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The American Film Institute's Top 100 Films
comments by Wendell Wagner, Jr.

I have even more objections to the American Film Institute's list of 100 greatest American films than Adam does. First, it very much reflects the image of itself that mainstream Hollywood would like to project. It's full of the sort of earnest, high-minded, and, frankly, slightly dull movies that win Oscars. The real classics of American cinema are funnier, more exciting, and darker than this. There's a second problem with this list. Like the Academy Awards, it's slanted toward big budgets and big stars. Perhaps it's not surprising that money and fame influence the Oscars, but apparently even decades afterwards they skew Hollywood's view of itself. Here's what I would drop from or add to the AFI's list.

1. Drop Unforgiven and add Ride the High Country. Unforgiven is a reasonably good film, but it's not even the best picture that Clint Eastwood ever appeared in. (I prefer both Play Misty for Me and Dirty Harry.) Thirty years before Unforgiven there was a Western with a similar plot which is still underrated: Ride the High Country. Like Unforgiven, it's about a retired gunfighter forced to pick up his guns again, but it avoids the worst aspect of Clint Eastwood's films: victory costs something in Ride the High Country. Joel McCrea sacrifices his life to save the people he's promised to protect, while Randolph Scott learns the error of his ways and helps Scott. On the other hand, in Unforgiven, Eastwood doesn't even have to endure the scorn of his fellow police officers, as he does in Dirty Harry, or face the fact that his cool attitude toward women can get him into trouble, as he does in Play Misty for Me. Like too many current films, Unforgiven is about revenge. Like the best of the older films, Ride the High Country is about redemption.

2. Drop Dances with Wolves, the other Western of the early '90's which won an Oscar. Westerns got no respect during the late '50's and early '60's, when there were a slew of good ones: The Searchers, Ride the High Country, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence, Rio Bravo. None of them were even nominated for an Academy Award. Thirty years later, when the Western had nearly disappeared, the Academy decided to make up for it by giving the Oscar to two lesser examples of the genre, Unforgiven and Dances with Wolves.

3. Drop Fargo and add Blood Simple. I agree with Adam here that the Coen brothers haven't quite managed to make a collection of quirks add up to a great film in Fargo. In any case, Joel and Ethan Coen have made a better film that's worthy of addition to any list of great American films: their first feature, Blood Simple. Along with Chinatown and Body Heat, this is one of the three first-rate examples of film noir since 1960. In fact, this is the best of the three. Chinatown and Body Heat just revisit the themes of classic noir with slightly more downbeat endings and more explicitness than would have been allowed in the '40's and '50's. Blood Simple tells us what the film noir genre is really about - the American desire for individualism that leads eventually to isolation.

4. And while we're at it, drop Double Indemnity and add Body Heat. It may seem odd to choose a film that's so clearly modeled on an earlier movie, but I think that this is a clear case where the newer film has surpassed its inspiration. The acting is better, the dialogue is crisper, and the plotting is cleverer in Body Heat.

5. Drop Giant and Rebel without a Cause. Both of these movies, I suspect, are on the list because of a lingering James Dean cult. He wasn't, in my opinion, that great an actor.

6. Drop A Place in the Sun. Montgomery Clift was another overrated cult actor of the '50's.

7. Drop Close Encounters of the Third Kind and add Forbidden Planet, Blade Runner, Alien, and The Terminator. Given that science fiction movies are underrepresented in the AFI's list, it's a shame to have to drop one of the few it includes, but the plot of Close Encounters of the Third Kind is actually kind of stupid. On the other hand, there are genuinely interesting science-fictional ideas in Forbidden Planet and Blade Runner, although the first of these films has some creakiness in the dialogue and the second suffers from excessive concentration on design. Alien and The Terminator are both solid action movies and plausible science fiction.

8. Add Touch of Evil and Out of the Past. Film noir is also somewhat underrepresented. I'm surprised the AFI voters missed these two movies. I think mainstream Hollywood still underrates the truly great films of the '50's and early '60's (Westerns and film noir) and overrates genres that won Oscars back then (problem dramas, epics, and musicals).

9. Add Play it Again, Sam and Hannah and Her Sisters. Given the lack of recent comedies on the list, there's no better place to start than with Woody Allen's films, and these two (along with Annie Hall) are Allen's best.

10. Add The Great Dictator, the one first-rate Chaplin film that the list missed.

11. Add Airplane!. Half the jokes misfire, but it's still the funniest movie ever made.

12. Add His Girl Friday, another comedy that was oddly missed by the list.

13. Add Freaks and Carrie. Another underrepresented genre is horror. The acting in Freaks is weak, the dialogue isn't very good, the plot doesn't make a lot of sense, and it's still one of the most frightening films ever made. I also think that the early Brian DePalma films are underrated. I don't care if he was a Hitchcock imitator: he made movies that were as good as Hitchcock's. I consider Carrie to be his best.

14. Add After Hours. This film combines comedy and horror. This almost the quirkiest of my choices (well, wait till the end of the list), but I consider this, along with Dr. Strangelove, the best black comedy ever made.

15. Add The Last Picture Show. I'm baffled as to why the AFI voters missed this film.

16. Add The Adventures of Robin Hood. I'm even more baffled as to why they missed this film, which in my mind is a close second to Raiders of the Lost Ark as the best adventure film ever made.

17. Drop The Birth of a Nation and The Jazz Singer. These are interesting historical documents, but they're not remotely great films.

18. Drop The Sound of Music. Yuck. I never did much like this movie.

19. Drop The French Connection and add Play Misty for Me. I was surprised recently when I finally saw The French Connection to discover that it's not really that exciting a film. Although I was tempted to add Dirty Harry, a better and a more influential movie about a policeman, instead I'm including another 1971 Clint Eastwood film, Play Misty for Me. It's one of the few Eastwood films in which he's not in control of his fate.

20. Drop The Manchurian Candidate. It may be fascinating to discover that a movie made in 1962 managed to predict the assassination paranoia that didn't take hold until later that in that decade, but this film doesn't really carry out this idea particularly well.

21. Drop The Deer Hunter. I'm as mystified by this film's place in the AFI's list as I was back in 1978 when this film won the Oscar. Not only is the film's portrayal of the Vietnam War inaccurate, but the scenes in the Pennsylvania steel town are misconceived too.

22. Drop Platoon and add Salvador. Platoon was a better portrayal of the Vietnam War, but it's not as good as, say, Go Tell the Spartans. Oliver Stone directed a better film that same year: Salvador. Like many of Stone's movies, it's about someone receiving a political education from their experiences. Unlike such later Stone films as JFK, Salvador doesn't find it necessary to turn its main character into a saint. James Woods gives a great performance as a slimeball who stumbles onto the truth.

23. Drop Guess Who's Coming to Dinner and add Do the Right Thing and Menace II Society. Guess Who's Coming to Dinner was a painfully earnest but unsuccessful attempt to say something about race relations. Do the Right Thing and the greatly underrated Menace II Society are better films about the African-American experience.

24. Drop Doctor Zhivago and Ben-Hur. These are two of the overblown and overrated epics of the late '50's and early '60's.

25. Drop Yankee Doodle Dandy, The Apartment, Amadeus, Network, Tootsie, and Forrest Gump. None of these films are particularly bad, but they're just not up to the caliber of the other films on this list.

26. Add House of Games. The cleverest movie ever made about a con game and an amazing performance by Joe Mantegna.

27. Drop M*A*S*H and add Nashville and The Player. M*A*S*H isn't a bad film, but there's four better movies directed by Robert Altman: McCabe and Mrs. Miller, The Long Goodbye, The Player, and Nashville.

28. Drop Schindler's List. This is actually a pretty good film, but, along with another Spielberg movie, Empire of the Sun, I would have to rate it as just outside of the top 100.

29. Drop An American in Paris. The dancing is great, the songs are O.K., but the plot just doesn't cut it.

30. Drop Snow White and the Seven Dwarves and add Beauty and the Beast. Disney cartoons (and their imitators) are the only films being made today in the spirit of the old-time musicals. Beauty and the Beast is the best of these films and is a little better than the classic Disney cartoons.

31. Add Cabaret, which I consider to be the last time, other than in a cartoon, that a musical really worked.

32. Add The Usual Suspects. This is the most recent film to astonish me with its brilliance.

33. Drop Easy Rider and add Slacker. I wish I didn't have to leave out Easy Rider, since it's the only film on the AFI's list that was a sleeper hit. I respect the fact that Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda managed to turn out a reasonably good (and enormously influential) movie on a low budget, but it's not quite good enough for this list. The point of the film is rather vague and only Jack Nicholson delivers a first-rate performance. On the other hand, there have been a number of fine low-budget hits in the late '80's and early '90's. Spike Lee's She's Gotta Have It, Richard Rodriguez's El Mariachi, Kevin Smith's Clerks, and Richard Linklater's Slacker are all excellent films made on shoestring budgets by complete outsiders.

Here then is my list of the top 100 American films. Compare them to the AFI List. list and Adam's List.

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This page was last updated on September 9, 1998.