If critic Top Ten lists are to be believed, Citizen Kane is the greatest achievement of the film medium so far, the very pinnacle of cinematic perfection. Is it really true that no film has ever surpassed or even matched its quality? Does it really get no better than this film about a rich arsehole screwing up his life?
Of course not. There are better films than Citizen Kane – but not many. Watching it in 2011, which marks its 70th birthday, it is still an utterly breathtaking work of indisputable genius. It’s also an absolute riot to watch. Exquisitely paced, it switches register with exhilarating energy, charging across genres with little respect for convention. Moments of high melodrama give way to farcical comedy. When a long section concerned with the minutiae of newspaper publishing threatens to lag, Welles’ throws in a charming song and dance number. At one moment, out of nowhere, a parrot screams and you jump. For a second Citizen Kane is a horror film.
But it’s when Welles’ cuts out all the dazzle and spectacle and leaves us with Kane, alone in Xanadu, that the film really shines. The sudden rush of emotion surprises us, but Welles knew what he was doing all along. He was giving us what we needed, to understand, to see. A complete, though impressionistic picture of a life wasted. Citizen Kane is vital cinema.