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The American Film Institute's Top 100 Films
comments by Adam Spector

After weeks of hype, the American Film Institute finally released their top 100 American films and the sniping has begun. Everyone has their own views about the films that should have been included or should have been left off. Of course this is just what the folks at the AFI wanted; to spark a film debate that went beyond Godzilla and The X-Files.

Overall, the AFI's voters selected wisely. Certainly the top three, Citizen Kane, Casablanca, and The Godfather should be on anyone's list. Kane's revolutionary film cinematography and sound complemented the ingenious story, which relied on a series of flashbacks instead of a straight narrative. Casablanca has been called the great American love story but is also a tale of desperation and deception. Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman became legends but it is Claude Rains who, as the cheerfully corrupt Captain Renault, almost steals the film. The Godfather is more than a gangster film; it examines how people use their power, make choices, justify their decisions, and reconcile conflicting parts of their lives. Francis Ford Coppola's direction and the stellar acting make it a masterpiece.

I can't complain about most of the other selections. Bonnie and Clyde is there. So is The Maltese Falcon, Taxi Driver, The Manchurian Candidate, and Chinatown. I*m disappointed that GoodFellas and Pulp Fiction came in at #94 and #95, but that might be because they are more recent and have not stood the test of time, as I believe they will. These films also do not have the same universal appeal as some of the others but just be glad they made it. I also applaud the selection of George Lucas' American Graffiti, which often gets overlooked because Lucas is associated so heavily with the Star Wars trilogy. American Graffiti might not capture the early 60's as it actually was; it may be an overly idealistic view. But it does capture the nostalgic view some people have about that time and also works as a straight coming-of-age story.

Despite my general approval, there are ways this list fell short, both by ignoring certain genres and ignoring specific films.

First the genres:

Comedy: Of the eight comedies -- The Gold Rush, City Lights, Duck Soup, Modern Times, Bringing Up Baby, The Philadelphia Story, Annie Hall, and Tootsie -- only the last two were made after 1940. Did voters believe that audiences stopped laughing after World War II?

Science Fiction: Even by taking the most generous definition of science fiction possible, only six films -- 2001: A Space Odyssey, A Clockwork Orange, Star Wars, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial -- made the list. And that's very generous. Many fans, myself included, consider Star Wars and E.T. more fantasy than science fiction, which leaves only four. Science fiction films have drawn audiences to the theaters since the 50's and while many of them were schlock (I don*t believe anyone wanted Independence Day on the list) some of them were beautifully crafted, well-acted films that had interesting stories as well as stellar special effects.

The AFI also ignored the work of black filmmakers. For many years blacks were shut out of mainstream Hollywood by overt racism but in more recent times they have been hampered by implicit racism. Studio executives will group all films from black directors or producers as 'black films' as though this were a genre in and of itself. They can than limit the amount of black films just like they might only want to have a certain number of science fiction films. Of course this line of thinking ignores the diversity among black filmmakers and hinders their chances of reaching a mass audience. Despite these obstacles, films such as Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing and John Singleton's Boyz N the Hood have reached beyond black audiences. Both present well-defined complex characters and compelling stories. Selecting a film from a black director solely for diversity would be insulting, but either of these films could belong on merit alone.

There are many films I would have like to have seen on the AFI's list: Absence of Malice, Blade Runner, Boyz N the Hood, Dog Day Afternoon, Eight Men Out, The Empire Strikes Back, Field of Dreams, Notorious, Once Upon a Time in America, To Have and Have Not, and The Untouchables, just to name a few. But to be fair I could not add films without subtracting others. It is a list of 100, not 120. I could not find that many to leave out. First of all, I have not seen all 100, and while I have a hunch that certain films don't belong, I cannot completely say that without having seen them. So after a prolonged struggle, I came up with seven films to remove. Most of these are entertaining, reasonably well made films, but do not belong in the Top 100 list:

1. Gone With the Wind -- If the AFI ever crafts a list of overrated films, GWTW should be #1. No problem with the acting; Vivian Leigh in particular was sensational. The film works on a visual level. But the screenplay only gives us half of an interesting story. In the first half, Scarlett*s suffering and Tara's destruction illustrates the crumbling of the pre-Civil war southern civilization. The second half is pure soap opera. Will Scarlett marry Rhett even though she loves Ashley? Will she try to get Ashley anyway? Who cares? I stopped giving a damn long before Rhett did.

2. The Sound of Music -- Yes the film has breathtaking scenery and some nice musical numbers, but the film is also supposed to be a drama. But the characters have little depth, the acting is average at best, and the narrative would fail to hold interest if left to its own devices.

3. Rebel Without a Cause -- While admittedly entertaining, would this film be considered a classic if James Dean were still alive? I doubt it. Dean is guilty of serious overacting in his attempt to portray teen angst, and the story is melodramatic. Dean died tragically, and Rebel Without a Cause, which captured much of what people associated with Dean (cool, brooding, rebellious), became a cult favorite. But that's not enough.

4. The French Connection -- Perhaps the toughest call because I did thoroughly enjoy this film, which featured solid acting and one terrific chase scene. But I do not see what places this film above other 'cop movies' that came before and since. Dirty Harry, which was also released in 1971, had performances and action scenes that were as strong as The French Connection's, but with a more interesting villain. Dirty Harry also established a new type of movie hero -- one that was operating as much against the system s against the bad guys. It would have been a wiser choice.

5. Dances With Wolves -- Also well-made film, but this was an easier call. Granted Kevin Costner, Mary McDonnell, Graham Greene, and Rodney A. Grant give rich layered performances. Costner as a director does a capable job of holding the story together. But this film is a 'pendulum' movie. A pendulum swings too far one way, so it has to swing too far the other way. For much of cinema history films depicted Indians as warlike savages who terrorized the noble white folk. Dances with Wolves, the PC Western, gives us the opposite. Other than Costner's John Dunbar and McDonnell's Stand With a Fist, who both become part of the Sioux culture, the white characters are stupid, uncivilized, and brutal, while the Indians are wise and compassionate. Yes it's a cliché, but two wrongs don't make a right.

6. Fargo -- One of the best films of 1996. Fargo gives us interesting unusual characters and contrasts the beauty of the snow-covered landscape with the brutal acts that some of these characters commit. Frances McDormand deserved her Oscar and was well-complemented by William H. Macy and Steve Bucemi. However, the ending is anticlimactic and a severe letdown. Also, I believed that many fans saw depth where there was really only quirky behavior. Still, if the AFI had to pick a film from 1996, better Fargo than the tedious English Patient.

7. Guess Who*s Coming to Dinner -- Yes, it was Spencer Tracy's last movie and one of the first to tackle racial intermarriage. But today it plays more like a TV movie than a feature film. While the acting is solid some of the characters seem to represent different societal attitudes rather than real people. Everyone gets a chance to say their piece, and at the end the whole problem is wrapped up with a nice little speech. If the AFI wanted a film from the late 60's with a deeper, more complex examination of racism, it should have selected In the Heat of the Night.

With those seven gone, I submit these additions:

1. Blade Runner (Director*s Cut) -- Many science fiction films examine the evolving relationship between humanity and technology, but none better than Ridley Scott*s masterpiece. Scott shows a futuristic Los Angeles where the technological advances overwhelm the human element; not directly (as in the Terminator films), but through sheer size and spectacle. The film also conveys a sense of gloom found in older noir films (a recent book about Blade Runner even labeled the film 'future noir') The visuals and atmosphere are a perfect backdrop for the story, as Harrison Ford's Deckard eliminates android 'replicants,' who appear to be human in every way. The performances also do not disappoint. Blade Runner questions how we define humanity and does not give easy answers.

2. Witness -- No, I*m not hung up on Harrison Ford (although I am a huge fan.) This time Ford plays John Book, a Philadelphia police detective who, while investigating a murder, discovers a criminal enterprise within his department. Book takes a seven-year-old Amish boy, the only witness to the murder, and the boy's mother back to their community to hide from the crooked cops. Director Peter Weir successfully blends a crime thriller, a romance and an examination of Amish culture. It would have been easy to trivialize the Amish and portray their culture as backward and repressive. Weir avoids this trap and shows some of the beauty of their way of life, while also showing the difficulty an outsider such as Book has in adjusting to this different world. The romance between Book and Kelly McGillis is convincing and the performances are magnificent, particularly Ford as the 'just man in an unjust land.'

3. The Sting -- The AFI selected Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, the other George Roy Hill film starring Paul Newman and Robert Redford, but The Sting is the superior of the two. The narrative is masterfully constructed so that the story is always one step ahead of the audience. The film is about a series of small cons and one massive con, and we need to guess what is real and what is fake. But The Sting is also a comedy, and contains the funniest poker scene I've seen in any film. The sets and Marvin Hamlisch's music provide the right 1930's feel. Newman and Redford are aided by standout performances from supporting players Robert Shaw, Harold Gould, and Ray Walston.

4. The Hustler -- Another exemplary film starring Paul Newman, but this one*s more of a character study. Newman is 'Fast Eddie' Felson, an up-and-coming pool hustler whose life falls apart after losing to the legendary Minnesota Fats. Felson uses the other people in his life but later gets used himself. Newman gives us a character who is at war with himself as he struggles to establish his identity: Is he a hustler or a true competitor? Gleason's cool elegance as Fats is miles away from Ralph Kramden. Piper Laurie and George C. Scott shine in supporting roles. Director Robert Rossen provides the right pool hall flavor that make the games seem real.

5. Do the Right Thing -- Yes, Spike Lee takes himself too seriously, but that does not detract from the quality of his work. Lee is at his best in this 1989 film, which he wrote and directed, and starred in. He examines racial stereotyping, mistrust and hatred, not through an epic but through one day in a Brooklyn neighborhood. The mostly black residents have coexisted with the Italian owners of the local pizza parlor, but the ill will beneath the surface gradually turns to anger and then rage as the day progresses. Lee pulls no punches, forcing the audience to confront race as an issue in everyday life. He also gives us vivid characters and a Brooklyn neighborhood simmering in heat, foreshadowing the 'explosion' to come.

6. The Public Enemy -- How can you resist James Cagney shoving a grapefruit in Jean Harlow*s face. That image, Cagney's performance, and the whole film helped define the gangster movie, just as Stagecoach later defined the traditional Western. Cagney's performance, which combines toughness with vulnerability, made him a film icon. Admittedly The Public Enemy feels somewhat stagy and dated when viewed today, but it*s still a classic.

7. Airplane! -- Surely I can't be serious. Yes I can (and don*t call me Shirley). Jim Abrahams, David Zucker, and Jerry Zucker created a new brand of comedy with their 1980 send-up of disaster movie spoofs. They abandoned subtlety and simply loaded the film with as many jokes as you could fit in 86 minutes, while spoofing every possible film cliché. The actors (including Leslie Nielsen, launching his second career) play their roles completely straight and never show you that they're in on the joke. Their seriousness only adds to the hilarity. This comedy does not make any grand statement about the human condition, but neither did the Marx Brothers. Sometimes a comedy should just be funny.

The beauty of arguing about movies is that it truly is a matter of opinion and taste. There are no reliable statistics or figures you can use to show that one film is superior to another. Everyone is free to judge. So let the debates continue.

Find out what Adam's list of the top 100 American films looks like and compare them to the AFI List.

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This page was last updated on July 8, 1998