February 21, 2013 | By Dina Smeltz

Best Picture (of all time)

In honor of the 85th annual Academy awards (now officially rebranded as The Oscars) being presented on Sunday, this week I am sharing  the results of a 2012 survey of international film critics and directors conducted by Sight and Sound, a British monthly film magazine published by the British Film Institute.  The survey is conducted once every ten years, and asks film professionals to vote for the greatest film of all time.

While a blog posting on film may seem misplaced on a blog about foreign policy, for public diplomacy practitioners, cinema is an important channel for facilitating international cultural understanding.   Richard Wilke of Pew Research recently noted that American films and popular culture are a strong element of American soft power. Among the film professionals themselves, the international flavor of the critics and directors’ top ten lists reveals an appreciation for film’s ability to project longstanding universal themes and inspire craft and direction.

The 2012 Sight and Sound participants were contacted online and included 846 critics and 358 directors. Although critics and directors from over 70 countries were sampled, the largest portion of participants came from the the UK (25% overall) and the US (18%); about half of the critics and a third of the directors are either American or British.  About a third of the total sample is European- including a few from central and east European countries.  The rest consist of a scattering of responses from other Commonwealth countries (Canada, Australia, New Zealand), Latin America, East Asia (Japan, Hong Kong, China, Korea), India, Africa and the Middle East.

By gender, the critics sample was 18 percent women, and the directors sample 15 percent women.  Since it was conducted online, the sample was self-selected, which is not ideal of course, and I couldn't find any information about attempts for callbacks.  I note some other methodological caveats at the end of this post.

The respondents were asked to choose the ten most important films ever made and instructed that they should use their personal interpretations: "You might choose the ten films you feel are most important to film history, or the ten that represent the aesthetic pinnacles of achievement, or indeed the ten films that have had the biggest impact on your own view of cinema.” Each entry on each list counts as one vote for the film mentioned, so personal rankings within the top tens were not taken into account.

And the envelope, please ...

The Critics Sample

Among the film critics, the top mentions include four American films (Orson Welles' Citizen Kane, Albert Hitchcock's Vertigo , John Ford's The Searchers, and Stanley Kubrick's 2001:  A Space Odyssey).  (I hesitate to include A Space Odyssey as an American film because it seems like it was a UK-American venture, but MGM produced and distributed it, so there you have it.)

But the remaining top films include two selections from France (Jean Renoir's La Règle du jeu - or in English - The Rules of the Game, and Carl Theodor Dreyer’s silent film, The Passion of Joan of Arc) and two Soviet constructivist silent films (Dziga Vertov’s  documentary Man with a Movie Camera and Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin).  Rounding out the list for the critics are works from Japan (Yasujirō Ozu’sTokyo Story, Germany, (F.W. Murnau’s expressionist silent Sunrise:  A Song of Two Humans) and Italy (Federico Fellini’s 8 ½).  In publicizing their poll results, Sight and Sound did not include Battleship Potemkin in their top ten lists, but we include it here since there was only a one mention difference.

Despite the fact that the samples for the critics’ polls have varied in size and composition from year to year since Sight and Sound first launched their survey in 1952, several of these titles have returned year after year.  These weighty submissions include Citizen Kane, La Règle du jeu,The Passion of Joan of Arc and Battleship Potemkin.  Neither a box office nor critical success at the time of its release, Vertigo began to hit Sight and Sound's charts as late as 1982 (The French New Wave directors of the late 1950's and 1960's first recognized the importance of Hitchcock as a director).   Tokyo Story emerged as a leading contender in 1992 but has been a top ten title since then (it was released in the US in 1972).  In fact, the only film on the critics’ list that was not mentioned in previous years is Man with a Movie Camera, which may have been aided by the 2003 release of a DVD including the original film and The Cinematic Orchestra’s soundtrack.  Or it may be due to the fact that the 2012 Sight and Sound critics sample was more globalized than previous years.

The Sight and Sound poll has been criticized for being fusty because the top ten lists generally favor older films.  For example, in the 2012 survey, the two most recent films are 2001:  A Space Odyssey which was released in 1968 and 8 1/2, released in 1963.  (Four of the top films are from the 1920s).  But film critic Scott Tobias, writing for the AV Club, explains why these choices make sense:

“If you can imagine yourself going back in time and seeing any of these films for the first time, nearly all of them are mini-revolutions, breaking so firmly with what people expected cinema to be that they were often misunderstood or hated. There’s nothing ‘stodgy’ about The Rules of the Game, which had to be removed and drastically re-edited due to mass outrage and a government ban. Tokyo Story and The Passion Of Joan Of Arc violate the most basic rules of how a film is supposed to be shot, the former by breaking 'the 180-degree plane' and the latter by abandoning spatial relationships altogether. 2001: A Space Odyssey attempts nothing short of accounting for existence itself—and doesn’t even get to the space part until after a long prologue about a breakthrough in ape evolution. The Searchers remains an absolutely chilling rebuke to what we expect from John Wayne, John Ford, and the American Western itself...

... Which brings us to Man With A Movie Camera, the one true upstart on the 2012 list and maybe the smartest imaginable addition to the fray… Vertov wanted to free cinema from the stage and from the strictures of storytelling itself—it has no intertitles, no characters, no plot, and more than 1,700 cuts—and he invites the viewer to think about how films are made and how they might be rearranged to new and exciting ends. The film is still astonishing, eternally—so, too, the rest of the films on the list.” 

The Directors Sample

The directors sample is much smaller than the critics’ poll, and has only been included in Sight and Sound’s survey in the 1992, 2002 and 2012 surveys.  There is a bit more variation from year to year with the top ten titles among directors, in part a reflection of varying sample sizes and sample composition.  For the 2012 survey, big name directors like Woody Allen, Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Quentin Tarantino, the Dardenne brothers, Terence Davies,  Martin Scorsese, Guy Maddin, Francis Ford Coppola and Aki Kaurismäki took part.

Many of the films that emerge on the critics’ list also appear on the director’s top lists. Tokyo Story leads the survey in 2012, followed by A Space Odyssey, Citizen Kane, 8 1/2 and Vertigo.  But three more recent American movies make the directors’ cut:  Martin Scorcese’s Taxi Driver, and Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now and The Godfather.   Andrei Tarkovsky’s The Mirror (from the USSR) and Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves (from Italy) complete the directors’  top ten choices.

If you haven’t seen all the films on these lists, and would like to (affordably) view them, the Huffington Post has provided these links.

A note on methods

For more information on the Sight and Sound survey, please visit their website. I have been unable to track down a description of which exact lists were used to contact possible candidates, but all of the participants who did complete the poll are listed on the website.

Apparently, there are several surveys that are publicized within the film industry focused on the best films of all time, but the Sight and Sound poll seems to be the most credible.  Roger Ebert has written that it is “by far the most respected of the countless polls of great movies – and the only one most serious movie people take seriously.”

But Ebert has also discussed some variations in the way the voting may be exercised in the Sun Times: “My guess is that there are three ways that people fill out their lists. (1) An objective list of the 10 films they truly believe are the all-time best. (2) Propagandistic votes, selecting a film no one else may vote for, with the hope of drawing attention to it. (3) Strategic votes, such as a shift from "Notorious" to "Vertigo" as Hitchcock's best. The only vote I ever cast that became somewhat notorious was for Errol Morris's first feature, "The Gates of Heaven," a documentary about a pet cemetery. There was a bit of both (1) and (2) represented there. “     


The Chicago Council on Global Affairs highlights critical shifts in American public thinking on US foreign policy through public opinion surveys and research conducted under the Lester Crown Center on US Foreign Policy. 

The annual Chicago Council Survey, first conducted in 1974, is a valuable resource for policymakers, academics, media, and the general public. The Council also surveys American leaders in government, business, academia, think tanks, and religious organizations biennially to compare trends in their thinking with overall trends. And collaborating with partner organizations, the survey team periodically conducts parallel surveys of public opinion in other regions of the world to compare with US public opinion. 

The Running Numbers blog features regular commentary and analysis from the Council’s public opinion and US foreign policy research team, including a series of flash polls of a select group of foreign policy experts to assess their opinions on critical foreign policy topics driving the news.


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