100 Years, 100 Movies Redux

Tonight at 8 p.m. EST on CBS, the American Film Institute is revisiting its 100 Years, 100 Movies list of the all-time great American movies. The first time this list was put together was a decade ago, and while the list is worth reevaluation (a number of great movies were left out the last time) and a few films have been released since 1997 that belong on the list, this current incarnation of 100 Years, 100 Moviessmacks of “Well, we’ve run out of things to make lists of.” Hopefully, the list and show aren’t simply a rehash of what was presented 10 years ago.

There has already been one major difference. The AFI opened voting to the moviegoing public. Last time, only a selection of dignified peoples in Hollywood, the movies and politics were able to vote. In order to vote this time, all someone needed to do was print the form and ballot from the AFI website, follow its rules and submit their votes by a certain date. This proved educational even if someone didn’t vote partly because it provided a look into the list of films under consideration for the list (there were 400). More importantly, the online ballot provided in hard-copy form the criteria that each film must fulfill. There are seven, and the following is taken directly from the AFI ballot:

Feature-Length Film: Narrative format, typically over 60 minutes in length. American Film: Motion picture with significant creative and/or production elements from the United States. Critical Recognition: Formal commendation in print, television and digital media. Major Award Winner: Recognition from competitive events including awards from peer groups, critics, guilds and major film festivals. Popularity Over Time: Including success at the box office, television and cable airings, and DVD/VHS sales and rentals. Historical Significance: A film’s mark on the history of the moving image through visionary narrative devices, technical innovation, or other groundbreaking achievements. Cultural Impact: A film’s mark on American society in matters of style and substance.

Generally, this is a good set of criteria for creating a top 100 American movies list. “Critical Recognition,” “Major Award Winner” and “American Film” are the three that pose the biggest problems, though. A critic isn’t infallible, and sometimes the critic makes mistakes. Major critical recognition, therefore, isn’t the best judge of a film’s greatness. Take Sideways for example, which is on the list of 400. It was almost universally approved critically, yet it’s a flawed work and nowhere near Alexander Payne’s best.

The awards criterion is similarly specious because, as everyone knows, awards are fickle indicators. Take the Academy Awards, for example. When Titanic won Best Picture in 1997, it did so over L.A. Confidential, both of which are on the list of 400. Titanic might have made a lot more money, but it certainly wasn’t the best film of that year. Same with Lord of the Rings: Return of the King. When it won Best Picture in 2002, it defeated Lost in Translation and Mystic River, which were both better films. (All three are on the list of 400.) Return of the King won the award because it was being honored for the trilogy. But that doesn’t mean it’s a “great” film.

Finally, the American factor is one that needs to be taken with a grain of salt when looking at some of the AFI’s previous honorees and some of the films on the list of 400. Goldfinger was on the previous top 100 list, and while it was released and funded by an American studio, it’s a wholly British production. Same goes for Lawrence of Arabia, Bridge On the River Kwai and The Third Man, which, incidentally, was ranked the best British film of all time by the British Film Institute in 1998. A film having to be American seems to be an intuitive requisite for a list of the 100 best American movies, but the AFI plays fast and loose with what it means to be an “American film” in some cases and that must be kept in mind. When you factor those three requirements out of the list, though, the remaining four provide an excellent foundation on choosing what belongs on a list of the 100 best American movies of all time.

In order to participate in the process, voters were allowed to choose 100 movies from the list of 400. Any more than 100 choices disqualified the ballot. There was also room for five write-in votes, allowing voters to choose 95 from the list and five of their own. Finally, voters had to rank their top five choices.

In that spirit, I chose my top 100 American movies from the list provided by the AFI. On the list below are 96 choices from the list of 400, in alphabetical order, followed by four write-in votes, also in alphabetical order, and my top five, in order from one to five. My choices are weighted in the following way:

1) Cultural Impact 2) Historical Significance 3) Popularity Over Time 4) Critical Recognition 5) Major Award Winner

I left off two of the seven criteria—American Film and Feature-Length Fiction Film—because those are essentially givens considering the list of choices: all are feature films, and all are American (to varying degrees). In the spirit of full disclosure, I did not officially vote.

The list the AFI reveals tonight will be a certain point of heated discussion (especially on the ‘Net). Last time the debate raged about what was left off, why and what was number one. This time, there will be a couple added dimensions: how the list changed, and why. If nothing else, the AFI knows how to stir up controversy and drum up interest in old titles thanks to these lists. But the lists serve another purpose: fostering discussion about film. And that’s always a good thing, regardless how the discussion begins.

My Top 100 American Movies

Adam's Rib All About Eve Annie Hall Apocalypse Now Badlands Beauty and the Beast The Birth of a Nation Blade Runner Blue Velvet Bonnie and Clyde Casablanca Chinatown Citizen Kane City Lights A Clockwork Orange The Conversation The Deer Hunter Die Hard Do the Right Thing Dr. Strangelove Duck Soup E.T. Easy Rider Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind The Exorcist Frankenstein The French Connection The General Gentlemen Prefer Blondes Ghostbusters The Godfather The Godfather Part II The Gold Rush Gone With the Wind Goodfellas The Graduate The Great Dictator Groundhog Day Harold and Maude I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang In the Heat of the Night It Happened One Night King Kong L.A. Confidential Lawrence of Arabia Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring Lost in Translation M*A*S*H Manhattan The Matrix Memento Modern Times Nashville Night of the Living Dead Ninotchka North by Northwest Notorious On the Waterfront One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest Patton The Philadelphia Story Pulp Fiction Raging Bull Raiders of the Lost Ark Rocky The Rocky Horror Picture Show Rushmore sex, lies, and videotape. The Silence of the Lambs Singin' in the Rain Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs Some Like it Hot The Sound of Music Stagecoach Star Wars A Streetcar Named Desire Sullivan's Travels Sunrise Sunset Blvd. The Sweet Smell of Success Taxi Driver Terminator 2: Judgment Day The Third Man This is Spinal Tap To Kill a Mockingbird Top Hat Toy Story The Treasure of the Sierra Madre Trouble in Paradise 2001: A Space Odyssey Unforgiven Vertigo West Side Story Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? The Wizard of Oz A Woman Under the Influence

Write-Ins: Dracula Evil Dead 2 Purple Rain Shadows

Top Five: 1) Sunrise 2) The Godfather Part II 3) Citizen Kane 4) Casablanca 5) Vertigo