The Greatest: A First ‘Best’ Chance


The year 2012 marks the 60th anniversary of Sight & Sound first releasing the results of its now famous greatest films poll, which has been conducted every decade since then. Less well known, however, is the poll undertaken by the Belgian Cinémathèque six years later when it organized a competition to determine the “best film of all time” for the 1958 Brussels World’s Fair.  With over a hundred critics and historians (including André Bazin, Henri Langlois, and Iris Barry) participating in the poll, the list was eagerly anticipated as a major event by the rapidly growing cinephile community, both in Europe and beyond.

As Sarah Nilsen recounts in her study of films shown at the Brussels World’s Fair, the competition also unexpectedly became a huge success with the general public, with the screenings and related events playing to huge crowds who fought bitterly for a spot in the the 2,000 seat Grand Auditorium (bruises and even bloody noses were reported).  When all was said and done, the following 12 films were presented as the greatest films of all time:

1. Battleship Potemkin (Eisenstein, 1925) Eisenstein’s account of the mutiny of a Russian battleship has been consistently ranked as one of the most important films ever made.  Best known for its innovative use of montage, its most famous sequence on the Odessa Steps has been referenced in a number of films, including ones directed by Brian De Palma, Francis Ford Coppola, Terry Gilliam, and Woody Allen.

2. The Gold Rush (Chaplin, 1925) A number of Charlie Chaplin’s films are ranked among the best ever made, so what makes this comedy set in the snowy Alaskan wilderness stand out from the others?  Perhaps it was the indelible “Roll Dance” scene, one of the single most famous scenes in film history.

3. Bicycle Thieves (De Sica, 1948) De Sica’s film continues to remain the most famous and beloved Italian neorealist film, and was considered revelatory in its depiction of onscreen realism.  Not only was it given an Honorary Academy Award in 1950, it took the top spot on Sight and Sound‘s inaugural list in 1952.

4. The Passion of Joan of Arc (Dreyer, 1928) This late silent film is most known for the intense performance of Renée Falconetti as the doomed French martyr, rendered in vivid close-ups.  Pauline Kael would later write that “it may be the finest performance ever recorded on film.”

5. Grand Illusion (Renoir, 1937) Jean Renoir’s WWI drama is known for its depiction of the complexities of the fallout of war, and is often hailed as one of the greatest French films ever made.  Orson Welles was a huge fan, proclaiming that it was the film he would “take with him on the ark.”

6. Greed (Von Stroheim, 1924) What is not included in Greed is just as famous as what is in it: Originally ten hours long, it was famously butchered by its studio to a fraction of that length to market it.  Still, what remains of this great “lost film” has been more than enough for many to label it a masterpiece.

7. Intolerance (Griffith, 1916) A response to the criticism waged against The Birth of a Nation, Intolerance is a sprawling epic that inventively intercut between four storylines.  Even though it failed commercially, it changed the way narratives were depicted in films.

8. Mother (Pudovkin, 1926) Pudovkin’s depiction of a single women’s heartbreaking struggle during the Russian Revolution exhibits his innovative use of montage.

9. Citizen Kane (Welles, 1941) The only Hollywood film on this list, Welles’s film would go on to top the 1962 Sight & Sound poll, where it has stayed since then to its current Blu-ray release.  It it constantly labelled as the greatest film ever made.

10. Earth (Dovzhenko, 1930) The third and most famous of Dovzhenko’s “Ukraine Trilogy,” Earth was initially censored by Soviet authorities for not expressing a clear political message, but it was quickly hailed as a masterpiece by the rest of the world.

11. The Last Laugh (Murnau, 1924) Murnau’s innovative silent film is most famous for the almost complete absence of intertitles, but it also features the lauded–and tragic–performance by Emil Jannings as a hotel doorman whose demotion sends him into a tailspin.

12. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (Wiene, 1919) The most famous and influential German Expressionist film, the film’s use of stylized sets to express internal and emotional states would make it a major influence on film noir and horror film in general.

Sources: Projecting America, 1958: Film and Cultural Diplomacy at the Brussels World’s Fair by Sarah Nilsen, “The Best of Brussels” by John Gillett, Sight & Sound, The Movie Movie Site, Wikipedia.

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