Thursday, June 21, 2007

AFI's 100 Greatest American Films

I only caught the last hour of last night's American Film Institute special spotlighting the 100 greatest American moviesSo You Think You Can Dance being a summer staple around these parts — but I was intrigued this morning to review the entire list.

It's especially enlightening to compare this new list with the one AFI compiled 10 years ago (when the Institute started the whole "100 Greatest..." thing), to see which films have come and gone from the list during the past decade, as well as noting how certain pictures have either risen or fallen in stature, at least in the minds of film critics.

Citizen Kane remains, as well it should, at the top of the heap. Kane is one of the rare films that grows and changes every time one sees it. There's always more to be discovered within Orson Welles's cinematic masterpiece, which continues to set the standard of greatness more than 65 years after its release.

The big surprise in the updated Top 20 is Raging Bull, which leaped upward from 24th ten years ago to fourth today. It's hard to argue, though — there's not another film in the Top 20 that I'd say ought to be Number Four instead. I'm not as shocked that Chaplin's City Lights rocketed from 76th to 11th place — it's always been a favorite of film scholars — as I am to see The Searchers jump from 96th to 12th — as much as I enjoy Westerns and believe they don't always receive their critical due (although Eastwood's Unforgiven moved up 30 spots from 98 to 68, and deservedly so), I've always found The Searchers infuriatingly dense.

As a Hitchcock fan, I'm pleased to see that the Master of Suspense now has two works in the Top 20: Vertigo (9) and Psycho (14). Personally, I'd reverse the two, as I think Psycho is far and away Hitchcock's best film, but Vertigo certainly deserved a much higher placement than the 61st it received in 1998.

I'm glad that Do the Right Thing cracked the Top 100, though I'd have had it a few notches higher than 96th. Most definitely, it ought to rank higher than The Sixth Sense (89), whose very presence in the Top 100 makes the list suspect. M. Night Shyamalan is easily the second most overrated filmmaker of the past half-century. (The first? George Lucas, whose trite, tedious, and hammy Star Wars came up two spots, from 15th to 13th.)

For whatever reason, Fargo dropped off the list entirely, after placing 84th a decade previously (when it was still relatively fresh in voters' minds). I know that the Coen Brothers have delivered little of lasting interest since then (in fact, the CoBros' last few films have been outright stinkers), but Fargo is a singular achievement — a film sufficiently adept at melding opposing elements that it rates as both a great comedy and a classic thriller. I'd place it at least in the upper two-thirds of any Top 100 list.

Other observations:
  • AFI rightly ditched Close Encounters of the Third Kind, 64th in 1998, from the Top 100. Although technically brilliant, especially for its time, Close Encounters is as stupidly written and as poorly acted as any blockbuster has ever been. Good riddance.

  • Another welcome omission: the stupor-inducing Doctor Zhivago, 39th a decade ago and nowhere to be found on the new list. A memorable, haunting theme song alone does not a great film make.

  • Toy Story (Number 99) joins Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (34, up from 49) to represent the animation arts. Too bad there wasn't room for Beauty and the Beast as well. (Personally, I think Toy Story 2 is a much better movie than its groundbreaking predecessor. But AFI didn't ask me.)

  • Aside from the undeserving Sixth Sense, only three other films released in the past 10 years cracked the Top 100. Titanic (yawn) arrives at Number 83; Saving Private Ryan comes aboard at Number 71 (higher than I would have it, but nonetheless worthy); and The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring lands at Number 50 (in truth, a nod to the entire LOTR trilogy, as was the Best Picture Oscar awarded to the third film in the series, The Return of the King).

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