Last week, the American Film Institute announced its list of “America’s 10 Greatest Films in 10 Classic Genres” – Animation, Romantic Comedies, Western, Sports, Mystery, Fantasy, Sci-Fi, Gangster, Courtroom Drama, and Epic. According to Bob Gazzale, President of the AFI, “These countdowns are a collective opinion of leaders from across the film community,” and “Any surprise about an omission would be entirely subjective.” You can read the complete lists here.
When it comes to the AFI’s No. 1 choices, I’m pretty much on the same page. Who can argue with Vertigo or City Lights? However, their 2-through-10 choices are often confounding. According to President Gazzale, “Part of the fun of the film lists is the debate they prompt over which movies are included and omitted.” An invitation to criticism if I ever heard one. So let the fun begin!
Animation – AFI’S NO. 1: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1938). Not as great as Pinocchio maybe (AFI’s No. 2), but still a good choice. MOST SURPRISING INCLUSION: No. 8, Shrek (2001). On the one hand, Shrek is the only film on the list that wasn’t made by Disney or its subsidiary, Pixar. On the other, it’s hardly a *great* film in terms of either story or visuals. Particularly with so many other worthy candidates to choose from. MOST SIGNIFICANT OMISSION: Disney’s Dumbo (1941) – Dumbo has some of the best character animation ever, a tightly constructed story that’ll tear your heart out, and a hallucination sequence, “Pink Elephants on Parade,” that is still mind-boggling in its Technicolor inventiveness.
Romantic Comedies – AFI’S NO. 1: City Lights (Charles Chaplin 1931). I hadn’t thought of this as a romantic comedy, but it’s still a great film. MOST SURPRISING INCLUSIONS: No. 6 and 10, When Harry Met Sally and Sleepless in Seattle. Two Meg Ryan movies?? MOST SIGNIFICANT OMISSION: Bringing Up Baby (Howard Hawks 1938). I’ve always preferred Hepburn and Grant to Hepburn and Tracy, and Baby is their funniest collaboration.
Westerns – AFI’S NO. 1: The Searchers (John Ford 1956). No argument there. MOST SURPRISING INCLUSION: No. 10, Cat Ballou (Elliot Silverstein 1965). If the AFI wanted to include a “Feminist” Western, a better choice would’ve been Johnny Guitar (Nicholas Ray 1954) or The Furies (Anthony Mann 1950). MOST SIGNIFICANT OMISSION: The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence (John Ford 1962). The culmination of Ford’s Western work, and his final comment on the facts versus “the legend.” A masterpiece by any standard and, yes, a superior film to Cat Ballou.
Sports – AFI’S NO. 1: Raging Bull (Martin Scorsese 1980). A reasonable consensus choice and certainly Robert De Niro’s most committed performance. MOST SURPRISING INCLUSION: No.4, Hoosiers (David Anspaugh 1986). I still can’t believe Dennis Hopper got an Academy Award nomination for this instead of Blue Velvet. MOST SIGNIFICANT OMISSION: The Set-Up (Robert Wise 1949) – 72 minutes in the life of a boxer (Robert Ryan) about to face his last opponent. One of the finest works of poetic realism the American cinema has ever produced.
Mystery – AFI’S NO. 1: Vertigo (Alfred Hitchcock 1958). The obvious No. 1 choice in a great category. (I would consider most of the films AFI listed here – Chinatown, Laura, etc. – to be film noirs. And since when is The Third Man considered an “American” film?) MOST SURPRISING INCLUSION: No. 10, The Usual Suspects (Bryan Singer 1995). A talk-fest with a trick ending. Doesn’t belong on a list that includes 4 Hitchcocks. MOST SIGNIFICANT OMISSION: Touch of Evil (Orson Welles 1958). As much a “mystery” as any of the other films on the list and an unqualified masterpiece.
Fantasy – AFI’S NO. 1: The Wizard of Oz (Victor Fleming 1939). The fact that this auteur-less movie masterpiece even exists is “magical.” MOST SURPRISING INCLUSION: No. 6, Field of Dreams (Phil Alden Robinson 1989). Shouldn’t this be in the Sports category? If you want a baseball-related fantasy, how about the more colorful, less sappy Damn Yankees (Stanley Donen & George Abbott 1957)? MOST SIGNIFICANT OMISSION: Not a single film by stop-motion animator, Ray Harryhausen, the man who inspired the visuals of Lord of the Rings and most of the filmic fantasies we see today. My favorite Harryhausen? The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (Nathan Juran 1958).
Sci-Fi – AFI’S NO. 1: 2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick 1968). 2001 is the Citizen Kane of science fiction films – the monolith, its Rosebud. MOST SURPRISING INCLUSION: No. 10, Back to the Future (Robert Zemeckis 1985). More a fantasy/comedy than science fiction per se. The best American time travel film is still The Time Machine (George Pal 1960). MOST SIGNIFICANT OMISSION: Videodrome (1983), David Cronenberg’s great exploration of “inner space.” Probably too adult and/or Canadian for the AFI. The biggest omission of a film I expected to see on the list was the still aurally and visually stunning Forbidden Planet (Fred McLeod Wilcox 1956).
Gangster – AFI’S NO. 1: The Godfather (Francis Coppola 1972). Not as good as Godfather II (No. 3 on the list), but you already knew that. MOST SURPRISING INCLUSION: I like all the films listed in this category, but I don’t really think of Pulp Fiction (Quentin Tarantino 1994) as a “gangster” film. MOST SIGNIFICANT OMISSION: Once Upon a Time in America (Sergio Leone 1984) with Robert De Niro and James Woods as characters loosely based on Bugsy Siegel and Meyer Lansky.
Courtroom Drama – AFI’S NO. 1: To Kill a Mockingbird (Robert Mulligan 1962). Quite a film, half courtroom drama, half coming-of-age film. (The purest and most authentic courtroom drama on AFI’s list is No. 7, Anatomy of a Murder (Otto Preminger 1959). MOST SURPRISING INCLUSION: In Cold Blood (Richard Brooks 1967), a terrific movie, but one that spends hardly any time in a courtroom. It’s really a crime film or film noir. MOST SIGNIFICANT OMISSION: A Place in the Sun (George Stevens 1951), among the greatest courtroom scenes ever filmed with Raymond Burr as the relentless prosecutor and Montgomery Clift as his victim.
Epic – AFI’S NO. 1: Lawrence of Arabia (David Lean 1962). A classic film? Yes. American? I think not. It starred one Brit, was directed by another, and was shot in North Africa. MOST SURPRISING INCLUSION: Saving Private Ryan (Stephen Spielberg 1998). More of a war film than an epic and – let’s face it – after that great D-Day opening, it becomes pretty routine. MOST SIGNIFICANT OMISSION: El Cid (Anthony Mann 1961). Mann’s El Cid and Kubrick’s Spartacus (AFI’s No. 5) were films that defined the epic during the genre’s peak years, the early 1960s, before massive sets, location shooting, and literal casts of thousands were replaced by more convenient bluescreen and CGI.