The world has a new greatest film of all time. Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, an austere feminist masterpiece from 1975, written and directed by Chantal Akerman, tops the latest decennial critics’ poll from Sight and Sound magazine. The online universe abounds with such lists, but, since 1952, the organ of the British Film Institute has, once a decade, delivered the tablets of stone that matter most to committed cineastes.
Akerman’s film becomes only the fourth title to take the top spot in 70 years. Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves triumphed in the first poll. Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane took over in 1962 and ruled until 2012 when Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo grabbed the crown. This year, Vertigo and Kane follow up Jeanne Dielman in second and third places. The top five is completed by Yasujirō Ozu’s Tokyo Story and – a surprise, perhaps – Wong Kar Wai’s In the Mood for Love.
The current poll, drawn from the contributions of more than 1,600 professionals (including, from The Irish Times, this writer and Tara Brady), reflects the direction of cinematic discourse over the past decade. Since 2012, studios and film festivals have been under increasing pressure to promote greater diversity. The limited visibility of woman directors has been particularly embarrassing. In 2012, just two titles by female film-makers made the top 100; Jeanne Dielman and Claire Denis’s Beau Travail. This year’s 100 includes 11 features by women, with four making the top 20. Beau Travail races up from number 78 to number seven.
Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles stars Delphine Seyrig as a widow coping with three days largely alone in her Brussels apartment. She prepares food. She has sex with clients. All initially seems stable – if mundane – but by the third day cracks are showing in her stolid demeanour. The film’s ascension to its current status as the most admired feminist film in the European canon has been slow and steady. Premiered in directors’ fortnight at the 1975 Cannes film festival, it did not receive a US release until 1983. Clocking in at a daunting 201 minutes, only occasionally troubled by vigorous action, the film has influenced generations of acolytes. “One might say that it felt as though there was a before and an after Jeanne Dielman, just as there had once been a before and after Citizen Kane,” Laura Mulvey, professor of film studies at the University of London, remarked on hearing of its triumph in the poll.
Jeanne Dielman registered at number four in a simultaneous Sight and Sound poll of the world’s film-makers. That list was topped by Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.
The new critics’ chart is also more racially diverse. Astonishingly, in 2012 there was just one film by a black director in the top100 – Djibril Diop Mambéty’s Touki Bouki. The current list features seven, including relatively recent titles such as Barry Jenkins’s Moonlight (number 60) and Jordan Peele’s Get Out (number 95).
The Sight and Sound list seems to be edging a tiny bit closer to the contemporary. In 2012, the poll for the first time opened itself up to online publications. A great many more critics were added and, one assumes, the average age of voters went down. Yet, to the wry amusement of long-time poll watchers, the mean year of the highest ranking films actually went backwards. The average year of release for the 2002 top 10 was 1949. In 2012 it was 1946. With 21st-century films such as In the Mood for Love and David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive, both from 2001, landing in the 10, the current average soars to a breathtakingly recent 1967.
Over the coming days, it will, nonetheless, be argued that the Sight and Sound list still seems rooted in the past. After all, no film released in the past 20 years makes it into the top 25. Should this be seen as an issue? If film enthusiasts wish to savour a list that has The Dark Knight or Paddington 2 at number one, thousands are available on the internet. Those dedicated to cultural amnesia have won. There is barely a film released before 1970 on the busiest streaming services. Linear television is even less interested in such relics of the Bronze Age. The Sight and Sound 100 offers one place where the quaintly archaic notion of a canon can be nurtured and discussed.
It is fascinating to observe how critical tastes have bent to prevailing winds. In 1952 Charlie Chaplin had films at number two and three in the chart. He made only one more appearance in subsequent top 10s. The most eye-catching genuflection to recency came in 1962 when, just two years after its release, Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’Avventura somehow made it all the way to the runners-up spot. It has been slipping backwards ever since and now registers at 72.
The current poll sees the end of one stubborn run. Until this week, Jean Renoir’s La Règle du Jeu was the only film to figure in the top 10 for every year since the poll’s inception. Still at 13, it may return in future decades. Dziga Vertov’s Man With a Movie Camera, at nine, down one place from 2012, looks to have taken over from Battleship Potemkin as the critics’ favourite silent Soviet classic.
The most remarkable exit from the top 100 is surely that of David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia – number four as recently as 2002. Might the political waves be beating against that equivocal study of British heroism? Films by Roman Polanski and DW Griffith, controversial for different reasons, have also exited the wider list.
More has altered this year than at any stage in the poll’s history. “The arrival of Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles at the top of the 2022 Sight and Sound poll signals an amazing shift in critical taste,” Mulvey confirmed. The canon is in flux.
Donald Clarke’s top 10
- Bride of Frankenstein (James Whale, 1935)
- Ugetsu Monogatari (Kenji Mizoguchi, 1953)
- The Ghost and Mrs Muir (Joseph L Mankiewicz, 1947)
- The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (Jacques Demy, 1964)
- Sweet Smell of Success (Alexander Mackendrick, 1957)
- The Happiest Days of Your Life (Frank Launder, 1950)
- I Know Where I’m Going! (Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger, 1945)
- Stalker (Andrei Tarkovsky, 1979)
- All that Heaven Allows (Douglas Sirk, 1955)
- Lady Bird (Greta Gerwig, 2017)
Tara Brady’s top 10
- The Searchers (John Ford, 1956)
- The Ascent (Larisa Shepitko, 1977)
- Au Hasard Balthazar (Robert Bresson, 1966)
- All About Eve (Joseph L Mankiewicz, 1950)
- Barry Lyndon (Stanley Kubrick, 1975)
- Andrei Rublev (Andrei Tarkovsky, 1966)
- All That Heaven Allows (Douglas Sirk, 1955)
- Yojimbo (Akira Kurasawa, 1961)
- His Girl Friday (Howard Hawks, 1939)
- Beauty and the Beast (Jean Cocteau, 1946)