From the Vault: The Greatest Films

There is no such thing as “best” films. There exists only favoritism. 

In the arts, we can’t make the judgment that a specific film or a certain group of films are the “best” films ever made – we can only pick our own individual favorites.

Sight & Sound, a magazine published by the British Film Institute, organizes a poll once a decade, searching for a list of the greatest films of all time through international group of film scholars, film critics and filmmakers. The publication released their 2012 list of greatest films recently. If such lists are to be taken seriously, their list is the most “official” out of them all. It’s also pretty fun looking through such a list to see how many films you’ve seen and how many films you have never even heard of.

This is the seventh list the magazine has published. The polls have been held once a decade since 1952. In that year, the Italian neorealism film, The Bicycle Thief (1948) was selected as the best film of all time, despite having been released just four years prior. In the past few decades, however, the best film of all time has been Citizen Kane (1941). Orson Welles’ masterpiece and breakthrough film came at the young age of 25, and it’s a film that has been number one on these lists since 1962.

In the 2012 poll, however, everything changed. Citizen Kane was no longer the number one film. The greatest film of all time according to the poll is now Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958).

The following is the list of the ten greatest films of all time from 1952 and 2002, for the sake of comparison. 


1. The Bicycle Thief (Vittorio De Sica, 1948)

2. City Lights (Charles Chaplin, 1931)

3. The Gold Rush (Charles Chaplin, 1925)

4. Battleship Potemkin (Sergei Eisenstein, 1925)

5. Louisiana Story (Robert J. Flaherty, 1948)

7-TIED. Greed (Erich von Stroheim, 1924)

7-TIED. Le Jour se lève (Marcel Carné, 1939)

7-TIED. The Passion of Joan of Arc (Carl Theodor Dreyer, 1928)

 10-TIED. Brief Encounter (David Lean, 1945)

10-TIED. The Rules of the Game (Jean Renoir, 1939)

10-TIED. Le Million (René Clair, 1931)


1. Citizen Kane (Orson Welles, 1941) 

2. Vertigo (Alfred Hitchcock, 1958)

3. The Rules of the Game (Jean Renoir, 1939) 

4. The Godfather and The Godfather: Part II (Francis Ford Coppola, 1972 and 1974)

5. Tokyo Story (Yasujirô Ozu, 1953) 

6. 2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick, 1968)

7-TIED. Battleship Potemkin (Sergei Eisenstein, 1925)

7-TIED. Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (F. W. Murnau, 1927)

9. (Federico Fellini, 1963)

10. Singin’ in the Rain (Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly, 1952)

So, what happened in the last ten years? Well, a number of rules were imposed. The main rule was that related films that are considered part of a larger whole, such as The Godfather (1972) and The Godfather: Part II (1974), were now to be treated as separate films. In prior years, one could vote for both films as one choice. The main change, however, was that the list of voters expanded from 145 in 2002 to a total of 846 in 2012. This means more opinions.

Citizen Kane, despite having been released for more than a decade in 1952, didn’t appear on the list until their second poll in 1962, after which the film held the top spot until this year. Vertigo, on the other hand, has placed in the top ten since 1982 and has slowly moved up to the number one position.

The following is the list of the ten greatest films of all time from 2012.


1. Vertigo (Alfred Hitchcock, 1958)

2. Citizen Kane (Orson Welles, 1941)

3. Tokyo Story (Yasujirô Ozu, 1953)

4. The Rules of the Game (Jean Renoir, 1939)

 5. Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (F. W. Murnau, 1927)

6. 2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick, 1968)

7. The Searchers (John Ford, 1956)

8. Man with a Movie Camera (Dziga Vertov, 1929)

9. The Passion of Joan of Arc (Carl Theodor Dreyer, 1928)

10. (Federico Fellini, 1963)

These are all films that can be considered revolutionary, in one sense or another. Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans was made during the cusp of the silent and sound era, Man with a Movie Camera is an experimental non-narrative film that broke free of the traditions of cinema (the film has no characters, no plot and more than 1,700 cuts), and The Passion of Joan of Arc consists primarily of close-ups. Citizen Kane changed the way films were made, which is why Vertigo is somewhat of an odd choice. The film isn’t even considered Alfred Hitchcock’s greatest film among film scholars.

If any film deserves the honor of being labeled the “greatest” film, it’s Citizen Kane. It’s a film that is looked at as a model for exemplary filmmaking. The film was produced during a transitional time of when silent films had faded and the sound era had ushered its way in. The go-to film as the best film ever made has now been dethroned, not by a film that is unworthy, but by a film that is not as great, in comparison.

The biggest surprises include the near-disappearance of Charles Chaplin. In 1952, he had two films in the top three – now, City Lights, is tied for 50th place. There are a number of respectable directors left out of the complete list entirely, including Howard Hawks, Krzysztof Kieślowski, Luis Buñuel, John Cassavetes and Rainer Werner Fassbinder.

In addition, the most recent films on the entire poll of the top 100 greatest films of all time, is In the Mood for Love (2000) and Mulholland Drive (2001). This means there is not a single film in the complete list from the last ten years. The most recent film in the top ten is from 1968 with 2001: A Space Odyssey.

In examining the complete list, it’s so interesting to note which films rank ahead of others. Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979) is now higher on the list than both The Godfather and The Godfather: Part II – which were once considered his best films. There is also an Armenian on the list – Sergei Parajanov’s The Color of Pomegranates (1968) sits in the number 84 position tied with Casablanca (1942), which is surprisingly low on this list.

As for my own top ten favorite films? That’s a conversation for another time.