After watching "Sophie's Choice" last night, I've finally finished the AFI Top 100 list, the updated version from 2007. I'm still missing "Wuthering Heights" and "Mutiny on the Bounty" form the original 1998 version. I actually prefer the older list for being more representative of American film, while the new version has far too many entries from the 70s and seems to have dropped several seminal titles like "Birth of a Nation" and "The Jazz Singer" for the sake of political correctness. And though I love Martin Scorsese, "Raging Bull" should be never be ranked higher than "Gone With the Wind" and "The Wizard of Oz."
As you might have guessed, my sentiments regarding the AFI lists and the accompanying three-hour tributes that used to air on CBS every year in early summer, are similar to those I have for the major awards shows. I adore them. I may disagree with the criteria and I may rant endlessly about inexplicable exclusions and inclusions, but it's great to see older films being highlighted anywhere, and the treatment of the film medium as real, serious art. The original 1998 list was a great starting point for a budding cineaste, and I got more and more out of each one as the years went by and I was steadily building up my knowledge of American cinema. By the time the 10th anniversary list came around, I was poised to argue the finer points of why dropping "Frankenstein" was a crime, and why "A Clockwork Orange" deserved more respect.
The AFI put out thirteen lists in total, of which eleven were turned into specials. "Film Scores" and "Movie Musicals" were only deemed worthy of twenty-five entries apiece, and the results were only released through their website. Toward the end, you could tell that the organizers of the yearly lists were running low on topics. 2006 was devoted to inspirational movies. 2007 was the update of the original list. 2008, the last year a special was broadcast, grouped ten top-ten lists for genres deemed too niche to get their own full lists - like courtroom dramas, animation, and science-fiction - but apparently still warranted acknowledgment. I think the series could have gone on for a great deal longer. Some of the smaller lists could have easily been expanded, and the broadcasts trimmed down to showcase top fifty or top twenty-five lists as necessary.
One of the big omissions in the series was that there was never a list of best American directors, or best directors of American films, though I can guess why it would be a difficult one to put together. So many of the best-loved directors of American films were European ex-patriots like Alfred Hitchcock and Billy Wilder, who are often claimed as national luminaries by other countries. And it would be hard to mention greats like Fritz Lang, who had a long career in Hollywood, but whose most important films were his earlier German masterpieces. One of the qualms I always had about the AFI lists, and other laudatory specials produced by Hollywood groups, is that they limit themselves to American films. There was even some grumbling about the inclusion of British productions like David Lean's "Doctor Zhivago" and "Lawrence of Arabia" into the lists, which were supposedly kosher because they heavily involved American talent.
I wish someone would put together a comparable special or two for world cinema, based on something like the "They Shoot Pictures Don't They?" list of the top 1000 films in cinema history. Just examining the top hundred or top fifty films would make for an amazing resource, though of course it would also be of fairly limited appeal to anyone outside of film academia. Smaller premium cable channels like IFC or TCM might be able to swing the costs of wrangling all the different licensing fees. Or maybe some enterprising internet remixer might want to try their hand at an unapproved, non-commercial compilation as a personal magnum opus. I find it so sad that of the many rabid film fans that I know, few are familiar with Federico Fellini and Ingmar Bergman and Luis Buñuel and so many others foreign directors, who were massively influential to American filmmakers.
Of course, there's nothing wrong with a little nationalism, especially on the Fourth of July, and the AFI is, of course, the American Film Institute, and has no responsibility to promote the rest of the world's cinema history. I do miss their yearly Top 100 lists, and I miss the specials and the friendly debates that came with them. I hope to finish off the older list as soon as I can, and cross a few more titles off the "They Shoot Pictures" list too. Then I plan to revisit the specials, and see if my views on the placement of any of the entries have changed. At the moment, I have to say I don't think "Sophie's Choice," belongs on the list, as it really only has one truly magnificent scene in an otherwise unspectacular 150 minute film. However, Meryl Streep easily deserves a spot on the "100 Years, 100 Stars" list.