BBC Culture’s Top 100 American Films Reveals…Nothing

The cinema’s elite critics tell audiences what the best films from America are. But do we care? After all, Hollywood wouldn’t be Hollywood without mainstream cinemagoers who’d rather watch Spider-Man 3 than Mulholland Drive.

BBC Culture polled leading film critics to discover the greatest American Film ever made

Of the four films released in the 2000s to appear in BBC Culture’s poll of leading film critics’ favourite American movies, only one made the top 50 in terms of worldwide gross during the decade. That film is Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight.

The debate about quality versus commercial viability will rage on but that’s perhaps not the issue here. Partly, we’ve seen enough of these polls over the last few years pop up on the internet, notably the AFI’s various all-time and genre-based lists, and Sight & Sound’s yearly update on cinema’s greatest achievements, which not only seem to pat each other on the back for being intellectually superior to the “average” cinemagoer munching popcorn and smooching on the back row, but widely agree America stopped making “great” movies in the 1970s. The additional pitfall to such “polls” is the inevitable dilution of real, grassroots opinion that goes missing among the collective, losing a much more important aspect of cinema appreciation: our personal reaction to the movies we see and, importantly, fall in love with.

Perhaps what’s more damning in this latest list is the acknowledgement that “America’s films are among its greatest exports”. Film has become the most popular art form; a multi-billion dollar industry. It is therefore far more interesting to understand what films audiences enjoy on mass. Why do we queue to watch these movies, what do we crave for each year in our cinematic diet, and why do certain films become the favourites we return to again and again?

BBC Culture’s Critics Poll Results:

10. The Godfather Part II (Francis Ford Coppola, 1974)
9. Casablanca (Michael Curtiz, 1942)
8. Psycho (Alfred Hitchcock, 1960)
7. Singin’ in the Rain (Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly, 1952)
6. Sunrise (FW Murnau, 1927)
5. The Searchers (John Ford, 1956)
4. 2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick, 1968)
3. Vertigo (Alfred Hitchcock, 1958)
2. The Godfather (Francis Ford Coppola, 1972)
1. Citizen Kane (Orson Welles, 1941)

Citizen Kane is, without any doubt, a wonderful cinematic achievement; a great movie. But release it next to a Transfomers sequel and watch where the queue starts snaking around the block. I guarantee those standing in line for a ticket won’t be seeing Orson Welles’ film.

The BBC poll tries to justify its existence by claiming to solely speak to film writers and critics from all over the world, therefore gaining a different perspective from “similar” polls by grouping the opinions of academics, intellectuals and the film critiquing elite from many different cultures, backgrounds and nationalities. Yet, American critics in the AFI poll put Citizen Kane at number one also. I’m not seeing any justification in the belief this poll is any different. Like them, I agree that Welles’ film is an innovative, groundbreaking masterpiece. But when I’ve had a bad day at work I’ll always watch Ghostbusters before considering Charles Foster Kane.

Once again the film critic elite feels it necessary to tell audiences what we should appreciate and enjoy. Unfortunately, the American film industry is a major, money-making industry and the films the critics would have us believe we SHOULD be paying to see failed to make even the smallest dent in their respective decade’s box office takings. There are some notable exceptions – Gone With The Wind generally appears highly on these polls and has, when adjusted for inflation, made a box office killing over the years. Citizen Kane, on the other hand, remains a box office dud. Its total lifetime grosses according to Box Office Mojo stand at $1,585,634. Gone With The Wind, on the other hand, has more than $400,000,000 in worldwide ticket sales.

For audiences today, films released since 2000 are probably more familiar. Since we’re talking about grouping opinion, what better way to adjudicate appeal on a large scale that box office figures. The difference between what the critics think we should be watching and what WE’RE actually watching is quite glaring.

Of the 100 films featured in BBC Culture’s poll, four were released between 2000 and 2010 – The Dark Knight, 25th Hour, Mulholland Drive, and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. All very good films in their own right. Only The Dark Knight was a box office success. The others didn’t make the top 50 films for box office takings.

What does this say about mainstream audiences? What does this say about entertainment versus art? What does this say about the worth of the film critic? For example, the critics told us to stay clear of Spider-Man 3 because, well, it’s rubbish. Roger Ebert said: “Too many villains, too many pale plot strands, too many romantic misunderstandings, too many conversations, too many street crowds looking high into the air and shouting “oooh!” this way, then swiveling and shouting “aaah!” that way.” Yet that didn’t stop the film becoming the 12th highest money-maker worldwide in the 2000s.

Then again, we have to take into consideration other factors when it comes to the box office. Familiarity in character, franchise and story – gets audiences sitting up and taking notice. Sequels offer the promise of “more”; more of what we’ve previously enjoyed. Box office is also built upon the power of the studio – its investment in marketing and campaigns to create viral buzz which smaller, independent films simply cannot do. Big budget films can also play upon current pop culture trends, importantly hiring actors with a high degree of celebrity appeal. The quality, or even entertainment value, of a film can play second fiddle to the sight of Robert Pattinson or Jennifer Lawrence.

I suppose my point is that critics – with all their intellectual superiority – should realise general audiences are sick and tired of hearing that Twilight isn’t the best film ever made and that it may actually be damaging to your health. Likewise, critics know that box office takings are an indication of many factors, the quality of the film being one small part of that. There’s a middle ground to be found here, and that’s the important bit. I want to read what individuals like top British critic Mark Kermode has to say – he’s interesting, insightful, at times very funny – but that’s what makes his critique so fascinating. It’s his critique. Add up the data, put it through the number-crunching machine and out comes a poll of “best films” and we’re back to the level of counting box office revenue and checking ratings in the first week of release to find out The Hunger Games is the greatest cinematic achievement of all time.

Let me hear your opinion. Our appreciation of cinema is so personal, I want to see what individuals have to say. I’ll come up with my own collective grouping by way of the critics, bloggers and film writers I choose to read. That’s why Top 10 Films is so good. Every single one of our lists (aside from a small handful of special features) are made up by individual film enthusiasts and film critics, each highlighting their personal favourites in order to recommend and discuss this great art form that we all love.

What do you think of the American film poll by BBC Culture? Do you agree with the findings? What are your thoughts on commerce versus art when it comes to American movies?

Words by Rory Fish.

About the Author
Rory Fish has loved movies since he can remember. If he was to put together an "all time" top 10 of absolute favourites it would have to include North By Northwest, 12 Angry Men and Sunset Boulevard.

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  1. Mark Fraser Reply

    Well I’m not too sure Mr Kermode would like this list because I didn’t see any mention of The Exorcist.

    And speaking of omissions, I didn’t see any John Huston there (The Maltese Falcon, The Asphalt Jungle, Moby Dick); or Richard Brooks (In Cold Blood); or even Oliver Stone (pick your own). Mention Stone and one has to mention Vietnam. But Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate (98) got in when The Deer Hunter didn’t; Brian De Palma made Casualties of War and he too didn’t get a mention.

    A movie about another war – Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan – was snubbed, but Close Encounters made it (which version?).

    Was Duck Soup (97) really the best Marx Bros film?

    And now that we’re in the age of enlightenment, should Birth of a Nation (39) still be included. Aside from the spectacle, and it’s archaic racist disposition, it’s hardly top 100 stuff.

    I could go on, but I must admit there are 30 here I have either not seen, or only seen chunks of. Some of them I’ve even started watching and turned off the TV or video due to boredom.

    And while I am in no way qualified to talk about the Twilight franchise, it still surprises me that these top lists still look the same after 40 years. It’s as if nothing big has happened since the 1970s.

    Maybe there should be a BBC Mass Culture Critic’s Poll.

  2. Dan Reply

    I suppose the omissions bother me less than the familiarity this list has with many others of its ilk. I think we get that Citizen Kane is, according to critics, the “greatest film ever made” already. I’m not sure reiterating that fact in a very quickly changing market does anyone any good. Then again, if nothing else, it’s nostalgic. And I’m a sucked for nostalgia.

    And – yes – The Exorcist should be on there. Very highly in my opinion! 🙂

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