How we made the Greatest Films of All Time poll
The story behind the biggest ever edition of our celebrated poll of the world’s best movies.
Updated: 8 June 2021
By Nick James
Every ten years, Sight & Sound has conducted a worldwide poll of critics in order to decide which films are currently regarded as the greatest ever made. We’re proud that the longevity of this poll means that it’s widely regarded as the most trusted guide there is to the canon of cinema greats.
Back in 1952, Vittorio De Sica’s neorealist parable Bicycle Thieves won the first poll only four years after it was shot. In today’s era of digital plenitude, it’s hard to imagine how critics could be so sure they had recently seen the greatest film ever made, but of course in those days there were vastly fewer films to measure Bicycle Thieves against than there are today.
Famously, Citizen Kane won the next five polls, up to and including 2002. Orson Welles’s film had the disadvantage in 1952 of not yet having been seen by a lot of Europeans because of World War II. If they had been able to see it, it might even have won then. So for over half a century, Citizen Kane had been the critics’ all-time champion movie.
About a year before we published our 2012 poll, the S&S team met to consider how we could best approach the poll this time. Given the dominance of electronic media, what was immediately apparent was that we would have to abandon the somewhat elitist exclusivity with which contributors to the poll had been chosen in the past and reach out to a much wider international group of commentators. We were also keen to include among them critics who’d established their careers online rather than purely in print.
To that end we approached more than 1,000 critics, programmers, academics, distributors, writers and other cinephiles, and received (in time for the deadline) precisely 846 top-ten lists that between them mention a total of 2,045 different films. This makes the process a little more democratic, though I can’t pretend that the 1,000 or so individuals were selected by any more rigorous process than simple chains of recommendation. (The 2002 critics’ poll, by contrast, was based on just 145 lists.)
Each entry on each list counts as one vote for the film in question, so personal rankings within the individual top tens don’t matter. And one important rule change compared to 2002 was that The Godfather and The Godfather Part II would no longer be accepted as a single choice, since they were made as two separate films.
The Godfather Part II (1974)
As a qualification of what ‘greatest’ means, our invitation letter stated, “We leave that open to your interpretation. 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.”
What the increase in numbers has – and hasn’t – done was surprising. We had hopes that some 21st-century films might break into top-flight contention, but not so. Instead, what we have achieved is a consensus on what represents ‘great cinema’ that now has a greater force of numbers behind it. Another fascinating result is that we now have a plausible Sight & Sound Top 250.
Since 1992, we have also conducted a separate directors’ poll, which before 2012 had likewise had been dominated by Citizen Kane. Around 350 directors contributed this time, with some pronounced differences between the critics’ list and what we can now call the Directors’ 100 Greatest Films of All Time.