AFI’s 100 Years…100 Movies (1998)


AFI’s 100 Years…100 Movies (1998)

OR “Round Up The Usual Suspects”

Directed by Gary Smith and Dann Netter

Written by Smith & Fred A. Rappoport & Marty Farrell

June 16th, 1998: America was watching the world be destroyed by various asteroids in the movies and debating whether “The Boy” was truly Brandy’s or Monica’s. But that night I was watching the first American Film Institute “100 Years” TV special. It was the start of a decade long summer ritual, as well as the start of my film education.

“100 Years…100 Movies” came about to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the American Film Institute, and the 100th anniversary of film (they were off by about a decade on the latter). The AFI nominated 400 American films and asked 1500 filmmakers, historians, experts, and drifters to vote for what they believe were the “greatest”: not necessarily the best, but rather the ones with the largest cultural impact. The top 100 were announced on CBS, and I was…baffled. I had only seen four movies on that list (“Fantasia”, “Snow White”, “Star Wars”, and “The Wizard of Oz”) and hadn’t even heard of most of the others. I started taping these movies when they were on TV and looking through my parents’ VHS collection for help (I saw “Vertigo” when I was way too young). At first these 100 were unquestionably sacrosanct, but thankfully that didn’t last long. I quickly learned that lists like these are about as official as Izzy Mandelbaum’s “World’s Greatest Dad” t-shirt, and are created primarily to start a dialogue (and sell videos). Nevertheless, that three hours of TV started me on a path I’ve been walking for the last 20 years.

Because I am a nerd, I obtained a copy of the original special years back, and re-watched it for the first time since I was a kid. Below are a few of my thoughts on the list, as well as the special.

UPDATE: Hey, someone uploaded the whole special online! Come nerd out with me!

  • By 1997, 66 of the 100 films were already in the National Film Registry. An additional 27 have been added over the last two decades, bringing the total to 93 (41 of which have already been covered for this blog).
  • The missing seven are: “Mutiny on the Bounty”, “The Third Man”, My Fair Lady, “Doctor Zhivago”, “A Clockwork Orange”, “Amadeus“, and “Platoon“. “The Third Man” is the only one that has been deemed ineligible for NFR inclusion (It’s British, but David Selznick co-produced it, which is enough for the AFI, but not enough for the NFR). “Clockwork” is the only one whose absence surprises me.
  • Among those interviewed for the special are such “It’s 1998” figures as David Copperfield and Sarah Ferguson, Duchess of York. Plus a performance by Trisha Yearwood!
  • No one had anything to say about “My Fair Lady”?
  • TV censorship fascinates me. They don’t edit out the nudity in “MASH” or the violence in “The Wild Bunch”, but god forbid anyone hear Joe Pesci say “fuck” a few times. Oh and thanks for including the blackface number from “The Jazz Singer”, CBS.
  • It’s remarkable to see how far film restoration has come in 20 years. Are all these clips from someone’s laserdisc collection?
  • Covering 100 films in 2 1/2 hours means boiling them down to their core essence. And I thought my 1000 word cap was too limiting.
  • There’s a point in watching this where the ranking of these films becomes immaterial. It’s not about “A is better than B”; it’s about the iconic imagery that makes up our film heritage.
  • That being said, my one qualm about the ranking: of the three Chaplin films, “The Gold Rush” is greater than “City Lights” and “Modern Times”? Foul!
  • Why is Susan Lucci being filmed on her bed? Should we come back later?
  • Dustin Hoffman’s “Tootsie” story is forever tainted. Damn.
  • Proving my earlier point, all anyone has to say about “From Here to Eternity” is who’s in it and that the beach scene is great.
  • Watching these AFI specials was always a treat, but I forgot how many classic films were spoiled for me.
  • Ugh, it’s the “Let’s Defend ‘Birth of a Nation’” segment. Samuel L. Jackson gives a very diplomatic answer about art and the conversations they inspire.
  • Oh god, Donald Trump is in this. He makes a brief appearance to talk about “King Kong”, but really it’s to talk about how he owns the Empire State Building (Trump had a 50% share in the landmark from 1994 to 2002). Even back then he was making everything about himself.
  • Speaking of presidents, it’s telling that Bill Clinton’s favorite movie, “High Noon”, is about a middle-aged man who is tempted to shirk all responsibility and run off with a woman half his age.
  • Even out of context, the Star Gate scene in “2001” is a trip.
  • I will listen to Larry King opine about anything. #My2Cents
  • Burt Reynolds states that “Make ‘em Laugh” should be “put in a time capsule”. The NFR is way ahead of you, Burt.
  • “The Wizard of Oz” had just finished its 40-year run on network television (ending at CBS) a few weeks prior to this special. This is a fitting sendoff before being banished to the Turner cable networks.
  • And then we get to #1: “Citizen Kane”. The commentary here tells you it’s the greatest film because it’s…great? Don’t get me wrong, based on the AFI’s criteria it deserves the top spot, but no one had anything specific to say about the movie? “The Godfather” and “Casablanca” get a much more emotional response from this group, making this a bit anticlimactic for me.
  • If you’ve ever studied this list you’ve probably come across critic Jonathan Rosenbaum’s decimation of the AFI’s selection and his list of an alternate 100. It’s a bit extreme, but I see where he’s coming from. The better, more rational article is this Essays on Films piece from 2013, which takes AFI’s criteria into consideration and stresses that these lists are not set in stone, and should be a starting point for your own “greatest films”.
  • The AFI list would be revised in 2007, with “Kane” still on top, and about a quarter of these movies bumped in favor of stronger fare (Goodbye “Wuthering Heights”, hello “Do the Right Thing”).
  • Oh, and all the directors on the 1998 list are white men. Thanks, Hollywood!

Further Viewing: One of my favorite videos: Someone took the interviews from this special and recut them to make it sound like everyone’s talking about “Anchorman”. Genius.

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