07/26/2012 04:14 pm ET Updated Sep 25, 2012

The Big Showdown: Citizen Kane vs. The Godfather

On August 2, the British magazine Sight & Sound will reveal the results of its survey naming the all-time greatest 100 films. Every 10 years since 1952, leading film critics around the world are polled for this list, which is perhaps the premier highbrow list of top films. While the Top 10 continually changes, one thing has long remained unchanged: Citizen Kane is the greatest film ever.

It's now a cliché. Whenever critics or filmmakers are polled, Citizen Kane (1941) is right there at the head of the list -- a position it has held at least since Sight and Sound's 1962 poll. Kane would appear to be the apex of the art form, like the Mona Lisa and Shakespeare's collected works.

Or perhaps not. Over the years, The Godfather has gradually risen in eminence -- and as it was considered a masterpiece from the moment it hit the theaters in 1972, this is no mean achievement. The Godfather: Part II (1974), probably the best movie sequel (and easily the best prequel) ever made, followed so smoothly that the two movies are often treated as one film. The 2002 Sight and Sound list did exactly that, ranking them fourth place. (In 1992, they were judged as two films, coming sixth and ninth place respectively.)

You could argue that such polls are meaningless hype, but strangely enough, devoted film buffs might disagree. It's good to celebrate greatness, they would suggest. "But you can't compare these films!" you might reply. "They're completely different."

Actually, Citizen Kane and The Godfather saga have much in common. Both are great American tragedies, about idealistic young men who, in their quest to retain power, lose all that they hold dear, especially their principles. Both showcased gifted ensembles. Both were made by hotshot young directors, whose cinematic styles were grandiose and unsubtle enough for everyone to know how brilliant they were. Orson Welles, the auteur (and lead actor) of Kane, once perfectly described his own career: "I started at the top and worked down." Most of the time, the career of Godfather director Francis Ford Coppola has followed the same direction.

In other ways, of course, the two films are very different. Despite its portrayal of affluence, The Godfather was filmed with violent realism. Kane looks like a dream or a fantasy. It has dated (yes, even masterpieces can look dated after 71 years), but in its day it was as technically innovative as Star Wars or Toy Story. Despite its Oscar-winning script, it is almost certainly this technical brilliance that has clinched its place as "the greatest film ever made" so often that you would think it owned the title for eternity.

But then, it wasn't always "the greatest." The first Sight and Sound poll, in 1952, gave that prize to The Bicycle Thieves (1948). Kane didn't even make the top 10. It crept into a top 10 list six years later, coming eighth in a Brussels Film Exhibition poll that was led by Battleship Potemkin (1925).

The Godfather is doing some creeping of its own. It has constantly locked horns with The Shawshank Redemption as the all-time top film, according to users of the Internet Movie Database. In 2003, a year after the last Sight & Sound list, TV Guide readers chose The Godfather: Part II as the greatest film. But the best indication of its critical heights lies not in popular votes, but in film magazines, where it is fashionable for hip, young, Gen-X film critics to devise lists of almost everything. Premiere magazine, listing the best movie characters, named Marlon Brando's Vito Corleone, the mumbling patriarch of The Godfather, as number one. (Charles Foster Kane came fifth.) Premiere's list of the greatest movie scenes was headed by the chilling moment from Part II in which Vito's son Michael (Al Pacino, the "hero" of the Godfather movies) gives his brother Fredo (John Cazale) the kiss of death. ("I know it was you Fredo. You broke my heart!")

Britain's Empire magazine judged The Godfather to have "the greatest ensemble cast" in movie history -- and as if to prove it, their list of the 100 greatest actors ever included three actors from the Godfather movies in the top five. It seems that the Golden Age of Hollywood has fallen in grace compared to the new wave of the 1970s.

Yes, Gen-X critics appear to be smitten by these glossy gangster films. They were never as technically innovative as Citizen Kane (although, like Kane, they did change the art of filmmaking), but as a powerful piece of cinema, Hollywood has possibly never bettered the Godfather saga. Michael Corleone's story is every bit as grand and intriguing as Charles Foster Kane's.

When watching Citizen Kane today, it is difficult to appreciate the power it once had. Its techniques have been copied so much that we take it for granted. It was the same with the previous champion, Battleship Potemkin -- one of the drawbacks of being groundbreaking. The Godfather saga, however, has lost nothing in 30 years. Its rising fame might show that we are now rating excellence ahead of innovation. We are not celebrating the films that did it first, but the films that did it best. About time, too!

Citizen Kane was a favorite with the baby boomers, who ruled film criticism like they ruled most aspects of pop culture. They grew up knowing Citizen Kane, which was made just before they were born. For Gen-X filmmakers and critics (like this writer), The Godfather was similarly well timed. Most of us don't remember a time when there wasn't a Godfather saga. It has always been there: the model cinematic masterwork.

Then again, most of us remember the third Godfather film, made 18 years later for no reason that anyone can work out. This film was not bad so much as disappointing, as Coppola seemed to have lost the brilliance that made two masterpieces in a row. However, it is worth seeing for the look of loneliness and despair of Michael's (or Pacino's) face just before he dies, as he looks back on his wasted life. It is a heartbreaking scene, worth playing to any of those critics who believe that the saga glorified crime. It also reminds us of another parallel between the Corleone story and Kane's story. Michael Corleone did not even need to say "Rosebud" as he collapsed. Like Kane, he dies knowing that he sold his soul for power and success, and it's too late to get it back.

In these days when almost every popular film is part of a saga, and TV sagas like Mad Men and The Sopranos (at the risk of sounding obvious, the closest thing we have to a modern-day Godfather), are winning almost as much acclaim as the greatest films, it seems fitting that the Godfather saga is overtaking Citizen Kane in some critics' "all-time greatest" lists. Eventually, the saga might be superseded by the next generation's film of choice. It is still difficult to imagine what that film will be, or if it has been made yet. But for now, The Godfather, Parts I and II, are being groomed to share the crown -- and that's not such a bad thing. Whether or not they are the best films ever, they are certainly pretty good.