Photo by Austrian National Library on Unsplash

As each calendar year draws to a close, it’s hardly unusual to find various lists across the internet claiming to rank the ‘best films of the year’. They’re so commonplace you’d be forgiven for feeling a little fed up. But 2022 was always going to be different, with these typical lists destined to take a cultural backseat to a bigger beast.

In December, the British Film Institute’s magazine, Sight and Sound, published the results of their latest poll which supposedly ranks the 100 “Greatest Films of All Time.” Voted for by a body of film critics and academics and taking place only once a decade, this list is always highly anticipated and possess a historic ability to both reinforce and reshape the cinematic ‘canon’.

Whilst headlines surrounding the 2012 list focused mostly on Citizen Kane losing its 50-year streak in the number one spot to Vertigo, the 2022 poll has witnessed a far more radical reshuffle. Following in the footsteps of other film institutions like the Golden Globes, a huge expansion of the voting body from 846 critics in 2012 to over 1,600 in 2022 has created, in the BFI’s own words, a ‘more diverse group’ that acknowledges the ‘increased influence of film commentators internationally via the internet.’

“A whopping 80% of new entries come from non-white, non-male filmmakers”

Such diversity unsurprisingly saw a greater variety of films make the list: a whopping 80% of new entries come from non-white, non-male filmmakers. 2022′s poll features 11 films from female directors compared to just two in 2012, including works by Agnès Varda and Julie Dash. Djibril Diop Mambéty’s Touki Bouki, once the only film listed by a black director, is now joined by six other titles, including Spike Lee’s 1989 masterpiece Do The Right Thing. The new list is also revolutionary in its willingness to consider more recent films among the throes of classics, including such twenty-first century hits as Jordan Peele’s 2017 Get Out and Celine Sciama’s 2019 Portrait of a Lady on Fire, the latter ranking as high as 30th. Of course, for each new entry another must go, and notable losses include such respected titles as Robert Altman’s Nashville and Martin Scorcese’s Raging Bull.

A new decade also brings with it a new number one film; leaping up all the way from 36th place comes Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, an almost four-hour long exercise in slow cinema, examining the everyday domestic life of a widowed mother. Never one to shy away from controversy, writer-director Paul Schrader of Taxi Driver fame, though praising Jeanne Dielman as a ‘great film’, has criticised its ranking as a ‘distorted woke reappraisal’, implying that artistic merit gave way to political posturing in voters’ considerations.

Sight and Sound has always been candid about its desire for voters to craft personal lists and, to quote the 1962 poll’s introduction, ‘not to let themselves be influenced by academic orthodoxy into nominating films they might not have seen for 20 or 30 years.’ The BFI’s Jason Wood has praised the most recent list for its ‘radical… sense of diversity and inclusion’, arguing that ‘canons should be challenged and interrogated’, rather than blindly upheld. But we must remember that it’s not the BFI themselves who compile the list. The poll is an aggregate of thousands of individual ballots with, contrary to what Schrader might suggest, no shared agenda; ‘greatest’ is defined by each voter in their own personal way.

“BFI’s James Wood argues that ‘canons should be challenged and interrogated’, rather than blindly upheld”

Let’s face it — the very idea that an objective list of the ‘best films of all time’ is is inherently flawed; like all judgements about art, it will only ever be subjective.

That said, if we’re still in the business of making lists, it seems only fair that everyone should get a seat at the table, right? The new Sight and Sound list may not be an objective arbiter of taste, but it is a positive reflection of a wider sea-change in our culture when it comes to considering diversity. Take, for instance, The Godfather Part II, a behemoth of the canon (and, incidentally, a great film). Its removal from the list is hardly going to make much of a dent in its legacy. But for previously undervalued and no less deserving filmmakers, past and present, their inclusion can help to create new legacies.


Mountain View

Buckingham Palace is on fire

Schrader might feel like “someone put their thumb on the scale,” but it strikes me that, perhaps for the first time in their history, Sight and Sound’s voters have just begun to take their thumbs off the scale, embracing, if not a dismantling, a long overdue and glorious refiguring of the canon. It’s anyone’s guess whether you can call these the ’greatest films of all time’… but there’s a chance they might just be the greatest films for this time.