Film Criticism 2023

Content by Tony Macklin. Originally published on December 29, 2022 @

What's happened to film criticism?

It's collapsed.

A few weeks ago, the once esteemed, once credible British film journal Sight and Sound released its list of "The Greatest Films of All Time."

It's a fiasco. It chooses gender over quality. Contemporary fads over excellence.

The poll threw out established classics and substituted lesser films, some because they were directed by females. According to the poll of "experts," the Greatest Film of All time is Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975), directed by Chantal Akerman.

A couple of years ago I wrote a favorable review of Celine Scriamma's Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019). It's a fine film, but not one of the greatest. It is 30th on Sight and Sound's list of greatest of all time. I think Sciamma probably would be a little dubious about that rating.

Sight and Sound opened Pandora's box, and a swarm of critics flew out. On a myopic mission. In the addled minds of some of the 1,639 "experts" who took part in the poll, values have changed, and excellence is forgettable.

When Sight and Sound initiated the poll in 1952, it had 63 critics. It published top films, not the "greatest." In 1982 Sight and Sound noted, "Critics, as in 1962, were invited to be as subjective and idiosyncratic as they choose." Then it was "Top films." Later it became "The Greatest Films of All Time," which was quite a leap into certainty. It is now callow.

For the last 70 years, the second year of every decade, Sight and Sound has its poll. In 1952 it had 63 voters. In 2012 the poll had 846 voters. In 2022 it escalated to 1,639 - almost twice as many. It has become a spastic horde.

They picked Jeanne Dielman as "The Greatest Film of All Time". In what universe? It replaced Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo (1958), which in 2012 had replaced Orson Welles' Citizen Kane (1941). They dropped the 2nd and 3rd.

Jeanne Dielman is not better than Coppola's The Godfather, Part II (1974), which is now not even on the list of 100 films. Jeanne Dielman is not better than Polanski's Chinatown (1974), which is not on the list. Jeanne Dielman is not better than David Lean's Lawrence of Arabia (1962). Jeanne Dielman is not better than Scorsese's Raging Bull (1980), which is not on the list. Jeanne Dielman is not better than Marcel Carne's Les Infants of Paradise (1944), which is not on the list. I doubt whether 20% of the voters have even seen Children of Paradise, a wonderfully visual experience.

In 1982, I contributed to Sight and Sound's list, and offered Francois Truffaut's Jules et Jim (1962). It's not on the present list, although it's still on my top ten. I guarantee it's better than Jeanne Dielman. But again, I wonder how many have seen it.

The list has no films by Steven Spielberg, Robert Altman, Sam Peckinpah, and even D.W. Griffith. Griffith's Intolerance (1916) was 93rd in 2012, but it is not on the list in 2022. Of course, Griffith's The Birth of a Nation (1915) has been gutted by Spike Lee. Today if you asked 20 viewers, 19 would say Spike is a better director than Griffith. Griffith is a better director than Spike, but Griffith didn't have tickets to the Knicks.

I would love to see the late James Agee write about Griffith and Lee. Agee was the most eloquent film critic ever.

Agee was a liberal, who lived with Alabama sharecroppers and wrote the classic Let Us Now Praise Famous Men - which reportedly is one of Jimmy Carters' favorite books.

Agee was aware of the problems of attitude in The Birth of a Nation, but he wrote evocative, masterly analysis of Griffith and his classic.

I hope I learned from James Agee.

Jeanne Dielman is a 3 hour and 20 minute study of ordinary life. It's redundant and tedious. A limited case can be made for its listless minimalism. Jeanne Dielman needs no screenplay. It has no meaningful language.

In 2022, who needs language?

Forget "She's my sister AND my daughter!" "You can't handle the truth!" "I'll have what she's having." "Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship."

In 2022, language matters less than it ever has. A lot of film reviewers seem to think so.

I'm a fan of independent women. My favorite active film critic is Ann Hornaday of the Washington Post.

It's ironic that Ann didn't get the contemporary message about gender. Her film of the year is dripping with testosterone - Top Gun: Maverick. She recognizes it as being a quality movie that has broad, captivating audience appeal.

But Sight and Sound did not do film criticism any favors.

In 2023, for every Ann Hornaday, there may be 1,639 Jeanne Dielmans.

© 2000-2024 Tony Macklin