What a difference a decade makes. The last time the AFI hosted one of their top 100 films of all-time lists I was 17 and the concept of a definitive list of “the greatest” films ever (in some semblance of ranking order) felt like something of a valuable resource. Finally that bar bet could be settled over what’s the better film: Fantasia or The African Queen. Furthermore, the AFI itself struck me as a vaunted institution who merely by virtue of hosting a bloated, self-congratulatory special akin to the Academy Awards, must surely be worth taking seriously.
And once upon a time, that AFI list served an important purpose: it guilt-tripped me the fickle adolescent into the “classics” section of the video store where I received my first exposure to Wilder, Capra, Ford, Huston, and Lean. Before the AFI I’d never experience the Marx Brothers, Woody Allen, James Dean, Humphrey Bogart or Clark Gable. And, a part of me hopes there are teenagers out there who will take this new list to heart the way I did and search out some of the films that aren’t familiar to them.
But really now, this thing is such horseshit.
There’s a few way of looking at the decision to revisit this AFI list a scant decade after the last one was published. AFI is claiming it’s an opportunity to observe the way films can grown and change in our perception over time. Nice thought, but really is a decade going to make Casablanca seem like less of a classic? What cultural cross-winds are blowing that will make Gone with the Wind fall from #4 ten years ago to #6 now? (it’s still one of the 10 best films of all time… only a little less so) One should read between the lines here as, the list smacks of Monday morning revisionism with most of the list’s most radical changes geared towards addressing the most vocal complaints brought up by the last list.
Gone are dated and not especially well-regarded musicals An American in Paris and My Fair Lady, replaced by dated and slightly better regarded (this year anyway) play adaptations Twelve Angry Men and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolfe? Forgettable, curiously-championed best picture winners Amadeus and Dances with Wolves have been given the boot while Ben Hur barely hangs on, plummeting from 72 to 100 as the list caters to the fanboy sect making room for one of the Lord of the Rings, Blade Runner (not that I'm complaining) and The Sixth Sense (really?). Somehow through all of this Forrest Gump remains.
Granted, this year’s model is a little bit less clueless as far as placing sacred cows willy-nilly on the list. The Searchers which was embarrassingly for all involved placed in the 90’s on the last list is now #12. Vertigo, which despite its indifference from the general public is considered by film scholars to be Hitchcock’s most accomplished work, gets the bump from #61 to just inside the top 10. Unforgiven also benefited greatly from Clint’s time in the public eye over the past five years, moving from a head-scratching 98 to 68. Most commendable is the inclusion of Buster Keaton’s The General at #18 after not even making the last list (even if I personally prefer Sherlock, Jr which sadly is not on the list).
But even a lot of the “fixes” feel misguided, and driven more by populous than any real critical assessment. Is there anyone alive who honestly considers Star Wars a better film than its sequel The Empire Strikes Back, or is it simply easier to rubber-stamp the first film as a place holder for the whole series? You could say the same thing for the inclusion of Fellowship of the Ring which, despite being my personal favorite of the Lord of the Rings trilogy isn’t the one with 11 Oscars and a billion in box office. Chosen to represent 1999, arguably the best year cinema had since the 70’s we get The Sixth Sense? Hell, forget about the year 1999: chosen to represent the horror genre they went with The Sixth Sense over The Exorcist? When the AFI did its list of the greatest horror films (excuse me, “greatest thrills”) it placed The Exorcist at #3 and The Sixth Sense at #60. How this all comes out in the wash like this I have no clue.
For every addition that’s commendable there’s an addition that’s just plain retarded. Sophie’s Choice is one of the 100 best films of all-time? If you say so. I’m pleased beyond words they got rid of the embarrassing cultural relic Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner but they replaced it with an equal antiquated Sidney Poitier race-relations flick from the same year, In the Heat of the Night, which I can pretty much guarantee no one’s been hankering to watch in the past 40 years (1967 offered a wealth of great films, either Cool Hand Luke or In Cold Blood would have been much better choices). Titanic makes the list but L.A. Confidential doesn’t, proving once and for all nothing makes a film a classic like bilking millions of teenage girls out of their allowance. And can someone please explain to me how Tootsie keeps showing up on these lists (boy is that film attracting buzzards) but Broadcast News, which just gets more prescient with each passing day, is a no-show?
I could go on and on, but you get the point. AFI is subsidized by the big studios and by putting on this annual dog and pony show it raises rentals of the studio’s catalogues so this isn’t really about promoting the best of anything, but rather creating instant revenue right around the time the studios are taking a bath on over-budgeted shit in theaters. In fact the only reason I bothered watching any of it (albeit with the generous help of Tivo) is the rumor that a certain 25-year-old sci-fi film which made a surprise appearance on the list would be getting a spiffy new trailer unveiled during the program. Speaking of which…
YouTube will no doubt take this down in the next few days, because heaven forbid someone post A FUCKING ADVERTISEMENT on the web. Because it would be awful if maybe someone saw this thing and maybe got excited to buy a product. Anyway, assuming the above imbedded video is still up, I encourage everyone to watch the new trailer for the Blade Runner theatrical re-release/DVD release which is due later this year. It made me unconscionably happy. I’m not especially vocal about it, but Blade Runner quietly became my de-facto response to the fairly stupid question “what’s your favorite movie?” over the past few years but I’ve been forcing myself not to watch it in anticipation of the bells and whistles treatment it was rumored to be receiving from Warner Brothers.
The film is notoriously difficult to crack and complaints that it’s more interested in set design than story aren’t exactly correct but are certainly easy to understand. The film values mood over clarity and atmosphere over pacing so if you’re not paying attention you’re likely to grow frustrated. Even I was fairly indifferent to the film the first time I saw a lousy VHS copy of the film. But the film stays with you. It’s both deeply poetic and unspeakably ugly. Nihilistic yet profoundly human. I’ve heard rumors that Ridley Scott filmed new scenes for the new edit, but I suspect this will be more along the lines of the work done on the Alien re-release a few years back, consisting of minor tweaks simply to conform to contemporary viewing practices (I expect the Young/Ford romance which never played especially well to be tightened and hopefully they’ll ditch Vangelis’ shitty, smooth jazz score during these interludes). Mostly I’m excited by seeing the film re-mastered and projected on film at Arclight sometime this fall and eventually owning an elephantine dvd package containing every piece of minutia compiled on the film.
Oh and as an aside, I can’t help but giggle at the irony of this thing being scored with music from The Fountain. Someone at Warner Brothers marketing has a heck of a sense of humor.