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Sight & Sound Roundtable Part 2/2 – Personal Cinephilia as Public Cinephilia: Individual Lists in the Sight & Sound Poll

David Fincher's list of films for the EMPIRE 500 Poll

This roundtable discussion of the 2012 Sight & Sound Poll continues where we left off on PART I. Participating in today’s conversation are Jeff Heinzl, Natalie Ryabchikova, Ryan Pierson, and Felipe Pruneda Sentíes. This panel was moderated and edited by myself, Katie Bird. For today’s roundtable, my colleagues and I will be looking specifically at the individual critics’ lists and the politics of personal list-making (both in the published poll and in our own top tens). Katie: To build off the current discussion: What is the value of the individual lists (critics or directors) against or as a complement to the main poll? I’m thinking first of those individual lists that do seem to change (Jonathan Rosenbaum is a good example here as he forces himself to choose a new list every time). Secondly, the critics this time were, as S&S editor Nick James describes, invited to think not just about the ‘greatest films,’ or the films of the ‘highest achievement,’ but particularly those films that had “the biggest impact on your own view of cinema.” Many of the critical responses include this idea in their explanations. Felipe: In theory, encouraging that kind of cinephiliac and personal response to the task of making a list would allow for more recent films to enter the highest positions, as new films that take cinema in new directions also reshape the critics’ and directors’ ideas of it. Not that that relationship is always linear. Natalie: I think that this is the only productive way canon-formation (or de-formation?) can go – built upon the conflict between the collective poll and the multitude of individual lists. As Jeff said earlier, the poll is an invitation to see films that so many people find important – but it is even more true in the case of individual lists. Felipe: Individual lists are more likely to contain films that we have not seen. And by “we,” I mean perhaps cinephiles and students who have been in fact exposed, through their film education, to many of the usual suspects for the top 10. Natalie: It’s interesting; I thought that individual lists would hold more recent films, but at least from the sample we saw last week before the entire lists were posted, it doesn’t seem the case. Katie: I was actually surprised that there were so many recent films. Especially pretty recent films: Amy Taubin had Cosmopolis, others had Melancholia, a couple Fincher films made the list, as did Wall-E and The Matrix. I mean the recent films in the individual lists are in no way overwhelming, but given all the complaints about the main list being too nostalgic, I was surprised to see any newer films on the individual lists. Natalie: Matrix, yes! Why isn’t it in the top-50? Jeff: I think the individual lists are fascinating in the sense that it’s fun to see which “thinkers about cinema” share some of our own favorites or which critics or filmmakers we admire have films on their lists that we haven’t seen. On the other hand, I think the individual lists are only actually useful to the extent that those who make a list write something (at length, preferably) about their favorites. The “what” is interesting; the “why” is actually useful for deepening or expanding my thinking about films. Ryan: It seems that the canon-list function is being assumed by a lot of critics, who are taking the opportunity to be idiosyncratic. (Or possibly it’s had that function for a while now.) Natalie: So even in the individual lists we have an attempt to balance “the canon,” “the greatest” or “the safe” with the personal, the recent, the surprising or “mad,” in Žižek’s case. Ryan: Not even a balance, I think. If you’re assured that a hundred people are already going to vote for Citizen Kane, then if you genuinely love Citizen Kane, you’re still free to choose something like Cosmopolis. Natalie: I agree, or even if you’ve already had Citizen Kane yourself in your previous list – some people argued for that. Jeff: It’s also interesting to me that James describes the list as “the canon of cinema greats.” There’s this auteurist approach that makes the list as much about representing the great directors as choosing great films. I was reading[i] that critics might vote for Citizen Kane not because they think it’s a great film but because that’s the film people tend to rally around to represent Orson Welles. They vote for Tokyo Story because otherwise Ozu might not show up. Natalie: Tim Grierson, among others, said this: “Having only one masterpiece helps your Sight & Sound chances.” Felipe: Which makes the case of someone like Godard frustrating to many, as there is no agreement about what film they should all get behind to represent him. Jeff: But then Godard is represented most on the list of 50 (I think), with four films. Felipe: That’s right, so there’s another balance (or attempt at balance) achieved. Katie: I guess this begs the question that I’m essentially trying to get at (Girish Shambu said he has “limited interest” in the aggregate list, yet is primarily intrigued by the individual lists[ii]). If we assume most critics will include Citizen Kane or Vertigo, doesn’t that make an inclusion like Cosmopolis or Melancholia even more valuable? What I mean is, does thinking of those films in conversation with or as relevant enough to have a place at the table with Kane and Vertigo increase their significance? Natalie: That might be a very interesting nonconformist reading of the poll in general. Ryan: In principle maybe, but in practice it doesn’t seem to work; the more enabled you feel to make idiosyncratic choices, the less likely you’ll get confirmation from others being polled. Natalie: I did a little math. There were 846 critics polled and Vertigo at #1 got 191 votes. That gives us a simple figure of 3/4 of all critics who didn’t mention this film at all. Ryan: I did that math too! Citizen Kane got 18%, Tokyo Story 12.6%, etc. Felipe: I wanted to point out another useful aspect of the individual lists: that most come in no particular order or try to rank their items. I take more issue with the attempt at creating a hierarchy than with the more heuristic exercise of giving oneself only ten spots to create a map of the cinema. Jeff: S&S tries to see if it can make sense of all the opinions about great cinema floating around there by making all those small lists into one great big one. But film criticism and cinephilia-tending print media surely have a more important role than making aggregate lists. Or making any lists, for that matter. Katie: I guess we might ask what is the value (political or otherwise) of contributing to this list? Of making one’s own list to be used for the poll? Is it to “reassert” the greats (and by extension what should always be considered “great”) or is it to insist (as some have) on alternative lists? Some of the individual critics’ lists insist on a top 10 heavily weighted to a national cinema or identity cinema: for example, as UK film critic Kate Muir points out, “what would an all female list look like?” These list-making gestures seem to come with the knowledge that this sort of list is purely reactionary to the primary “poll.” It strongly resists being gathered and accumulated in the aggregate. Felipe: I worry that choosing a list as a counter-canonical strategy means using the wrong tools, for they are the tools of the dominant cultures. Katie: Yes, but such strategies do make us see how ¾ of those polled did not mention Vertigo at all. Perhaps these critics either did not believe Vertigo was the greatest film or they chose not to play that particular canon-building game. Felipe: True. I am also wondering what are the alternatives to making lists. Natalie: The other way of participating in the poll would be not participating. I happen to know one such person, Naum Kleiman, Director of the Moscow Museum of Cinema, who was invited but said that he did not want to take part. Felipe: Did he write an article explaining why? Natalie: No, and he even refused to comment on the poll when asked for an interview. Felipe: Is that the opposite of making a list? Or are there forms of writing that might replace that practice or oppose some of the effects of that practice? Ryan: Like what? Natalie: There was one post that combined the S&S top 10 with the 1-star reviews of these films from IMDB. That was somewhat subversive. Felipe: Well, I like Natalie’s earlier suggestion of two lists: one according to taste and one according to what we think or know is “great” – to use Ryan’s phrase, an “Internalized Community Canon.” I also think that even if some listing might inevitably be involved in any critical work, that listing can be subdued or incorporated so that it does not seem hierarchical or fragmentary. I can’t help but think of Benjamin’s term “constellation,” in that the list emerges from an argument that the items on the list help support or conform, rather than being the end result of the exercise. I also like what Mexican film critic Jorge Ayala Blanco (whom I’m sure was asked but declined to make a list) does, which is to use alphabetical arrangements as a ludic device: the lists are games of association rather than rankings. Katie: I’m thinking that the value of the S&S list has very little do with the top ten but rather with the discussions that such a list will continually produce (especially when we do widen the scope of contributors). Even if critics or directors decline to participate, their response (outside or inside the confines of the published poll) is gravely needed. Especially if such a response is a dissent from the goals of the poll. Natalie: I was also thinking about Ebert’s formulation that “Apart from any other motive for putting a movie title on a list like this, there is always the motive of propaganda: Critics add a title hoping to draw attention to it, and encourage others to see it.”[iii] That might be the political dimension of participation in a poll. Katie: What did you think were the most startling absences and inclusions on the aggregate top 100 list? My response comes from an individual list perspective: I am really shocked that there isn’t any Fassbinder (for the published individual lists I noticed he was on Elsaesser’s list for Marriage of Maria Braun). Felipe: My first surprise was the absence of Night of the Hunter in the top 50; it was placed at number 63 on the 100 list. Yet, it was number 2 in a recent Cahiers du Cinema list. Natalie: Eastern Europe. The great Polish directors, the Hungarians, the Czech. Like Wajda, or Kieslowski, or Chytilova. No Cukor. The Italians included Fellini, Antonioni, and de Sica – but no Bertolucci! Jeff: Poor Kieslowski. I think he would have showed up if The Decalogue had been allowed (at least if Ebert’s comments are any indication). Katie: Yes. This was one of the many changes along with the Godfather/Godfather II ousting from the top 10. Natalie: I hope that the absence of Ivan the Terrible is also explained by the fact that they’ve divided it into two parts. Ryan: There’s a few ways to see exclusions: First, I could see them as not conforming to my own taste; second, as not conforming to my idea of an international-film-culture-best-of list; or, third, as not conforming to certain standards of representation (either across countries/traditions, or in time). Each of those ways will have its own answers, and a lot of them. The second is probably the most interesting though, as it means that each of us has internalized a community canon that doesn’t mesh with our own taste. The second way probably stands the best chance of inserting real debate or change. Natalie: Wouldn’t your second and third variants be essentially the same though? Ryan: Not quite. A lack of, say, China or India applies more to the third than the second. I’m not terribly surprised that no 5th generation has made the list – but from a film-history standpoint you can say something like, “I guess a nation of two billion people never made a great movie?” Jeff: India did make the list, right (Pather Panchali)? Ryan: Yes, but an Indian movie that bears more resemblance to Italian Neorealism than to the history of Indian cinema. Natalie: Indian cinema could be victim to the same “one great film gets you into the list” rule – they simply produce too many films. Katie: To wrap up our conversation I want to ask everyone: What is the value of the Sight & Sound poll today? Felipe: I wanted to say something else about the list: that it is also a claim for the importance of film culture in general. That it is another way to justify our existence as critics and academics. Natalie: The poll is also the means of consolidating the film community, providing a theme for dialogue, a reason for conflict and what not. Ryan: The canon persists on its own, with or without a list. Attempting to sum it up into a list allows it, I think, to float in a kind of film-culture ether that belongs to no one in particular, but which members of the community use as a fulcrum against which their own tastes push (to horribly mix my metaphors). Opposing it, changing it, confirming it, whatever, it is that which must be accounted for. Jeff: I think that the Sight & Sound poll is only valuable insofar as it guides us to watch and re-watch these films and insofar as it convinces us to write about – or make or distribute or screen – films that matter just as much and more in response to these viewings and re-viewings. Katie: I want to thank Natalie, Jeff, Felipe, and Ryan once again for agreeing to participate in this panel. For me, the S&S poll is exactly this, a moment for a wide array of dissimilar film enthusiasts (from critics to academics, from practitioners to fans) to discuss and debate what films have made and will continue to make cinema something worth fighting about. But most importantly, the reason to participate in such a discussion is to critically earn one’s own chance to publish a personal top 10 list. I hope ours will cause some debates of their own. Enjoy! Panelist Top 10 Lists Jeff Heinzl The 400 Blows (1959, dir. François Truffaut) (2006, DVD, computer screen) Barry Lyndon (1975, dir. Stanley Kubrick) (2007, DVD, computer screen) Beau Travail (1999, dir. Claire Denis) (2008, DVD, computer screen) Cries and Whispers (1972, dir. Ingmar Bergman) (2007, DVD, computer screen) The Conversation (1974, dir. Francis Ford Coppola) (2007, DVD, television screen) Inland Empire (2006, dir. David Lynch) (2007, DVD? Or had it been transferred to celluloid…?, cinema screen) Sátántangó (1994, dir. Béla Tarr) (2009, DVD, television screen) Syndromes and a Century (2006, dir. Apichatpong Weerasethakul) (2010, DVD, television screen) Taxi Driver (1976, dir. Martin Scorsese) (2005, DVD, television screen) Touch of Evil (1958, dir. Orson Welles) (2008, DVD, LCD projection onto classroom screen) Brief explanation: While I was thinking up this list, I was dying to look at the movies I’ve rated on Netflix or even at my own DVD collection. I refuse. If I haven’t thought of it in the last twenty-four hours, it doesn’t deserve to be on here. I’m forgetting something major, I know – I’ll probably think of it in the next ten years. Here’s hoping that Sight & Sound invites me to the party next time. I’ve placed beside each film not only the year in which it was originally released and the director’s name but also the year in which I originally saw it, the medium through which I watched it, and the type of screen on which I viewed it. ———————————— Katie Bird I tried not to look at my fellow contributors’ lists before writing my own, but I couldn’t help myself. I’m partially inspired by Jeff’s list (above) in that by thinking about where, when, and how I first came to see a movie, I also started to think about which movies in my movie history forced me to drastically rethink my connection to the cinema both formally and in the cinematic exhibition space. They are the “greatest” because the help me, in part, understand my own cinema history. Top 10 in personal chronological order: The Royal Tenenbaums (2002, why I chose to go to film school instead of a journalism degree. Yes, I realize this sounds like a joke). All That Heaven Allows (2003, why I stayed in film school). Le Mepris/ Contempt or Weekend (2006-2007, Cinema>=art, Cinema>=literature, Cinema=everything). The Marriage of Maria Braun (2006, so this is love?) Citizen Kane (2007, Why didn’t I see this brilliance 4 years ago? Love affair with Joseph Cotten begins). City Lights (2007, packed 1929 movie house in Salt Lake City. Watching films (especially comedies) with a full theater changes the whole experience). Of Time & The City (2009, at Film Forum, History as Personal/Personal as History). Star Trek (2009, When Hollywood’s good, it’s this good). Cleo from 5 to 7 (2009, streamed from Criterion’s Beta Site ‘The Auteurs’ on stolen internet connection. Realizing that sometimes it is better/necessary to watch films alone). The Shining (2010, ungrounded terror thanks to Garrett Brown’s Steadicam). ———————————— Ryan Pierson 1. It’s a Wonderful Life (Capra, 1946) 2. Touch of Evil (Welles, 1958) 3. The Awful Truth (Leo McCarey, 1937) 4. Playtime (Tati, 1967) 5. Vivre sa vie (Godard, 1962) 6. Motion Painting No. 1 (Fischinger, 1947) 7. Imitation of Life (Sirk, 1959) 8. Ugly Duckling (Burt Gillette, 1939) 9. Brand upon the Brain! (Guy Maddin, 2006) 10. Le Bonheur (Agnes Varda, 1965) An effort to avoid tough decisions by bypassing the decision-making process: favorites compiled with no criteria whatsoever, in about the time it takes for a Polaroid to develop, in more or less the order in which they came to mind. All urges to revise were resisted. The first two have been favorites since high school; the rest surprised me. ———————————— Natalie Ryabchikova Compiling two lists instead of one turned out to be an interesting exercise. The most noticeable difference between them is that the “canon” is situated further in the past for me – 10 titles were clearly not enough for me to be able to move beyond the early 1970s. The “personal” list, on the contrary, starts with the late 1950s and goes into the 2000s. It seems that the first 10 films represent me as a historian, whereas the second 10 show me as a viewer. “Internalized Community Canon” (in chronological order) 1. A Trip to the Moon (1902, dir. Georges Méliès) 2. Intolerance (1916, dir. D.W.Griffith) 4. Battleship Potemkin (1925, dir. Sergei Eisenstein) 3. Un Chien Andalou (1929, dir. Luis Buñuel) 5. Citizen Kane (1941, dir. Orson Welles) 6. Rashomon (1950, dir. Kurosawa Akira) 7. Singin’ in the Rain (1952, dir. Stanley Donen, Gene Kelly) 8. The Seventh Seal (1957, dir. Ingmar Bergman) 9. Breathless (1960, dir. Jean-Luc Godard) 10. Death in Venice (1971, dir. Luchino Visconti) Personal List (in chronological order) 1. North By Northwest (1959, dir. Alfred Hitchcock) 2. Last Year at Marienbad (1961, dir. Alain Resnais) 3. L’Eclisse (1962, dir. Michelangelo Antonioni) 4. Irma la Douce (1963, dir. Billy Wilder) 5. Daisies (1966, dir. Vera Chytilová) 6. At Home Among Strangers, A Stranger at Home (1974, dir. Nikita Mikhalkov) 7. Wings of Desire (1987, dir. Wim Wenders) 8. The Double Life of Veronique (1991, dir. Krzysztof Kieslowski)

9. Lost Highway (1997, dir. David Lynch)

10. Reconstruction (2003, dir. Christoffer Boe)

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Felipe Pruneda Sentíes

Most Haunting Films (In chronological order)

Note: there were several ties (thematic and spiritual ties, that is) in my personal poll, which is another way of saying that I cheated to include more than just 10. Der müde Tod (Destiny, Fritz Lang, 1921), M (Lang, 1931). Two faces of death, one silent, one aural. Destiny, incidentally, was also acknowledged by both Hitchcock and Buñuel as the film that inspired them to become filmmakers, a ripple-effect double-whammy of influence. Ensayo de un crimen (The Criminal Life of Archibaldo de la Cruz, Luis Buñuel, 1955). A rebuttal of the misguided desire to give death a face. Ordet (Carl T. Dreyer, 1955), Hable con ella (Talk to Her, Pedro Almodóvar, 2002). Two problematic miracles, two conflicting resurrections. The latter a most difficult test of our understanding of love. Nobi (Fires on the Plain, Kon Ichikawa, 1959), L’armée des ombres (Army of Shadows, Jean-Pierre Melville, 1969). Two struggles of courage, resilience, and hope in desperate times that fill that trio of human qualities with devastating ambiguity. The Birds (Alfred Hitchcock, 1963), Csillagosok, katonák (The Red and the White, Miklós Jancsó, 1967). Two masterful uses of crowds and flocks, one human, one inhuman, both focused on what a collective looks as a character. A group of minds thinking harmoniously alike. Still (Ernie Gehr, 1969), (nostalgia) [Hollis Frampton, 1971]. Two scintillating demonstrations of how much one can do with very, very little. Blow Out (Brian De Palma, 1981). A most eloquent scream. Dead Ringers (David Cronenberg, 1988). An elegy for monsters. Alas de mariposa (Butterfly Wings, Juanma Bajo Ulloa, 1989), La madre muerta (The Dead Mother, Bajo Ulloa, 1991). A one-two punch, one a delicate, but forceful, victory over despair, the other the height of midnight-black comedy. Once despair has been defeated, is laughter all that’s left? Da hong deng long gao gao gua (Raise the Red Lantern, Yimou Zhang, 1991), Lektionen in Finsterni (Lessons of Darkness, Werner Herzog, 1992) Two films that move through their visual beauty alone, like jewels. Special Mention: Red Letter Media’s Review of The Phantom Menace (2009). This one is quite the opposite of the above. I revisited it constantly, immediately after my first viewing, to laugh some more. I have chosen, for this very fun exercise (and I think about it that way, for my list might be different if you ask me in a few days, and I have not yet settled on an opinion on the value of making lists like this), films that have haunted me to the point that I refused to revisit them for years (and some remain unrevisited), convinced that they were laser-etched into my brain, or that they gave me enough material not just to replay them in my head, but to imagine worlds beyond the films themselves that I had to sort through before going back to them. In short, it is a list of movies that made the most impact in me from a single viewing. I have also tried (perhaps foolishly) to strike a balance between personal favorites and films that I consider important and canon-worthy. They had to be both. So a film like Roman Polanski’s The Fearless Vampire Killers, while one of the films that most shaped my film education, does not belong here as something I would recommend to do the same for other viewers. Same, but in the inverse sense, with films like Vertigo or Citizen Kane.


[i] Lee, Kevin B., David Jenkins, Vadim Rjzov, Bill Georgaris. “A Top Ten Dilemma: Previewing the Sight and Sound Greatest Films Poll, Part II.” 19 April, 2012.
[ii] Shambu, Girish. “Film Studies and Canon Building.”
[iii] Ebert, Roger. “The Greatest Films of All Time.” Roger Ebert’s Journal, Chicago Sun-Times. 26 April, 2012. Special Thanks to Jordan Schonig and Javier O’Neil Ortiz for editorial assistance with Parts I & II.