Wednesday night the American Film Institute revealed their 10th Anniversary Updated List of 100 Best American Movies. In the more or less pre-Internet days of 1997 this original list was epic. There was nothing else out there like it, and my friends and I spent hours arguing over placement, omissions, etc. Perhaps most importantly, more than any other factor it was this list that prompted me to start making a serious effort to see classic films. I can only say the experience has been totally awesome. It was like discovering porn under your bed you didn't know was there. We are so conditioned to think that only new movies are worth watching. How many of you never venture beyond the wall at Blockbuster? (Quick True Story; the other day I was trying to persuade Kaida to rent GROSS POINTE BLANK for a movie night with friends. When she suggested it her friend said "Isn't that an old movie?" This about a film that came out in 1997!)
When the original AFI list came out I think I'd seen under half of the films. Over the next few years I slowly whittled my no-see list down to a bare handful. Now the new list has come out, with 23 new additions, which means more movies to see. However, some of the selections, many of the rankings, and most importantly: SOME UNFORGIVABLE OMISSIONS have prompted me to take drastic action. But before I get into that I wanted to analyze the new list. (This may seem huge, but I promise it reads fastly.)
Before we begin you should know how the AFI did their list. Over 1500 ballots were sent out to actors, directors, writers (read: anyone in the movies who was important) as well as movie critics, movie historians and other celebrities. (For example, I know Bill Clinton got a ballot last time around, which prompted my mother to complain, "Oh great. He's probably looking for movies with cigars.")
On the ballot were 400 choices, of which the voter got to pick 100 and rank them. Several write-ins were allowed for those not on the ballot. The criteria they AFI was looking for was spelled out:
* Feature-length: Narrative format typically over 60 minutes in length.
* American film: English language, with significant creative and/or financial production elements from the United States.
* Critical Recognition: Formal commendation in print, television, and digital media.
* Major Award Winner: Recognition from competitive events including awards from peer groups, critics, guilds and major film festivals.
* Popularity Over Time: This includes success at the box office, television and cable airings, and DVD/VHS sales and rentals.
* Historical Significance: A film's mark on the history of the moving image through visionary narrative devices, technical innovation or other groundbreaking achievements.
* Cultural Impact: A film's mark on American society in matters of style and substance.
I don't really have a problem with those criteria, but I would have added two other rules (which we'll get to later). Just for your own edification, you might want to take a look at the original list. The main thing that bothered me about the original was how many "historical" films were included for cultural impact alone.
This is an important point. Many people think that all films fall apart over time as technology changes, production values improve and perhaps most important the fact that acting has gotten better. (And before you get mad, think about it. I love old classic movies, but most of the time the stars aren't really acting. They are projecting a persona that is pretty much the same from movie to movie, and more-or-less themselves. This makes sense because of how larger-than-life the stars were. Back then if you wanted to be an "actor" you did theatre. Times of changed somewhat and now many actors take their craft totally seriously. Today you really only see the "persona-acting" in Comedies and Action films. (On the flip side, there are those who think that all good movies came out decades ago and everything today is crap. That's just silly. We only remember the good films from ages-past, not all the terrible ones.)
The point is, while films are dated by their times and limitations, the great movies transcend that. Once you quickly get beyond those issues the story comes through loud and clear and the greatness of a movie will shine on. But sometimes they simply don't, and that should be considered. However, I empathize with the desire to honor those films. This is why I hope the AFI one day does a list of cultural impact movies so we can see the films that changed America (even if they are no longer relevant).
I guess the best way for me to begin dissecting the new list is to mention the films that were dropped from the first list to the on that list that dropped off for the new list. (The number indicates what ranking they were back then):
39. Doctor Zhivago (1965)
44. The Birth of a Nation (1915)
52. From Here to Eternity (1953)
53. Amadeus (1984)
54. All Quiet on the Western Front (1930)
57. The Third Man (1949)
58. Fantasia (1940)
59. Rebel Without a Cause (1955)
63. Stagecoach (1939)
64. Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)
67. The Manchurian Candidate (1962)
68. An American in Paris (1951)
73. Wuthering Heights (1939)
75. Dances With Wolves (1990)
82. Giant (1956)
84. Fargo (1996)
86. Mutiny on the Bounty (1935)
87. Frankenstein (1931)
89. Patton (1970)
90. The Jazz Singer (1927)
91. My Fair Lady (1964)
92. A Place in the Sun (1951)
99. Guess Who's Coming to Dinner (1967)
Several observations: Most of the films removed from the new list just don't hold up, with Guess Who's Coming to Dinner perhaps at the forefront. This film was staggeringly controversial when it came out and sent shockwaves through the cultural landscape. However, you look at it now and it seems almost silly. The Jazz Singer, Birth of a Nation, All Quiet on the Western Front and A Place in the Sun should be included among those that were culturally important but no longer retain the impact. To a lesser extent Giant, Rebel Without a Cause Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Stagecoach and From Here to Eternity do too. (No way Eternity gets cut if Sinatra was still alive.) I'm extremely surprised that Dr. Zhivago, Amadeus and The Manchurian Candidate went down in flames, while jumping for joy that the detestable Fargo dropped.
What I find nearly unforgivable is Dances With Wolves. I just saw that for the first time last fall and was blown away by how good it was. Perhaps the Costner effect came into play, but you can't tell me that's not one of the best 100 American movies. This brings us to The Third Man, a film that should arguably be in the top 20. It was at this point I got homicidally angry, realizing something had to be done.
Before we get into the new list I wanted to tell you that you can take a look at the 400 movies voters had to choose from this time around. Go to the AFI site and click on this page to download both the list and the ballot (both PDFs, and you have to sign up, which just means putting in your email address and home state). Because this column is already so massive I had to cut the section where I analyzed the ballot, but I will say that these movies DID NOT belong on the list: RAY, GOOD NIGHT AND GOOD LUCK, APOLLO 13, AS GOOD AS IT GETS, AUSTIN POWERS, BABE. A BEAUTIFUL MIND. THE BIG CHILL, BOOGIE NIGHTS, CHICAGO.
Conversely, while there is no way they make the top 100, I was pleased (and sometimes amused) to see the following among the nominees: BIG, BLAZING SADDLES, BLUE VELVET, A CHRISTMAS STORY, DIE HARD, FAST TIMES AT RIDGEMONT HIGH, FIELD OF DREAMS, BULL DURHAM, FIGHT CLUB.
Here are 91-100 of the 2007 List:
91. "Sophie's Choice" (1982)
92. "Goodfellas" (1990)
93. "The French Connection" (1971)
94. "Pulp Fiction" (1994)
95. "The Last Picture Show" (1971)
96. "Do the Right Thing" (1989)
97. "Blade Runner" (1982)
98. "Yankee Doodle Dandy" (1942)
99. "Toy Story" (1995)
100. "Ben-Hur" (1959)
Observations: Putting Ben-Hur at 100 is criminal. You can make a case for Top Ten and at the lowest it's Top Fifteen. Just criminal. Pulp Fiction should be at least 60 spots higher too. Bastards. Yankee Doodle Dandy is a ridiculous choice, and I hate Goodfellas, so it pains me it made the list. (But I know others disagree.) Do The Right Thing has not aged well and while I love Toy Story in light of the fact that it's one of only two animated films I have to ask: is this the second best animated film ever?
Here are 81-90
81. "Spartacus" (1960)
82. "Sunrise" (1927)
83. "Titanic" (1997)
84. "Easy Rider" (1969)
85. "A Night at the Opera" (1935)
86. "Platoon" (1986)
87. "12 Angry Men" (1957)
88. "Bringing Up Baby" (1938)
89. "The Sixth Sense" (1999)
90. "Swing Time" (1936)
Observations: I know people are going to hate on Titanic, but get a life. Of course it goes on the list. Glad to see 12 Angry Men join the list. I saw that last week and it still crackles. The Sixth Sense has been downgraded as of late, but that's still one of the most powerful first-viewings I've ever had in a theatre. Sunrise is a fraud. Not only does it not hold up (more of a historical wonderment), but it's not an American film! It's German, people, but skated by because it's silent.
Here are 71-80
71. "Saving Private Ryan" (1998)
72. "The Shawshank Redemption" (1994)
73. "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" (1969)
74. "The Silence of the Lambs" (1991)
75. "In the Heat of the Night" (1967)
76. "Forrest Gump" (1994)
77. "All the President's Men" (1976)
78. "Modern Times" (1936)
79. "The Wild Bunch" (1969)
80. "The Apartment" (1960)
Observations: Putting Saving Private Ryan this low is reason enough to take hostages. If I wasn't already so angry about Ben-Hur and Pulp Fiction I'd rail more, but I'm saving my ammunition for later. Modern Times belongs in the historical list, but if you WERE going to have a Chaplin film, it could be ranked no higher than this. This is a fairly good ten-spot.
Here are 61-70
61. "Sullivan's Travels" (1941)
62. "American Graffiti" (1973)
63. "Cabaret" (1972)
64. "Network" (1976)
65. "The African Queen" (1951)
66. "Raiders of the Lost Ark" (1981)
67. "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" (1966)
68. "Unforgiven" (1992)
69. "Tootsie" (1982)
70. "A Clockwork Orange" (1971)
Observations: I had never even heard of Sullivan's Travels, let alone seen it. (I will be renting it today to see what all the fuss is about.) I hate Hate HATE Unforgiven, but apparently I'm the only one. A Clockwork Orange is British, but it's not the only clearly British film to make the list, so I guess there's some Anglo-nepotism going on. Network and Raiders strike me as ranked marginally too low, while African Queen, if it should make the list at all should be much lower.
Here are 51-60
51. "West Side Story" (1961)
52. "Taxi Driver" (1976)
53. "The Deer Hunter" (1978)
54. "M*A*S*H" (1970)
55. "North by Northwest" (1959)
56. "Jaws" (1975)
57. "Rocky" (1976)
58. "The Gold Rush" (1925)
59. "Nashville" (1975)
60. "Duck Soup" (1933)
Observations: Just look at how good this ten-spot is (except for Gold Rush, included for the ridiculous Chaplin-worship Hollywood has), and consider that none of them could crack the Top 50. If you watched 9 out of 10 of these films you could honestly say you never watched 9 better movies in a row.
Here are 41-50
41. "King Kong" (1933)
42. "Bonnie and Clyde" (1967)
43. "Midnight Cowboy" (1969)
44. "The Philadelphia Story" (1940)
45. "Shane" (1953)
46. "It Happened One Night" (1934)
47. "A Streetcar Named Desire" (1951)
48. "Rear Window" (1954)
49. "Intolerance" (1916)
50. "Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring" (2001)
Observations: So they kick off Griffith's more important Birth of a Nation because it's racist and put on his apologetic follow-up Intolerance? If I were going to include that one it would be in the 90s at best. But let's get to what you're all staring at: LOTR. I will end the suspense right now and tell you that Fellowship of the Ring is the only film from this decade included. Yup, you read that right. Forget all the other 2000s' movies that deserve it, HOW CAN YOU RANK FELLOWSHIP BUT NOT RETURN OF THE KING?????? I feel like Fellowship should possibly be ranked higher (I only hedge because the movies are so connected that it's hard to separate where they rank as individual entities), but I KNOW that Streetcar, It Happened One Night and Rear Window should be.
Here are 31-40
31. "The Maltese Falcon" (1941)
32. "The Godfather, Part II" (1974)
33. "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" (1975)
34. "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" (1937)
35. "Annie Hall" (1977)
36. "The Bridge on the River Kwai" (1957)
37. "The Best Years of Our Lives" (1946)
38. "The Treasure of the Sierra Madre" (1948)
39. "Dr. Strangelove" (1964)
40. "The Sound of Music" (1965)
Observations: I'm mildly surprised that Sound of Music is only 40, and that 15 spots higher than last time at that. Maltese Falcon should be higher, and I ask you seriously: is Snow White the best American animated movie? How does the holy trinity (Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, Lion King) not even get one slot? Don't get me wrong: I love Snow White, but does it compare? For the record, Godfather II is the only sequel to make the list. At least three should have, and that's not counting The Apple Dumpling Gang Rides Again.
Now we get reaaally serious. Here are 21-30
21. "Chinatown" (1974)
22. "Some Like It Hot" (1959)
23. "The Grapes of Wrath" (1940)
24. "E.T. -- The Extra-Terrestrial" (1982)
25. "To Kill a Mockingbird" (1962)
26. "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" (1939)
27. "High Noon" (1952)
28. "All About Eve" (1950)
29. "Double Indemnity" (1944)
30. "Apocalypse Now" (1979)
Observations: In my mind this ten-spot generally represents movies the voters either were heavily influenced by or made themselves. In other words, while I don't begrudge a single one on the list, 8 out of ten seem moderately to severely too high. (Especially Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and High Noon. What is it about the American Ethos and our hero worship?) E.T. is arguably the best film of the '80s and it grates to see it here, but most of the voters were already adults, so they just don't understand.
And we come to the most controversial ten-spot, 11-20
11. "City Lights" (1931)
12. "The Searchers" (1956)
13. "Star Wars" (1977)
14. "Psycho" (1960)
15. "2001: A Space Odyssey" (1968)
16. "Sunset Boulevard" (1950)
17. "The Graduate" (1967)
18. "The General" (1927)
19. "On the Waterfront" (1954)
20. "It's a Wonderful Life" (1946)
Observations: Where do I start? 11-15 are significantly higher than last time, while 16-20 are significantly lower, save The General,The which wasn't even on the last list! I love Buster Keaton, but #18? The biggest affront—probably of the entire list—is City Lights at #11. More Chaplin worship, and this time they've gone too far. It's beyond ridiculous: it's beyiculous. 2001 is vastly overrated too, and while I love Psycho, I'm not sure it goes this high. On the plus side, kudos to The Searchers for the biggest move in the countdown, up 84 spots! And while I'm glad Star Wars moved up two spots (although it belongs in the Top Ten and I will fight to the death anyone who disagrees), the mere presence of Star Wars illustrates that Empire Strikes Back didn't make the list!! Again, you simply cannot tell me it's not one of the 100 greatest American films. I think I'm going to be sick.
Might as well get the Top Ten over with before I hurl
1. "Citizen Kane" (1941)
2. "The Godfather" (1972)
3. "Casablanca" (1942)
4. "Raging Bull" (1980)
5. "Singin' in the Rain" (1952)
6. "Gone With the Wind" (1939)
7. "Lawrence of Arabia" (1962)
8. "Schindler's List" (1993)
9. "Vertigo" (1958)
10. "The Wizard of Oz" (1939)
Observations: I'm not sure what was a bigger shock: that Raging Bull moved up 20 spots to make the Top Ten (overshadowing Vertigo moving up 52 spots to make a well-deserved entry), or that Godfather flip-flopped with Casablanca for the #2 spot. I was watching this with Kaida and about fell out of bed when I saw #4 and #3. (She was on the phone, so don't start any rumors, you pervs.)
Other thoughts: I fully acknowledge Lawrence of Arabia's greatness, but I think it should be 20 spots lower. Maybe I'm prejudiced because it was the start of the whole "And a white man shall lead them" Hollywood phenomenon, but that's how I feel. And I know you all seem to love Oz, but while I respect your right to feel that way I'd rank it 50 spots lower and you can't talk me out of it. As for Raging Bull, it's not that I don't think it should be ranked this high (it would have a strong shot of making my Top Ten), it's just that I don't trust the motives behind the jump. Ten years ago Scorsese was an afterthought on the American Movie scene, and the rankings reflected that. Ten years later he's made three hugely successful (by critical standards) films: Gangs of New York, The Aviator and The Departed, and is high on everyone's Cool Quotient, which I'm positive, led to that big movement. I mean, it's not like America rediscovered that film. I'm sure all of this is political, but I hate it when the process is so transparently so.
I loathe being so negative, but this list provokes strong reactions in me. Nowhere is that more evident than in the omissions. Just off the top of my head I can think of several movies that should be in here. Where is The Magnificent Ambersons, or for that matter A Touch of Evil, not to mention The Third Man? (It's like by ranking Citizen Kane #1 the AFI absolved itself of any more involvement with the immortal Orson Welles.) Maybe you can argue against John Wayne's True Grit, but how about The Quiet Man? The English Patient and Sense and Sensibility don't make the list? Or Braveheart? The Usual Suspects? How can the second Kill Bill be kept off? This will sound silly, but how can The Breakfast Club or Ferris Bueller? (Think about it.) And I know I've bitched enough about this but it bears repeating: any list of best movies that does not include Return of the King and Empire Strikes back is phony, and that's all there is too it.
Look, the point of the AFI is a good thing. If you went out and watched every single one of these movies—and these were the next 100 movies you watched—your life would be changed forever. I submit to you it would be as worthwhile as visiting every major art museum in the world, attending a season at the Met or reading the cannon of Shakespeare. Not only would your movie knowledge increase dramatically (get it? Dramatically?), but your movie I.Q. would as well, and maybe—just maybe—you'd quit watching movies so bad that it makes uncle Hypey want to kill himself when he finds out about it.
But here's the thing: we can do better. Too many of these films are put on for history's sake. I'm all for history. Films like Birth of a Nation and even City Lights should be viewed, if for no other reason than to see our cultural heritage. (After all, we did invent the damn art form, am I right? (Watch Canadians now try to claim they did. That's so Canucky.))
Back up at the top when I listed the AFI criteria I said I'd add a couple of items. They'd be these: the movies should be watchable again and again and again and again, and translate (with minor allowances for the times) into any generation. Most importantly, movies should not be excluded just because they are cool.
That is why yesterday afternoon Koz and I decided to start our own Film Institute. Screw their list! Let them talk about ours, and yours too, as I'm going to open our Club to any like-minded individuals committed to celebrating all that is great about film.
Details to come.
June 22, 2007