Citizen Kane knocked down a notch

After 50 years, Citizen Kane has lost its top seat on the British Film Institute's famed list of the "Top 50 Greatest Films of All Time." The number one spot now goes to Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo (1958). Interestingly, Hitchcock didn't even break the top ten until 1982. "The Top 50 Greatest Films of All Time" (via Dave Pell's NextDraft)


      1.  Citizen Kane didn’t bore me. In fact, I thought it was a really good movie, with a lot to say.  But I was always baffled about the “greatest movie ever” thing.

        1. It’s about innovation.  A lot of the techniques used in “Kane” had never been thought of before.  But now they are practically standard, so modern audiences may not get how revolutionary it was at the time.

          1. How about a warning before linking to TV Tropes? I clicked on your link over an hour ago and just got back now!

          2. “I don’t get why everyone thinks this William Shakespeare guy is such a brilliant writer – I mean, yeah, good stories – but… greatest English-language writer of all time?  Are you kidding me?  His writing is mostly just a bunch of old clichés strung together.”


  1. Good movie, I guess.  It feels so odd that in 2012 the all time best movie involves, Stiff white people in fully buttoned suits, performing in a stag acting style, in heavy make-up, with bad color, stage lighting, in front of obvious blue screens,  and a plot focused on getting dizzy when at great heights.  I mean, WTF?  what is the average age of the people voting on this?

      1. I did and loved it, and I ain’t that old.  So there!

        And truly, if you smoke a little something and watch Citizen Kane while focusing your attention on the cinematography and editing, prepare to have your mind blown.

  2. I’d like to see the trends extrapolated to the point where we can predict what will be the #1 movie in a given year in the future.

  3. Coincidentally I just saw ‘Vertigo’ for the first time last week. It was good, but for me, rather cold – it lacked a lot of the emotional impact I prefer in my personally favorite films (Everything is Illuminated, Amelie).

    And yeah, the fact that the vast majority of these films date to before 1970 makes me inclined to think the voters are older, too. There’s got to be some emotional tie-in here that keeps ’em voting for the older films. It’s not like the movie industry hasn’t made any great movies in the past 20 years.

    1. This is boingboing, so odds are you read the books to the movies you see, but just in case you haven’t, definitely read Everything is Illuminated. I thought the film was pretty good but the book was mindblowing.

  4. Do I detect the subtle influence of one Slavoj Zizek’s ‘The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema’ flowering in the minds of a nation?

    1. I never connected much with Hitchcock until I saw Pervert’s Guide…  I love his take on the Birds my least favorite of Hitchcock’s films. 

      1. Have you seen Susie Bright in The Celluloid Closet talking about the underwear drawer scene in Rebecca?

        1. I haven’t, surprisingly, but I can imagine. That film [Rebecca] is filled with a lot of not so thinly veiled lesbianism. I think my issue with Hitchcock was how goofy his pop-psychology is in his movies. Even as a kid, how could I take it seriously? Maybe that was the point?

          1. When the box sets came out a while back I rewatched all of the Hitchock films. What I ended up coming away from it was that I liked the 50’s films and the last batch of films (for different reasons). For the 50’s films it was an aesthetic appreciation. So the style and overall feel. The late films it was their bald-faced goofy cliche-ridden stories, luridly shot, old-fashioned. And I mean that in a good way – they were a hoot! If they were Italian they would have been giallos by one of the lesser 70’s genre directors.

            The rest of them, including his big films, reminded me of the same kind of Hollywood product that it makes as tentpoles now. Fun for what they are but why would I ever watch them more then once?

  5. Now that I know which film is best, I’ll never have to watch another ever again!  I don’t want to be disappointed.  And what a time and money saver!

  6. Last time I saw Vertigo I was a little put off… it wasn’t as fun as I remembered it from high school, and it did seem a bit shrieky and unsubtle.  I’ll have to dig it up again sometime.  I’ve always enjoyed Citizen Kane (got the one-sheet on my office wall, along with Rope and Two Rode Together, the latter of which I haven’t seen but I do like the poster), but lately I’ve felt the restored version of Touch of Evil was better.  Then again, since Welles made Kane at the ripe old age of 25, that’s pretty goddamned impressive.

    My favorite modern movie would be LotR, and my favorite classic would probably be The Apartment.  Man, that one could stand to be remade with the right cast… not that it needs it, since it’s an awfully modern film for 1960 (the last black-and-white Best Picture Oscar winner until Schindler’s List), but it would stand up very well as a 21st century workplace comedy/drama.  Fran Kubelik couldn’t very well be an elevator operator anymore, but put her in charge of the lobby coffee cart and you could shoot tomorrow with barely any script revisions.

    My brother’s favorite movie is Sullivan’s Travels, and I gotta admit those Preston Sturges comedies are genuinely great.  I suppose our own age has a lot of influence over which pictures we find the “greatest,” but I think part of it comes from how many movies one sees over the course of a lifetime.  Most people half my age simply won’t have seen much more than half the number of movies I’ve seen so far, and will probably be less likely to have gone through many of the older classics, just as I might be less likely to have kept current with the modern stuff, or to have appreciated it at least.

    Just as a footnote, take a look at what came out in 1960, for instance: The Alamo, The Apartment, BUtterfield 8, Cimarron, Elmer Gantry, Exodus, The Grass is Greener, Inherit the Wind, The Magnificent Seven, Never On Sunday, Psycho, The Savage Innocents, Spartacus, The Sundowners, Swiss Family Robinson, The Time Machine, Too Hot to Handle, Wild River… a whole lotta movies that people still regard highly. If we look at a more modern year, say 1998, we see the likes of American History X, Armageddon, BASEketball, Beloved, The Big Lebowski, Buffalo ’66, Bulworth, Clay Pigeons, Dark City, Deep Impact, Ever After, Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas, Gods and Monsters, Godzilla, Happiness, Holy Man, The Horse Whisperer, Meet Joe Black, Mulan, A Night at the Roxbury, The Opposite of Sex, Patch Adams, Permanent Midnight, Pi, Pleasantville, Psycho (again?!), Ronin, Rushmore, Saving Private Ryan, Shakespeare in Love, There’s Something About Mary, The Thin Red Line, What Dreams May Come, Your Friends and Neighbors, and You’ve Got Mail. Plenty of great (and not-so-great) movies there, and I can’t really explain it, but other than certain personal faves like Dark City and Lebowski, I’m much more likely to re-watch (and recommend) those movies made before I was born than the ones that were made in my twenties.

    It’s all so very subjective. I can’t make any convincing case that The Magnificent Seven is any better than, say, Saving Private Ryan, or even Shakespeare in Love, both of which I liked just fine. But I haven’t bothered rewatching those latter two since the week of their initial release, but I saw Magnificent Seven twice in 2004 alone. And I don’t believe I’m the kind of guy who likes old movies just because they’re old. I saw Amelie three times in the theaters, dragged unwilling friends and family to see Shortbus and Kinsey, and I publicly admit to enjoying Neil Marshall’s Doomsday.

    I shrug. At some point, people stopped customarily ranking Stairway to Heaven as the greatest rock song ever, and there was some controversy when it happened. But things like this gotta change, even if it’s only to gin up some fake controversy and attention.

    1. I agree with pretty much everything you wrote, including The Apartment, and how older films are more likely to be re-watched. And Rope, love that one – Hitchcock has so many great films and it’s those “smaller” films like Rope and Notorious that really surprise and astonish you compared to the “bigger” films like Vertigo, To Catch A Thief, etc. Still gotta count North by Northwest as my favorite though.

      Sullivan’s Travels is great but very much a product of its time and I imagine a lot of people will find it difficult to watch. The scene with all the prisoners laughing, where Sullivan makes his big epiphany, is as heartwarming as anything Capra ever did though (and I love those Capra films).

      One case where I disagree a bit is The Magnificent Sevengreat film, but after seeing Seven Samurai (which I’ve seen several times, including twice in theaters) I find The Magnificent Seven lacking (though still quite enjoyable, largely due to the cast).

      Regarding Saving Private Ryan, that film was shocking and powerful to me when it came out (…I was 12 in 1998, and I saw it when it came out on video). I watched it again a couple of years ago and not only does it hold up, but it was even more powerful to me now that I understand things in the film a lot better than a 12-year-old does! I think it might be worth re-watching for you, especially now that there have been nearly fifteen years worth of subsequent war and action films that wouldn’t be the same without it.

      1. Part of the problem with Private Ryan for me is that it works too well.  It’s one of the most harrowing cinematic experiences I’ve ever sat through, and I saw it opening week in Grauman’s Chinese Theater, and to this day that was also the loudest movie experience I’ve ever had.

        After seeing it, I felt in retrospect that it was a pretty extraordinary achievement, and among Spielberg’s greatest movies.  But I don’t ever want to sit through it again.  I just felt emotionally and physically beaten up by the end, and I didn’t need that.  I don’t require a “comfortable” movie experience, but in my case the movie was preaching to the choir about the horrors of war, and doing so in such a loud and gruesome fashion that I felt a moral urge to prevent myself from being deafened and deadened and hardened to it all, lest his movie start to become “entertainment” to me.

        I don’t usually love what Spielberg does anymore, especially when his sentimentality strays into mawkishness, but at certain times, as in Private Ryan and especially in A.I. he gets emotionally sadistic with his audience, and it gets off-putting pretty quickly.

        No argument here that Seven Samurai is a better movie, insofar as such things can be ranked in my personal pantheon, than Magnificent Seven.  My favorite Western is still The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, and coincidentally enough, that is the second of only two classic movies (the other being, of course, The Apartment) which I sometimes dream of seeing remade with the appropriate cast.  Normally I shun remakes of classics as unnecessary and usually inferior, but when I imagine Viggo Mortenson as “Blondie,” Benicio del Toro as “Angel Eyes,” and Cheech Marin as “Tuco,” my ticket is already bought.

        Man, will your own mileage vary!

        1. Ha, you may be right about Ryan. Thinking about it now, I’m not sure I’d want to (or be able to) sit through it again. Just thinking about that part at the end where Old Matt Damon collapses in tears in the cemetery makes me well up a bit!

          I didn’t like A.I. when I saw it when it came out, but I’ve seen it get a lot of praise in recent years on the internet – I will have to give that one another chance.

          A remake of The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly could be really interesting – I would also probably have to rank that as my favorite western if I were forced to choose. I like your cast too (Cheech as Tuco is brilliant) but I think there are a lot of interesting alternative choices if we’re allowed to reinterpret the characters a bit… maybe No Country for Old Men guy as Angel Eyes, and… guess I can’t think of anyone better than Mortenson for Blondie but why not Peter Dinklage for Tuco? ;) 

          It would need the perfect director, with complete creative control, too. Nolan would make it too serious, Tarantino could do it but he’s doing his own western already and probably wouldn’t do a straight remake… not sure who I’d want.

          1. Whenever I think about Ryan, I picture Spielberg and editor Michael Kahn, hunched over the Moviola, going over and over the dailies for the Omaha Beach sequence, all day long for weeks and weeks, putting together this horrific footage into the most gutwrenching sequence they could devise.  And it gives me post-production nightmares.  How could they stand to do it?

            I can sometimes be talked into giving a movie another chance.  I hated Fargo the first time I saw it, but all my friends loved it (including those whose opinions and tastes I trust and value), so I’ll probably get around to giving that one a second chance.

            Not A.I..  Spielberg, trying to channel Kubrick, really pissed me off with that one, and I refuse to waste any more time on it.  Blecch.

            I never thought of Javier Bardem as Angel Eyes… the first time I thought of re-casting TG,TB,ATU was before No Country had been made, and I had never heard of him.  He’d be an excellent Sentenza!

            Now, all we gotta do is get it made before the 66-year-old Cheech gets too old to do it!  Now… who to direct?

            I almost regret that the Coens have already remade a Western, except for the fact that I really liked what they did with it.  It might be fun to see what Raimi would make of it.  The Quick and the Dead was stylish, and could have been really good if it had a meatier script and if Raimi hadn’t been so browbeaten by Hackman.

            Hey, you know who’s still a working director?  Heh… I wonder if anyone could pay Eastwood enough to convince him to do it?

  7. The thing about Citizen Kane isn’t just that it’s a well made, intelligent movie. It’s that it was the first, or one of the first, to do so many different things in cinematography that are today taken for granted, and things in social commentary that today are forgotten and no longer understood.

    For the former matter, it’s the Seinfeld Effect. If you show it to a present day viewer who has never seen the show before, Seinfeld comes off as boring and uninteresting. Why? Because everything that Seinfeld was the very first to do has now become the standard. Everyone else has copied Seinfeld’s playbook, has done all the same things to death by now, to the point that things which were brand new innovations when Seinfeld was originally airing have now turned into the most trite cliches.

    Citizen Kane did things in regards to cinematography that no other movie had ever done before, and many things that wouldn’t be copied or even appreciated for many years after. But when viewed from the perspective of the present day, all those innovations fail to stand out because they’ve become industry standards, because not only are they now ubiquitous, but they’ve even been improved upon and perfected.

    For the latter matter of social commentary, how many modern viewers are even superficially familiar with the complex history surrounding William Randolph Hearst, the man the movie mockingly (and at the time absolutely scandalously) parodied? How many are familiar with Welles’ long career of political activism, of his disdain for injustice and his passionate zeal for righting wrongs and curing social ills? To understand Citizen Kane, you need to understand its context – without which, it’s just a confusing depiction of a complicated man’s unhappy life.

    Citizen Kane is a great film in the way that the Model T is a great car. You’d be crazy to compare the experience of driving in a Model T to that of driving in a modern car. But at the same time, its arrival on the historical scene changed EVERYTHING, and set the bar for what was to come after it.

    Hitchcock was also an innovator in his own way, but I think his works retain more “popularity” with modern viewers because their strengths lie in places other than cinematographic innovation and social commentary. After all, if I’m not mistaken Hitchcock was the man who said “What is drama but life with all the dull bits cut out?”.

    1. One thing I admire about Citizen Kane is that it made such good use of special effects that most people don’t realize it uses them at all, let alone how extensively.

      I also think the parabolic storytelling structure is still some very clever writing. (First scene connects to last scene, second scene matches second-to-last scene and so forth for the entire film.)

    2.  OMG, this! Citizen Kane wasn’t a great movie because it was about a guy who became a megalomaniac because sled. It was because it was the movie that invented modern cinematography. It’s entirely possible that, had Citizen Kane never been made, Hitchcock would still have employed the same dramatic camera work that defines his movies, but Citizen Kane is the giant on whose shoulders everyone who came after stands.   

      1. IMO this makes it an incredibly important film, not the greatest.

        I think that terminology gets confused in these lists.

        I’m a big fan of classic film, but I don’t think anything from before 1970 would appear in my greatest films list – because they were mostly clunky and theatrical.  And why wouldn’t they be?  They were groundbreaking and important, but they were also essentially ‘early prototypes’.  

        They are no more the ‘best films’ than the Wright Flyer is the ‘Best Plane’.

    3. But ‘doing it first’ doesn’t make it the best.

      Is this a list of the greatest films, or a list of films that did things first?

      I think that any good ‘greatest’ list should contain classics, but also contemporary pieces, from any medium or genre.  Unless the suggestion is that we’re getting worse at making good films, which is just silly.  Sure, there are more bad films, but there are also more good films.  Especially if you look outside of Hollywood.

      Same goes for Seinfeld IMO.  I think it was great, and that’s coming from someone on the other side of the world that was the wrong generation for it.  But I think it would be blinkered to suggest that no one has used ‘bits’ from Seinfeld and not improved on them.

    4. Hitchcock was also an innovator in his own way, but I think his works retain more “popularity” with modern viewers because their strengths lie in places other than cinematographic innovation and social commentary

      I agree with you in general, but Hitchcock was one of the other major innovators in terms of cinematography, all through his career. Of course, Hitchcockian cinematography is full of obvious flourish, while Kane isn’t, exactly (though other Welles films are). And the Hitchcock flourishes are all part of the standard canon now too – though nobody has quite mastered the relationship between cinematography and storytelling like Hitchcock did (Welles doesn’t come close on that aspect in Citizen Kane).

      Hitchcock isn’t about social commentary, but about psychological commentary (if that’s a thing). It’s just inherently more relatable and understandable, and translates much better over time. Citizen Kane does have that aspect too, though, and the first time I saw it I didn’t know much about Hearst and still enjoyed the film greatly for its other merits.

      In case it isn’t clear, I am a huge fan of Citizen Kane and Welles in general as well as Hitchcock (though Vertigo is really not one of my favorites of his). I simply don’t think you can truly call one greater than the other in any category.

  8. The first time I visited the mission at San Juan Bautista I was disappointed by the lack of a bell tower. At first I wondered if it had fell victim to the Loma Prieta quake of ’89, but then I found out there never even HAD been a bell tower at that mission. SNEAKY MOVIES!

    Maybe I’ll have better luck visiting the Xanadu estate next time I’m on the gulf coast of Florida.

    1. Nah, he’s too busy with the finishing touches on Star Wars® Classic Original Remastered 4-D Animated Lego-Style BluRay in THX²/Dolphin-Vision.

  9. I find it irksome that it is fashionable to knock Citizen Kane for being technically impressive but narratively cold, but Vertigo is chock full of fancy camera tricks (the famous track-back/zoom-in effect, Stewart’s hallucinogenic freak-out in the middle, etc.).

  10. Good analogy, but I would say Citizen Kane is a better movie than the Model T is a car.  Citizen Kane is at the least the first modern movie, and was years ahead of its time.  I guess my struggle with Vertigo is that when I first watched it, I struggled to pay attention and then  was never very interested in seeing it again.  Citizen Kane I have seen repeatedly and always found it enjoyable although a little dated.  The shift from the first ground breaking modern film to another great film from a few years later just sort raises the question of what the heck these people are voting on.  Is this just the best film they remember seeing in the theater as a kid?

    1. The methodology is here. Basically, 1000+ critics, programmers, etc were asked for their Top 10 greatest films unranked, ie in no order, and 846 responded… 8460 selections spread across 2045 films.  The film with the most votes got the highest rating, simples.

      “As a qualification of what ‘greatest’ means, our invitation letter stated, “We leave that open to your interpretation. You might choose the ten films you feel are most important to film history, or the ten that represent the aesthetic pinnacles of achievement, or indeed the ten films that have had the biggest impact on your own view of cinema.””

      There’s another similar poll of 350 directors out next month, which apparently comes up with a different list.

      1.  To the list’s credit there is a mix of international films (though mostly safe choices but some good “left” field ones – like Histoire(s) du cinéma).  Often it is the case that the “world’s greatest films” lists are filled with the same 200 pre-1980’s English language films.

        1. The lists that I see are usually full of international films. Unless it’s one of those lists where all the films include the words Star Wars, are directed by Peter Jackson or star Christian Bale.

          1. Looking at IMDb’s Top 250, I see that Shichinin no samurai is all the way down to 18 now. It used to be in the top ten, but the bats and hobbits have been climbing. Another ten years and there probably won’t be any international films left in the top 50. IMDB used to be the province of cinemaphiles, but the you-know-whats have taken over.

          2. Something that was once great, won’t necessarily remain great.

            If it’s not still great, it probably wasn’t great to begin with. Thus Oliver winning Best Picture. We still think that Homer and Shakespeare are great and we’ll probably continue to think so for millennia. Shichinin no samurai is unlikely to ever fall from greatness, whereas Star Wars is mildly entertaining pop culture whose renown is unlikely to last past the death of the generation that saw it in theaters.

          3. That just means that something isn’t timeless though; it doesn’t necessarily take away its contextual greatness. As with all things subjective it isn’t free from changes in opinion.

      2. It is interesting that if you ask people what the greatest car they ever drove, they would choose a new one.  Sure some say an e-type Jag of a 57 Chevy is the bees knees, but on a sheer driving pleasure level, your base line ford sedan are worlds better to drive than any great classic.

        If you asked them the greatest painting they ever saw they would choose an old one.  very few modern figures get called masters in a serious way.

        When asked what movie is the greatest.  Most seem to say an old one, some say a moderately old one, and very few say a new one. Yet, clearly Movies are both a technology and an art.

        While I think If Hitchcock could watch the 6th sense, or Alien he would likely poop his pants.

        1. Liked just for the image of Hitchcock crapping his prodigious pants at a screening of Alien.

  11. I watched “Vertigo” recently for the first time since it first came out, and was once again incredulous: We’re supposed to believe Kim Novak is unrecognizable with brown hair? Really? KIM NOVAK? It’s one thing to be asked to suspend one’s disbelief, but quite another to shoot it to the fucking moon.

  12. This re-ranking is a nonsense, two long-existing films do not change their comparative standing.  The only reason for this is the list makers got bored saying the same films year in year out.  Just because they got bored of it is a failing of them, not the film.  If Kane has been the best for decades, then surely the only film that could legitimately surpass it now would be a brand new cinematic height; precious little chance of that though.

    So the BFI is clearly only stirring up debate, and a pointless one at that, as the discourse becomes about changing social perceptions of a low attention spanned public, not the films themselves.

    I vote Cockneys v Zombies to be the best film ever.   Stitch that BFI.

  13. Kane is a series of vignettes about some of people madly searching for the meaning of something that no one knows exists. Remember, there’s no one in that massive empty room when he breathes his last breath on “Rosebud”. I could never get past that huge hole in the story. Seriously disliked the movie – except for one scene (when the man is saying that “Rosebud” need not have been a large point in his life; he, himself, was most deeply touched by a woman he had seen only once, in passing, but the memory of her has followed him through his -long, long – life.) I always thought his acting in”Jane Eyre” was a better example of Welles’ work, but I really think his directoral work of that period is considered great because if he’d been able to continue to make the movies he wanted, he would clearly have become great.

    1. I think many of Welles’ later films, despite their many problems (I think Arkadin is actually more interesting for its problems), are actually more interesting then Citizen Kane. As an example I think Touch of Evil, in whatever version you prefer, is a much more intriguing film (despite Heston) then say Vertigo or Citizen Kane.

  14. Wow,  I’m really surprised by the comments so far.

    I saw the re-release of this film in the theater after the 1996 Robert Harris restoration and it was a profound experience.  

    I felt that emotionally it was the “purest” expression of film making that I had ever seen in my whole life.   Every single creative choice seemed to be working towards a singular goal like no other film that I’ve seen before or since.

    Moved me incredibly.  And that soundtrack!

    1. Vertigo? Glad you could have an experience like that with a film. Goes to show that art can be a subjective experience. My experience with it is something on the opposite end of that spectrum.

      For me, the purest expressions of cinema / most rewarding personal experiences I’ve ever had with cinema are era erera baleibu izik subua aruaren (IMDB link) which is a beautiful hand painted, silent Basque experimental film or maybe Ulrike Ottinger’s 8+ hour Taiga. But those choices are cinema as art rather than cinema as entertainment, however. Not crowdpleasers.

  15. That roof must be very sticky.  Even with what looks like a substantial pitch, and her considerable forward momentum, she stayed up by the base of the tower and didn’t roll off.  

    Maybe this movie was a cutting critique of the laws of physics.

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