The Cinematic Canon

The highly-esteemed Sight & Sound poll, from the British Film Institute, just released a new list of the 50 greatest films of all time. Hitchcock's Vertigo has ended the 50-year reign of Citizen Kane. Ebert questions the list's lack of contemporary additions:

What surprised me this year is–how little I was surprised. I believed a generational shift was taking place, and that as the critics I grew up with faded away, young blood would add new names to the list. Kieslowski, perhaps. Herzog. Fassbinder. Scorsese. Lynch. Wong Kar-Wei. What has happened is the opposite. This year's 846 voters looked further into the past. The most recent film in the critics' top ten, as it has been for years, is Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey" (1968). The two new films are silent: Vertov's "Man With a Movie Camera" (1929), and Dreyer's "The Passion of Joan of Arc" (1928). Murnau's great silent "Sunrise" (1927) is also on the list–three silents out of ten, and no Chaplin, Keaton or Eisenstein.

Ebert's personal submissions here.  David Edelstein's top ten here.  Sight & Sound's Ian Christie explains how the 10-year poll has evolved:

So does 2012 – the first poll to be conducted since the internet became almost certainly the main channel of communication about films – mark a revolution in taste, such as happened in 1962? Back then a brand-new film, Antonioni’s L’avventura, vaulted into second place. If there was going to be an equivalent today, it might have been Malick’s The Tree of Life, which only polled one vote less than the last title in the top 100.

Dana Stevens takes issue with the idea of a canon:

I’m not sure how many rounds of voting it takes to narrow the Sight & Sound ballots down to the final top 50 (I didn’t vote in the poll), but years of voting for critics’ circle awards has shown me how, early in the process, you often need to kill your darlings and start putting your weight behind whatever generally favored candidate you dislike the least. Maybe this is what bugs me about the reception of the Sight & Sound list: that the document’s status as a made object, a contingent result of countless small compromises, gets glossed over in the conversations about what belongs where.

Scott Tobias doesn't think the canon is as stodgy as it seems:

If you can imagine yourself going back in time and seeing any of these films for the first time, nearly all of them are mini-revolutions, breaking so firmly with what people expected cinema to be that they were often misunderstood or hated. There’s nothing "stodgy" about The Rules Of The Game, which had to be removed and drastically re-edited due to mass outrage and a government ban. Tokyo Story and The Passion Of Joan Of Arc violate the most basic rules of how a film is supposed to be shot, the former by breaking "the 180-degree plane" and the latter by abandoning spatial relationships altogether. 2001: A Space Odyssey attempts nothing short of accounting for existence itself—and doesn’t even get to the space part until after a long prologue about a breakthrough in ape evolution.  

As a parting tribute to Citizen Kane's #1 going up in smoke, Tim Carmody's essay from last year is worth revisiting:

Orson Welles was always embarrassed by Rosebud. "It’s a gimmick, really," he told interviewers, "and rather dollar book Freud." The mystery of "the great man’s last words" was, like the reporter Thompson charged with solving it, "a piece of machinery" designed to lead the audience through the fragmented plot.

The solution to the mystery is supposed to be that we, like Kane’s friends, lovers, and confidantes, discover that "the great man" is actually hollow inside. There is nothing there — no lost love, no moral truths, no imparted wisdom. "Rosebud" is just a missing piece in the jigsaw puzzle. It has no special value other than that it is missing. Kane the man, like Kane the film, is what Borges called it: a labyrinth without a center.