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The Best Movies Of All Time: What’s Changed?

Updated: Feb 14, 2023

by Maggie McAteer

Once every ten years, since 1953, the British Film Institute's Sight & Sound magazine releases a list of the “Greatest Films of All Time.” The most recent one was published December 2022. BFI creates their list by conducting worldwide opinion polls from over 1500 critics, as well as making a separate list of directors’ picks. For five consecutive issues, the top movie on the widely renowned critic’s list was Citizen Kane (1941). Many filmmakers claim that it’s the most influential movie of all time, revolutionizing storytelling, cinematography, lighting, sound, and just about everything else. Citizen Kane has undoubtedly affected every great filmmaker, but in 2012, its title was usurped by Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958). While some critics were glad to see Citizen Kane replaced after fifty years, it brought criticism to the movie as well. And with the new edition of the list, the title of Best Movie has once again been changed, this time to the “landmark feminist film,” as Sight & Sound put it, Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975).

Jeanne Dielman was a French film by Belgian filmmaker Chantal Akerman, running over 3 hours and 20 minutes long. It stars French actress Delphine Seyrig as Jeanne Dielman, a widowed housewife who earns money through sex work before her son arrives home from school. The film follows her daily routine of cooking, cleaning, and mothering over the course of three days, and is defined by its slow pacing, long takes, and fixed shots. Upon its initial release it found mixed success, with some critics calling it boring and meaningless while others admired its visuals and use of time. It found more positive reviews when it was later released in the United States in 1983, with American film critics such as Marsha Kinder and Louis Marcorelles praising it as a masterpiece of feminine cinema. After its placement as BFI’s top film, it has once again found criticism from those who felt its place was undeserved. Armond White of the National Review criticized it, writing, “Jeanne Dielman will from this time forward be remembered…as a landmark of distorted woke reappraisal.” White also said that Sight & Sound’s choice undermined its credibility; and Richard Panek of The Observer, too, questioned the choice, noting, “expressions of personal opinions, even in the aggregate, are by definition subjective.”

Jeanne Dielman also signals the entrance of a more diverse era in movie recognition. Akerman is the first female director to have a movie in the top spot, and only one of two to be in the top ten, along with Claire Denis. This was the same number that appeared on 2012’s entire top 100 list. Female directors now make up 11 of the top 100 films, and are many of the poll’s top climbers. In the 2012 list, all of the top ten movies were made in the “Golden Age” of film, from 1928-1968. But in the new list, the top ten includes two movies from the twenty-first century, four films that had never been in the top ten before, and the dropping of half of 2012’s best movies. On the full list, nine films are from the twenty-first century, two of which are from as recently as 2019. The list also features its first animated films, Studio Ghibli’s Spirited Away (2001) and My Neighbor Totoro (1988), and seven black directors as opposed to 2012’s one, with Jordan Peele’s Get Out (2017) and 2016’s Moonlight making the list. Queer cinema, too, is making its way up the list, with movies such as 2019’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire.

What accounts for this rise in diversity? Among other things, technology may be the main reason. Not only can technology restore older films, it can help them gain more recognition through social media. As opposed to earlier years, coming up to the 2022 poll people were able to use platforms like Twitter to advocate for their favorite films. Social media also allows for pressure to be put on institutions, like the British Film Institute, for an increase in diversity. 2022’s list has drastic improvements in diversity as compared to 2012’s list, and especially its older predecessors. In this day and age equality and diversity in all platforms, even and especially in movies, are important to society. Consumers force change in establishments that need it, causing diversity to bloom. As consumers, moviegoers hold more power than ever before, and BFI’s 2022 list highlights that.

It’s nearly impossible to know what the best movies of all time will look like exactly in the next ten years. Will diversity continue to rise? Or will society take steps in the opposite direction? One can only hope that, through the powers of social media and societal pressure, film can continue to move forwards. One can hope that more underappreciated films will be brought to light. That more films by females, people of color, and queer directors will make it into the top 100, if not the top 10. The movie industry is changing. For good, or for worse, it’s been set on a path that’ll be hard to divert. The Sight & Sound movie list is just the beginning.


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