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Opening Arguments

Dizzying climb

"Vertigo"? The best movie of all time? Really?

Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo has overthrown Citizen Kane as the greatest film of all time, according to British magazine Sight & Sound. Citizen Kane had previously won the top spot in each decade since 1962. (Bicycle Thieves won the first Sight & Sound poll in 1952.) Vertigo’s rise to the top spot was not unheralded, however: It has risen in the poll’s estimation each decade since 1982, and came unusually close to unseating Citizen Kane in 2002.

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The Sight & Sound poll was compiled from the top-ten lists of 846 critics, programmers, academics and other movie-lovers, who together nominated more than 2,000 different films. Sight & Sound determines no criteria for “greatest,” suggesting only that “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.” The poll is generally considered to be the most respected and the best barometer of changes to the canon over time. Roger Ebert wrote in 2002, “it is by far the most respected of the countless polls of great movies—the only one most serious movie people take seriously.”

Don't get me wrong. I'm glad to see "Citizen Kane" deposed, if only to the No. 2 spot. I've always thought it was honored for so long because of the movie-making techniques it introduced, not because it was particularly entertaining or thought-provoking.

But I'm not even sure "Vertigo" is Hitchcock's best, let alone "the" best. (DISCLAIMER: Obviously I have no special qualifications to be a move critic, so when I say "the best," please read that as "what I like the best.") "North by Northwest" is by far a more enjoyable movie, and "Psycho" seems to have been the most influential on other filmmakers.

How do even the experts decide what is "best" -- how do they separate objective criteria from their own preferences and prejudices? If I were trying to be objective, for, example, I might put "Casablanca" at the top of my list or very near it. But that's not even my favorite Bogart "hero trying to be an anti-hero and not quite pulling it off" movie, an honor that goes to "Key Largo."