A rumor spread like wildfire across social media last week that this decade’s Sight and Sound critics poll of The Greatest Films of All Time would crown a new winner. Citizen Kane had won every ten-year iteration of the poll from 1962 until 2012 when Vertigo finally knocked it off the top—an upset for sure but supposedly not as shocking as 2022’s victor. Some speculated it would be 2001: A Space Odyssey, which placed sixth in 2012—a reasonable guess but not a particularly game-changing one; although somewhat divisive among viewers, Kubrick’s sci-fi head trip feels firmly ensconced in the canon as much as the Welles or Hitchcock films. I wouldn’t mind it topping the poll nor would I have felt too strongly about it.
One can imagine the collective gasp on Film Twitter when the actual winner was announced: Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, all the way up from #36 in 2012. For the unfamiliar (i.e. mostly everyone who is not a film critic or a considerable cineaste), it is a 1975 drama about three days in the life of the titular housewife (Delphine Seyrig) and her mundane routines. She peels potatoes, cleans the dishes, brushes her hair, etc. Nothing else happens, except for one crucial thing each day—revealing it here would be a major spoiler. The film is over three hours long and so exceedingly methodical that it can feel like thirty. This deliberateness is crucial for, as the film continues, the slightest deviations in Dielman’s routines (like when she drops a just-washed spoon) seem all the more noticeable though even they do not prepare one for the alarming finale.
I first watched this in a graduate-level film studies class; at the time, few of us knew what to make of it. Completely unprepared for the sluggish pace and rigorous formalism, many of us sat in our seats talking back to the screen, giving it the Mystery Science Theater 3000 treatment (our professor was not present for the screening, though he heard about our reaction to it and later scolded us at length.) Whenever one describes a movie as unlike anything one has seen before it often comes off as hyperbole, but Jeanne Dielman (few casually refer to it by the full laborious title) wholly lives up to this aphorism. It is an experimental, structurally radical film and also one of the key works of feminist cinema (made by a 25-year-old Belgian lesbian director, no less.)
How could something so extreme top even a critics poll of the best films of all time? For one thing, nearly doubling the number of participants (1639, up from 846 in 2012) allows for more inclusivity and diversity. It could reflect the current era, serving as a course-corrective to decades of white male critics dominating this and other likeminded polls. It might also be a way to honor Akerman’s legacy (sadly, she committed suicide in 2015.) The film is also more accessible than ever before: one can easily stream it on Criterion Channel (or, a few years ago, purchase it on Blu-ray or DVD; it’s currently out of print. At the time of my first viewing, I don’t think one could even find it on VHS.) I remember watching it again a year or two later, perhaps at the Harvard Film Archive; I haven’t revisited it since though I’ve seen a good chunk of Akerman’s filmography, which contains everything from audio-visual diaries (News From Home) to a glossy musical (!) (Golden Eighties, also starring Seyrig.) Undeniably a great work, it is a film to endure, maybe even admire rather than enjoy in the conventional sense. That it topped Sight and Sound in 2022 will delight some and infuriate many. Still, it’s altogether preferable to seeing Citizen Kane (a worthy film whose continued dominance of such polls pushed it to seem overrated) at number one again.
As for where films on my (fake) 2022 ballot placed, the highest was In The Mood For Love (#5, up from #24), followed by The Passion of Joan of Arc (#21, down from #9), The Apartment (#54, did not crack the top 100 in 2012), A Matter of Life and Death (#78, up from #90) and Parasite (#90)—the latter the newest entry to make the top 100 along with Portrait of A Lady on Fire (#30). I didn’t expect most of my other five entries to chart except for maybe The Shop Around The Corner. 35 Shots of Rum isn’t as nearly as beloved as Claire Denis consensus choice Beau Travail (#7, up from #78!) and I suppose the others are too obscure, though at least Love Streams and The Long Day Closes are part of The Criterion Collection—not so Bring Me The Head of Alfredo Garcia, which I just bought a Kino Lorber Blu-ray of since it remains unstreamable.
Regarding my entirely different 2012 ballot (which included Beau Travail), four other titles placed in 2022: Vertigo (still a very respectable #2), Mulholland Drive (#8, up from #28), Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (#11, down from #5) and Playtime (#23, up from #43 (tied)). As for titles I’ve covered so far in my 24 Frames project, in addition to the Denis and Lynch films, there’s Close-Up (#17, up from #43 (tied)), Meshes of the Afternoon (#16) and The Piano (#50) (the last two did not crack the top 100 in 2012.)
Akerman’s triumph was not the only surprise among the results. I certainly didn’t predict Barbara Loden’s Wanda (#48), Daughters of the Dust (#60), The Gleaners and I (#67), My Neighbor Totoro (#72 – over Spirited Away at #75!) or Tropical Malady (#95) to place. That The Godfather Part II dropped out of the top 100 entirely after placing at #31 in 2012 was also unexpected. 2001: A Space Odyssey did top the adjacent directors poll where Jeanne Dielman reached #4 (tied with Tokyo Story.) I’ve seen all but ten of the critics poll’s top 100; of those, I’m most eager to watch Sherlock Jr. (I know!), The Spirit of the Beehive, Madame De…, Once Upon a Time in the West and Black Girl.
Is it too soon to speculate what will top the 2032 poll? Given that I wouldn’t have bet my life on this year’s number one back in 2012, who knows? I’m more curious about where the most recent titles (Portrait of A Lady On Fire, Parasite, Get Out) will place, for it’s always intriguing to see how a newish movie endures (or not) in real time.