Thursday, June 19, 2008

The Doc vs. The AFI, Part One

On Tuesday night, the American Film Institute presented their annual celebration of American films. In the past, they've had the best 100 American films of all time, the best 100 American movie stars, the best 100 heroes and villains, and so on. This year, being their eleventh, I think they were running a little low on ideas, so they came up with the AFI Ten Top Tens. The top ten films in ten different genres. Being the movie and list nerd I am, I decided to see what they would come up with.

Before I go any further I should say that I find the AFI's lists an exercise in frustration. They make lists full of movies that either made a lot of money, won a lot of Oscars, are incredibly popular, or a combination of all three. This makes for a great orgy of self-congratulation, but not necessarily for lists of really great movies. Film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum has said of the first AFI celebration:

"Just about everyone I've spoken to about the American Film Institute's list of the 100 greatest American movies...has been depressed about it--partly because the list was so lackluster and partly because the show failed to offer an interesting justification for any of the titles."

I'm inclined to agree with him. If you're going to make a list of the best movies, sure you're going to get some obvious entries, but I think you should also throw in quite a few surprises, underrated movies that may not have been huge moneymakers or little-known masterpieces. The AFI doesn't really do that: it's mostly middle-of-the road, obvious movies. I also have problems with the way they define things. Because what makes a movie "American"? Director, actor, producer, studio? The AFI's definition of American includes movies like Lawrence of Arabia and Bridge on the River Kwai (which I think are fairly British movies), and The Lord of the Rings trilogy (mostly made in and by people from New Zealand). However, these problems aside, I still do like seeing what makes the list, so I sat down to watch. Here are my impressions of the first three categories.

Official Definition: "AFI defines "animated" as a genre in which the film's images are primarily created by computer or hand and the characters are voiced by actors."
My Thoughts: Okay, sure. I don't have a big problem with that definition, although I like that they threw in that "voiced by actors" bit. You know, because all those voice synthesizers and animals were hogging the acclaim. My big problem is: I don't know why this is a genre. Animated films are themselves made up of many genres: fantasy, science-fiction, musical, horror, and so on. By reversing this logic, "live action" is also a genre.

The List
10. Finding Nemo
9. Cinderella
8. Shrek
7. Beauty & The Beast
6. Toy Story
5. Fantasia
4. The Lion King
3. Bambi
2. Pinnochio
1. Snow White & The Seven Dwarves

My Thoughts: Wow. Anyone else see a pattern here? I know that Walt Disney is the father of animation, and that his company made most of the American animated feature films, but 90% of the Top Ten seems a bit high for me. Sure, you can make a case for most of them (although I think that Sleeping Beauty would have been a better choice than Pinnochio), but ALL of them? Why couldn't the Institute have thrown a bone to Don Bluth's and/or Brad Bird's non-Disney work? And the fact that some great Warner Bros. animation work was excluded simply because they were shorts, or that some groundbreaking stop-motion animation work from live action movies (Ray Harryhausen, anyone?) can't make this list, is ridiculous. And then there's the whole "animation=genre" problem. What a waste of a category. They should have just made a "great moments of animation" special for next year, included short films and stop-motion stuff from live-action movies, and freed this spot for something better.

Official Definition: "AFI defines "fantasy" as a genre where live-action characters inhabit imagined settings and/or experience situations that transcend the rules of the natural world."
My Thoughts: This is a really awkward definition. Okay, why does it have to be live-action? I mean, aside from the fact that "animation" is it's own category, and if they were eligible here that list would be even more laughable. Also, on it's own merits it doesn't really exclude some movies that would otherwise be considered "Sci-Fi"; like Star Wars, for instance, or many superhero movies like X-Men or Superman. It sounds good at first but falls apart under scrutiny (which means it makes for some surprising choices on the list).

The List
10. Big
9. The Thief of Bagdad
8. Groundhog Day
7. Harvey
6. Field of Dreams
5. Miracle on 34th Street
4. King Kong
3. It's a Wonderful Life
2. The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring
1. The Wizard of Oz

My Thoughts: Whoah nellie. What a wide range of movies. You have the traditional sword-and-sorcery as well as a bunch of movies that are only loosely related. There are some interesting choices here, but I think the overall impression reflects the poor definition. (Although it is cool to see The Thief of Bagdad on the list - Douglas Fairbanks swashbuckly goodness.) I can't really critique this list, because it's just a Mulligan Stew of ridiculousness. I don't know if you CAN do a great definition of fantasy in movies, though, unless you stick to the traditional model, and in that case, I don't know how helpful a definition it would be. (Probably because you couldn't really make a Top Ten American Sword&Sorcery Films list.) Another example of a questionable category. And let me point out that The Wizard of Oz is on this list, but there is NO Top 10 Musicals list. THAT is a genre.'s questionable.

Official Definition: "AFI defines "science fiction" as a genre that marries a scientific or technological premise with imaginative speculation."
My Thoughts: This one actually sounds pretty good. And actually, this definition explains, in part, why Fantasy's is so bad. Fantasy's definition basically includes any fantastic situation that isn't sci-fi.

The List
10. Back to the Future
9. Invasion of the Body-Snatchers
8. Terminator 2: Judgement Day
7. Alien
6. Blade Runner
5. The Day The Earth Stood Still
4. A Clockwork Orange
3. E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial
2. Star Wars
1. 2001: A Space Odyssey

My Thoughts: Okay, not bad. This is actually a fairly good list, although I think some of them might be blurring the line between Sci-Fi and Horror (which was also not included as a genre, oddly enough). Back To The Future was a pleasant surprise, although I don't know if it's Top Ten worthy, and Clockwork Orange is stretching sci-fi a little for my liking (I see it more of a dystopian movie than a sci-fi movie). I thought Empire Strikes Back should have been on this list: it was a better movie than Star Wars, if not as "groundbreaking". I was surprised not to see Close Encounters of the Third Kind, but I also don't feel too bad that it's not here. Otherwise: the list is full of standard, middle of the road fare (E.T., Terminator 2) and obvious choices (Alien, Blade Runner, The Day The Earth Stood Still, 2001). Aside from Doc Brown and Marty, the list is nothing too surprising.

By this time in the show, I was thinking to myself, "I'm a little disappointed. I could probably come up with the rest of these lists in the commercial breaks." And then I stopped. "You know, I probably could." So, I sat down at the computer, opened up a WordPad file, and started making my own versions of the lists. It took me about 20 minutes overall for seven Top Ten lists, all done in the commercials, all made before the list first aired. I figured I'd get an average of 30%, based on my knowledge of film, the AFI's strange definitions (which I didn't know at the time I was writing the lists), and the obscurity of some of the genres. I wasn't prepared for how well I would do.

Tune in in a few days for Part Two!

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