chantal Akerman. In 2012 when the poll was last held, Vertigo held the top spot, snatching it from Citizen Kane, which had held it for 50 years. Citizen Kane is now pushed to the number three slot. It has long enjoyed a reputation as some remote, inaccessible art-house monolith that seems to be going under a public reappraisal liberated from the ‘best-film-ever” label, which burdened it with a heavy significance that no film should ever have to carry. There’s less incentive to performatively act like it’s not all that.

Credits: RottenTomatoes

Jeanne Dielman and Beau Travail were the only films by female filmmakers in the top 100 in 2012. But this year’s poll features eleven films by female filmmakers in the top 100 and four in the top 20.

It is exciting for a film nerd like me, for people to find out about the whale that is Jeanne Dielman. Jeanne Dielman 23, Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles is to describe in one word, excruciating; to describe in two, excruciatingly slow. It is the least accessible of all the films on the poll, not only in terms of its avant-garde nature but just plain consumption. The film is not easily available for streaming on demand on any of the major sites or to buy/rent in most countries. Thankfully, to commemorate this achievement, BFI has added it to their BFI Player streaming service.

The previously held positions for best film were Citizens Kane (Welles) and Vertigo (Hitchcock); departing from tradition, these movies, although undoubtedly transgressive and expanding the cinematic form greatly, were still “action” movies and not too esoteric to completely pass by your average layman. On the other hand, Dielman is long comfortable shots of the titular character Jeanne, preparing breakfast for herself and her son, folding clothes, washing dishes and murdering a man. A landmark piece of experimental feminist filmmaking featuring an 80% female crew, Akerman set to prove that a woman washing dishes can be art. No other film artist has explored the frustration of post-modern living with such tender care or acuity. She took a depression familiar to many of us and reflected it on the world with virtuosity. Lauding this posthumously feels messed up, but it is vital.

The usual response to these kinds of lists is to see how many inclusions you agree with but also to nit-pick and find the one film that didn’t make it onto the list, thus giving you a reason to argue about the arbitrariness of selecting films that have shared cultural importance. More movies coming out in the last decade means some potential to shift things around as people submit a top 10. The ten years is key here, along with more voters, because of a lot of things: a newer “generation” of “critics”, culture shifts, and the push for women filmmakers to be taken more seriously. One wonders how the percentage of women who could submit votes has changed since last time. And in the end, isn’t the mutating nature of these lists the most cathartic? What makes way for new films? How does one balance a film’s impact on the history of cinema with its unique importance to you?

The film landscape is ever-changing and some people find it hard to cope with. Paul Schrader, a brilliant artist and horrible person, in a hilarious tantrum, claimed a sort of election fraud because Dielman, a movie he personally likes, has climbed up too quickly. Paul Schrader’s dispute over Jeanne Dielman’s Number 1 spot, is for it not being a reflection of ‘film history’. His argument that it is predominantly white and male, relies on the misconception that film history has only ever been filled by white men.

The canon, for years, has excluded women and people of colour, though these people have been making movies since the days of silent cinema. A broader, more varied base of people amending the form’s canon must not be viewed as the bastardization of that canon but simply much-needed rectification.

Sumaiya Shakil is a student pursuing English Literature from Jamia Millia Islamia.

Edited by: Alisha Uvais

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Written by Sumaiya Shakil

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