This new AFI top 100 films list should probably be beneath my notice, but it pisses me off so much I just have to say my piece. First, the existence of cultural hierarchies is probably inevitable but their codification in numbered lists is entirely avoidable and always inane, whether E! is rating the 100 hottest bods or eggheads are rating philosophers or scientists. What, for instance, could it possibly mean that one of the LOTR movies is one notch better than West Side Story? Could it really be that they are almost, just not quite, of exactly equal value? This sort of quantification is moronic no matter who is doing the counting. (I'll tip my hand here: if I'm holding DVDs of each, I'm way more likely to pop in West Side Story.)

More significant, though, this list speaks by exclusion to say what a "movie" is: very little silent, nothing shorter than feature length, nothing avant-garde or experimental, no documentaries, few films that would make anyone uncomfortable (Kubrick excepted, of course, but he's an Artist), and lots of movies that boomers remember fondly from repeat viewings upon their release, revival, or regular TV broadcast. The taste in evidence here is not simply "good" but good according to a certain group of film-goers. There are very few films aimed specifically at women, children or young people, poor and immigrant audiences, and racial and ethnic minorities. The list reflects the power and privilege of those who created it. It also reflects their bourgeois liberalism, ridding us finally of the weight of The Birth of a Nation, once thought to be the greatest film ever made and now no longer in the top 100--not even as good as Tootsie or Star Wars or, gasp, The Sound of Music! So many of these films are the sort that massage the aspirational do-gooder values of blue-stater upper-crusties, movies that advertise the virtue of the movies, their function to promote progressive middle-class mores. I have in mind here films like 12 Angry Men and On The Waterfront, In the Heat of the Night and The Best Years of our Lives, Schindler's List and Network: Films of Social Significance. But, please! If positive messages were the key criterion in valuing art, then a zillion earnest poems would be the betters of the likes of Griffith, whose value has certainly been overrated but not by as much as this list implies. This sort of list fatally excludes what Manny Farber called "termite art" (see this nice gloss on the topic by Girish): movies people love that aren't embraced by official culture, movies with an underground sensibility, movies that are honest and true without being earnest or moralizing.

Perhaps what rankles me most, though, is that this list reflects a generational bias, including lots of sentimental boomer favorites like It's a Wonderful Life, The Graduate, The Wizard of Oz, and anything starring Humphrey Bogart. I wonder how it will look upon revision a decade or two hence. Will Ferris Bueller's Day Off and Dirty Dancing edge out To Kill a Mockingbird and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest? I wouldn't mind if they did. Then it will be up to a new generation of upstarts to get all huffy about those damn Gen X'ers with their Slacker and their Nirvana making like they invented post-adolescent alienation.


Now for the part you were expecting: here are some films I would put on this list instead of all the earnest message movies and boomer nostalgia trips. Hypocrisy, I know, to object to lists only to propose entries for my own. I don't think these are better in any objective sense than the ones chosen for the AFI's list. I just like mine better; this is about my taste, not my imperious pronouncement of what is or is not a great film.

Hitchcock is the top of the heap of American filmmakers and it would not be inappropriate to have several more of his films here. I would start with Shadow of a Doubt for sure.

Welles: my favorite is not Kane but Touch of Evil. Kane is show-offy and the main character is put at too great a distance from the audience. I get that this is the point of the film, but I find the good/bad man represented in Hank Quinlan to be more interesting, and I admire Touch of Evil's surrealistic qualities.

Ford: I prefer My Darling Clementine to The Searchers. The representation of the Indians in The Searchers still makes me cringe, and Max Steiner's score always seems schmaltzy to me, especially when it repeats the main theme in the minor key. I also don't think this kind of list can do without Stagecoach. While we're at it, How Green Was My Valley, The Quiet Man, and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance are each better than perhaps 90 or 95 of the films on this list.

Hawks: the five most outstanding are Scarface, Only Angels Have Wings, His Girl Friday, To Have and Have Not, and Rio Bravo. All five should be on this list ahead of Bringing Up Baby, which is also wonderful. Howard Hawks is one of my big faves.

There are several incredibly major directors not represented in this list. The ones that strike me as most egregious from the sound era alone are Josef Von Sternberg, Fritz Lang, Ernst Lubitsch, Vincente Minnelli, Nicholas Ray, Douglas Sirk, and David Lynch (I grant that the AFI top 100 will never do justice to the silents). This list needs Blonde Venus, You Only Live Once, Trouble in Paradise, Meet Me in St. Louis, Rebel Without a Cause, Magnificent Obsession, and Blue Velvet--at the very least. Meet Me in St. Louis would be on my all-time top ten. Minnelli's The Band Wagon is pretty essential, too, and as a self-reflexive 1950s Technicolor MGM musical is every bit as great as Singin' in the Rain.

Of post-1970s independent film, the only two entries here are Pulp Fiction and Do The Right Thing, and both are stuck in the bottom 10. This suggests that indies have done a bad job of inserting themselves in the canon (or, as detractors have been saying for awhile, that they're not so interesting, really). I especially admire Jim Jarmusch, the Coen brothers, Richard Linklater, Todd Haynes and John Sayles, but I'm not sure where to put them or which of their films belong. Ebert is apoplectic that Fargo is off the list, but of the Coens' films I am easily as fond of The Big Lebowski, and also big on Miller's Crossing and O Brother. Chuck likes Lone Star, and I do too, but something about that film comes across as a bit preachier than the best of Sayles (my fave is Passion Fish). On the topic of independents, I'm no huge fan of Cassavetes, but he is another obvious omission.

Finally, genres that get short shift: the gangster film (nothing from the 30s!), the women's picture/chick flick, horror, B-movies, westerns, broad comedies (e.g., Tashlin, Airplane!, Farrelly bros.), and contemporary-ish action movies like Terminator 2 and The Matrix. I am pleased that Spielberg is represented so well but he gets too many entries; I'd gladly trade his Private Ryan for Stella Dallas or The Exorcist.

(Since I did count: I have seen 87 of the top 100 films. I'm not going to list all the ones I haven't, but I'll tell you the two I feel most ashamed of: Gone With the Wind and Snow White. I know, I know.)


Jason Mittell said...

Nice rant, Mike! I like such lists just because they trigger conversation & get people riled up - the value is in the reaction, not the action.

If you look at the ballot process, the attempt to vote for 100 out of a list of 400 seems doomed to value the most-seen good films (like Wizard of Oz or Star Wars) over divisive or rarely seen ones that a few people adore (Lynch or Haynes). The ballot is quite problematic - the only Sayles is Secaucus Seven, Jarmusch just Stranger than Paradise, no Haynes or Linklater. And as far as I can tell, the nomination/voting process isn't clear as to who did the choosing.

My #1 omission from the list: The Manchurian Candidate. And I'll standby Network, not because its social significance, but because it's just a hoot to watch (or listen too mostly). As for Coens, I think Raising Arizona & Barton Fink are their best, but any of their 1990s films could belong on the list save Hudsucker (Fargo was the only one on the ballot).

michael z newman said...

Thx, Jason, especially for the info about the selection process. I was too lazy to find out about that, and it would seem to explain some of the inclusions/exclusions pretty well.

I should probably have said that I like a lot of the boomer favorites. It's ages since I saw Network, but I would be glad to watch it again. I have nothing against To Kill a Mockingbird or 12 Angry Men. I just like my own favorites more.

adammandel said...

I liked Slingblade a lot, more than Toy Story (#99). In terms of cartoons, Peter Pan is phenomenal. And Chitty Chitty Bang Bang should be on there, too.

The Mutt said...

My biggest gripe about these lists is one you mention: their narrow idea of what a film is. I can't credit any list that doesn't even consider Laurel and Hardy's The Music Box.

keels said...

Great rant. I agree...Film is not a fuckin tournament. Unfortunately, like most of us here, I tend to read these dumb lists. And get angry about them. I don't know why I subject myself to them, but I somehow care. God I hate that about myself.

That being said, I will lower myself to their level and argue that I did not see Jon Brion listed on here, nor did I see Nick Cave (maybe "The Assasination of Jesse James" came later, but fuck they should make a point to update this list after this, one of the greatest soundtracks ever came out) but still. "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" may have been one of the best scores ever. It could have swept in the otherwise weak Romantic Comedy section (as if such a stong movie could fall into such an encapsulating category).

Hell I am drunk, so maybe my point is not clear. If one thing is to be taken from this waste of space on this blog that is this rant is that its a crime that Scarface (a great movie) has such a shitty soundtrack even listed. Also, how the F*** is Bull Durham's soundtrack listed here. Did anyone actually listen to these scores? They are F**ing horrible. This list was slapped together and entirely wrong. I guess anyone who has any sort of ear and opinion on music really doesn't care enough to argue with this crap list, but it really kills me. This sucks!!!

Anyway, great blog. Sorry I am so drunk and angry.