How did 'Citizen Kane' and '2001: A Space Odyssey' end up as the "second" best films of all time? According to Sight & Sound, it's popularity vs. prescience.
A famous football coach once said that "winning isn't everything...it's the only thing." Another member of the pigskin profession argued something similar, that is, that you "play to win the game." So what does it mean to be number two? What does it say about who you are and what you represent when there is one better than your tired and tried self? Well, some argue for comfort in defeat. After all, you've bypassed many significant others to get to the point where you can actually taste the ultimate triumph. You just missed by a single mark. Others settle for the moral victory, recognizing that everyone can't be first and everything can't be measured in placements and plaques. Unfortunately, we don't live in a world of plastic trophy 'participants.' We specialize in crowning the winners and lamenting the losers. It's who we are, or at the very least, seem to be.
So it's interesting to view the films sitting just below the top on Sight & Sounds' 2012 Best of Film List (general and directors only). In one case, we have a long standing champion finally dethroned. In the other corner is a competitor that has slowly worked its way through a couple of different placements over the years. Granted, 2001: A Space Odyssey has only been eligible since the 1972 listing, and since then, it's bubbled beneath the Top 10, moved from said number (1992) to number six (2002), only to stay in said position this year. It's the directors who drove it to number two in 2012, after 20 years of basically ignoring it. As for Citizen Kane, it's been number one since 1962 (in 1952, on the first list Bicycle Thieves held that position, with no mention of Welles' seminal work). This year, another film finally beat it.
For many, that result renders the entire enterprise pointless...as does the process. Before, S&S had no more than 50 plus people and pundits voting for the results (apparently). When Kane won in 1962, it received a mere 22 mentions. In 1972, the number was up to 32. In 1982, it jumped to 45, only to fall to 43 in 1992. In 2002, it earned 46. Now compare that to 2012. Kane came in second with 157 mentions, while the new winner, Vertigo, earned 191. Clearly, by increasing the number of voters, the British Film Institute somewhat stacked the deck. They made it impossible for Kane to continue on at its decades-long place, if only by throwing in more unknowns and variables. When Hitchcock's masterpiece first appeared, it barely broke double digits (1982 - 12 mentions). Ten years later, it was still struggling to get out of the teens (1992 - 18 mentions).
But 2002 was a banner year for the otherwise also-ran title. As stated before, Kane remained at the top with 46 votes. Vertigo managed a miraculous 41. Quite a leap from its previous statistical status. As a result, it was poised to play spoiler, especially when you consider the increase in participation. Of course, said situation is further muddled by the implied method by which S&S determines its rankings. "Mentions" is a troubling word, since it implies quantity over quality. Put another way, if 192 participants placed The Evil Dead, or Bonfire of the Vanities on their own personal lists, no matter the place, said data would determine its position as the Best Film of All Time. No question about content - it's all about consensus.
Granted, if a film does earn 191 mentions on as many or more voting ballots, it deserves attention. But placement shouldn't be a matter of number. What if everyone who listed Vertigo as a favorite failed to put it in the first slot? What if 100 of those votes had it at ten? Should a film that 100 people thought was the 10th best movie of all time earn the coveted top spot because it earned the most 10th place votes??? That doesn't seem right. Of course, the counter argument is to suggest there's no better way. If you give a variable quantification to placement, you then allow for fluke situations where rank out signifies frequency. Put another - Vertigo earns 100 10th place votes, The Silence of the Lambs gets 30 2nd and 4th place mentions, and yet the former ends up near the bottom while the latter is higher on the list.
It's popularity vs. prescience - and for most, that doesn't matter. After all, when you are bandying about titles like Citizen Kane, Vertigo, 2001, and Tokyo Story, it's hard to be wrong, right? Well, not exactly. Each one of these films is important to the foundation of the artform as we know it. Each represents a personal vision which, somehow, almost inexplicably, struck a more universal chord. Each is, arguably, the greatest film of all time (2001 is yours truly's personal pick). So to minimize one over the other seems silly. Even more troubling is the concept of allowing agreement to be the only scrutinizer. Kane more or less invented the modern motion picture. 2001 set science fiction ahead a dozen decades. Vertigo is a personal paean to passion and perversion, while Tokyo shows the struggle of culture over the contemporary. So which is right? Which is best?
All of which argues for the troubling tendencies of the S&S approach. For a long time now, more and more media savvy critics have resisted the desire to "rank" their choices, instead going with a list of ten (or more)titles placed in purely alphabetical order. It's a more sensible style of dealing with such a sticky subject. After all, if you love Fantasia as much as you adore La Dolce Vita, should you really have to "order" them? Can't both be valid choices? Naturally, this argues against the notion of winning, of making sure that someone is sitting at the top of the mountain while others look up from below, green with graded envy. We've discussed both Kane and 2001 before, so to try and tie them together might be the most misguided of missions to this particular fool's paradise. Are they connected by their humanity? Their vision? Their innovation and invention? How many "Yes"s do we get? But the more troubling link is their spots as "losers." Neither of them are. Thanks to a flawed system, they still bare said badge.