It’s not Citizen Kane anymore. It’s now Vertigo. Strange that it took Sight & Sound so long to notice a movie made in 1958 was better than a movie made in 1941.
To be perfectly frank, I always thought Kane was a bit overrated. Not that it’s a bad film by any means; it’s just not anywhere close to being the greatest ever. It’s a well-acted drama and nothing more, in my opinion. Also, there seems to be a massive plot hole at the center of it which has always kind of detracted from it.
I also wonder: did the people who were polled watch every single movie ever made before voting? I kind of doubt it. For one thing, think of how many languages they would have had to learn first. (Watching with subtitles is not at all the same thing.) What if the real greatest movie ever is a Japanese film that no one in the U.S. or Britain has heard of?
I won’t even begin to address the question of how there can be a single greatest movie when there are so many different genres. I like Lawrence of Arabia and My Fair Lady, but it’s hard to really compare the two. This is why they do genre rankings, although even then there are problems, like why is Star Wars always listed under “sci-fi” when the man who created it says it isn’t?
Finally, there are technical issues, like: if a film was great “in its time”, does that mean it’s always great? Metropolis is considered a very great film, but if it were made today, would anybody think it was any good? Moreover, if a new technique is created and used with great success in a film, it is inevitably copied by other films, thus diminishing the value of it for future viewers. Does a film deserve bonus “greatness points” for being the first to try something that eventually becomes common? And when a viewer fifty years later sees a transition or camera angle that is familiar to him, but was brand new at the time, how will he ever be able to appreciate it?
I think that many critics are aware of this issue, and so overcompensate by giving undue weight to older movies. It’s similar to what I was talking about here with video game rankings. In some cases, you have to admit, “well it was certainly great then, but there can be little doubt the special effects would be much better if they could have made it today.” What was yesterday’s special effects masterpiece may look awful to the viewer of nowadays.
That’s not saying, by the way, that newer movies are automatically better. Sometimes, they have better special effects, but vastly worse acting, characters, dialogue and story. In fact this happens rather a lot. But from a technical point of view, it makes ranking difficult.