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Tom's Column - February/March 23

Film Critics Might Be Pretentious – But That’s Not Always A Bad Thing by Tom Beasley

One of the best things that happened to me last year – aside from, you know, marrying the love of my life – was when I was asked to take part in something very prestigious. Every 10 years, the esteemed movie magazine Sight & Sound invites a selection of critics to submit their list of the 10 greatest films of all time. They put all of the lists together to produce what is, theoretically, a definitive ranking of the best movies ever made.

Five decades of polls from 1962 through to 2002 declared Orson Welles classic Citizen Kane to be the greatest movie, with Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo usurping it in 2012. For the latest poll, the size of the electorate was more than doubled to around 1,600 critics. To be included was a huge career achievement for me and a task I took on with a desire to be true to my own taste rather than try to be self-consciously highbrow. My list of 10 included indisputable classics like Singin' in the Rain and Jaws, but I also found room for both Paddington 2 and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. I contain multitudes.

But this column is about something more interesting than my own excitement. It's about the idea of list-making in general. The winner of the 2022 poll was a Belgian film from 1975 with a rather unwieldy title: Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles.

It wouldn't surprise me if you haven't heard of that film, I hadn't, and I'm a professional film critic. Directed by Chantal Akerman, it's a three-hour drama which follows a widowed housewife going about her business across three days. It received little acclaim in 1975, but has since been held up as a milestone of feminist cinema. It had never previously been properly released in the UK, but is now available to stream via the BFI Player service.

The reaction to Jeanne Dielman appearing at the top of the Sight & Sound list was mixed, with many lauding it as a worthy winner and others exasperated that a relatively little-known film came out on top. I have my own feelings about the availability of arthouse films and the inherent class privilege that allows people access to these works, but the point I want to make here is a different one. Jeanne Dielman is an exemplar of the very reason lists like this are worthwhile. They shine a light on important films of which people might not be aware, guiding those who wish to explore the history of the medium.

You might not care much about the Sight & Sound list, but I see this discussion happen all the time when film critics release their lists of the best movies of the year. New York Times critic AO Scott was referred to as an “upper-middle-class zealot” after his list of the best films of 2022 failed to include crowd-pleasing hits like Everything Everywhere All at Once – my personal favourite – and the very fun Top Gun: Maverick. That's an absurd accusation to level at someone simply listing movies they enjoyed.

Movie lists – and the same goes for TV, books, music, etc – do not exist simply to parrot back the most successful and popular films of the year at audiences who already know they're good. I discovered many fairly obscure movies as a teenager precisely because Mark Kermode included them in his annual round-up, and I'll be working my way through as much of the Sight & Sound list as possible next year.

My reaction to seeing a film mentioned that I've never heard of is not to bemoan the out of touch list-makers, it's to be thrilled at the prospect of uncovering a new gem. Sure, critics can be a bit pretentious, but that doesn't mean there's no joy in listening to them.

And you really must watch Everything Everywhere All at Once. It's very special indeed.

© 2023 Tom Beasley

The opinions expressed in this article are personal to Tom Beasley. Tom Beasley is a freelance film journalist living just outside London and originally from Coventry. He can be reached at