Skip to content


Sight and Sound’s exercise in consumer criticism

The first Sight and Sound “Greatest Films of All Time” poll was conducted in 1952, with eighty-five critics invited to participate and sixty-three responding. Many commented that the question was an awful one—“disturbing,” “barbarous,” “silly”—but twenty-five of them nevertheless voted for Bicycle Thieves, Vittorio De Sica’s neorealist masterpiece released just four years earlier, which was enough to earn it the top spot. Two Charlie Chaplin films tied for second, both of which are at least adversarial to capitalism; the great Marxist Sergei Eisenstein placed fourth with Battleship Potemkin; and in fifth place was D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance, a film made in response to accusations of racism leveled against his previous film, The Clansman, now better known as The Birth of a Nation. Ten years later, these four were usurped by Orson Welles, who placed first with Citizen Kane. His film remained the “greatest” for several decades, until 2012, whereupon it was replaced by Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo.

This was the year the number of critics participating in the poll ballooned from 145 to 846. Associate editor Kieron Corless recalls that the editorial team “recognized that the invitee list had to be much more diverse and as inclusive as possible. As well as a comprehensive geographical spread, we ideally wanted a 50/50 male/female split and strong coverage of all ethnicities and identity categories. In addition, we decided to expand the term ‘critic’ to include a range of cinema workers—curators, programmers, archivists, festival directors, etc.” With the clear goal of revisionism, then, Vertigo was perhaps not what they had in mind.

The magazine seems far happier with its most recent winner, Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, which is being celebrated foremost for the fact that it was directed by a woman. This was the angle taken by the BBC, who initially tweeted that a film “directed by Jeanne Dielman” had won. (The dek: “Film directed by woman picked as best ever.”) The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw wrote that it was “high time” a woman won the poll, beginning his piece: “At last: a shake-up, a crack in the wall, a challenge to the canon.” Sight and Sound commissioned Laura Mulvey—her “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” appeared the same year as Jeanne Dielman—to write a piece on the film’s triumph: “No other film made by a woman has ever even reached the top ten.” In the opening paragraph, she directly attributes the victory to Sight and Sound’s expansion of the voting pool.

Jeanne Dielman may be a feminist masterpiece, but Akerman was never comfortable with this label.

Paul Schrader saw Akerman’s victory through a similar lens, though he arrived at a different conclusion. “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,” Schrader wrote in one of his notorious Facebook posts. “‘Jeanne Dielman’ will from this time forward be remembered not only a [sic] important film in cinema history but also a landmark of distorted woke reappraisal.”

This seems the exact response Sight and Sound was looking for. In his aforementioned piece, published in June this year, Corless preempts Schrader’s criticism, arguing that the poll’s “authority will be enhanced, rather than diminished, by a judiciously curated expansion of our invitee list.” He also adds: “I’ve been approached by a dozen people so far who’d like to be included. That’s the good news. The bad news—they’re all male and all white!” (Corless is also male and white, as is Schrader, as am I.)

This lazy capitulation to the empty identity categories of neoliberal virtue should make any fan of Akerman shudder. Jeanne Dielman is a radical film—formally and politically. Through the figure of a bourgeois Belgian housewife, Akerman bifurcates female labor (and misery) into categories of sex and domesticity. The two are then made ontologically equal through an aesthetics of banality: Dielman peels potatoes, she meets clients; both are rendered deliberately dull. Akerman achieves this by constructing a temporality of her own. She gave explicit instructions to Delphine Seyrig on how to move—when to slow and when to hasten—telling the actress: “You see, I don’t want it to ‘look real,’ I don’t want it to look natural, but I want people to feel the time that it takes, which is not the time that it really takes.”

Jeanne Dielman may be a feminist masterpiece, but Akerman was never comfortable with this label, nor did she appreciate being reduced to mere “woman.” “I won’t say I’m a feminist filmmaker,” she said in 1979, “I’m not making women’s films, I’m making Chantal Akerman’s films.” In her 2013 memoir, My Mother Laughs, she describes herself as being “a gender of my own,” distinct from the women around her. Identity was never settled for Akerman, never easy; she felt her experience was unique, defined by a certain alterity.

Akerman was also queer and Jewish. In her youth, she was a member of Dror, a Zionist-socialist group founded in Poland in 1915, members of which were involved in the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. Akerman’s parents had immigrated from Poland to Belgium prior to World War II; when the country came under Nazi Occupation in 1940, her father went into hiding and her mother, Natalia (Nelly), was deported to Auschwitz. This trauma is discussed obliquely in No Home Movie, Akerman’s final film, comprised of several intimate meetings between her and Nelly—sometimes in person, sometimes via Skype. (J. Hoberman: “Is it to be read as the assertive ‘No Home-Movie’ or the plaintive ‘No-Home Movie’?”) In 2014, not long after Akerman had finished filming, Nelly passed away at the age of eighty-six. Akerman took her own life the following year, the film having only just premiered at the Locarno Film Festival, where it was met by some critics with boos.

None of this makes for particularly good promotional material, I understand, not least of all because the tragedy of Akerman’s death likely contributed to this newfound veneration—one that does her no favors now. She was a filmmaker never paid her dues in life, appreciated by a small sect of critics but never rewarded in any material sense. After placing highly on the previous poll, Akerman would often scoff at its mention. When asked by Sight and Sound to participate in a similar exercise for documentary films, she responded: “It is tiring and not really necessary to do those things.”

Sight and Sound tout their poll as “the most globally recognized” of its kind. Its legacy is indelibly linked to their own—though if the magazine once lent legitimacy to the poll, it seems now the inverse is true. (Did you know Michelin also make tires?) Sight and Sound has been publishing film criticism since 1932, when it began as a quarterly with educational ambitions. Two years later, it was taken under the auspices of the British Film Institute, which has insulated the magazine from financial hardship ever since.

Within the world of film writing, you might call it legacy media: Sight and Sound is one of the few print magazines still standing, though its circulation peaked in 1974, and its most radical years lay in the decades prior. This is owed, as is tradition in Britain, to Oxford University, whose film society had established its own magazine, Sequence, in 1946. Sequence ran for fourteen issues and had revolutionary ambitions, hoping to shake up the orthodoxy of old-world criticism. (There is an argument to be made that their unique focus on filmmakers preempts the politiques des auteurs of Cahiers du Cinéma, typically attributed to François Truffaut in 1955.) One of Sequence’s founding members, Gavin Lambert, took the reins of Sight and Sound in 1949; another, Penelope Houston, would replace him seven years later, when Lambert left for Hollywood to work with Nicholas Ray.

In The Life of Mise-en-Scène, John Gibbs refers to this brief period in the 1950s as “one of the most perplexing shifts in the history of postwar criticism: the movement by which Sight and Sound, at the beginning of the decade a journal infused with new ideas and interests . . . was transformed into the anaemic quarterly of its end.” Blame is typically assigned to Houston, who remained editor until 1990. Peter Wollen, writing under the pseudonym Lee Russell, was especially critical. Reviewing her book, The Contemporary Cinema, he argues that Houston “is not interested in the larger questions one might care to ask about cinema,” owing predominantly to her “fear of theory and ideology.” He made this claim in 1963, the same year Pauline Kael declared the following: “If relatively sound, reasonably reliable judgments were all that we wanted from film criticism, then Sight and Sound might be considered a great magazine. It isn’t, it’s something far less—a good, dull, informative, well-written, safe magazine.”

What Wollen and Kael lamented was the lack of a certain rigor, by no means exclusive to Sight and Sound. I happen to agree with Wollen’s diagnosis that “theory and ideology” are too often overlooked in favor of description and evaluation (the makings of marketing). This kind of simplistic, surface-level reading is what flattens the magazine’s 1952 quartet of winners—a communist, an anti-capitalist, a Marxist, and a racist—into mere white men, Chantal Akerman into little more than the woman who overcame them.

Lists are a similar flattening: they are a declaration of taste, which is the foundation of consumer criticism. Taste is the exclusive purview of our designated betters, whose function it is to sort wheat from chaff on our behalf, lest we waste our precious earnings on a bad film. This process was initially done with words, with which the reader would have to engage. But the commercial logic of this exchange has led inevitably to its degradation (what a capitalist might call streamlining): with the critic now operating as little more than semi-sentient thumb to be turned up or down at a distributor’s behest, they have been disappeared by algorithms. Lists are an acquiescence to this reality, a kind of surrender. They are the stuff of machine learning. Google “Steven Spielberg’s The Fabelmans” and the critic and their words are gone: 8.2 on IMDb, 92 percent on Rotten Tomatoes, 84 percent on Metacritic. Perhaps this explains the Sight and Sound poll’s displacement of the magazine’s actual criticism—not my evaluation but their own. Look at how desperately they marketed this thing, their insistence on its grandeur and importance. They even launched a column dedicated to its discussion! Isn’t it just a SurveyMonkey?

I’m not sure what unimaginable horrors the face of commerce now sees coming our way, but it no doubt involves more lists like this.

“Lists are for laundry, not for film.” My thanks to Elena Gorfinkel. In her 2019 essay, “Against Lists,” she makes a number of prescient observations: that lists “are not neutral or innocent or purely subjective,” nor do they “enshrine your hallowed taste, they only dilute it.” Lists “assert property, mastery, possession” and “bludgeon the dispossessed with a metric of popularity, as if it is a universal value.” Another: “Lists are attentional real estate for the fatigued, enervated, click-hungry.” Just two days after their poll went live, Sight and Sound’s editor in chief Mike Williams tweeted that the magazine’s new issue—with four “collector’s edition” covers—had already sold out online. That the list is a marketing tool for a formerly critical practice which has also become marketing is worth noting. Lists are a “theft by narcissistic cinephilia’s allegiance with capital.”

The prerequisite for any democratic ballot is anonymity, but each Sight and Sound ballot is a spectacle. The magazine makes these public quite deliberately, another means by which they dominate the discourse. In a list of lists, they publish each voter’s name, their ten “greatest” films (its definition left to their discretion), and any comments they might care to add. Gorfinkel again: “The list consolidates as if self-evidence, reasserting in all that it doesn’t list, all that its lister failed to learn, to see, to know.” This year, that meant any films from Latin America. Who is to blame for this omission? Canonicity is derived at least in part from availability, and of the hundred films chosen by voters, forty-eight were represented by Janus Films, including Jeanne Dielman. Janus was founded in 1956 by—as is tradition in America—two Harvard alums, Bryant Haliday and Cyrus Harvey. The pair started screening foreign films at theaters they owned in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and New York. Then as now, the company’s taste was defined by the postwar boom, cinema’s “golden age,” where films by Allies and Axis were given precedence. The 2022 poll would imply that film culture is stuck: since at least the 1950s, “arthouse” has been defined by these nations, with scarce ground ceded along the way.

Haliday and Harvey named their company for the Roman god of open doors because of his two faces, posed in opposite directions: “One face was facing art; the other, commerce.” Perhaps this double vision explains our inability to move forward. I’m not sure what unimaginable horrors the face of commerce now sees coming our way, but it no doubt involves more lists like this, the slow deterioration of the critic from writer to lister, thinker to survey monkey—supposing, of course, that such a reality hasn’t already come to pass. Those who oppose such a future have but one duty: confront the face of commerce and gouge out its eyes. Let the old god see only art; let our gazes be aligned.