50 Greatest Films of All Time (Mostly Another Time)

"Vertigo" has ended "the 50-year reign" of "Citizen Kane," which has dropped to second place.

The British Film Institute has released its latest listing of The Top 50 Greatest Films of All Time as voted by critics, programmers, and distributors. “Vertigo” has ended “the 50-year reign” of “Citizen Kane,” which has dropped to second place. The John Ford-John Wayne epic “The Searchers” is back in seventh place after having dropped out of the top ten for years.  Meanwhile, “Highlander,” which won the Academy Award for Greatest Movie of All Time, is strangely missing.

The volatility of the list of time is noted by Ian Christie:

And the loser is – Citizen Kane. After 50 years at the top of the Sight & Sound poll, Orson Welles’s debut film has been convincingly ousted by Alfred Hitchcock’s 45th feature Vertigo – and by a whopping 34 votes, compared with the mere five that separated them a decade ago. So what does it mean? Given that Kane actually clocked over three times as many votes this year as it did last time, it hasn’t exactly been snubbed by the vastly larger number of voters taking part in this new poll, which has spread its net far wider than any of its six predecessors.

But it does mean that Hitchcock, who only entered the top ten in 1982 (two years after his death), has risen steadily in esteem over the course of 30 years, with Vertigo climbing from seventh place, to fourth in 1992, second in 2002 and now first, to make him the Old Master. Welles, uniquely, had two films (The Magnificent Ambersons as well as Kane) in the list in 1972 and 1982, but now Ambersons has slipped to 81st place in the top 100.

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. In fact the highest film from the new century is Wong Kar-Wai’s In the Mood for Love, just 12 years old, now sharing joint 24th slot with Dreyer’s venerable Ordet….

It’s the last point that jumped out at me. Not only are there few newish movies on the list but almost all of the top ten are absurdly old—in black and white, even.  The only one of those films made during my lifetime, and that just barely, is Stanley Kubric’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” from 1968. (Which, incidentally, I find so mind-numbingly boring that I gave up half an hour into it the only time I tried to watch it.)

How could this possibly be the case? The list is replete with flicks from the 1920s and 1930s, when the medium was in its infancy.  Sure, that means that the opportunity to innovate was much higher than it is now. But it also means that the film makers had nothing to build on, either.

There are few films on the list that had massive box office appeal.  The first two installments of “The Godfather” franchise and Francis Ford Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now” are most notable of those.

FILED UNDER: General
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Ben Wolf says:

    Can we be honest and acknowledge movie reviewers are no more qualified to determine the worth of a particular film than anyone else on the planet? I recall a particular critic who labelled “The Life Aquatic” a failure because Wes Anderson was supposed to produce films which reaffirmed the critic’s identity as a hipster, and in this particular flim he failed to do that. I’d argue this sort of output is much more common than any “objective” critique of a movie’s artistic worth.

    Critic’s preferences are all too often based on their own neuroses.

  2. Mikey says:

    Not only are there few newish movies on the list but almost all of the top ten are absurdly old—in black and white, even

    Eight of the top ten are in black and white, and only two of the top 50 were made in the year 2000 or later.

    I have to disagree with you on 2001: A Space Odyssey, though. I love that movie.

  3. Neil Hudelson says:

    Meanwhile, “Highlander,” which won the Academy Award for Greatest Movie of All Time, is strangely missing.

    I had to re-read this three times. You shouldn’t quip before most people have had their coffee.

    My quibbles:

    2001: A Space Odyssey, is, indeed, mind numbingly boring.

    Apocalypse Now, while good in parts, is like most Pink Floyd Albums–we are building it up to be way better than what it was, and drugs are probably playing a part.

    Singing in the Rain is not a great movie: it’s a pleasant movie and a great song and dance number. Forgive me if I have trouble finding pleasure in a movie where the plot was an afterthought and only used to showcase as much song and dance as possible.

    Mulholland Drive? Please see my comments for Apocalypse Now.

    Some like it hot: Very funny. How is it better than 80 other comedies from this time period?

  4. PGlenn says:

    Mr. Joyner, you make several good points.

    First, I agree, film critics have a tendency to overrate silent era movies in part because many of them are film historians – they’re interested in how important, influential a film was at the time, but is that ultimately a relevant criteria to the question of “best” (versus most important)? I’m tempted to ask if this fetish has anything to do with making the critics seem more important, in-the-know, savvy, etc., themselves. Also, the critics will talk about how the golden age of silent films were kind of a like a blank canvas for true artistes.

    Along those lines, this BFI list is definitely weighted toward “art films,” including several films that maybe are percieved to be “masterpieces” in part because they’re not in English. This is a list made by people who call ’em films, not movies.

    A movie guy’s list would might include stuff like Casablanca, It’s a Wonderful Life, Chinatown, Double Indemnity, Dr. Strangelove, Pulp Fiction, Blade Runner, Apocalypse Now, L.A. Confidential, etc.

    That said, Hollywood really has gradually become a creative wasteland in the last 20+ years. The most creative period in Hollywood was probably the 1940s , when some of the best writers in the world worked there, and I’m not talking about effete art films at all – a lot of the “B movies” then were better, cooler, more gripping, etc., than the focus-group tested, politically correct, made for (or about) video-games, committee-written tripe that comes out of Hollywood today. Forget that it’s almost all left-wing material. I could live with that (some of the writers in the 40s were suspected communists), if it weren’t mostly lame, pathetic, recycled garbage, which relies on pyrotechnics and $15 million/movie actor appearances.

  5. John Burgess says:

    @Ben Wolf: That film reviewers aren’t qualitative scientists seems irrelevant. This is reviewers compared to reviewers; apples to apples. That there’s been a marked shift in attitudes is what’s reported and remarkable.

    I haven’t a clue what’s driving the change, but guess that it might involve derivativeness. All modern films are –with few exceptions — derivative of what came before in technique, story line, characterization, etc. That might lead to their being depreciated on the lists.

  6. PGlenn says:

    @Neil Hudelson: Just out of curiosity, what movies are on your top 5-10 list?

  7. Scott says:

    The list does seem to reflect a more worldly list (or at least Euro-centric) than we usually see here in the US. It is the British Film Institute after all. Like all such lists it is great for discussion and debate.

  8. Tsar Nicholas says:

    Hell, it could have been a lot worse. We’re still only several years removed from the apex of Bush Derangement Syndrome. At least they didn’t go full retard and make some ham handed political statement.

    In any event, for my money “Mulholland Drive” is the most egregious inclusion and “The Sting” is the most glaring omission.

  9. Modulo Myself says:

    The BFI list is basically a list of the top 50 auteur films of all time. That said: The Rules of the Game, Sunrise, and Passion of Joan of Arc are incredible movies and should be seen by everybody.

  10. Dave Schuler says:

    Reviewers are different from you and me. They watch movies, frequently multiple movies, in a theater on a daily basis. Nearly all of the rest of us civilians watch movies in the theater once, twice, or a few times a year.

    For non-reviewers derivativeness is a virtue. It enables us to relate to the movie without working too hard. For reviewers it’s practically intolerable and becomes more so the longer they work. Most reviewers write reviews for other reviewers.

    Also, remember that this list is from the BFI. I haven’t looked at who voted in their poll but I’m guessing it’s weighted towards Brits. Should we be surprised that a poll taken by the BFI, weighted heavily towards reviewers, does not comport completely to how you or I might see things?

  11. DC Loser says:

    It requires a lot of patience and multiple viewings to truly appreciate 2001. I just got the Kubrick bluj-ray boxed set and the first film I watched was 2001. It has been about 30 years since I last watched it, and I didn’t recall the opening sequence being so long. But his pacing is deliberate. It is a spectacular film if you just watch it all the way through. The details in it (in the pre-CGI days) are staggering.

    Chacun a son gout. I loved Mulholland Drive, and have thought through its plot many times.

  12. Keith Humphreys says:

    Critics are often afraid to champion a recent movie that later turns out to be viewed as a dud (like the French Revolution, it’s too soon to tell whether, for example, L.A. Confidential is “really” a classic), so they go for the safe stuff which they know others will vote for also.

    But more generally, why do we have to rate all these films and argue whether Vertigo is vetter than Citizen Kane? You can watch them both as many times as you want (I have seen them at least 10 times each), Life has enough ineluctable hard choices…I don’t see a good reason to make up some false ones for good measure.

  13. Maxwell James says:

    I love most of these movies, but it’s pretty ridiculous that something like this is still considered a news item.

  14. al-Ameda says:

    @Neil Hudelson:

    My quibbles:
    2001: A Space Odyssey, is, indeed, mind numbingly boring.

    Finally, someone who agree with me!
    I was dragged to that movie twice, and both times I spent my money for a nice nap.

  15. Modulo Myself says:

    @PGlenn:

    If you can stomach the excess violence and weirdness, Asian movies in the past 20 years basically have done what Hollywood did in the 70s. Ambitious B-movie plots that go everywhere and are wildly entertaining.

  16. In my mind the best list of “Best Movies Ever” is the IMDB Top #250 list.

  17. PD Shaw says:

    Notice that if you look at a list of the Best Fiction of the 20th Century by Modern Library you get the same prefferance for the early part of the century, particularly the 20s and 30s. IIRC Midnight’s Children (1981) was the most recent book listed. I suspect some similar dynamics are in play.

  18. Franklin says:

    The pacing in 2001 is definitely intentional and adds to the suspense perfectly, but you have to be in the right mindset to watch it. If you went in without knowing anything about it, I’d be surprised if you weren’t captivated.

    That said, some parts are unnecessarily long, particularly the pre-CGI hallucinogenic trip before the end. For the time, that section was undoubtedly new and fascinating, but now our Ritalin minds can’t put up with it.

  19. DC Loser says:

    Apocalypse Now almost wasn’t made because of the series of man made and natural disasters which beset the filming. And its initial reception by the reviewers and paying public wasn’t so hot either, as I recall. It took me multiple viewings to fully appreciate the story. The new version with some critical sections missing from the original theater release (deserted base scene, French plantation, etc.) make the film much more coherent (if that’s possible).

  20. Herb says:

    @Modulo Myself:

    “If you can stomach the excess violence and weirdness, Asian movies in the past 20 years basically have done what Hollywood did in the 70s.”

    So true. I work with a guy who’s really into Asian movies (er……Asian women, who are in Asian movies) and after following some of his recommendations, I’ve seen some amazing films, particularly from S. Korea.

    Everyone’s heard about Old Boy, but Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance is just as good, if not better.

    I also have a soft-spot for some of the crime epics, the Infernal Affairs trilogy, the Election movies.

    That said…..where’s the Wild Bunch? It’s not in the top 50? Are these people crazy???

  21. MBunge says:

    The Searchers but not The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance? Poseurs.

    Mike

  22. PGlenn says:

    @Modulo Myself @Herb: Interesting that you two should mention that, because a buddy of mine recently made a similar recommendation that I explore Asian movies of the last 20 years. I’ll have to do that. Hopefully, some are available on Netflix online without being “chopped up.”

  23. PGlenn says:

    @MBunge: Yes! Great minds think alike? I’ve argued until I’m blue in the face that The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence is one of the best westerns of all-time, but few will listen to me (what’s really bad is when they come back with High Noon. No!).

    My other underappreciated favorite is Once Upon a Time in the West.

  24. CB says:

    @Neil Hudelson:

    Apocalypse Now, while good in parts, is like most Pink Floyd Albums–we are building it up to be way better than what it was, and drugs are probably playing a part.

    I have to disagree, if only because I LOVE the mind bending turn the film takes once they find Col Kurtz. It goes from standard war story fare to crazy assed philosophical nightmare just like that (even though I realize Coppola, at the outset, had no intention of twisting the plot like that). Something just always drew me to the last quarter of that movie.

    Oh, and thou shalt not speak ill of the Pink Floyd.

  25. CB says:

    @Modulo Myself:

    I agree and immediately think of the South Korean film culture. Oldboy and Audition are two of the most spectacular flicks ive ever seen, and would highly recommend to someone looking for something a little off beat. If you can tolerate the hyperviolence, that is.

  26. Herb says:

    @PGlenn: Directors to check out: Johnnie To, Park Chanwook. Actors to check out: Andy Lau, Simon Yam, Tony Leung Chiu Wai (There are two Tony Leungs really….and both are good!)

    Just be warned….Modulo isn’t joking about the excess violence and weirdness. That goes double for the stuff coming out of Japan.

  27. CB says:

    @Herb:

    Oof how could i forget Mr Vengeance. The end is just brutal. Just thinking about it makes my achilles hurt.

  28. Franklin says:

    @Herb: Do you have some good suggestions for Japanese films, preferably some with less violence?

  29. al-Ameda says:

    @Neil Hudelson:

    Apocalypse Now, while good in parts, is like most Pink Floyd Albums–we are building it up to be way better than what it was, and drugs are probably playing a part.

    Dead on … Exactly right.
    Do you review films for a living? You should, brief and to the point.

  30. PGlenn says:

    @Herb: Thanks! I will check those directors and actors.

    I can deal with the violence and often like weirdness. However, I was just a bit ambivalent about No Country for Old Men (still a 3.5 star movie in my book) because of the moral vacuity at its center. It wasn’t really the violence.

  31. Herb says:

    @Franklin:

    “Do you have some good suggestions for Japanese films, preferably some with less violence?”

    The best Japanese movies were made by Kurosawa, but they’re decades old. Yojimbo is a good one, The Hidden Fortress, Rashoman.

    Almost all of the modern Japanese movies I can think of are gross, weird, ridiculously violent or some combination of the three. I can tell you a few to avoid: Tokyo Gore Police, Robo-Giesha, Ichi the Killer, and nearly everything by Takiski Miike.

  32. Modulo Myself says:

    @PGlenn:@MBunge:

    I would go with The Naked Spur over The Searchers. I think The Searchers is always going to be the American Western, though.

  33. Herb says:

    @PGlenn:

    “because of the moral vacuity at its center”

    Oh man, you’re in for a ride then. Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance is going to knock your teeth out.

  34. MBunge says:

    @Herb: “nearly everything by Takiski Miike.”

    I can’t vouch for anything else he’s done, but 13 Assassins is pretty damn good.

    Mike

  35. PGlenn says:

    @Modulo Myself: yeah, the critics love The Searchers because of all the subtext. It is a great movie, but IMO it hasn’t aged as well as Liberty Valance.

  36. Modulo Myself says:

    @MBunge:

    13 Assassins is great, but it’s way the hell down there compared to something like Ichii the Killer .

  37. Herb says:

    @MBunge:

    “I can’t vouch for anything else he’s done, but 13 Assassins is pretty damn good.”

    Oh, he’s done great work, no doubt. He’s the guy behind Audition, too.

    But if you’re looking for non-violent, you have to look elsewhere.

  38. wr says:

    @PGlenn: “My other underappreciated favorite is Once Upon a Time in the West”

    I’m glad that you appreciate this film, but it stopped being “underappreciated” about 20 years ago and is now almost universally considered one of the best films ever made.

  39. MBunge says:

    @Modulo Myself: “it’s way the hell down there compared to something like Ichii the Killer .”

    Note to self – Make addition to “Must See Movie List”.

    Mike

  40. sam says:

    @wr:

    I’m glad that you appreciate this film, but it stopped being “underappreciated” about 20 years ago and is now almost universally considered one of the best films ever made.

    With one of the most beautiful musical scores ever written for film. See, Once Upon A Time In The West Theme.

    I have that striking poster hanging on the wall in my office.

  41. sam says:

    Should I be surprised The Wild Bunch didn’t make the list?

  42. michael reynolds says:

    First of all, you short-attention-span, need-explosions-in-every-act heathen, 2001 is a great film and deserves to be on the list.

    I do not worship at the Hitchcock altar. His movies seem slow and mannered to me. Yes, Kubrick is also slow and mannered but he kicks ass.

    Someone needs to make a list of the best ‘B’ movies ever. I tend to like those more. Airplane! The recent Cabin In The Woods. And speaking of kicking ass, the great Kick Ass.

  43. James Joyner says:

    @michael reynolds: I hear 2001 gets better after the absurdly tedious opener; I gave up before getting to the alleged good parts.

    And where’s Shawshank Redemption? That there’s a good movie.

  44. @James Joyner:

    There’s also an absurdly tedious ending, also with no dialog.

  45. michael reynolds says:

    @Doug Mataconis:

    Okay, you and James are both dead to me.

    Politics is one thing, but dissing Stanley Kubrick? This will not stand.

    Also, what about the LOTR trilogy? That’s not better than Vertigo? Please.

  46. Dave Schuler says:

    @michael reynolds:

    Someone needs to make a list of the best ‘B’ movies ever. I tend to like those more. Airplane! The recent Cabin In The Woods. And speaking of kicking ass, the great Kick Ass.

    No question about it. You’ve got your finger on the pulse of your target market.

  47. @michael reynolds:

    I wasn’t dissing 2001, just pointing out that the ending is a little, well, cerebral. 🙂

    I have high praise for Vertigo myself, but I’m surprised the LOTR’s movies didn’t rank higher. Perhaps it’s for the same reason that The Godfather I & II fell down in the rankings, because they were counting votes for each movie individually

  48. PD Shaw says:

    Also surprising that BFI did not rank Third Man, since BFI also ranks it the best British movie of all time.

  49. DC Loser says:

    Speaking of Kubrick and pacing, what about the way The Shining starts out and just keep getting more and more creepier as it goes along.

  50. al-Ameda says:

    @michael reynolds: Dr. Strangelove is one of my favorite of all time. 2001 put me to sleep …. twice.

  51. Modulo Myself says:

    My favorite Kubrick film is Barry Lyndon, but I have to admit that it’s an acquired taste.

  52. Modulo Myself says:

    @michael reynolds:

    B-Movies–Lair of the White Worm, Assault on Precinct 13, Body Double, and Real Genius.

  53. @Dave Schuler:

    It enables us to relate to the movie without working too hard.

    I LIKE movies that make me work to understand them. I just recently finally got to see Synecodche, New York and was completely blown away, but at the same time I knew it was never going to be widely popular just because you need to spend a lot of time afterwards processing what you just saw to really understand it.

  54. Ben says:

    The IMDB list is so far superior to this list and the AFI one, that it’s not even funny. It is the most balanced, least biased to any specific time-period, and has some resistance to a sudden insane popularity surge because of how it’s weighted (although extremely popular movies do surge at first and then fade). I very very seriously suggest that you guys check that one out:

    http://www.imdb.com/chart/top

  55. al-Ameda says:

    @Ben:
    Thanks for the link, Ben.
    I had to laugh – Schindler’s List was #7. That was an average-at-best and typically ham-handed Spielberg movie. The ending alone was enough to make me want to watch a real movie, like “Dirty Harry,” again.

  56. Ben says:

    @al-Ameda:

    Ugh, I guess we have very different tastes. I find Dirty Harry barely tolerable

  57. These movies are great not because they provide a good experience for today´s movie goers, but because they were visionary movies at the time that they were produced and created the standards that are still used today. Battleship Potemkin and Citizen Kane are part of the history of movie making, inspiring hundreds of moviemakers over the decades. LOTR trilogy is not, and probably most people will forget about that in some years.

  58. wr says:

    @michael reynolds: The Seventh Seal is probably better than Vertigo. Aside from that, there’s not much. Nope, not even LOTR.

  59. wr says:

    @wr: But then, really, what a stupid concept this is. “Better.” Is The Magic Flute better than Das Rheingold? Is Dejeuner sur l”Herbe better than The Night Watch, and if so are they both better The Bride Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors, Even? Is Moby Dick better than Absalom, Absalom?

    Vertigo’s a great movie. LOTR is a great movie — or three, however you count them.

    Only one thing’s for sure — people who have so little understanding of film that they are proud to be bored by 2001 shouldn’t talk about movies in public. Really, guys, it’s kind of embarassing.

  60. wr says:

    @André Kenji de Sousa: “These movies are great not because they provide a good experience for today´s movie goers, but because they were visionary movies at the time that they were produced and created the standards that are still used today.”

    I understand what you’re saying about the importance of these films, but if you’re suggesting that they can’t provide a good experience for today’s moviegoers, I strongly disagree. One of the great pleasures of the MFA program I teach in is exposing new screenwriters to films like these and watching their minds open. Many of these movies are still life-changing experiences to people who want a little more out of a film than what’s being put out today.

    Many of them still hate me for making them watch Last Year at Marienbad, though. Although to be fair that’s been a constant reaction since it came out. (When I was two — not like I was reading the reviews back then…)

  61. James Joyner says:

    @wr:

    Only one thing’s for sure — people who have so little understanding of film that they are proud to be bored by 2001 shouldn’t talk about movies in public. Really, guys, it’s kind of embarassing.

    I don’t think anyone here is “proud” of being bored by 2001. Two of us found the incredibly long opening sequence to the film incredibly boring. There’s a difference.

    I enjoy movies (and novels, for that matter) as entertainment, not works of art. I get that you’re in the business and view the medium differently. @Dave Schuler makes the point well early in the thread:

    Reviewers are different from you and me. They watch movies, frequently multiple movies, in a theater on a daily basis. Nearly all of the rest of us civilians watch movies in the theater once, twice, or a few times a year.

    For non-reviewers derivativeness is a virtue. It enables us to relate to the movie without working too hard.

    For example, I really like “The Searchers.” I’ve seen it several times. But it’s by no means my favorite John Wayne movie. But you’ll never see “Big Jake” or “El Dorado” or “The Quiet Man” on these lists; they’re too conventional and accessible.

    Stanley Kubrick is widely viewed as a great filmmaker; I’m sure that he is. But “Dr. Strangelove” and “Full Metal Jacket” are the only ones of his major works that I found enjoyable. “Clockwork Orange” is great art but too weird and jarring for my tastes.

  62. Neil Hudelson says:

    @PGlenn:

    Good question. I don’t really know. I know some favorites offhand, such as Citizen Kane (not just for its groundbreaking techniques, but its acting too: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Oav-tDznRq0&list=UUvHCYqvyP1EWOFYPDd0Bb2Q&index=4&feature=plcp)

    The Fall was excellent for its visual techniques–I’m still breathless everytime I watch it (even if the external plot isn’t phenomenal).

    Dog Day Afternoon and Panic in Needle Park usually rank pretty high up for me for the superb acting.

    Being There also probably hits my top 5 or 10.

    I’ve never really sat down and tried to quantify a master list. It’s hard enough just trying to think of what movies I’ve actually seen.

    Oh and of course Blues Brothers, because, well, c’mon.

  63. Neil Hudelson says:

    @PGlenn:

    The first 10 minutes or so of Once Upon a Time in the West was the first time I realized a film could be more than entertainment–it was the first time I understood how technique, editing, sound, and a director’s vision can truly make a film a masterpiece.

  64. Neil Hudelson says:

    @wr:

    people who have so little understanding of film that they are proud to be bored by 2001 shouldn’t talk about movies in public.

    Yup, because an opinion that differs from yours must mean that it’s wrong, and that the commentor does not understand movies.

    Look, I’m a huge Arthur C. Clarke fan. I’ve read almost everything he’s written (along with his contemporaries). Even the 2001 book, though, wasn’t his best work (probably because of the process he used to write it). The movie made concurrently was even worse.

    Is it a horrible movie? Absolutely not. Is it one of the best movies of all time, or even one of Kubrick’s best? No. And if you think so, you obviously don’t understand movies and probably shouldn’t be commenting.

  65. mattb says:

    @michael reynolds:

    Also, what about the LOTR trilogy? That’s not better than Vertigo? Please.

    The only really good one of those films was Fellowship. After that they got progressively worse — making a lot of poor choices in order to try and create “comic” and “epic” moments.

    That said, the fact that they made something that exciting out of those books is something of an achievement in itself.