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Surprises, memes and trolling in Sight and Sound’s top ten films list

Citizen Kane's drop from the top spot may have grabbed the headlines, but a YouTube meme video was also nominated for the first time ever.


Aja Romano


Posted on Aug 27, 2012   Updated on Jun 2, 2021, 12:09 pm CDT

Roger Ebert has called Sight and Sound magazine’s once-every-decade Top Ten list the “best damned film list of them all.” Begun in 1952, the list uses the deceptively simple premise of getting critics and directors to name their “top 10 films.” It’s a notoriously difficult task, made even more so as each new decade brings new inductions to the film canon.

Various communities around the Internet have been teeming with predictions for months, even years, about what this decade’s list would hold. When the big announcement finally came on Aug. 1, the news was an upset that many had foretold: Vertigo and Tokyo Story both displacing Citizen Kane from the top spot of the critics’ and directors’ lists, respectively, for the first time in 50 years.

The Directors’ full list was finally added to the mix last week, bringing the total of films included in the survey to a whopping 2500, an astronomical jump from 875 submitted in 2002. “We’re going to need a bigger list,” quipped critic Paul Ryan, and he was right.

But while cinephiles rearranged the list and debated Hitch vs. Welles, a number of gems and oddities buried deep within the full list captured our attention. Read on to find out which viral internet meme sneaked into the pantheon, which beloved trilogy saw all three of its installments wind up on the list (hint: it’s not The Godfather), and more.

  • Back to the Future: The pop culture favorite made it onto the full list for the second decade running, with 3 critics and 1 director naming it to their lists.
  • In the Days of Our Youth (The Six Sisters Dainef), 1903, by ‘Anonimous’: This bizarre 55-second film is public domain, so you can watch as a gaggle of turn-of-the-century showgirls perform quizzical acrobatics, including a bug-waddle across the floor that makes Linda Blair’s staircase crawl in The Exorcist seem like a toddler stroll.
  • The Wire: Who cares if it’s not actually a film? Two critics named the David Simon HBO series to their lists. David Lynch’s iconic Twin Peaks also scored a mention, and the epic Berlin Alexanderplatz, originally a 14-part television series, nabbed numerous votes.
  • The Hitler Meme: “It’s only one moment in Oliver Hirschbiegel’s Downfall,” wrote UK critic Kaleem Aftab when he named “Downfall Reworked for YouTube” to his top ten, “yet Bruno Ganz’s performance as Hitler is so brilliant in showing his disgust at the failure of Steiner to attack the allies that the scene has been used and abused by legions of Internet users around the world, replacing the orignal subtitles to comment on current affairs – it’s the gift that won’t stop giving.”

  • Film vs Digital: Several critics and directors took the opportunity to share their feelings on the demise of film in the age of digital media. “It’s crushing and incomprehensible that film will vanish within my lifetime,” wrote New York Times critic Manohla Dargis, “forced into obsolescence by the greed and the shortsightedness of a movie industry that’s aided in its anti-film campaign by the unsettling indifference and ignorance of too many critics.” But that didn’t stop films shot with digital cameras from making it onto the list, including 2011’s Tree of Life and Hugo.
  • How a Mosquito Operates: Secrets and Lies director Mike Nichols also subtly commented on dying cinematic formats by listing among his top ten list a 5-minute line animation from 1912. The excerpt is from a longer film, now lost, by animator Winsor McKay, in which a giant mosquito out for blood pursues a rotund man with plenty to give. The film was decades ahead of its time, and serves as a poignant reminder of the absence of painstaking human endeavor present in modern CGI animation

  • Pixar: CGI animation, however, certainly made its mark on the list: the Toy Story trilogy managed to best even The Godfather trilogy and wedge all three of its installments onto the list. Six critics and Monty Python alum Terry Jones voted for the series. Other Pixar favorites Up and Wall-E also made the list.
  • The Big LebowskiThe Dude didn’t quite abide, but he certainly made an impressive showing, with 12 people naming the cult Coen brothers classic to their lists. Overall, eight Coen brothers films, including quirkier fare like Raising Arizona and Barton Fink, found their way onto the list.
  • Hero: The Official Film of the 1986 FIFA World Cup: In case you thought the list-makers never showed their bias, this pick makes it clear that for some, the list was all about subjectivity. In naming this record of the 1986 soccer match to his list, director Pablo Giorgelli admits, “If Brazil had been the winner, I would not have chosen it, for sure.”
  • Is he trolling or just really ballsy?: For sheer hilarious chutzpah, we doubt anything will ever top Indian-American director Anurag Mehta’s 2002 Top Ten list, comprised entirely of U.S. blockbusters from the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s.

We can’t help noticing that Mehta isn’t a contributor to this year’s list. Perhaps, when it comes to the prestige of compiling the greatest film list around, Sight & Sound has the last laugh after all.

Photo via How a Mosquito Operates; andrecoelhosa/YouTube


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*First Published: Aug 27, 2012, 2:23 pm CDT