At The Picture Show
Here we go again
The AFI is back with a vengeance . . . and I just can't resist
The lists are there only to frustrate us. Surely that is why they exist. Every year
since just before the turn of the century, when it unveiled its infamously warped
Top 100 [American] Movies of All-Time list - you know, the one that featured not
a single Buster Keaton movie - the American Film Institute has been putting out a
new list every year.
Laughs, thrills, songs, quotes - they've all been covered. And now, as if many of
its distinctions weren't arbitrary or questionable enough, the AFI has broken
things down into genre, getting set to unveil top-10 lists for ten different genres
(Animation, Fantasy, Romantic Comedy, Sci-Fi, Western, Gangster, Sports,
Courtroom Drama, Mystery and Epic). And even as they've pared the list down to
50 nominees in each category, the whining has already begun - and rightly so.
Here is something to put things in perspective: In the Mystery genre, the way-ahead-of-its-time classic The Manchurian Candidate is nowhere to be found, nor
is Hitchcock's masterful Notorious . . . but the completely forgettable (and
completely forgotten) Al Pacino/Ellen Barkin flick Sea of Love is.
Now that ought to tell you something.
Some are no doubt fretting over the omission of the Horror genre - "courtroom
drama" is merely a subgenre anyhow. Certainly that has something to do with the
stigma attached to horror movies . . . but I promise, if we put our heads together,
we could come up with 50 worthy [American] movies, even without the benefit of
the Italians, the Germans and the French.
Many of us lick our chops looking forward to the AFI's next list. It's a necessary
evil - on one hand, the worthy movies that do make the list make for a solid start
for any budding cinephile. On the other hand . . . well, the lists are all WRONG!
It's like the villain we love to hate.
But without further ado . . . on to my vitriolic analysis of the AFI's fantasy and sci-fi selections . . .
(By the way, go to AFI.com to download the full list of nominees.)
- Sometimes, you just wish they'd fudge on the rules a little. After all, as
established earlier in paragraph two, this is all arbitrary anyway, right? So
instead of nominating The Fellowship of the Ring, why not just nominate the
entire Lord of the Rings trilogy? It's probably going to make the cut no matter
what, but since opinions on which of the three is best is so split, why not just
honor the whole thing? It's not like it was three separate productions anyhow -
it's one 11-hour movie and everyone knows it.
- Since horror wasn't given its proper due - which makes it difficult for films
like The Silence of the Lambs and Halloween to make it through - one would
assume that classics like The Exorcist and Rosemary's Baby would qualify as
One would assume.
- Since some of the specific guidelines regarding eligibility still confuse me, I'm
still uncertain whether or not Yellow Submarine qualifies for any AFI list. It
was produced by an American studio, but it was primarily a British film. If it is
eligible, then it's a travesty that it wasn't recognized in either the fantasy or
- Box-office receipts notwithstanding, one of the more frustrating selections is
The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Though it
made tons of money (because it was available to such a wide audience), general
reception among film enthusiasts and critics was lukewarm. A far better film
from the same year, Peter Jackson's King Kong, was left off the list - though
naturally, the classic 1933 original made the cut, and is likely to slide into the
Another curious selection is Beetlejuice, which many of us enjoy but which is
hardly Tim Burton's best work. Furthermore, while his great Batman made the
cut, the even-better Batman Begins didn't. Hmmm.
- One of the things the AFI often lacks when putting together its lists is, well . . .
balls. See, a ballsy choice would have been Martin Scorsese's surreal
nightmare fantasy After Hours - or, along the same lines, Orson Welles'
adaptation of Kafka's The Trial. I would personally put in votes for M. Night
Shyamalan's Unbreakable and Robert Rodriguez's Sin City, but neither of
those two seems as relevant as the category's most glaring omission of all:
Raiders of the Lost Ark.
I mean, if that's not fantasy, what is it? Historical drama? Really?
- The AFI did the right thing by nominating the third Harry Potter film, Harry
Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, over the four others. Faithful to the book
or not, it is far and away the finest film in the series.
As for who should make the final cut, there are the obvious ones, like It's a
Wonderful Life, King Kong and The Wizard of Oz. Who Framed Roger Rabbit gets
better and better with each passing year, and if it doesn't make it, I will hurt
someone who works at the American Film Institute. It's nice to see the AFI finally
recognizing a Woody Allen movie other than Annie Hall, so it would be great to
see The Purple Rose of Cairo slip in. The Princess Bride should make it, unless
voters hold Rob Reiner's post-1980s career against him. And two of the best, most
twisted, most unique sci-fi/fantasy visions in history, Terry Gilliam's Brazil and
Spike Jonze's Being John Malkovich, are deserving of a place in the top 10.
And I haven't even gotten to two-genre nominee and most rewatchable movie of
all-time for males, Field of Dreams. It's a lock for the sports genre, but I would be
happy to see it make the cut in both categories. And I think I'm going to pop it in
Though many of the bases seem to be covered, there are still some glaring
omissions in this category - too many to name, actually. Perhaps that speaks well
of the number of enduring sci-fi films of the last 100 years.
That said, with all those enduring films, did the AFI really have to nominate not
one, but two Paul Verhoeven films? Are you still pretending his light social satire
was all that clever? You haven't moved on? OK fine, but there's no way Total
Recall is one of the 50 best American sci-fi movies ever made. I'm the biggest
Arnold Schwarzenegger fan in the world, but that movie is a trainwreck.
And what's this . . . Planet of the Apes? People, people . . . that movie is legendary
because of its ending - NOT because it's an example of exceptional filmmaking.
Which it isn't.
Moving on: This category's slate does have some historical context, as the AFI
recognized some early pioneering films like The Day the Earth Stood Still,
Frankenstein, Fantastic Voyage and Invasion of the Body Snatchers.
But whoa whoa whoa whoa whoa . . . you gave a nod to the body snatchers, but
nothing for Night of the Living Dead?
And wait - two Verhoevens, and no love for Alex Proyas' visionary Dark City?
Nor Terry Gilliam's 12 Monkeys? And problems continue to pop up for the
franchise pictures. I mean, the original Star Wars trilogy probably should have
been nominated as a whole, but if you're going to limit it to one, make it The
Empire Strikes Back, please. Anyone'll tell you that. And a nomination for Alien
but none for James Cameron's arguably superior Aliens?
I could argue for Donnie Darko or Videodrome, but my personal pet argument
would be for Shane Carruth's Primer. To be fair, that seems like a movie that's
ahead of its time and maybe won't be fully valued for years to come. Twenty years
from now, when I'm a crotchety old man, you'll see how right I was.
Segue: If they're going to nominate Some Like it Hot in the "Gangster" genre, they
could have shown some love for sci-fi comedy and given nods to Mel Brooks'
Young Frankenstein or Woody's Sleeper.
As we wrap things up, let's hear it for one of the most glaring omissions of any
AFI list . . . ever. For The Truman Show to not even get a spot on the nominations
for the sci-fi genre is an embarrassment. It was a transcendent experience in 1998,
and as its prophetic value has grown, it has only gotten better with age. And just a
reminder: Planet of the Apes made the cut.
Finally, the choices I'm most excited about - other than the most obvious choice
of all, 2001: A Space Odyssey - are Minority Report,Children of Men, Eternal
Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, A Clockwork Orange
and Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
Come June 17 when the final cuts are announced, we'll see how sanctimoniously
angry I can get. Until then . . .
Read more by Chris Bellamy