Balti-morons? Not at rating the 100 best U.S. films


Are Baltimore film fans more perspicacious than the gaggle of critics, filmmakers and other assorted "experts" selected by the American Film Institute to pick the 100 best American films? Maybe. Just maybe.

Last week Sun film critic Ann Hornaday gave us both the AFI's list and Baltimore's list. Baltimoreans agreed with 65 AFI selections, but had the good sense and dignity to leave "Rocky" off their list. Who among the 1,500 AFI judges did Sylvester Stallone bribe to get his affront to the pugilistic sciences ranked 78 of 100?

God, they call us Balti-morons. But at least we had no boxing films on our list whatsoever. The AFI did include "Raging Bull" on its list, ranking it No. 24, way ahead of "Rocky." But what about other boxing films clearly superior to "Rocky"? There's 1947's "Body and Soul," which starred John Garfield and co-starred Canada Lee, the black actor who gave an exquisite performance free of the infuriating stereotypes so common to that era. There's "The Harder They Fall" starring Humphrey Bogart, and the film that was the best boxing movie ever made until Martin Scorsese's "Raging Bull" came along: "Gentleman Jim," starring Errol Flynn.

Baltimore's list didn't include "The Birth of a Nation" and "The Jazz Singer." This is where I part company with my fellow Balti-morons. These two films had to be on AFI's list - and should have been on ours. "The Jazz Singer" was the first talking movie and, hence, a landmark. "The Birth of a Nation" introduced revolutionary filmmaking techniques that are used to this day. Of course, it pains me that these films are on the list. I could live without Al Jolson's blackface routine in "The Jazz Singer," and, as Sun Perspective editor Mike Adams noted, "The Birth of a Nation" glorified the Ku Klux Klan - and, by extension, racism, anti-Semitism and other forms of ethnic and religious bigotry - and led to a nationwide revival of America's most prominent terrorist organization.

Maybe Baltimoreans ignored both films because they didn't particularly care for the racial images in them. That has to be a good sign.

Both AFI's list and Baltimore's included films made in the 1990s. No 1990s film should have been on either list. They simply haven't stood the test of time. It's a safe bet that "Schindler's List" will, but we have no way of knowing how "Forrest Gump" or "Fargo" will be regarded 50 years from now.

Baltimoreans don't like westerns much. Only three - "Shane" in 82nd place, "High Noon" in 46th place and "Dances With Wolves" in 21st place - made our list. Eight westerns made AFI's list, our three plus "Unforgiven" (98), "The Searchers" (96), "The Wild Bunch" (80), "Stagecoach" (63) and "Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid" (50).

I'd have kept "High Noon," "Shane," "Stagecoach" and "The Searchers" and added "Fort Apache" and "The Oxbow Incident." That the last two films weren't on either list boggles the mind. No "Fort Apache," with Henry Fonda's under-rated but legendary performance as the Army colonel whose racism about the fighting abilities of the Apaches leads him and his cavalry to doom? No "The Oxbow Incident," with its searing indictment of mob justice?

Maybe "The Oxbow Incident" hits a little too close to home for us, reminding us of our history of mob violence and lynching. Films that tell us things we don't want to hear were few and far between on both lists. That's why 1947's "Gentlemen's Agreement," with its anti-anti-Semitism theme, appears on neither list. That's why John Sayles, America's most under-rated and unappreciated film director, has neither his "Eight Men Out" or "Matewan" on either list. All three films should be there.

"Eight Men Out" is the fact-based story of major league baseball's 1919 "Black Sox" scandal, in which several members of the Chicago White Sox threw the World Series. It is a period in history baseball fans would like to forget, much as we have forgotten Sayles' film about it. "Matewan" is the story of the 1920 shootout between union miners and company detectives in the West Virginia town that the movie is named for.

Sayles makes clear in "Matewan" that the conditions of the miners were close to slavery. The only movie dealing with slavery on Baltimore's and AFI's movie list was "Gone With the Wind," which presented an idyllic picture of black slavery. Sayles' "Matewan" is a bleak depiction of white slavery. Whether the slavery is white or black, both Baltimore film fans and the AFI didn't feel comfortable with movies that portrayed the horrible reality of either.

Pub Date: 6/24/98

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