A new AFI list?

This Wednesday, the AFI announced their 2nd edition of their famed Top 100 movies list and I am reminded of how monumental the release of the original AFI 100 Years.…100 Movies list was for me, because it led to my desire to be a film critic.

Back in 1998, when I heard a list was being released of the top 100 films of all time, I tried to guess what might be on the list based on what films I had seen and liked. I thought of films like Cool Runnings, The Mighty Ducks and an obscure Vincente Minnelli musical called Kismet. When I actually looked it up, I was completely taken aback to learn that pretty much all of the films on the list were not only movies I had yet to see, but movies I hadn’t even heard of. I suddenly wanted to know what exactly these films could possibly have that the Mighty Ducks didn’t have. The following summer, I spent a lot of my free time going to the library and checking out films on the list like The Graduate, Who’s Coming to Dinner, The African Queen and Network. The rest is history

It most likely wasn’t just me who gained an appreciation of film around this time. The AFI list came in the middle of a list-making craze occurring around the turn of the century. Between 1995 and 2002, every group from Time Out Film Guide to the British Film Institute to the National Society of Film Critics, in addition to Premiere, Empire, Movieline, TV Guide, and Rolling Stone magazines published lists for the century’s top films. Some might see these lists as arbitrary gimmicks, but the lists act as a reference for sorting between quality and generic drivel for those who dare to venture beyond the new release sections of the video store. Before 1995, the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry, awards like the Oscars, and Sight and Sound Magazine’s decennial film poll were the only guides to the history of films and they were all insufficient. The National Film Registry is not particularly well-publicized and the Sight and Sound polls only goes 10 films deep. The Oscars and all other awards that single out great films by the year can often fall into the trap of thinking about what’s big at the moment and selections like Around the World in 80 Days and The Ziegfeld Follies can become dated very quickly.

Of these lists, the AFI remains the most well-known and I’ve come to consider it as a definitive authority. I can’t say the list is perfect but I think that all but two or three (My Fair Lady, Wuthering Heights, and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner) are pretty safely in the realm of classics. 97 out of 100 is a pretty good mark. The list is also pretty inclusive of all time periods, major actors, significant directors, and runs 8 or 9 films deep in every major American genre. It has everything from recent Oscar winners (i.e. Forrest Gump, Dances with Wolves), popular crowdpleasers (i.e. Rocky, Raiders of the Lost Ark), film milestones (i.e. Birth of a Nation, Jazz Singer), cult monster movies (Frankenstein), literary adaptations (i.e. To Kill a Mockingbird, Grapes of Wrath), and the most anti-war (i.e. Mash and Apocalypse Now) and pro-war (i.e. From Here to Eternity) films ever made.

This is why I’m against the notion of the list being tampered with. The tragedy of redoing the list is that some great films will inevitably be left off to make room for the new. Also, other than a film like the 1958 Orson Welles’ classic Touch of Evil, that gained praise only after its original cut was finally released forty years later or the 1962 entry (ranked at #67) “The Manchurian Candidate” which was pulled out of circulation until 1988 due to controversial content, I’m not sure why there is a need to reorder the films either. After all, Citizen Kane hasn’t gotten any worse over the last 10 years. Why not just add 10 films for the last 10 years, even if it means changing the catchy marketing title “100 Years, 100 movies.”

My suggestions on what to add can be found on my personal blog here.

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