AFI's 100 Greatest Films

(And my comments thereon)

The American Film Institute recently polled 1,500 film professionals to determine the best 100 Hollywood films. I thought some choices particularly bad; here's what I have to say.

  1. Citizen Kane - Directed, starring, and generally everything-ed by Orson Welles. Using stage techniques for lighting and radio techniques for audio, Welles' creation is a thinly-veiled biography of newspaper giant William Randolph Hearst (and a complete misreprentation of Marion Davies, his mistress.) A fine movie, and technically brilliant. What a curse it must have been for Welles, to be a genius at everything he tried -- stage, radio, stage direction, film acting, and film directing, no wonder he went 'downhill' from the heights through his life -- he reached the top at everything as a young man. It is too bad he never gave a serious shot at TV, though (imagine Welles directing Rod Serling scripts). But in any case, "Citizen Kane" is not the best movie; sorry. That accolade goes to:

  2. Casablanca - By far and away the best movie ever made. A great story, in which high stakes are personalized in well-acted characters, with high drama and witty dialog, great music, and a happy ending, sort of (Rick doesn't get the girl, after all.) Wonderful use of light and shadow, camera angles, etc. Everything is good. Everything. (Interestingly, although conventional wisdom says that a single mind must carry off a great movie -- hence the deification of directors -- "Casablanca" had all the earmarks in production of an awful hodge-podge; notably major rewrites during (and after) filming. Nevertheless, the best.)

  3. The Godfather - Probably doesn't deserve to be this highly placed, and certainly not placed above "Godfather II" - the best of the three. A good movie, with a little too much story to tell. (Did we really need that side-trip to Sicily?)

  4. Gone with the Wind - One of the blockbuster movies of the "Golden Year" of 1939, a sweeping story of the Civil War, and the small people who are caught up in the disaster that befell the South. Probably doesn't deserve to be this high on the list; the selling of Clark Gable as the greatest romantic lead since Valentino reached its apogee with this movie.

  5. Lawrence of Arabia - the story of one of the weirdest, most interesting people of the 20th century. Sort of the "sweeping drama" movie, with fine performances by everybody.

  6. The Wizard of Oz - another from the "golden year" of 1939. Singing and dancing with a good story behind it. Like "It's a Wonderful Life", this is one of those few great movies that is so popular we're all sick of it.

  7. The Graduate - Very much a movie of the late 1960's, nowadays the "risque" parts aren't so; even so, the snappy dialogue and genuinely weird situations are still quite amusing. Still, not a "top 100" selection.

  8. On the Waterfront - the definition of the "tough story" movie of the 1950's, with Marlon Brando on the edge of his long slide into self-chariacture (the man can still act better than just about anybody, but never quite seems to, to me).

  9. Schindler's List - The only movie in the top 10 made within the last 25 years. Depressing, but riveting. (Still, "Shoah" is better, even if it is a documentary - this movie is one of that silliest of animals, a docudrama.) Not top 10, though.

  10. Singin' in the Rain - Along with "American in Paris" (see below), the prototypical movie musical of the 1950's. Great songs, great dancing, with as little story as possible. Great fun, a fine movie.

  11. It's a Wonderful Life - the "Christmas Movie of record" all through the 1980's and early 1990's, it's still a great story, anchored by Jimmy Stewart (who anchored many a movie brilliantly).

  12. Sunset Boulevard - Hollywood on Hollywood. I can understand why it made the list, but it wouldn't make my list -- far too heavy-handed (Blake Edwards "S.O.B" is a better Hollywood-on-Hollywood movie, in my opinion).

  13. The Bridge on the River Kwai - A brilliant movie, which should have broken the top ten; certainly one of the best war movies ever.

  14. Some Like it Hot - remembered for Marilyn Monroe and Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis in drag. A clever comedy, but not "top 100" material.

  15. Star Wars - one of the top grossing movies, and technically brilliant; a western made after westerns were judged 'passe', and so had moved into science fiction. Lightweight psychology and big explosions - who could ask for anything more? Hit the industry like a bomb, showing that science fiction was not 'second shelf', where the industry had placed it before and after "2001".

  16. All About Eve - snappy dialog and snappy story.

  17. The African Queen - Humphrey Bogart and Katherine Hepburn (who was a fantastic foil for everybody from Cary Grant to John Wayne in her career) in a story that sounds uninteresting, but keeps you watching.

  18. Psycho - simultaneously 'made' and 'destroyed' Anthony Perkins as an actor (he never really escaped the Norman Bates character); should probably be placed below "North by Northwest" (see below) - also by Hitchcock - an engrossing and horrifying story.

  19. Chinatown - the "PI" story is reborn, though it isn't as good as the best of its predicessors. Another not for the top 100.

  20. One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest - a bizarre and fascinating story of rebellion against authority.

  21. The Grapes of Wrath - One of the great movies, which is almost never shown any more, alas.

  22. 2001: A Space Odyssey - A huge surprise to practically everybody, it ensured that Stanley Kubrick's penchant for making visually stunning but otherwise incomprehensible movies would be encouraged.

  23. The Maltese Falcon - Probably of the best "PI" movie ever, with Humphrey Bogart as the tight-lipped investigator, delving into a world of bizarrely eriudite criminals and femme-fatales.

  24. Raging Bull - Another not on my list; hailed as the best fight movie ever, its the story of a rough, mean guy who can beat people up. Since I couldn't get interested in the story, the directing wasn't enough to save it.

  25. E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial - The ultimate expression of Steven Speilburg's make-a-movie-for-the-kid-in-all-of-us, and I hated it. "Jaws" (see below) deserves to be up around here; its a much better movie.

  26. Dr. Strangelove - A parody of "Failsafe", with great sets and characters. Peter Sellers shines as several different kinds of comedic characters.

  27. Bonnie & Clyde - another not high on my list as "great movies". It's a good movie, sure, but not a top-100.

  28. Apocalypse Now - half this movie (the first half) deserves to be on this list -- though not this high -- but the second half fails miserably (in part, no doubt, due to the abandonment of any more of a script than a few 3"x5" cards), so on balance, no dice -- it doesn't belong on this list.

  29. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington - Frank Capra and Jimmy Stewart again ("It's a Wonderful Life") in a perky story about an everyman up against the powers that be. Another good one.

  30. The Treasure of the Sierra Madre - An anti-hero story of money and evil, famous for "Badges?!?".

  31. Annie Hall - Woody Allen's "crossover" movie (from stageplay-to-movie to movie-only scripts), and in my opinion, generally a failure. Not his best, and so if they're not on this list, then neither should this. (His best? "Love and Death".)

  32. The Godfather, Part II - This and "Godfather I" should be switched, since they are similar, and this has the better story.

  33. High Noon - The prototypical man-against-the-odds movie, with the stoic Gary Cooper up against the bad guys, with no help at all from helpless-by-choice townsfolk.

  34. To Kill A Mockingbird - One of the earliest of the major movies that dealt honestly with racism, and a fine story it is too.

  35. It Happened One Night - One of the prototypical "screwball comedies", that came to maturity with movies like "Bringing up Baby". (see below).

  36. Midnight Cowboy - Infamous for its major-motion-picture- with-an-X-rating status, the story of two losers who, well, lose. Probably on this list for its 'chic' of bad language and taboo - for the time - story; as a movie it doesn't deserve to be on the list.

  37. The Best Years of Our Lives - The best of the 'coming home' stories for all the warriors (with the possible exception of "The Outlaw Jose Wales") of all the wars.

  38. Double Indemnity - A real change-of-pace for Fred MacMurray (especially for all those who have only seen him on "My Three Sons", and who haven't seen "The Caine Mutiny" -- another movie which deserves to be on this list). One of the better of the many good (and many bad) "Film Noir" flicks of the 1940's and 1950's.

  39. Doctor Zhivago - In the vein of "Lawrence of Arabia" (not surprisingly, also directed by David Lean), a sprawling yarn of small people caught up in gigantic forces, in this case, the Russian Civil War.

  40. North by Northwest - Perhaps the greatest of Hitchcock's movies, in that it keeps you guessing (and laughing) all the way through.

  41. West Side Story - Another stage-musical brought to the screen, a Romeo and Juliet with racial undertones. Good dancing - coming near the end of the great dance-musical era.

  42. Rear Window - Another Hitchcock; a subdued but menacing story of a man powerless to stop the evil right in front of him. Probably doesn't belong on this list, though.

  43. King Kong - stupendously popular, certainly one of the most influential movies, in that it was the first great "special effects" movies.

  44. Birth of a Nation - Enormously influential movie; if anybody ever says "its only a movie", remind them that the Klu Klux Klan owes its modern existance solely to this movie. (The original KKK had been disbanded by Nathan Bedford Forrest in the 1880's.) D. W. Griffith (a southerner of the old school, which explains its openly racist tone) tried to recapture this movie's lightning-in-your- mind effect on audiences with his later movies, but never succeeded again. An epic that remade how movies were perceived, photographed, and sold to audiences. Not one of the 100 best, but certainly the movie that made "the movies" as we know them.

  45. A Streetcar Named Desire - Tennessee Williams' greatest god-is-this-depressing movie-script. I didn't like it, so it's not on my 100 greatest list. Sorry.

  46. A Clockwork Orange - Another visually stunning Kubrick film, with lots of little interesting additions (for instance the use of language.) A totally reprehensible guy is 'reformed' by an equally represensible psychiatric establishment.

  47. Taxi Driver - the "You Talkin' to Me?" movie. Made the future of both Martin Scorsese and Robert DeNiro. A paranoid little man has a mean little life. Eh.

  48. Jaws - Spielburg's best movie (interestingly, one of his first), with good acting of a good story; perhaps the best telling of the man-against-an-evil-force-of-nature story. Probably deserves to be pushed upward a couple of dozen places.

  49. Snow White and Seven Dwarves - Eh? OK, this is the prototypical Disney animated feature (which the Disney studios cranked out with the style and regularity that they have begun doing again, though the recent series are a bit more plot-formulaic). The movie that really put the accellerator-pedal to the Disney empire. Still, it belongs somewhere below "Fantasia", below.

  50. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid - A sort of counter-culture western, made in the last gasp of the great era of western films (1969, the same year as the other 'signpost', "The Wild Bunch", see below.) Two cute, funny bandits' mis-adventures in trying to make a living off of other people's livings (they should have become lawyers!).

  51. The Philadelphia Story - Another "screwball comedy", which should be replaced by "His Girl Friday" (yes, I know it's a remake of "The Front Page" -- any version of which should be on this list.)

  52. From Here to Eternity - One of the great love-story-in-the- midst-of-great-events stories, which have became such a staple of movies afterward. Unusual for its depiction of petty brutality among its characters, though "The Young Lions" did it better. (In fact, let's replace this with Young Lions -- it deserves to be on this list.)

  53. Amadeus - OK, so Salieri didn't really kill Mozart, but this is still a great story; one of those pull-you-into-another-historical-period. with a bitter guide (Salieri) to the life of one of the great geniuses of music (Mozart - and genius he was.) Probably deserves to be in the top 30.

  54. All Quiet on the Western Front - Certainly one of the best war movies ever; its popularity is all the more interesting since it is told from the German point of view of WWI. The greatest of the spate of anti-war war movies after WWI (a phenomenon duplicated after every war.)

  55. The Sound of Music - hugely popular, but in my opinion not a great movie, but one of the last of the big-budget musicals.

  56. M*A*S*H - another anti-war war movie; this is really an oddball movie, in that the protagonists are not warriors, but cleaners-up after warriors. Very much of the Vietnam era, even though it was about the Korean War. (Spawned an insufferably smug TV series.)

  57. The Third Man - an OK mystery, but not for the top-100.

  58. Fantasia - Really a collection of Disney shorts (though all written specifically for this movie); Walt Disney's original concept was a continual re-release of new versions, with different stories. A failure in release (and so the continuous-release idea was shelved), and generally ignored afterward, it is some of the best animated storytelling ever. A good choice for the top-100, indeed, it should be above "Snow White".

  59. Rebel without a Cause - Spawned a whole genre of generally lesser movies, thie is chiefly famous for being James Dean's breakthrough role. Interesting, but not top-100 materal.

  60. Raiders of the Lost Ark - the rebirth of the historical-action-adventure story, which spawned hordes of imitators, giving a whole new life to Nazis-as-bad-guys. Certainly deserves to be in the top-100, though perhaps a little lower on the list.

  61. Vertigo - Another Hitchcock thriller, though perhaps not as good as "North by Northwest".

  62. Tootsie - say what? Yes, its got Dustin Hoffman in drag, but c'mon, this isn't "La Cage aux Faux". This has no business in a top 100 list.

  63. Stagecoach - The great John Ford gets exactly two of his westerns (and only three movies total) on this list? There ain't no justice, folks. One of the great movies ever, but so are many others of his...

  64. Close Encounters of the Third Kind - Oh, please. How much actual dialog is in the last half-hour of this movie -- two lines? three? Great buildup, and a flashy payoff, but this is not one of the 100 best.

  65. The Silence of the Lambs - a sensation when it came out, chiefly for Anthony Hopkins' gleeful portrayal of the uber-badguy. But this movie falls flat whenever he's not on the screen. Nope, despite its influence, this is not top-100.

  66. Network - A real oddball choice; a movie I've always lumped into the same category as "The China Syndrome" -- a message movie that takes itself far too seriously (perhaps in part because this was Hollywood taking on its own personal "Great Satan" -- Television -- before it learned to stop worrying so much.) "Max Headroom" made better points about TV (in less time), with a better method.

  67. The Manchurian Candidate - another great movie which is generally unrecognized due to its being pulled from distribution soon after release (due, reportedly, to its vague similarities to the assassination of JFK, which occurred the following year.) Deserves to be placed higher in this list. Frank Sinatra's best movie.

  68. An American in Paris - Probably the best, most experimental genuine dance musical ("All that Jazz" is weirder, but isn't exactly a dance musical) ever filmed. Deserves to be placed ahead of "Singing in the Rain."

  69. Shane - One of the great westerns, one of the first with an off-beat hero, as part of the general reassement of the western in the 1950's -- leading to its (first) death in the late 1960's.

  70. The French Connection - Frenetic action story ("Bullitt" is better on all counts, though.) Doesn't deserve to be top-100.

  71. Forrest Gump - nope. Sorry, but a fine performance as a deadpan moron and special-effects tricks do not add up to a good movie. No way.

  72. Ben-Hur - A sprawling story -- another of the little-guy- in-big-history movies with a positiviely show-shopping chariot race (the original Ben-Hur's had one too, by the way.)

  73. Wuthering Heights - yet another from the "golden year" of 1939. If you like the story (I don't), you'll love the picture. Still in all, very nicely put together.

  74. The Gold Rush - The greatest of the "Little Tramp" movies. Say no more.

  75. Dances with Wolves - nope, here's another one that just plain doesn't deserve placement here. It just ain't that good, folks. If you must have such a movie on this list, put "Little Big Man" rather than this thing.

  76. City Lights - Another Chaplin masterpiece. I kind of wish Keaton's "The General" was here in its place, though.

  77. American Graffiti - George Lucas' first successful movie (his first movie was the underrated "THX-1138"), a story of being young around 1960. Think of it as "Porky's" with some class. Doesn't deserve to be on this list, though.

  78. Rocky - The greatest fight movie ever made (with the possible exception of "Rocky III".) The little guy makes good.

  79. The Deer Hunter - The movie that made Michael Cimino a god in Hollywood (he then made "Heaven's Gate", which destroyed that status utterly). Interesting flick, but not really one of my top-100.

  80. The Wild Bunch - Sam Peckinpah's violent anti-violence epic (at least that's what he said). Wonderfully shot, and wonderfully acted, a story of violent, mean men who come to a violent, mean end. Declared the swan-song of the western, which had pretty much run its course (apparently) by this time.

  81. Modern Times - Charlie Chaplin's version (sort of) of "Metropolis".

  82. Giant - the other James Dean movie. Not high on my list.

  83. Platoon - Oliver Stone's opus; I suspect the voters felt they had to put him in somewhere. Not top-100 material.

  84. Fargo - a cute, funny little movie, but top-100? No way, sorry.

  85. Duck Soup - The only Marx Brothers movie on the list, which is probably about right, though this isn't the one I'd put on. Their version of "The Great Dictator", sort of.

  86. Mutiny on the Bounty - The first version is an excellent story of madness at the top.

  87. Frankenstein - certainly one of the best horror movies made before WWII; though this has very little to do with the actual novel.

  88. Easy Rider - Although this is the most well-known of the counter-culture movies, it isn't top-100 good.

  89. Patton - One of the great war movies.

  90. The Jazz Singer - The first "talkie" (or at least, semi-talkie; this movie was partially reshot with sound, and was part-silent, part-talking). Even so, it hit the movie industry like a bomb; changing practically everything about movie-making -- for instance, theater orchestras were wiped out. But as a movie, it isn't all that great shakes. (To be fair, nobody was sure what a talkie-musical was supposed to look like at the time (or indeed a talkie-anything); the equipment was primitive, and the audio was more important that everything else anyway.)

  91. My Fair Lady - A great musical is well-put onto the screen. Perhaps the best musical-to-the-screen, with the possible exception of "Oliver".

  92. A Place in the Sun - another one not for top-100.

  93. The Apartment - Neil Simon's witty play is well carried off. This one is a maybe/maybe-not for top-100 honors, though.

  94. Goodfellas - Nope. Not a good story, not a good movie.

  95. Pulp Fiction - Oh, please. Shooting movies like Nissan ads is not a step forward for movie making.

  96. The Searchers - One of the best of John Ford's westerns, in part because of the many unpleasant themes (among them, racism) that are dealt with.

  97. Bringing up Baby - The greatest of the "screwball comedies".

  98. Unforgiven - Clint Eastwood deserves to be on this list, but the movie that should do it is "The Outlaw Josie Wales", a far more fulfilling story than this one's (and also directed by Eastwood.)

  99. Guess Who's Coming to Dinner - chiefly famous for its dealing with a 'taboo' issue in the 1960's -- interratial relationships -- head-on, with a white woman and a black man. Although an interesting movie, it isn't top-100.

  100. Yankee Doodle Dandy - The best James Cagney musical, one of many.
Copyright (C)1998 by Charles McGrew