Held once every 10 years, the Sight & Sound poll—in which a broad, international group of critics and filmmakers pick the greatest movies of all time—is the closest thing film culture has to a definitive survey, a document of the consensus about what movies are supposed to be. The most recent poll, held in 2012, attracted attention because it found Citizen Kane—which had held the No. 1 spot since 1962—overtaken by Vertigo as the critics’ choice. (The director survey, tallied separately, was topped by Tokyo Story.)
This year, spurred by the ongoing nonfiction filmmaking renaissance, Sight & Sound conducted a spin-off poll, focused entirely on documentaries. Now the results are in.
Unsurprisingly, the No. 1 spot is occupied by Dziga Vertov’s 1929 avant-garde classic Man With A Movie Camera, the highest-ranked nonfiction film on the 2012 survey. (It was No. 8 on the critics’ poll, slotted between The Searchers and The Passion Of Joan Of Arc.) Equally unsurprising is the fact that politics have already entered into the mix.
Man With The Movie Camera was made in Odessa, a Russian-speaking city on Ukraine’s Black Sea coast, by a Russian-Jewish crew who hailed from present-day Poland. This means that the film—a milestone whose reputation has grown exponentially since the collapse of the USSR—is part of the shared cultural heritage of two countries that are effectively at war. The easy (and honest) way out would be to call it a Soviet film, and label Vertov a Soviet filmmaker.
Unfortunately, battle lines are already being drawn, with Variety being one of the first to pick a side. Its report, headlined “Ukrainian Silent Film Voted Best Docu Ever in Sight & Sound Poll,” is packed with choice quotes about the movie‘s “‘non-Russian’ aesthetic,” which ensured that it “could only be made in the Ukraine.” Expect many hectoring nationalist arguments, written in fractured English, to appear in the comments sections of film news sites over the weekend.
More surprising is the number of recent films included in the poll. Agnes Varda’s The Gleaners And I sits at the No. 8 spot, with Werner Herzog’s Grizzly Man tied for 12th place with Patricio Guzman’s Nostalgia For The Light. Two 2013 releases, Leviathan and The Act Of Killing, made it in; altogether, the Top 50 includes 11 films made since 2000.
Here’s is Sight & Sound’s Top 10:
1. Man With A Movie Camera
3. Sans Soleil
4. Night And Fog
5. The Thin Blue Line
6. Chronicle Of A Summer
7. Nanook Of The North
8. The Gleaners And I
9. (tie) Don’t Look Back and Grey Gardens
Also included were a surprising number of films that don’t qualify as conventional documentaries, including Abbas Kiarostami’s Close-Up (tied for 37th) and Jean-Luc Godard’s later-career magnum opus, Histoire(s) Du Cinèma (tied for 24th).
A separate poll, limited to documentary directors, was also held. Here’s that Top 10:
1. Man With A Movie Camera
2. Sans Soleil
3. The Thin Blue Line
4. (tie) Shoah and Night And Fog
6. (tie) Salesman and Titicut Follies
8. (tie) Don’t Look Back, Man Of Aran, and Nanook Of The North
The full results of both polls can be found here.
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