Thursday, June 21, 2007

The AFI 100 is finally rereleased: preliminary thoughts on the new films

First of all, here's the list in case you missed it last night. It's actually relatively annoying that the AFI isn't publicly displaying it:

Now this is basically the only time in 10 years that knowledge of classic film and current events ever mix together, so I better take advantage of that and start writing away. This was such an exciting event for me, because I didn't even recognize the names of most of those movies the last time around. So here are some notes:

-I talked to a spokesman for the AFI in an interview and she said the AFI is redoing the top 100 list to account for the last 10 years of film, but she also said that no films from the 400-ballot date later than 2004 because the films do need time to breathe to be properly evaluated and I agree with that. The end result is a little bit low, though. Only 4 films were included: Saving Private Ryan, Titanic, Lord of the Rings and The Sixth Sense. The most frustrating thing about this is the incongruity of this is that since only one of these films was in the 2000's, this could almost, almost pass for a 20th century list right up to the very last year.

-It also has me worried that perhaps since film critics are exposed to so many more Oscar contenders and there is so much Internet criticism out there, that maybe we can't agree on greatness anymore. During the Great Depression, films like It Happened One Night and 42nd Street pulled people together. I don't know if that's the case. We can still all get excited over Spiderman, Pirates of the Caribbean and X-Men, and Brokeback Mountain, Dreamgirls and Departed do dominate water cooler buzz, but maybe it's a fracture between the critics and the public. Spiderman, Shrek and Pirates were all on the ballot as were many of the Oscar nominees. At the very least it's nice to see a few films added:

  • Lord of the Rings is an undeniable safe choice because it has been both part of the Blockbuster culture and the Oscar culture which divides film viewing now more than ever.
  • I've already seen a lot of complaining about the Sixth Sense on message boards, but I say, let's just try to agree on something, rather than have this decade not represented. Sixth Sense is an interesting offbeat pick from a director who has a gift for originality. Even if he's currently struggling a little with where to go with it at the moment (Lady in the Water hit a nerve with audiences and it ended the director's streak of commercial success), let's honor how he once showed us something new and original.
  • Saving Private Ryan was a film that came along when there was nothing left to say about World War II. It's another war classic and it shows that the tradition of making great war movies has not been forgotten. Flags of Our Fathers/Letters from Iwo Jima is the recent continuation of this.
  • Titanic is such an interesting pick. When the last list came out in 1998, Titanic seemed like the biggest cinematic event to hit the face of the Earth. It broke all box office records and it had the biggest production budget ever and it won a record number of Oscars. Nowadays, box office draw and critical acclaim are two different things entirely. The box office champions of the last few years Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest, Star Wars III, Shrek II, Lord of the Rings: Return of the King, Spiderman, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, Mission Impossible II, have virtually no chance at a best picture nomination and seldom appear on critic's top 10 lists. But back then, Titanic was unstoppable. Even if you wanted to hate it because it was a Goliath of a film and you tend to root for the Davids, the story was so damn moving and emotional, that you couldn't deny it's greatness. If Titanic was eligible for that ballot, who knows how high it would have gotten on the list. Some might have voted it #1 due to the fact that box office draw and greatness might have been more correlated. Nearly 10 years later, Titanic is almost forgotten and its entry onto this list is a fairly heavy reminder of the pervasiveness Titanic once held in our culture that one year. I still think it's relevant because Titanic was the last box office champ to even be nominated for an Oscar and for that might have been the last true blockbuster before our blockbuster culture got saturated. (Sixth Sense cracked the top 10 all time and it was nominated, however)
-The two preeminent directors of this decade, Eastwood and Scorsese, who collectively have earned 6 of the 25 best director nominations given out by the Academy since 2002, both enjoyed massive upgrades. Scorsese's Raging Bull catapulted to #4 ahead of "Gone with the Wind" and Eastwood's Western Unforgiven, previously in the 90s on the list, catapulted to the 68. In my opinion, Eastwood had one film that would be considered a classic before Mystic River and that was Unforgiven. In between, he had unextroadinary output with films ranging in quality from Space Cowboys to Bridges of Madison County. In recent books that have come out where film scholars dissect Eastwood's filmography movie-by-movie, it's kind of funny to see these guys try to dissect Space Cowboys with the same attention to detail reserved for Mystic River.

-I noticed 3 directors who moved up from being one-hit wonders to two-timers and that's because they had a good decade: Mike Nicholls who had recent critical successes with Closer and Angels in America got his 2nd best film, Who's Afraid of Virginia Wolff added to the list in addition to "The Graduate." Rob Altman had a modest success in Prairie Home Companion and a big one in Godsford Park, but more importantly he strategically passed away right before they were balloting. No, I'm just kidding. Rob Altman's 2nd entry to the list "Nashville" was one of the glaring errors of the first list and with McCabe and Mrs. Miller or Godsford Park he could have easily had three or four. The same is true for the ever-so-prolific Sidney Lumet, recent recipient of the Honorary Oscar whose film 12 Angry Men made the list. 12 Angry Men is very deserving.

-The "Third Man" is a great film. One of my favorites. The photography is beautiful, Orson Welles' sudden appearance is so unexpected. It works on so many levels. I personally read it in so many ways: a pulp fiction novelist trying to give himself his own storybook ending with the girl at the end, the American literature form trying to return to its European influences. Maybe it didn't make the list this time, because it just wasn't an American production?

-I think it is upsetting that films like "A Place in the Sun," "Stagecoach," and especially "From Here to Eternity" (my favorite war film) were omitted from the list but i don't think that necessarily renders them historically irrelevant. The fact that they were on the first top 100 list cements them as classics, and it's simply that they wanted to mix it up a little. Mostly what the list did was introduce the public to some films that should have made the list last time (and probably almost did):

  • Do the Right Thing: Spike Lee has combined his filmic ambitions with his desire to infuse the country with racial awareness
  • Blade Runner (Ridley Scott): The film didn't have enough sci-fi the first time, and Blade Runner was aside from being a great and highly praised film, a great influence in the genre. It also introduced Ridley Scott to the list
  • Cabaret (Bob Fosse): I saw this film in my film genres class when we studied musicals and in terms of reinventing the conventions of a genre, it's hard to top this film. In musicals, the songs are used to celebrate life, courtship, community and vitality. In Cabaret, the musical numbers are used to illustrate decadence and foreshadow death.
  • All The President's Men (Alan Paluka): This film was basically the 1970's version of "Good Night and Good Luck," only it was actually relevant to the times. A strict docudrama that featured Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford running around and looking busy like the casts of Aaron Sorkin shows traditionally like to do, All the President's Men was as great of a suspense thriller as it was a history lesson. All the recent buzz about the story with Mark Felt's identity revealed as deep throat might have contributed to the film making the list this time around
  • Sullivan's Travels (Preston Sturges): I've seen two of the three really famous Preston Sturges films: Palm Beach Story and The Lady Eve and wasn't much of a fun of either of them. The third, Sullivan's Travels, looks quite appealing now that I've seen clips of it and I'm thinking I might watch it. Perhaps, three times a charm. Many film historians consider him to be a historically significant film director because he was ingeneous at getting racy dialogue past the censorsing board.
  • The General (Buster Keaton): The great silent film star who has been considered 2nd best next to Chaplain for the last 40 or 50 years or so. The General was his most epic film and I believe his most expensive to produce. I did see it and personally did not think it was as great as Chaplain or even Harold Lloyd's films, but it is certainly a different brand of comedy.
  • 12 Angry Men (Sidney Lumet): Along with Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (also on the list), there is no film that captures the spirit of American Democracy better than this film. It's also such an impressive film because its setting is pretty much confined to one single room and there's nothing but the dramatic tension to keep things moving
  • Swing Time (George Stephens): If you thought that with A Place in the Sun and Giant that George Stephens got eliminated from the list, that's not true, because he got represented with "Swing Time." This is a far better and more convincing film than the other film that's cited as the best Astaire-Rogers pairing "Top Hat." Swing Time has a more endearing love story, a lightning-fast opening that grabs your attention right away, the brilliantly conceived dance number in which Astaire saves Rogers job by showing how quick of a study she is, a more convincing pairing of romantic doubles in Viktor Moore/Helen Broderick; a very nice change of piece in "Just the Way You Look Tonight" where Astaire just sings without dancing, and a more menacing foil in Ricky Romero.
  • Sophie's Choice: This is the only film on the list that I know absolutely nothing about (there were other films that I knew close to nothing about). All I knew about this film was that it won Meryl Streep an Oscar and I wasn't even sure of that. Once again, the AFI list made me feel stupid, but that's ok.

-I think the biggest waste of a choice was Night at the Opera because one Marx Brothers film is enough. Honestly, I can't even remember if I've seen a Night at the Opera. I've seen about 4 or 5 Marx Brothers Films and i can't remember them by name. I think they all just blend into each other. Some have Zeppo and some don't, that's the only difference.


Mer said...

Hi Orrin! I haven't linked yet. I will do that this weekend. Also, I enjoy your blog. I am going to try to watch all of the Criterion Collection films this summer!

Edward Copeland said...

Titanic was only the third best movie made about the disaster. (A Night to Remember is still the tops; the relatively silly 1953 version seems profound compared to Cameron's version). I said at the time that Titanic would work so much better if it had been a silent movie. It's spectacle is amazing; its dialogue and screenplay are atrocious. My favorite silly moment: Billy Zane chasing Leo and Kate around the flooded ship with a gun. Gee -- I hope he doesn't shoot them. Then they might drown.

Laurie Mann said...

I hated Titanic. Pretty too look at, but way too long and it completely screwed one of my favorite historical figures, Molly Brown.

Sophie's Choice was a great novel and may be a greater movie. It's very internal; over a third of the movie are Sophie's flashbacks to WWII. The acting is stunning all the way around.

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