Monday, July 2, 2007

Jason comments on the AFI's new list of 100 greatest American movies

So back in 1998, the American Film Institute compiled a list of the 100 greatest American films, culminating in "Citizen Kane". A couple of weeks ago, they announced a new list, reflecting the evolving cultural perspective (and of course, new films made since the last list). A nice summary of the old and new list can be found on Wikipedia. I have just a few comments:

There were 23 new films on the list, but only 4 from the newly eligible (post-1998) movies. 4 seems about right, it can be hard to tell right away if a film will stand the test of time. And in that spirit, I predict "The Sixth Sense" will be the first to be dropped from subsequent lists. Sadly, "Titanic" won't be dropped until something beats it's box office total.

Well, that leaves 19 films that were eligible in 1998 and didn't make the list, but beat out previous winners to make the list this year. Okay, changing cultural preferences, right? For example, I can totally understand, for example, "Dances With Wolves" dropping from the list. What was great at the time now strikes me as cloying and simplistic. I believe that film genuinely has dropped in our cultural status (in no small part due to the dropping popularity of Kevin Costner, which started immediately after "Dances With Wolves" when he made "Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves"). And I can understand adding "Toy Story", I don't think in 1998 we really understood how much computer animation and Pixar in particular would take over the animated film world. Not that I always like it, I think it's marginalized hand-drawn animation. I chose to boycott "Over the Hedge" because it's a charming comic strip that could've been a charming cartoon but just looked wrong in CGI.

But I digress. What I really wanted to explore was whether the new list really reflect changing cultural values, or is the majority of the turnover just the wacky variability of such lists? And all I had to do was look at the highest ranked new addition to the list. Coming in at #18 is Buster Keaton's 1927 masterpiece, "The General". I don't disagree that it belongs on the list, in fact I'm boggled that it wasn't on the 1998 list. Rumor has it that it was poorly received on release, but it's reputation was restored decades ago. So I'm left to wonder what the hell happened in the last 10 years to make "The General" go from not even on the list to in the top 20? Is there really something new we learned about it? Have a new generation of filmmakers started using it for inspiration (granted, every train-top chase scene owes it a little debt, but that was just as true 10 years ago)? So, I need go no further. This list is nothing but high profile cinephilic wankery (not that there's anything wrong with that). They could vote on a new list every week, and it'd have just as much turnover.

That's all. It doesn't bug me, it just reminds me how ridiculous it is to compare art.

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