Everyone is talking about the American Film Institute’s updated Top 100 list. I’m intrigued by these kinds of lists, in part because I think they do introduce important questions about taste and about our criteria for evaluating films, and while I don’t consider it part of my job as a film and media scholar to evaluate films, I certainly do that implicitly whenever I teach an Introduction to Film class (as I do virtually every semester), and while I wouldn’t describe the films that I teach as the 15 best films ever made, I am certainly telling my students that these films are important and worth seeing. And I think we can learn something about the institutions of film studies and film appreciation have changed over the last decade as we continue to evaluate our cinematic past. Of course, I’m also fully aware that these lists will be used as marketing tools to sell DVDs of these films, but there are probably worse ways to spend $20 or so here and there.
Edward Copeland has the full Top 100 plus the original list and even tracks some of the biggest movers, and over on the Newcritics blog, M.A. Peel has a close analysis of the Top 10. A few observations about the lists (and the commentary about the lists) in no particular order:
- Both Copeland and Ms. Peel point out the re-evaluation of Hitchcock’s Vertigo, which climbed from #61 in the original poll, all the way into the top 10. It’s not surprising to see several Hitchcock films on the list, but the re-evaluation of certain films is interesting. After teaching North by Northwest for so many years, I’ve grown to like it more than Vertigo, but both films certainly belong on the list. One guess as to why Vertigo made such a huge climb: the restored print of Vertigo that was produced in the mid-1990s.
- Jim Emerson points out that Birth of a Nation completely dropped out of the Top 100 list (from #44). Good riddance. Films that endorse the Klan don’t belong on this kind of list, no matter how innovative narratively or technically. I can’t believe that the film was that highly ranked just ten years ago. Emerson also points out that The Searchers climbed from #96 all the way to #12, which appears to be the biggest leap of any film. On the Waterfront also tumbled pretty far. Could that be related to the renewed attention to Elia Kazan’s HUAC testimony?
- Like Emerson, I would have liked seeing Lone Star among the top 100, but I have to disagree with him about Inland Empire, a film I’ve come to like less and less as I get distance from it. If any Lynch film belongs in the Top 100, it’s probably Mulholland Drive.
- A few of my favorites are starting to climb into the top 100. Do the Right Thing finally made the list, albeit at #96, and Blade Runner squeezed in at #97. I think that both of these films will continue to look better with time, especially Do the Right Thing, which suffered early on because it was regarded as too controversial or confrontational or something (Joe Klein and Terence McNally famously feared that the film would spark riots).
- I’m happy to see that Roger Ebert joined in the conversation, praising the list for including Buster Keaton this time around, while criticizing it for omitting Fargo (Emerson has the same complaint). I have to admit that I don’t have strong feelings either way for Fargo. It’s a well-made film, but most Coen brothers films feel a bit like an exercise to me.
- I’ve skimmed the top 100 list several times, and unless I missed something, there’s not a single film directed by a woman listed. That’s probably not a big surprise given that only 4.5 of the 400 finalists were directed by women, but I’m looking forward to seeing the list complied by the Alliance of Women Film Journalists, which should come out in a few days. This observation is, of course, partially a critique of the tastemakers who make these lists, but I think it also says something about Hollywood’s history of hiring primarily male directors.
- My list of snubs: The Conversation, His Girl Friday, 25th Hour, Dark City, Groundhog Day (I think Andy will agree with me on that one), and Medium Cool. I’d consider adding either Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused and I’d substitute Robert Altman’s Short Cuts for Nashville.
Update: The Reeler has one of the best responses I’ve seen so far to the AFI List, which tend–as this one does–to compile all the usual suspects. I forgot to mention that the list has zero films by Jim Jarmusch, John Cassavetes, or the Coen Brothers. Because there wasn’t a single documentary listed, I assumed they weren’t eligible, but Barbara Kopple, Errol Morris, the Maysles, and Ross McElwee should probably be at least mentioned, and in my pre-coffee reflections this morning, I forgot to mention Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust. Maybe the Reeler is right–we need a list of “100 forgotten films.” Or something.