Tashman: It was not my purpose, seldom is my purpose here, to simply demolish arguments for disagreeing opinions (and all yours, mine, and the SIGHT AND SOUND participants' judgments are, agreed, only opinions). Undoubtedly, as you rightly suggest, critics and directors pick CITIZEN KANE or some other worthy film THE BEST for a variety of reasons. A glance at human nature would suggest that a film (or any other work of art) one experiences at a particular moment, in coming of age perhaps, in savoring maturity, or in the the recognition of aging, will be the one remembered as best.
For instance, to bolster your point, the SIGHT AND SOUND critics did not pick CITIZEN KANE the "Best Film of All Time" in 1952. Many of them in Europe would not have seen it because their country was occupied or they were off fighting a the most terrible war in history. In America, the War had created a barrier which clouded what had existed before, and Post-War Welles, in all his multi-forms, was an appreciably reduced figure. Color was coming in big time, Television was replacing Radio, and the Republicans had taken over the White House. Welles was a Radio figure who had made one esteemed important film in CITIZEN KANE (disappointing at the box office), already in its monochrome grandure as historical a chronicle work as any of Shakespeare's, and the political or social causes underlying his work were, in 1952, either being swept away or not yet come to fruition. For my part, CITIZEN KANE crystalized ideas sensed while listening to the pre-war Mercury Theater on the Air, and I believed it was the best film I'd ever seen because of its impact upon me, at the age of ten. Hardly, a logical basis for such a conclusion.
But granting your generational explanation or demur, no film other than CITIZEN KANE (in the person of Charles Foster Kane), certainly no other American film, sums up so grandly, so ironically, so ruefully the American experience in the 20th Century. If a man like Kane could win life's lottery and fail so badly then anyone could. Perhaps, Europeans, from their destitution after two world wars, looking at the distant glitter of incredibly rich America, saw that recognition, too. From every standpoint, CITIZEN KANE became Cinema's towering achievement.
VERTIGO, a film which keeps coming up in your remarks, seems to me a reasonable rival to CITIZEN KANE, in many ways. [Another film often mentioned, 8 1/2, is to me solipsistic and self-referential, fatally attractive to film critics and film buffs like ourselves.] Both . . . KANE and VERTIGO are about power, the fear of its loss, guilt over wielding it, regret at its costs. As someone said to me the other day, Hitchcock made the same film over and over again until he formulated his truth completely in VERTIGO. Personally, the film grows on me from year to year, but in the larger view of life, CITIZEN KANE still encompasses us all more completely. As Hadji suggests, Welles, unlike Hitchcock, got it right the first time in CITIZEN KANE, and then, went on for nearly forty years making other films about different aspects of the masterpiece he had achieved right off the bat.
"Anyway, the main point is this: among people of sound judgment, I think there are as many who rate Welles as the greatest or among the greatest of directors (per your anecdote) and who thus put KANE on lists merely to stand for Welles or his body of work, as there are those who are just genuinely crazy for the movie CITIZEN KANE. Added to which, people factor in historical import--something that, when married with overall excellence, will trump comparisons with other works."
I entirely agree with you, Tashman.