The Alternative Top 101

When the American Film Institute released its "100 Greatest Movies" list on June 16, reaction among movie lovers was swift -- and furious. The L.A. Times' Kenneth Turan called the selection a scandal; others called it far worse. The controversy had actually begun months earlier, when the AFI first released a nominations list of 400 titles that included classics such as Pretty Woman and Jurassic Park. The final 100, selected by a "blue-ribbon panel" of 1,500 "leaders from the American film community," along with President Clinton and Vice President Gore, wasn't much of an improvement. Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, Rocky, Raiders of the Lost Ark and Tootsie made the cut, though not Intolerance, Greed or anything by Buster Keaton, Preston Sturges or John Cassavetes.Taste isn't the real issue here. Money is. The AFI, which was founded in 1967 as a private, nonprofit organization, is charged with working with this country's major archives in the collection and preservation of American film. Preservation is a Herculean, heartbreaking task. It's estimated that half the films made in this country before 1952 no longer exist - they're lost forever. For the silent period, the numbers are even more grim, ranging as high as 80 to 90 percent. But film preservation isn't sexy, and raising money to restore our fast-crumbling celluloid history has always been difficult. In 1983, the AFI launched the "Decade of Preservation" as a way to raise funds; in 1988, it held its first Preservation Ball. Last November, with its government funding diminished (just $40,000 for 1998), the institute announced its search for the 100 greatest movies (it rarely refers to them as the greatest American movies).You don't have to be an industry insider to understand what the AFI was up to. You just had to read the press release: "The American Film Institute (AFI), in conjunction with an unprecedented coalition of home video divisions of 13 film studios, today announced an extraordinary multimillion-dollar video promotion to support its historic 100 Years ... 100 Movies celebration. This is the first time in the history of the home video industry that the major studios have joined together for a joint marketing effort.... The videos will be released for sale and rental in stores immediately following the June 16 CBS broadcast." In other words, the AFI was joining forces with the industry to the profit of both. The studios would receive publicity, and potential sales. And as Seth Oster, director of communications at the AFI, puts it somewhat obliquely: "We hope that at the end of the day there is some surplus revenue from advertising."The AFI's goals are laudable; the way in which it goes about realizing them often are not. Significantly, two of the criteria for selection of the Top 100 involved format ("narrative," "feature-length fiction") and popularity ("box office ... television broadcasts ... home video sales and rentals"). The restrictions on format meant no documentaries, no shorts, no avant-garde films, no Bugs Bunny. As to the commercial considerations (most of the 100 "greatest" are owned by the studios), you have to wonder how Citizen Kane - a critical hit that nonetheless flopped at the box office, in part because of the Hearst boycott - ever made it to the top of the heap.If the upshot of the AFI Top 100 were limited to a special issue of Newsweek, a couple of TV specials and the reissue of Gone With the Wind, none of this would much matter. But in creating this list, the AFI has effectively established a canon, one that will be broadcast on television (TNT will be airing Top 100 titles from its own library), peddled at video chains (Blockbuster is a sponsor) and sold as fact to the public imagination. You have to wonder just how effectively the AFI is advancing the cause of film preservation when it puts its name on a greatest-movie list that includes only 36 films produced before 1952.In protest -- and in fun -- this blue-ribbon panel was empowered to come up with, if not necessarily a better list, one that is smarter, more comprehensive, more thoughtful and true to the wild diversity of this country's greatest art (next to jazz, of course). Panelists included executive editor Harold Meyerson, whose knowledge of early film rivals his grasp of politics, senior editor Ron Stringer, a prodigious movie lover of, at times, alarmingly catholic taste, and three of the paper's regular film critics, Ella Taylor, F.X. Feeney and myself. Together we agreed, if not easily, on 86 titles; each panelist was then allowed to choose three more, to better reflect the idiosyncratic output that began in this country not long after Eadweard Muybridge met Thomas Alva Edison in 1888 and suggested that the inventor combine his phonograph with Muybridge's magic lantern.Why 101? Why not? There was also the Lubitsch Factor. Given that the AFI list omits the director, we decided to automatically include one of his films, then Meyerson added a second. There are, of course, many wonderful movies that aren't on our list; we could easily have compiled an alternative great 250, or even 400. I regret that only one film each by Nicholas Ray, Anthony Mann and Cassavetes made it, and that Tod Browning, Robert Flaherty, Frank Borzage, Josef von Sternberg, Frank Tashlin, Jerry Lewis and Don Siegel were left off entirely. A final thought: In 1992, the British film magazine Sight and Sound asked 132 critics and 101 directors to name the Top 10 films of all time. (For the record, both groups put Citizen Kane at the top of their lists.) The superb French filmmaker Chris Marker, however, declined to participate. "Sorry," Marker wrote, "but I'm totally unable to play the game of the 10 best films ... I hate competition anyway, and my list, had I the time to think of it, would vary from one minute to the next, among the hundreds of films that at one moment, for one reason or another (generally another), were of utmost importance to me." We understand the feeling. -- Manohla Dargis***(+ = also on the AFI list; * = unanimous)The Birth of a Nation (D.W. Griffith, 1915)+Intolerance - Love's Struggle Throughout the Ages (D.W. Griffith, 1916)Greed (Erich von Stroheim, 1923-25)*The General (Buster Keaton co-director, 1927)*Sunrise - A Song of Two Humans (F.W. Murnau, 1927)*The Crowd (King Vidor, 1928)Steamboat Bill, Jr. (Buster Keaton; Charles F. Reisner director, 1928)City Lights (Charles Chaplin, 1931)+*Frankenstein (James Whale, 1931)+I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang (Mervyn LeRoy, 1932)The Music Box (Laurel and Hardy; James Parrott director, 1932)One Hour With You (Ernst Lubitsch, 1932)Scarface, The Shame of a Nation (Howard Hawks, 1932)Design for Living (Ernst Lubitsch, 1933)Duck Soup (Marx Brothers; Leo McCarey director, 1933)+42nd Street (Lloyd Bacon, 1933)King Kong (Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack, 1933)+It's a Gift (W. C. Fields; Norman Z. McLeod director, 1934)A Night at the Opera (Marx Brothers; Sam Wood director, 1935)Modern Times (Charles Chaplin, 1936)+*My Man Godfrey (Gregory La Cava, 1936)Rose Hobart (Joseph Cornell, 1936)Swing Time (George Stevens, 1936)Bringing Up Baby (Howard Hawks, 1938)+The Wizard of Oz (Victor Fleming, 1939)+*Young Mr. Lincoln (John Ford, 1939)Fantasia (Disney; Ben Sharpsteen, production supervisor, 1940)+Pinocchio (Disney; Ben Sharpsteen and Hamilton Luske, 1940)*Citizen Kane (Orson Welles, 1941)+*How Green Was My Valley (John Ford, 1941)The Lady Eve (Preston Sturges, 1941)Sullivan's Travels (Preston Sturges, 1941)*The Magnificent Ambersons (Orson Welles, 1942)*Now, Voyager (Irving Rapper, 1942)The Palm Beach Story (Preston Sturges, 1942)Meshes of the Afternoon (Maya Deren, 1943)Double Indemnity (Billy Wilder, 1944)Meet Me in St. Louis (Vincente Minnelli, 1944)The Big Sleep (Howard Hawks, 1946)It's a Wonderful Life (Frank Capra, 1946)+My Darling Clementine (John Ford, 1946)Out of the Past (Jacques Tourneur, 1947)*The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (John Huston, 1948)+Gun Crazy (Deadly Is the Female) (Joseph H. Lewis, 1949)White Heat (Raoul Walsh, 1949)*In a Lonely Place (Nicholas Ray, 1950)Singin' in the Rain (Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly, 1952)+The Big Heat (Fritz Lang, 1953)Duck Amuck (Chuck Jones, 1953)*The Naked Spur (Anthony Mann, 1953)On the Waterfront (Elia Kazan, 1954)+Rear Window (Alfred Hitchcock, 1954)+*Kiss Me Deadly (Robert Aldrich, 1955)The Night of the Hunter (Charles Laughton, 1955)The Searchers (John Ford, 1956)+*A Face in the Crowd (Elia Kazan, 1957)Forty Guns (Samuel Fuller, 1957)Paths of Glory (Stanley Kubrick, 1957)Sweet Smell of Success (Alexander Mackendrick, 1957)*Written on the Wind (Douglas Sirk, 1957)Touch of Evil (Orson Welles, 1958)*Vertigo (Alfred Hitchcock, 1958)+*Imitation of Life (Douglas Sirk, 1959)North by Northwest (Alfred Hitchcock, 1959)+Rio Bravo (Howard Hawks, 1959)Some Came Running (Vincente Minnelli, 1959)Some Like It Hot (Billy Wilder, 1959)+*Psycho (Alfred Hitchcock, 1960)+Lawrence of Arabia (David Lean, 1962)+The Manchurian Candidate (John Frankenheimer, 1962)+*The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (John Ford, 1962)Dr. Strangelove, or: How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (Stanley Kubrick, 1964)+Chimes at Midnight (Falstaff) (Orson Welles, 1966)Point Blank (John Boorman, 1967)Scenes From Under Childhood (Stan Brakhage, 1967-70)Night of the Living Dead (George A. Romero, 1968)The Wild Bunch (Sam Peckinpah, 1969)+Husbands (John Cassavetes, 1970)McCabe & Mrs. Miller (Robert Altman, 1971)The Godfather (Francis Ford Coppola, 1972)+*Badlands (Terrence Malick, 1973)The Long Goodbye (Robert Altman, 1973)Mean Streets (Martin Scorsese, 1973)*Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (Sam Peckinpah, 1974)Chinatown (Roman Polanski, 1974)+The Godfather Part II (Francis Ford Coppola, 1974)+*The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (Tobe Hooper, 1974)Taxi Driver (Martin Scorsese, 1976)+Killer of Sheep (Charles Burnett, 1977)Apocalypse Now (Francis Ford Coppola, 1979)+Manhattan (Woody Allen, 1979)Heaven's Gate (Michael Cimino, 1980)Raging Bull (Martin Scorsese, 1980)+*Blade Runner (Ridley Scott, 1982)*Fast Times at Ridgemont High (Amy Heckerling, 1982)Once Upon a Time in America (Sergio Leone, 1984)Stranger Than Paradise (Jim Jarmusch, 1984)Blue Velvet (David Lynch, 1986)Homicide (David Mamet, 1991)Until the End of the World (trilogy version, Wim Wenders, 1991)Groundhog Day (Harold Ramis, 1993)

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