Empire Magazine took an informal poll of 250,000 “film fans” (read: people who read Empire Magazine) to find out what, according to readers, are the 301 best films of all time, and the results are, more or less, the antithesis of the headline-making 2012 Sight and Sound film poll. Every ten years, the British Film Institute performs a vast, thorough, and ultimately incisive poll of film critics, scholars, and filmmakers from around the world called the Sight and Sound poll. It’s unanimously considered the most important and influential poll in the film world, and the most recent one caused an uproar when Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo usurped the usual winner, Citizen Kane. Hitch’s film had been gradually climbing up the list for several decades, but its dethroning of Orson Welles’ masterpiece surprised many.
The 2012 poll’s top 20 lists: Vertigo; Citizen Kane; Tokyo Story; La Règle du jeu; Sunrise; 2001: A Space Odyssey; The Searchers; Man With a Movie Camera; Passion of Joan of Arc; 8 1/2; Battleship Potemkin; L’Atalante; Breathless; Apocalypse Now; Au Hasard Balthazar; Seven Samurai; Persona; Mirror; and Singin’ in the Rain.
This was also the first time Francis Ford Coppola’s first two entries in The Godfather saga were counted as separate films, thus splitting the votes and knocking them both out of the top 20. Coppola considered the first two films to be two parts of one story, and the third an epilogue (done for money, of course), but they are, obviously, two different films that tell one long story, so counting them as one single entity never made sense. If for nothing else, the 2012 poll deserves credit there.
Actually, let me back peddle: to be more precise, Vertigo topped the critics’ poll, which is kept separate from the filmmakers’ poll. Since there are inherently more scholars and critics than filmmakers, and because the poll is run by critics and scholars and not filmmakers, the former is considered the “real” poll, while the directors’ poll is more supplementary; the individual polls from legendary directors is always a treat to read, especially the ever-eclectic (and eccentric) Quentin Tarantino, for those who are interested.
The Empire poll, on the (very far away) other hand, is almost exclusively comprised of “popular” films, and all of them are directed by white American men: The Empire Strikes Back topped the list, bumping off The Godfather. The rest of the top 10 includes, in order: The Dark Knight; The Shawshank Redemption; Pulp Fiction; Star Wars; The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring; Jaws; Raiders of the Lost Ark; and Inception.
(Vertigo came in 43rd, between Taxi Driver and Once Upon a Time in the West, all three of which would have been better picks for a top ten ballot than The Dark Knight or Inception or The Shawshank Redemption, but I digress.)
Look, a thousand words could be spent just deriding the Empire poll and its ludicrous results, but what would be the point? There’s an unbridgeable chasm between critics and “normal” moviegoers, and their tastes only occasionally intersect (Jaws and Raiders and The Godfather being perhaps the most obvious examples, as all three are undeniably great and undeniably well-loved.) Critics berate moviegoers for refusing to analyze films. Really, how many people use mise-en-scene to evaluate a movie? A very small percentage, that’s who. Meanwhile, moviegoers decry critics as being “pretentious,” and no one ever wins.
So, is the Empire poll silly? Of course it is. It lets us know what kind of readers are drawn to Empire Magazine, and what the “average” moviegoer thinks, but tells us little about the state of filmmaking, then, now, or ever.
Is one list inherently better than the other? Subjective, of course, since the two lists are indicative of two vastly different ways of viewing and evaluating movies. The Sight and Sound poll could be said to have a bias against newer films — the newest film in the top 50 is David Lynch’s disquieting enigma Mulholland Dr., from 2001 — erroneously listed as a 2003 release on the BFI site — which came in 28th place. Wong Kar-wai’s brilliant In the Mood for Love is the only other film from the 2000s to make the top 50, coming in at 24.
The films on Empire‘s list are overwhelmingly popular, overwhelmingly American, and overwhelmingly post-blockbuster era. The top 20 contains exactly one film (The Godfather) from before 1974, when Spielberg’s Jaws scared people away from the beaches and into the darkened confines of multiplexes. (The Godfather Part II is from 1974, but you could argue that the film is rooted in the pre-blockbuster era, since its predecessor is the only pre-Jaws movies included.)
On the Sight and Sound poll, Star Wars came in 171st place, and The Empire Strikes Back came in 588th place, earning all of two votes out of a possible 846.
Since advent of the Internet, and of this prevalent notion that anyone can be a critic, the schism between critics and not-critics has never been more lucid: Under the Skin and The Immigrant, two of the year’s best and most acclaimed films, combined to make about $3 million at the box office, which is what X-Men: Days of Future Past made in 15 minutes. The Empire poll offers no surprises, but it does certify that those who study film and those who watch movies for fun are only growing further apart.