The Sight & Sound Poll: Not Very Useful

A month ago, I wrote that if you pick old movies according to critical acclaim, “you’ll find yourself watching a lot of material that just isn’t very entertaining by modern standards.” This week the British Film Institute has made my point for me with the latest edition of their highly-regarded Sight & Sound magazine critics’ and directors’ polls. Click here to see the critics’ “Top 50 Greatest Films of All Time.”

This isn’t officially a list of old movies, but it may as well be, given that they all but ignore everything in the last thirty years. They also ignore genre films almost completely: there are only four outright comedies (two silent, one French), only one crime movie, one musical, one Western, one horror movie, no animated movies, and nothing that could really be called an action movie. In fact, there are only about ten movies on this list that a casual moviegoer would have even heard of. The rest is dominated by auteur favorites like Jean-Luc Godard, Andrei Tarkovsky, and Roberto Fellini. Some of the greatest mainstream directors — Howard Hawks, Ernst Lubitsch, William Wyler, Frank Capra, John Huston, Michael Powell, David Lean — are completely unrepresented. Even some that are thought of as critical darlings, like Nicholas Ray, John Cassavetes or Woody Allen, don’t make the cut either.

Do the critics really believe that Godard made four movies better than anything by those directors? Would any of them actually come home from work, crack open a beer and pop in a DVD of Man with a Movie Camera (“the Constructivist Soviet silent of choice”) or Au Hasard Balthazer (Robert Bresson’s “devastating tale of an abused donkey passing from owner to owner”)?

Of course not. They’ve just decided to treat this poll as a film school curriculum rather than a chance to give sincere recommendations. As you read the obtuse museum-wall-text explanations for their selections, just remember that these are people whose day job is telling you whether to bring your kids to Ice Age: Continental Drift 3D or Katy Perry: Part of Me. It’s understandable that when the British Film Institute calls, they’d feel the need to air out their inner snob.

Don’t get me wrong: the dozen or so popular movies they did pick are all great movies (Vertigo, The Searchers, The Godfather…) and while I’ve only seen a few of the more art / experimental type picks, I’m sure they’re all excellent too. But while this may be a list of the “greatest” movies in some sense of the word, it’s definitely not a list of the most entertaining ones, and in many ways it’s almost the opposite. A critics’ poll that asked “what are the most entertaining/engaging old movies for modern audiences?” would be much more useful, and I’m surprised no one has done that. Maybe I’ll poll some of my movie-buff friends and give it a shot here.