In 1998, the American Film Institute polled some 1500 film critics, historians, and industry leaders and came up with a list of 100 of the greatest, most historically significant films of all time. Ten years later, they did it again, and the television special aired last night.
I figured I should post about it, and I was wondering what to quibble about, but Roger Ebert set me straight when I read his article (which includes the full list): “Lists like these cry out to be disagreed with. . . . In the aftermath of the first list, issued in 1998, I received enough complaints about missing titles to supply two or three more lists. . . . But such lists serve two functions: (1) The television special makes money for the American Film Institute, which is a noble and useful institution, and (2) some kid somewhere is gonna rent ‘Citizen Kane’ and have the same kind of epiphany I had when I first saw it as a teenager. . . . They are going to find movies on this list that were made before their grandparents were born — and, if judging by the kids I saw Buster Keaton’s “The General” (No. 18) with, they might love them.”
He’s quite right. I could complain that The Graduate, while it thankfully slipped out of the top 10, is still in the top 20. I could complain that All Quiet On the Western Front and Fargo are absent. On the other hand, I could express my profound delight that those polled by the AFI have corrected their grievous omission of The General by ranking it #18 this time around. But yeah, in the end, this list and others like it serve to give great movies more exposure, and that is a great thing that supersedes individual controversies.
I’m a stats junkie anyhow, though, and so I immediately wanted to know which titles dropped off, which were new, which titles rose and fell the most, and so on. Wikipedia already has the scoop on that stuff, so check there.
But now I am finally done talking about what I’m not going to talk about, and I can talk about what I will talk about. What interests me in this list is how it reflects the burgeoning recognition of a few key titles that, for whatever reason, have suddenly gained great respect despite already being greatly respected. The British Sight & Sound magazine does a Top 10 Movies type of list every ten years as well (theirs dates back to 1952), and in the 2002 list, Vertigo (1958) and Sunrise (1927) appeared for the first time. Vertigo, in fact, appeared at #2, displacing The Rules of the Game, which had held the spot through the 1972, 1982, and 1992 lists. Five years later, Vertigo climbs 52 spots to #9 on the AFI 100 list, and Sunrise debuts at #82.
Where did the sudden surge of support come from for these two titles? No idea. But great art will always swell and ebb as contemporary perspectives evolve. (Good or mediocre art just ebbs.) Both films are about romantic obsessions. In Vertigo, Jimmy Stewart falls in love with a woman who is killed, then cannot get over her. He meets another woman and becomes obsessed with her, but only insofar as she resembles the dead woman. He remakes her into her image, and she obliges, because if he cannot love her as herself, at least he can love her somehow. It’s one of the most psychologically complex films ever made. It conveys truth and understanding of humanity that even most other great films don’t quite manage.
Sunrise is also about a man’s tumultous obsession with two women. It’s about a man who has grown restless in a marriage and meets an exciting woman from the city that seduces him and puts thoughts of murder into his head. But craving murder and following through prove to be two very different things.
Is it coincidence that these two films touch upon similar themes, or is there some shift in the tide of American culture that makes these themes all the more compelling to us? I don’t know, but it’s interesting to think about, and it’s a great opportunity to rediscover these great, great films.
Here’s another thing that may or may not have anything to do with changing attitudes. D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation appeared on the original AFI 100 list. In any list of movies that attempts to recognize the most influential films of all time, Birth of a Nation needs to appear on it. It cannot be overstated just how much it revolutionized filmmaking. Here is the first feature film that looks and functions like we think of movies looking and functioning. Modern cinematographic and editing techniques are introduced. Close-ups, crosscutting, and on and on — the basic building blocks of modern filmmaking were first assembled and used pervasively in Birth of a Nation.
But the film carries the stigma of racism. The first half less so, but the second is a story about the aftermath of the Civil War in which the Ku Klux Klan are the heroes, shown riding to the rescue of whites under attack by blacks, portrayed as savage and uncivilized. Modern discussions of the film are difficult, because neither the racism nor the brilliance of the filmmaking can be ignored. (Leni Reifenstahl’s Nazi propaganda film Triumph of the Will is similarly problematic.)
Even in 1915, charges of racism were raised, which took D.W. Griffith quite by surprise. His next film was an apology: Intolerance, from 1916, an epic which interleaves four separate stories that illustrate how destructive a force intolerance is and was throughout history. It, too, is a great film and an absolutely critical landmark in film history.
But it’s interesting to see what the AFI Top 100 lists have done. In 1997, Birth of a Nation appeared. In 2007, it’s been swapped out for Intolerance. If that switch occurred from changing social values rather than changing perception of cinematic achievement, how can anyone complain?
If you have interest in watching the movies on the new AFI 100 list, check The Film Lover’s Check List, which includes a page for six earlier AFI lists and will include the new list later today. The Film Lover’s Check List is a nice tool for keeping track of what movies of various lists you’ve seen and what movies you have left to go.
(Note: Because of this AFI 100 post, this week’s Vintage post will be delayed.)