So the AFI has unveiled its updated 100 Greatest American Films list, ten years after Version One was unleashed. The original list quickly became a checklist of choice for many an aspiring cinephile (Blockbuster would post it in their stores) while a number of critics and film lovers raised hackles (Doctor Zhivago over The General? Giant over Nashville? Guess Who's Coming to Dinner over Do the Right Thing?).The new version of the list appears to have taken that criticism somewhat to heart. Films touted by critics and academics such as The General, Intolerance and Sunrise have made the cut, and while three Best Picture Oscar winners have been added, seven have been removed. This is not to say that the list is significantly less populist in nature, as the additions of recent blockbusters Titanic and Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring attest. There's a net increase in films from the 70s (+2) 80s (+2), 90s (+2) and silent area (+2), at the expense of several films from the 30s (-2) and 50s (-5) and 60s (-2).
I'm not going to be one of those who take this as an occasion to swipe the AFI for promoting its list as a desperate means to retain its relevance as a national film institution. Ultimately, I have no beef with the AFI - they like everyone else is playing its part in promoting film culture in one way or another. Nor am I going to gripe at length about the futility of lists in general and the AFI's in particular. I may very well share some of the problems or suspicions others have expressed about the list's purpose or value. No doubt there is a world of movies that reaches well beyond the 100 on this list and the narrowly nationalistic scope it encompasses. But I would be a hypocrite if I didn't say that lists like the AFIs were instrumental in encouraging my own cinephila from an impressionable age (and by all appearances listmongering is a proclivity I still haven't overcome). This list is useful so long as the list is seen as a springboard and not the be-all and end-all of movie watching. And I think the fact of its revision replaces some of its authoritarian aura with something closer to contentiousness and flux. And, presto bingo, with the changes in place I have now seen every film on the list (good, because I don't think I would have ever gotten around to watching The Jazz Singer or Guess Who's Coming to Dinner). I will confess that, at the time of the first list back in 1997, I don't think I took too much notice of it other than point out The Godfather's very high placing as justification to my students for why I spent a month of class showing it to them (supposedly to help their understanding of American language and culture, but really it was my chance to play film professor). For myself, the list seemed to tell me that I had already seen most of all that was worth seeing -- an attitude I was to shed with a vengeance upon returning to the States, thanks in part to Jonathan Rosenbaum, who happens to be the most strident critic of the original list. His criticism piece on the AFI 100, really one of the best essays on American cinema I've ever read, not only bitch-slapped the AFI but inadvertently called out anyone who was comfortable with the selections enough to feel that they'd already seen the best that American cinema had to offer, instead of taking the active, pioneering and championing role that he espoused, lest our entire film culture sag into complacency. As proof of concept, he offered his alternative list of 100 films, half of which I'd never heard of (and about a third of which I still haven't seen). It was definitely an edgier, more eccentric and more exciting list than the AFI 100. It's worth noting that of the 100 alternate titles he offered, four have been adopted by the new list (The General, Intolerance, Sunrise and Do the Right Thing) Here are the additions and subtractions, borrowed from The Film Experience Blog, along with my thoughts: BRAVO: 18. "The General" (1927) 49. "Intolerance" (1916) 59. "Nashville" (1975) 61. "Sullivan's Travels" (1941) 82. "Sunrise" (1927) 85. "A Night at the Opera" (1935) 90. "Swing Time" (1936) 96. "Do the Right Thing" (1989) 97. "Blade Runner" (1982) - not a favorite of mine, but I respect its significance to the genre
. NOT SURE I GET WHY... 63. "Cabaret" (1972) 67. "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" (1966) 77. "All the President's Men" (1976) 81. "Spartacus" (1960) - great film but top 100? 99. "Toy Story" (1995) - Did Steve Jobs lobby for this? Not sure how historically significant Pixar will be to American film, let alone this title 89. "The Sixth Sense" (1999) - must be a token nod to contemporary horror. Really surprised this made it after Shyamalan stock plummeted with Lady in the Water 91. "Sophie's Choice" (1982) - Token Meryl Streep entry? You're telling me there wasn't a better film with a respective performance from her? 95. "The Last Picture Show" (1971)
. I GET WHY, BUT I DON'T MUCH CARE 50. "Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring" (2001) 71. "Saving Private Ryan" (1998)Â Thin Red Line from the same year is much more deserving 75. "In the Heat of the Night" (1967) 83. "Titanic" (1997) 87. "12 Angry Men" (1957) The losers:
BRING THEM BACK: Rebel Without a Cause (1954) #59 - If James Dean isn't enough, you gotta have a Nick Ray film up there! The Manchurian Candidate (1962) #67 - my favorite Cold War thriller, moreso than Strangelove An American in Paris (1951) #68 - perhaps a bit overlong, but are you telling me there's no Minnelli? I'd rather have this than The Bandwagon Frankenstein (1931) #87 - Don't tell me there's no 30s horror -- and NO James Whale? They should have at least replaced it with Bride.
GOOD RIDDANCE: Doctor Zhivago (1965) - overbloated, can't believe it ranked as high as #39 to begin with Wuthering Heights (1939) #73 - what was this doing there in the first place? Olivier? That's not enough of a reason and I guess they realized it Dances With Wolves (1990) #75 - Native America should be represented but not by this. I vote for The Exiles (1963) Giant (1956) #82 - George Stevens lost two slots in this revised list, which is fine by me. Mutiny on the Bounty (1935) #86 - was this a Charles Laughton nod? If so why not put Night of the Hunter on? The Jazz Singer (1927) #90 - not even interested in seeing this for historical significance My Fair Lady (1964) #91 - I guess this had been their nod to Audrey Hepburn, in which case why not Roman Holiday? A Place in the Sun (1950) #92 - overrated, morally duplicitous Oscar-bait Guess Who's Coming To Dinner (1967) #99 - maybe this is what America needed at the time to accept Black people in their midst, but you won't see me leaping to embrace that argument...
. MIXED FEELINGS: Birth of a Nation (1915) #44 - I can't deny that as cinema it's damn brilliant From Here To Eternity (1953) #52 Amadeus (1984) #53 - a strange film in that it's really memorable and fun to watch but of little cinematic signficance All Quiet on the Western Front (1932) #54 - haven't seen it in a while, but surely this deserves inclusion more than Saving Private Ryan The Third Man (1949) #57 - one of my all-time favorites, but it's not really an American film. Fantasia (1941) #58 - never was a fan despite its importance Stagecoach (1939) #63 - really is the trademark classic Western Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) #64 - enjoyable... Fargo (1996) #84 - I loved this movie to death 10 years ago, and apparently like others I seem to have cooled on it... but it would probably still make my best of the '90s (and therefore this list) Patton (1970) #89 - I'd put this over Private Ryan too - much more complex look at war - though again, the real war movie omission is The Thin Red Line
So it looks like on the whole I'm groovy with the changes.
Next I'll serve up a comparison with the TSPDT 1000...