The AFI film list: hit and miss The American Film Institute has picked its Top 100 American movies. Now it's time for a few ifs, ands, ors and buts.


Now that the dust has settled, the American Film Institute's canonization of the "greatest 100 American movies of all time" has inspired a few random observations:

United Artists - This studio was responsible for the most titles on the list - 18. Formed in 1919 by Charlie Chaplin, D.W. Griffith, Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks Sr. as a refuge from the predations of exploitative studios, UA stayed true to its mission throughout economic busts and booms and despite the vagaries of Hollywood politics. Best-known in the silent era for prestige pictures by Chaplin, Pickford and Fairbanks as well as Gloria Swanson, Buster Keaton and Rudolph Valentino, in the 1930s the studio became home to independent producers like David O. Selznick and Samuel Goldwyn.

Without its own production facilities or theaters, UA never garnered the riches accorded to its more vertically integrated competitors, but it made up in quality for what it lacked in quantity.

Because the studio provided resources for independent film-makers to express their vision, rather than impose its own vision after consulting endless committees, it was responsible for some of the most vibrant, distinctive and intelligent movies of the contemporary era. It was home for visionaries from Stanley Kubrick to Woody Allen. (UA was sold to an Australian entertainment company in 1990.) Studios that want to be represented in the next 100 would do well to take note.

The silent era - It's a shame the list gave such short shrift to the films that helped establish the art form. Outside of "Birth of a Nation," there were no silent dramas, and outside of Chaplin (who was represented thrice), there wasn't a single silent comedy. It's hard to fathom a "best-of" list without such landmarks as Erich von Stroheim's "Greed" and King Vidor's "The Crowd," not to mention the comedies of Buster Keaton ("The General") and Harold Lloyd ("Safety Last"). Seventy years from now, let's see how many people talk about the lasting influence of "The Deer Hunter."

Black and white - It was distressing, if not entirely surprising, how lily-white the AFI's list was. The only film starring an African-American actor to make the Top 100 was "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?"; the only film aside from that one that dealt explicitly with race was "To Kill a Mockingbird" (unless you count "The Birth of a Nation," the racism of which was only obliquely referred to by Samuel L. Jackson during the CBS special Wednesday night).

Missing in action - Although the AFI's 100 represents a healthy history of American film, it's a shame that such directors as Terrence Malick, Buster Keaton, Preston Sturges, Otto Preminger, Oscar Micheaux, Vincente Minnelli, John Cassavetes and Mel Brooks are not represented.

Nor are the following stars: W.C. Fields, Harold Lloyd, Clara Bow, Lillian Gish, Marlene Dietrich, Greta Garbo, Barbra Streisand, William Powell. Nor are some of the screen's best-loved duos: Clark Gable and Carole Lombard; Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers; Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall.

Fred Astaire - None of Astaire's films made the list, while two of Gene Kelly's did. Film lovers have been known to come to blows over who was the better dancer (the party line: Astaire was more elegant, Kelly more dynamic), but both are towering figures in film history. Makes you wonder if Astaire's widow, Robyn, has been so zealous in protecting the rights to her husband's image - not letting his clips be used in a Kennedy Center tribute to Ginger Rogers, for example, but letting him dance with a vacuum cleaner on a television commercial - that his place in filmgoers' collective memory has suffered.

Horrors! - It was encouraging to see a decent representation of horror films - a genre often overlooked by film purists. "Frankenstein," "Psycho," "The Silence of the Lambs" and "King Kong" all deserved mention and got it. But couldn't the show's producers have done better by "Kong" than by having Donald Trump make the only comment on the film? Who cares that he owns the land under the Empire State Building?

No comment - The AFI's credibility wasn't helped by the television show that announced the winners Wednesday night. Although the clips of the 100 films were terrific, the three MCs - Jodie Foster, Richard Gere and Sally Field - delivered their mushy introductions with all the believability of Home Shopping Network hosts. Although comments by Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese were enlightening, the folks chosen to comment on the newly canonized films were utterly confounding. It's not that Brooke Shields, Tommy Lasorda, Carly Simon and Susan Lucci aren't entitled to their opinions; it's just that their opinions weren't terribly interesting.

Ultimate question - The AFI's list accomplished what it set out to do - aside from launching a huge Blockbuster video marketing campaign and media tie-ins. It set teeth to gnashing, pencils to breaking and loved ones to bickering. It even inspired some of us to wonder what cosmic intelligence makes it possible for Kevin Costner and Orson Welles to co-exist as great directors. But on a deeper level it encouraged everyone to ask a question we don't ask often enough: Which movies matter, and why?

Pub Date: 6/21/98

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