Did “Woke Culture” Sabotage This Best Movies Ever Poll?

Paul Schrader and Oscar Isaac during the production of 'The Card Counter.' Credit: HEIDI HARTWIG/Focus Features
Sight and Sound's Greatest Films of All Time poll came out—and filmmaker Paul Schrader was not happy about the results. 

Like on an actual film set, a film ranking or list will result in many takes. 

Sorry, I had to. 

Sight and Sound asked 1,639 participating critics, programmers, curators, archivists, and academics to submit their top 10 ballots, and the winner this year is Jeanne Dielman 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles

It's a big-time upset and shake-up. It's a changing of the cinematic guard. The list also didn't include regulars like Casablanca and The Godfather—even in the top 10!

Paul Schrader, who penned Taxi Driver (number 29 on the list) took to his active and fiery Facebook account to express his feelings.

Paul Schrader on Sight and Sound Poll

There is a lot to unpack here. Accusations of Sight and Sound cheating may be chief among them!

First off, I respect Schrader a great deal. I enjoyed speaking with him on the No Film School Podcast (check it out below) on his own critical role in cinema history, and how the characters he's circled and crafted over and over again have become such a huge part of society in general. 

But... right now he sounds a little like one of them. And not in a good way. 

Railing against "woke" culture is beneath a man like Schrader. It's a dog whistle for bigots. 

The strict definition of "woke" is "alert to racial prejudice and discrimination." There is nothing wrong with things being woke, there is only something wrong with things that aren't. 

But we also don't want to get derailed by Schrader's misstep here because he has something of value to say. First off, he makes a clear, articulate point about how this ranking on list could serve to undermine the movie itself which he considers great. 

And I would frankly like to stay more on that point, because it's the real gem here. 

Whatever you think of any of the movies on anyone's ballot, you might hear about some movies you haven't seen before and it might inspire you to see them and they, in turn, might inspire you to see the craft, and maybe even the world, a little differently. 

Isn't that the real gift of a list like this? 

Isn't that the real purpose? 

What I would hate is for people to reject Jeanne Dielman 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles on principle now. If anything my hope would be... that people might check it out!

Over the last week, many of the individual ballots have hit Twitter, including Ti West's, which took a lot of heat and almost became a meme unto itself for being so—for lack of a better word—"basic." 

Ti West Sight and Sound poll
The joke is either that West didn't understand the assignment or understood it too well. Most ballots featured films from a variety of eras, nations, and filmmakers of differing backgrounds. West is going strong with the old guard of white men, the classic films of the 1970s and earlier. 

But to criticize a list someone makes of favorite movies is an even more pointless exercise than making a list of best movies in the first place. 

It would be better to call the list "100 movies everyone should see" and continue to revise it. It doesn't even mean there aren't 200 movies everyone should see (there are) it just means that this poll of this group prioritized this list. 

This is what Schrader, I think, fails to grasp in his complaint. Nobody can really submit a list of the 10 best movies ever made. It's an impossible task for multiple reasons. Do any of us truly even know within our own minds what the best movies ever made are? 

The more movies I see and the older I get the more my own list changes and shifts over time. There could easily be 20 best movies I've ever seen... or more. There could be 10 different favorites on any given day. 

There is a way to create value out of this list and use it to expand who we are and what we do, and there is also a way to use it to limit us, and to limit the scope of our understanding. 

Perhaps the worst aspect of Schrader's take is that he seems upset that more people are voting. He suspects foul play, and I'm in no position to comment on that either way, but what I can say with confidence is that if he likes the concept of democracy he should like the idea of more people voting. The politically correct rejiggering as he has stated is a reflection of the actual society of filmgoers and filmmakers we live in. 

Is it a reflection of me personally? 

Absolutely not. 

But I'm a white cisgender straight male, born in 1981. My list looks a lot more like Ti Wests or AFI's 100. 

That's because for the first, what? Eighty years of cinema? Most voices were drowned out. Most types of people hardly got a turn at bat. There are a lot of years of great movies made by people like me! For people like me! About people like me!

Same for Mr. Schrader. 

I don't think Mr. Schrader, Mr. West, and I need to worry that The Godfather and Casablanca have fallen in prominence. I think those movies and their legacies are gonna be fine. 

Instead, let's celebrate the inclusion of some lesser-known classic works by different filmmakers, present here finally because the voting pool was expanded, and with it, one hopes, are our horizons expanded as well.      

Author's note: I will NOT be including my Sight and Sound, as much as this article tempted me to do so. But I'll just say a list of 100 movies that doesn't include Airplane! (1980) is absolute hogwash. 

Your Comment

22 Comments

So, what you're saying is we shouldn't be picking films based on HOW good they are.
But we should pick them based on WHO made them.

That's why film festivals have become so shitty.
Selecting movies based all around social relevant content, and wether the filmmaker falls within the "less represented" classification, regardless of talent.

December 5, 2022 at 5:03PM

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When I went to film school back in the early 90s, I was raring to make the same Hollywood garbage I had grown up watching. I was exposed to some good cinema by my mother, but every piece of film I had seen up till then had been made by a white male, whether they were French, Italian, or American. Of course, I hadn’t ever thought of that as a concept - and no one really talked about it in the early 90s.

In college, I had some pretty amazing professors who exposed me to the ridiculously amazing work of Maya Deren and Larisa Shepitko, for example. I also took a class on ethnographic films that melted my brain and completely changed my conception of what cinema was. By the time I graduated, I no longer wanted to make Hollywood-style narratives. I’ve since seen hundreds of films that would never be considered for S&S list, but are infinitely more profound and interesting than, say, The Godfather. I was lucky enough to see a retrospective of Soviet films made by women — I kid you not when I say that every film in the series was equally as compelling as any Scorsese film from the 70s - but you’ll never see any of them, and they won’t ever be considered for this stupid “best of” list.

I’m not denying that The Godfather and Apocalypse Now, for example, are great films - I’m just saying that they represent a myopic worldview, but it’s the only worldview for a majority of people since they don’t have access to see films made by women or marginalized people — especially since filmmaking is an expensive endeavor, and distribution is incredibly tough.

We shouldn’t be afraid or defensive that other people get to tell their stories and share their experiences. We should welcome seeing new faces, new locations, and new conflicts.

December 5, 2022 at 8:14PM

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And again, wether the filmmaker is "marginalized" or not, should be irrelevant in deciding wether a movie is good or not.

December 6, 2022 at 11:57AM

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Exactly. I totally agree. A film should be analyzed only for its qualities and defects and not for who made it (a man, a woman, an alien or a robot). If we analyze films based on political, social and cultural issues and not just taking into account their qualities or defects, there will be bizarre distortions in the results of "lists of best films" (like this list) and in awards (as currently happens year after year in the Oscars). Such analyses will be superficial and the choices made will be ridiculed after a short time (like "Green Book"winning the Academy Award for Best Picture and not "Rome").

December 7, 2022 at 5:25PM

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To answer the question of the article:

Yes, woke culture is definitely apparent in the sights and sounds poll.

And it's fake woke culture btw. Clearly there was barely latino inclusion. Just the same ol' what trends and makes us look good.

December 5, 2022 at 8:49PM

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"But I'm a white cisgender straight male, born in 1981."You are placing yourself into a racist category. Right now if you want to enter a major film festival in the US; you have to fill out a form that asks sexual orientation, skin color, etc. Soon they will ask who you vote for and who your ancestors where. Anyway, History puts everything in its place. The most popular and highly considered composer in Europe in the late 18Th. Century was Vicente Martín y Soler (no one remembers him now). But over time, Mozart is the one that has been appreciated (because he composed better music).

December 6, 2022 at 3:19AM

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Javier Diez
Film
580

It is a great film, no question, but does it deserve top spot? I don’t think it does. This list smacks of politics; wouldn’t necessarily call it “woke” but it is definitely a reflection of the bizarre times we are living in.

December 6, 2022 at 5:00AM

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Can we please stop busting out the “strict definition” every time someone uses “woke” in a critique? We all know what he meant and how he meant it (whether you agree with him or not), but “You know the definition of ‘woke’ is…”. You’re doing the same dog whistle to the other side. “I’m not saying he’s a racist but nudge, nudge, wink, wink”. And no, I’m not implying that you implying that. It just comes across as a lazy way to take the high ground. The rest of your article/commentary stands just find on it’s own (if not more so).

December 6, 2022 at 6:55AM

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I've got to say I'm a little disappointed. The article's headline made me think we'd be diving into whether the poll had been influenced or not... but it was all about saying "heck no it didn't". I really expected an objective analysis, while this is more of an opinion piece, which isn't bad... but it would have been much more accurate to use "“Woke Culture” Did Not Sabotage This Best Movies Ever Poll" as a headline.

Me, I think it did influence, not sabotage, quite a lot, but not on purpose, and I can't really grasp how negative or positive that is. That's the analysis I was hoping to read about.

December 6, 2022 at 7:19AM

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Can we finally do away with ranking the "greatest films of all time". Who really cares? Who are these lists even for? Obviously any sort of ranking system, like award shows, are going to be steeped in politics. Schrader is right in this case as Sight and Sound saw an opportunity to look progressive and make some headlines by giving the top spot to a female director. Unfortunately the film is still made by a white, European director so how progressive is it really? You're right in saying that there are many many great films made outside of the western world that never get any recognition on these lists. But who cares about these lists anyways?

December 6, 2022 at 10:35AM

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I think the argument that you can’t determine what the “best of” is for any category is a little weak. There are ways of determining that - chief among them is how influential they, how many times they’ve been copied or referenced.

A filmmaker shouldn’t limit themselves to a best of list because they should be looking to expand their vocabulary but that is a different exercise from those compiling a “best of” list.

December 6, 2022 at 10:35AM

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Nathanael Neveux
Cinematographer, Editor
143

"chief among them is how influential they, how many times they’ve been copied or referenced." I have to see this film by Chantal Ackerman, it may be good but can't be up to the classics precisely because that. People is not dumb. Kathryn Bigelow is well known by herself. Leni Riefensthal was a pioneer and groundbreaking filmmaker that still influences cinematography, commercials, music videos and fashion photography. The opening of Olympiad is a music video, or fashion commercial, still modern. However she was member of the Nazi party.

December 6, 2022 at 12:18PM

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Javier Diez
Film
580

Woke culture is the worst. It’s no different than radical Christianity. We still look for witches to burn.

December 6, 2022 at 3:01PM

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You're an old white man in your 70's.
Woke or not, culture is none of your concern anymore.
Make better use of your time than trolling on a site geared towards helping young filmmakers better learn the craft.

December 6, 2022 at 6:56PM

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Tom MacLeod
Director/ Director of Photography/ Editor
154

So, people over 70 have no place in culture? What’s wrong with you? Why do you turn violent when someone speaks their mind? Don’t be a sheep, think for yourself, and trust that everything old will be new again.

December 8, 2022 at 8:44AM

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That comment reeks of ageism. And from someone who is in the industry is incredibly myopic. Heres the difference. You never heard the likes of Scorsese or Coppola EVER put down older film makers. They only ever praised and celebrated Fellini , Kurosowa, Bergman, Hitchcock etc They understood that their legacy was extremely influential and important. As opposed to the current generation who want to dismiss and cancel the past as if somehow there is no worth or value in it.

December 9, 2022 at 3:09PM

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Reg Cribb
Screenwriter/playwright
81

It's such a shame when old film legends utter the word "woke".
The industry is changed. Women, LGBTQ+, and BIPOC artists are finally getting the opportunities that have been exclusive to white men since the beginning of Film.
The power dynamic is shifting, as it should.
Yes, this means that us white males have less power and fewer opportunities, but so fucking what?
Giving everybody else the opportunity and support to thrive as artists just means we all have to work harder. And that's a good thing.
Because if you're a white dude, and can't make shit happen in this industry, you're clearly bad at this. And it's best that you get the fuck out of the way.
Because you're taking up space and just creating problems for everybody.
And Paul Schrader is clearly creating problems.

December 6, 2022 at 7:15PM

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Tom MacLeod
Director/ Director of Photography/ Editor
154

We'll see what the Audience says. They pay to watch movies, renew streaming subscription or watch a classic from the list. Did you know that?

December 6, 2022 at 11:36PM, Edited December 6, 11:39PM

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Javier Diez
Film
580

No offence, but participation trophies don't help anyone in life. I watched many films at a festival last year, not going to name it here, but a handful of feature films were nominated for best feature. There was a very clear winner, made by a POC filmmaker, but it didn't win. Instead, an indigenous filmmaker won and their film was possibly one of the worst films I've ever seen at a festival in my life. I've seen some great indigenous films, but this one felt like it was made by a high school student. Yet it won best feature film. Even their bio felt like it was written by a teenager. The entire thing was a participation trophy and the obvious winner, who made an outstanding feature film (excellent cinematography, acting, editing, sound design) didn't win. Did it hurt them? Probably not, but what was the point in giving accolades to someone who should get the same generic 'sorry we couldn't include your film this year' email that thousands receive every day.

Additionally, I heard a story last week from a POC actor who told me they worked on an indigenous short film that received 100K budget. I said that sounded pretty cool and asked if it felt like a 100K film. The actor told me it didn't. They said the filmmaker was very inexperienced and was overwhelmed with the massive budget. It ended up causing them to make mistakes and require extensive reshoots. The film, in the actors opinion, wasn't festival worthy. Guess what, it played at one of the biggest festivals-- that most new filmmakers will only dream of getting their films into. The actor said the director leveraged the fact they were underrepresented to get these opportunities. Again, there is amazing indigenous content out there, just not sure why sub-par work gets undeserved accolades.

Additionally, if identity politics aren't to some degree performative then why are disabled people so underrepresented on the film festival and grant recipient lists? Many film festivals don't include disability on the 'confirm your identity checklist'. It's because disability isn't a buzzword and doesn't always show up on a photo-op for external communications, despite the barriers they face.

December 7, 2022 at 5:15PM, Edited December 7, 5:21PM

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why are there more ads than article in Film School?

December 8, 2022 at 7:32AM

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Taras
103

You’ll know the best films by the number of people that go to watch them. Woke films suck, they’re not funny, the hero’s are weak, the characters and story have a political agenda in them, and everyone knows it. They’re tuning out and those films are losing money. Nobody outside of the film industry gives two tinker shits who made the film, if it’s inclusive, and checks all the woke BS or not. The general public cares if it’s worth the money to rent, buy, subscribe, or go to the theater to watch it. Take for example Kathryn Bigelow, the director of Hurt Locker, Zero Dark Thirty and many others. She is an amazing film maker, but most people don’t know the gal that makes badass action films is a woman, and nobody cares. We only care if you make badass films or not. Focus on quality not politically correct woke bullshit.

December 8, 2022 at 10:44AM

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D Jones
DP, Editor, Animator
206

Lists are dumb because art is subjective

December 13, 2022 at 12:31AM

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