This Wednesday, the AFI is updating their Top 100 list in a CBS series which is a somewhat monumental event for me because it was the release of the original AFI 100 Years.…100 Movies list in 1998, that led to me wanting to become a film critic.
Back in 1998, when I heard a list was being released of the top 100 films of all time, I tried to guess what might be on the list based on what films I had seen and liked. I thought of films like Cool Runnings, The Mighty Ducks and an obscure Vincente Minnelli musical called Kismet. When I actually looked it up, I was completely taken aback to learn that pretty much all of the films on the list were not only movies I hadn’t seen but movies I hadn’t even heard of. I suddenly wanted to know what exactly these films could possibly have that the Mighty Ducks didn’t have. When I didn’t find a job the following summer, I spent a lot of my free time going to the library and checking out films on the actual list like Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, The African Queen, The Graduate and Network.
It most likely was not just myself who might have a gained a new appreciation of film history around this time. The AFI list came in the middle of a craze occurring around the turn of the century in which every major media outlet came up with some definitive list to mark the year 2000. Between 1995 and 2002, the Time Out Film Guide, The San Fransisco Chronicle, The LA Daily News, the British Film Institute, Video Detective, and the National Society of Film Critics, in addition to Premiere, Empire, Movie Line and Rolling Stone magazines published either top 50 or top 100 film lists recapping choices for the top films of the century.
Despite cynics who might say that these lists are just an arbitrary gimmick, the fact is that they have performed a very useful function in the promotion of classic film: They act as a reference for sorting between the quality films and the generic drivel for those who dare to venture beyond the new release sections of the video store. Before 1995, the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry, the Oscars (along with countless other film critics’ awards) and Sight and Sound Magazine’s decennial film poll were the only guides to the history of films and they were all insufficient. The Library of Congress list isn’t particularly well-publicized and the Sight and Sound polls which only polls for ten films, doesn’t nearly go far enough in promoting the great diversity of choices within each decade and each genre. The Oscars and all other awards that single out great films by the year can often fall into the trap of thinking about what’s big at the moment and selections like Around the World in 80 Days, Gentleman’s Agreement, and The Ziegfeld Follies can become dated very quickly.
Of these lists, the AFI remains the most well-known and I've come to consider it as a sort of definitive authority on film history which is way I hate to think of the concept of it being tampered with. I can't say the list is perfect but I would say that all but 2 or 3 (My Fair Lady, Wuthering Heights, and Guess Who's Coming to Dinner) are pretty safely in the realm of classics and 97 out of 100 is a pretty good mark. The list is also pretty inclusive of all time periods, major actors, significant directors, and runs 8 or 9 films deep in every major American genre. It has everything from recent Oscar winners (i.e. Forrest Gump, Dances with Wolves), popular crowdpleasers (i.e. Rocky, Raiders of the Lost Ark), film milestones (i.e. Birth of a Nation, Jazz Singer), cult monster movies (Frankenstein), literary adaptations (i.e. To Kill a Mockingbird, Grapes of Wrath), and the most anti-war (i.e. Mash and Apocalypse Now) and pro-war (i.e. From Here to Eternity) films ever made. A few major directors such as Spike Lee, Blake Edwards and Douglas Sirk are left off the list but special consideration is made to make sure that Sidney Pollack, Oliver Stone, Sidney Lumet, Woody Allen, Rob Altman and Clint Eastwood each get a film in the 100.
The tragic thing of redoing the AFI 100 list is that some great films will inevitably be left off to make room for the new which makes us want to consider the question, why should we delete any films from the list at all or tamper with the original order? A case could be made for the rare film like Orson Welles' Touch of Evil whose original cut was finally released in 1998 or the political 1960's thriller "The Manchurian Candidate" that was only introduced to audiences around 1990 after being withheld from circulation for controversial content. Other than these rare exceptions, it seems to be catering to popular trends to reorder the films. Citizen Kane hasn't gotten any worse over the last 10 years, after all.
Why don’t they just add 10 films, and call it 110 films, 110 movies. Even if the sound of 100 Years…100 ____ has a catchy marketing ring to it, it’s no longer 100 years. The lists should have been 102 Years, 102 Comedies or 103 Years, 103 Movie Songs. That brings the interesting question of what to add for the 10 films for the past 10 years. Here might be a good example of a workable list. There aren't my personal favorites but 10 films that have established themselves as future classics over the past 10 years. I deliberately veered away from films in the last year or two because I think there needs to be a little more breathing room to determine the merits of the film:
1. Saving Private Ryan, Stephen Spielberg, 1998-This stirring war film has established itself as a classic by this time. It came along at a time when no one thought there was anything left to say over World War II, and it's loss at the Oscars to Shakespeare in Love was almost universally decried as a mistake.
2. The Matrix, Larry and Andy Wachowski, 1999-Iffy only because the AFI has snubbed such innovative sci-fi films in the past as Blade Runner, Alien, and Brazil, the Matrix was a film like no one had ever seen before and it reset the bar for special effects and cinematic action.
3. Gladiator, Ridley Scott, 2000-Critics might have denounced the throwback to the sword and sandals epic as not being innovative enough to merit an Oscar, but it's hard to forget when watching it how well-crafted the film is and how phenomenal Russell Crowe and Joaquin Pheonix are in.
4. Traffic, Stephen Sodebergh, 2000-The bold ensemble piece on the drug trade was both entertaining and topical and let's not forget how much of an effect Sodebergh's inventive visual styles have had on the current landscape of movies.
5. The Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring, Peter Jackson 2001-This decade has been dominated by big-budget blockbusters, CGI effects, and stories that take us into other worlds. The Lord of the Rings trilogy, popular with hardcore fans, casual audiences and critics alike, was seen as the best example of this.
6. Pianist, Roman Polanski, 2002-Roman Polanski's personal and deeply moving epic about a pianist and his struggle throughout the war was virtually critic-proof and nabbed a long overdue Oscar for its director.
7. Lost in Translation, Sofia Coppolla, 2003-The fact that the film was made by Francis Ford's daughter might have a little to do with the inclusion, but the bare-budget film was a very imaginative look at modern alienation, mid-life woes, and the romances that are never meant to be, resonated with audiences and critics alike.
8. Mystic River, Clint Eastwood, 2003-With three oscar-nominated films in the last four years, Eastwood will be remembered alongside Scorsese as the preeminent director of the decade and he's just too hot right now not to be included on the list. Mystic River was a film with great emotional impact that
9. Sideways, Alexander Payne, 2004-Payne who has honed his hybrid of character-based comedy and realism since Election and About Schmidt created a critical darling out of a dark comedy featuring an unlikely quartet of character actors. Like Lost in Translation, it's a film of small-scale but of great resonance.
10. Brokeback Mountain, Ang Lee, 2005-It's success in turning a controversial topic into the must-see critical hit of the year should bode well for Brokeback's chances at making the AFI's new list. Aside from breaking new ground in featuring two gay cowboys in a love story, it also was the first time a non-Caucasian director won the Oscar.
1. Thin Red Line, Terrence Malick, 1998-The extremely unproductive director was one of the few great innovators of the New Wave to be left off the original list and the reintroduction of this mood director to the big screen in Thin Red Line was quite a grand event.
2. Chicago, Rob Marshall, 2002-By being nominated for an Oscar, Moulan Rouge! was a great first step in bringing the previously outdated musical genre to modernity. By winning the Oscar, Chicago is said to have actually accomplished it. In retrospect, critics point to both films as being great turning points for the reinvention of the modern musical. Since I personally found "Moulan Rouge!"'s glitz, glamour and 2 second ASL obnoxious, I'm inclined to go with Chicago, which featured its share of showstopping numbers along with great performances from Rene Zellweger, John C. Riley and Richard Gere.
3. Sixth Sense, M. Night Shamylan, 1999-The reason that this Oscar-nominated film, wouldn't make the cut is because the public has become increasingly more and more disappointed with each movie he's released, but that shouldn't be cause to forget how captivated we were by his debut.
4. Kill Bill Volume 1, Quentin Tarantino, 2003-Another homage to the movies that inspired him as a kid, Tarantino's piece was no doubt violent but in a stylized way.
5. Gangs of New York, Martin Scorsese, 2002-If we were to add another Scorsese film to the list to complement Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, and Goodfellas, our choice could go one of three ways: The period piece and personal dream project, film historian Scorsesee's tribute to the Golden Age, or the classic cops-and-robbers film that won him the Oscar. For pure boldness in vision, I will go with Gangs of New York.
6. Master and Commander, Peter Weir, 2003-Considering that Dead Poets' Society and Witness were undeservedly left off the original list, it would be a crime if either Truman Show or Master and Commander were not added to this list. Master and Commander, if nothing else, was the single most historically realistic film I've ever experienced.
7. Babel, Alejandro Gonzales Inarritu, 2006-Another film by a foreign language director, Babel was a sweeping epic of truly global porportions.