“Vertigo” Named #1 Movie, Made Un-Cool


This week, Sight & Sound magazine released their latest “Best Films Eva'” list (actual title may vary). They’ve released an updated list every ten years since 1952.  And since 1962 (that would be S&S V.2), the top film has been “Citizen Kane.”

But no longer. “Vertigo” has ousted the perennial favorite to be named the best movie ever made by the most respected film magazine, compiled by the most respected film critics. They flipped one Bernard Herrmann score for another.

Why is this big news? Because it changes the way we evaluate film, and calls into question all the cool answers people can give to “the greatest movies of all time.” It feels like the world is dying.

A little dramatic, but hear me out.

Ever since I was old enough to understand what a movie was, “Citizen Kane” has been widely regarded as the best film ever made. This served both as a comfort, because it was a reliable choice, but also as a hinderance, both to the filmmaking world and to the film “Kane” itself. Every film student of the last 50 years has had to watch “Kane” under the title of “THE BEST FILM EVER MADE.” And this easily translated to the cynical “The BEST film ever made?” Too often “Kane” served more as a lightning rod for contrarian scuttle, with people quick to offer their own suggestions to better films.

This was, as I said, kind of comfortable. We could all start from the same point. Even if you didn’t agree it was the best, we had to agree that it was NAMED the best, so you could start your conversation there. Up was up. Down was down. It became a rule. You could watch “Kane,” dissect it and then go off to make your own comparisons in the film world (“OK, how does ’21 Jump Street’ compare?”).

The nearest comparison I can make to “Kane’s” dominance is the Beatles constantly being named as the greatest rock band ever. Any time someone makes a pop music list, numbers 2-100 may trade places, but we’ve had the Beatles at #1 partly because it’s true, and partly because it’s tradition. Again, it was a starting point. Like “Kane,” the Beatles invented so many things that became “normal” that it was easy to get lost in the initial innovation (if that isn’t too redundant).

But no more. At least for film. “Vertigo” first cracked the “S&S” top 10 in 1982 at #7, made it to #4*, then #2, and has now taken the top spot.

Like I said, it feels like the world is ending. But in a good way.

Up is no longer “up.” Changing the film world’s compass as it were calls into question all the other things we hold to be “true.” In a way it says Alfred Hitchcock is a “better” director than Orson Welles, a notion that has always been debatable mostly because — while Hitchcock’s body of work probably beats Welles’ — Orson still had the top prize. It was a slow burn versus an explosion kind of debate.

I’ve personally only seen 4.5 of the top 10 movies (“Vertigo,” “Kane,” “2001,” “The Searchers” and half of “The Passion of Joan of Arc”**). But I’ve seen the top two. And so have, I believe, most casual students of film. So they can all join in this particular debate.

The BIG POINT is that for the longest time people could/would pooh-pooh “Kane” because it was the cool thing to do. And among the cool answers to give for the greatest movie ever was “Vertigo.” No longer. Or at least, not in another couple years. There will probably be a year or two grace period before it becomes un-cool to list “Vertigo” as the best movie — or even best Hitchcock movie. It has been canonized. Given enough time, you might start hearing more and more people confessing to preferring “Kane.”

This is all speculation, obviously.  But I believe it’s perceived as un-cool to list the most popular things as one’s favorite anything. You can’t say you love Led Zeppelin and list “Stairway” as your favorite song. I believe “Revolver” has become the current “best Beatles album” more by nature of not being “Sgt. Pepper” or “Abbey Road,” even though those two albums might have more hit songs or serve as more landscape changing records.

Perhaps I’m alone in my cynicism. Maybe I’m the only person who hears all these rave reviews about “Mad Men” and thinks, “Pfft… it can’t be THAT great.”*** But I don’t think people like to pigeonholed into one thing. Along with the invention of the internet, the qualifying statement has been the biggest innovation in pop culture conversation in the last 20 years. Saying you like something creates your personality. It’s who you are. So people (i.e. I) have to be very careful about just where those “likes” get attached.

I remember the Dr. Wilson character Robert Sean Leonard played on “House” had a poster of “Vertigo” in his office. It was chosen specifically to say something about that character: he may appreciate classics, but he’s not so tied to the beaten path. Or he likes cool posters. Think how differently we might have felt about that character had he hung a “Kane” poster. It would have said something different about him. It would have made him seen pedestrian, like he just read the AFI Top 100 Movies list and picked the top one just to look smart. Picking something that isn’t the #1 _____ sort of shows that you’ve done some research, even if you haven’t.

Personally, I still benefit. I have always contested that “Vertigo” isn’t my favorite Hitchcock film****, so I managed to maintane my coolness.

*It may be worth noting that in 2002, the race was much closer for the top spot. According to Wikipedia, “Kane” got the top spot with 46 mentions, beating out “Vertigo’s” 41. Or not. Not worth mentioning, I mean.

**Among the 10 I’ve seen, I’d rank them thusly:

  1. “Kane,”
  2. “Vertigo,”
  3. “2001”
  4. “The Searchers.”

Like I said, I haven’t finished “Joan of Arc.”

***Turns out, it can.

****Just because you asked:

  1. “Psycho”
  2. “Rear Window”
  3. “Strangers on a Train”
  4. “The 39 Steps”
  5. “Notorious”
  6. THEN “Vertigo”

2 Responses to ““Vertigo” Named #1 Movie, Made Un-Cool”

  1. Um, North by Northwest is the best Hitchcock film.

    There. Argument settled. 🙂

  1. 1 “Vertigo,” Further « Phillip Mottaz Town

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