In 1997, the American Film Institute released a landmark list of the 100 greatest English-language films in the history of cinema. This was what single-handedly turned me on to classic films. Before that point, I had no idea how any of the few older films I had seen were considered against the greats. If you had asked me to guess the top 100 before seeing the list, I might have guessed films like the Vincente Minnelli film Kismet (which is, in fact, considered one of his worst but I liked it plenty), The Pink Panther, Lion King, Back to the Future (which DOES deserve to be on the list), An American Tail, or Cool Runnings.
My own personal experiences aside, the AFI's list deserves acclaim for being balanced, comprehensive, and very much in line with popular opinion, cultural impact and critical standing. In 2007, the AFI rereleased their list with members revoting. Although ten years and a whole batch of new films had passed between lists, only four films released since 1997 made the new cut: Titanic, Saving Private Ryan, Sixth Sense, and Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring. Instead of adding new entries, the AFI spent most of their energy amending the catalogue of films from the original time period, 1996-1996, to correct oversights such as the General, Do the Right Thing, Cabaret, Shawshank Redemption, 12 Angry Men, Blade Runner and 12 others.
So the scenario I'm exploring today is what if the AFI voted to add 18 new films to the original 122 that have been included in either of the lists. This way, no classic films have to be bumped out. I'm only interested in films that overlap with the most recent film to be featured so far which was Lord of the Rings, so no films after 2001 will be considered and since 18 films were added from the existing time period, I'm picking that number.
Here would be my predictions in order of likelihood.
1. The Conversation (1974) dir. Frances Ford Copolla-Starring Gene Hackman as a secretive surveillance official with a crisis of conscience, the film is timeless and especially thematically relevant. It was a Best Picture nominee (competing against Copolla's other masterpiece Godfather II) and widely considered to be on par with Copolla's other films that have landed on the AFI list.
2. Back to the Future (1985) dir. Rob Zemeckis- It's a favorite of mine, but it's very clearly a favorite of a generation and a venerable time capsule of film making in the 80's. The AV Club's Inventory named it the film that defined the 80's in their list of twelve films that defined their decades. Beyond that, it combines the best of several 80's genres (teen movie, scifi, comedy of misadventures) and hits that sweet spot between audience favorite and respectable classic. It's one of the first blockbusters to expand into a trilogy and simultaneously enjoys the status of a cult film today: Something that's endlessly rewatched, celebrated, and dissected.
3. Touch of Evil (1958) dir. Orson Welles-After making Citizen Kane at the ripe age of 26, widely considered to be the best film of all-time, Welles saw his career get severely roadblocked by Hollywood and the bitter vendetta of the Hearst empire and as such, must of his talent as a director was severely dampened by studio influence. Towards the end of his career he made one of his best works: A riff on Othello that was adapted from the short story "Badge of Courage." The film was heavily tampered with by the studio (Universal) and buried in the back half of a double feature with no promotion. In the last few years of the 20th Century as the best of the century lists rolled out Touch of Evil gained popularity just as the director's cut was released. It made lists by Entertainment Weekly, Guinness book of Films, the National Society of Film Critic's A-List and Tim Dirks' website filmsite.org. Beyond that, its a stunning film that I'd count as two or three of my favorites.
4. Alien (1979) dir. Ridley Scott- Like Back to the Future, Alien hits the sweet spot between audience favorite and critical darling and transcends the genre trap of sci-fi. That Sigourney Weaver earned an Oscar nomination for a genre part is a testament of how iconic that character became. It's also fair to say Alien was boundary-pushing. It also ranks #36 on the greatest films of all-time by Time Out Magazine.
5. His Girl Friday (1940) dir. Howard Hawks- Cited by both Roger Ebert and Richard Roeper as one of the ten most glaring omissions of the 1997 list, His Girl Friday is the quintessential screwball comedy that many other romcoms consciously or unconsciously borrowed from. Although another of Hawk's screwball comedies, "Bringing Up Baby", made the list, "His Girl Friday" is a sharper work that showcases Cary Grant as a strong character who can match wits with the best of them which is how he deserves to be remembered. The film might owe its effectiveness to the fact that it was adapted from a film ("The Front Page") in which both leads were men. How's that for gender equality.
6. Big Sleep (1946) dir. Howard Hawks- If I'm not mistaken, Hawks only has one film in the AFI top 122 and if that's the case, that's downright baffling when one considers the sheer contribution of landmark films he made in nearly every genre. Big Sleep, for example, is one of the earliest trailblazers of film noir in its American form which is even more impressive when considered that few other films pushed the form's boundaries as far in terms of a labryrinthine story, an unapolagetically raw hero and risque dialogue.
7. Badlands (1973) dir. Terrence Malick- Malick made two films in the 1970's that grew his legend as he went into reclusion for 20 years before he made another pair of films that were both hailed as masterpieces. Malick is a director who has a unique style with incomparable cinematography that would make any comprehensive list of American films incomplete without his name on it. Badlands was the film which introduced his style to the world and its antiheroes- a pair of lovebirds on a killing spree- helped define the counterculture of the 70's.
8. The Awful Truth (1937) dir. Leo McCarey- A screwball comedy and melodrama that that won Best Director for Leo McCarey, The Awful Truth is an unconventional love story in that its about divorce. Time Magazine said it was "possibly the greatest love story ever made."
9. LA Confidential (1997) dir. Curtis Hanson -The star-studded modern-day noir stands the test of time as a relatively pure recreation of a genre that's near-dead. It was ranked among the top-rated films of the 90's when I conducted a poll of over 100 people and it seems to be reserved with classic status.
10. How the West was Won (1963) dir. John Ford-The film was the last of John Ford's Best Picture nominees and it could be argued that, in terms of scope, it was his ultimate masterpiece. The film was a grandiose spectacle on the level of David Lean and Cecille B. DeMille, and it borrowed a page from D.W. Griffith's "Intolerance" in the way it intertwined stories from different time periods. It had the appeal of Best Picture winners "Around the World in 80 Days" or "Greatest Show on Earth" but unlike those two, it could actually be considered a work of art.
11. Being There (1979), directed by Hal Ashby, starring Peter Sellers, starring Peter Sellers, Shirley MacLaine, Melyn Douglas, Jack Warden
12. The Exorcist (1973), directed by William Friedkin, starring Ellen Burstyn, Max von Sydow, Lee J Cobb, Linda Blair, Jason Miller
13. Almost Famous (2000), directed by Cameron Crowe, starring Patrick Fugit, Frances McDormand, Jason Lee, Kate Hudson, Zooey Deschanel, Philip Seymour Hoffman
14. Night of the Hunter (1955), directed by Charles Laughton, starring Robert Mitchum, Shelley Winters, Peter Graves, Lillian Gish, James Gleason
15. The Matrix (1999), directed by Andrew and Lana Wachowski, starring Keanu Reeves, Hugo Weaving, Laurence Fishburne, Carrie-Anne Moss, Gloria Foster
16. Terms of Endearment (1983) directed by James L Brooks, starring Shirley MacLaine, Debra Winger, Jack Nicholson, John Lithgow, Danny DeVito
17. East of Eden (1955), directed by Elia Kazan, starring James Dean, Raymond Massey, Julie Harris, Burl Ives, Jo Van Fleet
18. Blue Velvet (1986)-directed by David Lynch, starring Isabella Rossellini, Dean Stockwell, Dennis Hopper, Kyle MacLachlan, Laura Dern, Hope Lange