Imagine living in a world where you got news only from headlines. Some do. There really are people out there who believe that Citizen Kane just lost the official title of Greatest Film Ever to Paddington 2. This didn’t happen. But the story’s modest resonance reminds us how in thrall we are to cultural criticism as ordinal arithmetic. Did inky commentators declare Bartholomew Fair the fourth best play of the 1610s? Did Les Tomates Pourries publish a ranking of all Balzac’s novels for their 1850 annual? I’m betting not.
Here is what happened. Just last week, somebody noticed that Rotten Tomatoes, the busiest review aggregator website, had added an 80-year-old negative notice of Citizen Kane to that film's entry, thus dragging its overall rating down from 100 per cent to 99 per cent. "It's interesting. It's different," the pseudonymous Mae Tinee of the Chicago Tribune wrote in 1941. "But its sacrifice of simplicity to eccentricity robs it of distinction and general entertainment." This was not the only negative review at the time of release. But it's the first that has made its way onto the 21st century's most powerful critical digest.
The Hollywood Reporter decided there was enough in the flimsy Paddington 2 addendum to approach that film's British director. "It's extremely lovely to be on any list, which includes Citizen Kane," Paul King told the trade paper. "But it is obviously quite an eccentric list that goes from Citizen Kane to Paddington 2."
The Internet Movie Database 250, voted on by visitors, rarely allows anything other than The Shawshank Redemption to occupy first place
Rotten Tomatoes made no claim that the excellent ursine sequel has been anointed greatest film of all time, but Paddington 2 does now have more reviews on the site than any other title with a 100 per cent rating. To suggest there is a recency bias would be to understate the case. All but two of the films in the relevant top 10 are from the last five years. Three are from 2020. By this measure, the greatest film of last year was Remi Weekes’s nifty British horror His House.
As Rotten Tomatoes widens its net, more and more reviews for recent films get swept up. No film made before 2010, however highly acclaimed, has any chance of topping the list. Few films on limited release will figure. Paddington 2 is doing well to triumph from the far-off era that was 2017.
Rotten Tomatoes’ weighted “Top 100 Movies of all Time” makes little more sense. Oh look. Frank Capra’s timeless It Happened One Night, despite managing only 99 per cent, manages to grab the number one spot. But tarry. The succeeding 18 places are taken up by films from the past decade — Black Panther, Lady Bird, Wonder Woman — until, at number 20, we reach The Third Man. It is hardly worth delving into the voodoo economics here. Citizen Kane is nowhere in the top 100.
Criticism is worthwhile. The occasional spot of ranking is good fun. But any effort to definitively anoint the Greatest Film Ever (or album or novel or chocolate bar) is a waste of intellectual energy.
Most long-running polls eventually settle upon some mystically conjured-up canon. The Internet Movie Database 250, voted on by visitors, rarely allows anything other than The Shawshank Redemption to occupy first place. The film was only a modest success on release. It has never picked up much steam with critics. But Frank Darabont’s perfectly agreeable prison movie has somehow taken on the form of untouchable icon.
Something similar happened to Citizen Kane with generations of critics in the decennial Sight and Sound Poll. It was nowhere in 1952. Ten years later it had been installed at number one, where it remained for another six decades. Every now and then, some grump would declare it overrated, but, innovative in its techniques, forceful in its storytelling, unavoidable in its influence, Orson Welles’s 1941 drama — whose creation was addressed in last year’s Mank — retained the affection of critics and filmmakers throughout the world.
My bet is that inertia will reassert itself and Welles's classic will return to the head of the chart
A few contenders came and went. In 1962, just two years after its release, L’Avventura landed at second place. But Michelangelo Antonioni’s elliptical drama has slipped a little every successive decade. It failed to make the top 10 in 1992 and did not trouble the top 20 in 2012.
That most recent poll did, however, finally see Citizen Kane knocked off its pedestal. A greatly expanded body of critics delivered another top 10 of aged films – none released more recently than 1968 — but managed to lodge Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo in the top spot. So, is that now the Greatest Film Ever? Is Citizen Kane about to go the way of L’Avventura? My bet is that inertia will reassert itself and Welles’ classic will return to the head of the chart.
This week’s premature silly-season story should, however, remind us that the question is barely worth considering. These arithmetical parlour games are fun, but they are no more useful in rating true artistic merit than are the reading of goat entrails.
Still, I’ll give you 4/1 on Paddington 2 laying out Vertigo in 2022.