Wednesday, June 20, 2007

What I Want (And Don't Want) To See On the AFI Special Airing Tomorrow Night

It's hard to believe it's been almost 10 years since the American Film Institute revealed their list of the 100 Greatest Movies over a 100-year period. It seems like just yesterday my friend and I were lamenting that we should have recorded the special because, whether or not you agreed with their choices, you had to admit it was done really well and generated great rental ideas. Now, I know what you're thinking. Lists like this are silly, subjective and meaningless so why should we care? To an extent I agree, but the AFI list actually means something to me because I was exposed to a lot of films I shamefully hadn't even known about when this special aired in 1998. It caused me to make a list of films I had to see, and as result, bolstered my interest and knowledge in cinema. Had that program never aired I'm not too sure I'd be reviewing films right now. The show will hopefully get people talking and arguing about films, so that's a good thing. Plus, it's hard to criticize any organization that sees it fitting to pay tribute to Al Pacino.

In celebration of the tenth anniversary of that special, tomorrow night the AFI is airing a three-hour special on CBS called 100 Years..100 Movies-10th Anniversary Edition hosted by Morgan Freeman. They're updating their list to reflect what they call a "changing cultural perspective" and it now includes any American movie made up until January 1, 2007. Of course this opens up Pandora's box since a lot of great movies have come out between 1998 and now and older titles many feel were unjustly left off of the original list now have a second chance.

At first, I was excited. Until I saw the official ballot handed out to the AFI jury (which consists mainly of critics and filmmakers). Anyone interested in taking a peak (and let me save you the trouble and tell you it's not worth it) can go over to their site. They ask for some basic info and then they e-mail it to you. In addition to the ballot there's a section where they ask members to rank their top 5 choices (in case of some kind of tie) and allow them to fill in 5 movies they wish to be considered that aren't on the official ballot. Any movie selected to be a part of this elite list of 100 must meet the following criteria:

1. Feature-length: Narrative format, at least 40 minutes in length.
2. American film: English language, with significant creative and/or financial production elements from the United States.
3. Critical Recognition: Formal commendation in print.
4. Major Award Winner: Recognition from competitive events including awards from organizations in the film community and major film festivals.
5. Popularity Over Time: Including figures for box office adjusted for inflation, television broadcasts and syndication, and home video sales and rentals.
6. Historical Significance: A film's mark on the history of the moving image through technical innovation, visionary narrative devices or other groundbreaking achievements.
7. Cultural Impact: A film's mark on American society in matters of style and substance.

I think most of this criteria is ridiculous, to be honest. It makes it sound like a popularity contest. I also love how they make sure the box office is "adjusted for inflation" so they have a proper measurement of how much money the film made. Like that should even be a factor. Also, award recognition is an especially stupid prerequisite since the Academy and often other major critics groups screw up royally. Citizen Kane was hardly nominated for anything, but since it has "historical significance" and "cultural impact" I guess that's excused. It made no money in theaters, but racked up in home video sales. The criteria is confusing, but like I said, it's subjective. After looking at the ballot of the 400 films under consideration for a spot I picked the 5 films I'd least want to see make it, the 5 I'd jump for joy if they did, and lastly, I'll reveal my 5 write-in choices that aren't on the official ballot. And yes, I'll be fair and use their stupid criteria to make those selections.

These are the films on the ballot that, if they make the list, I'll throw a brick at the television:

1. The Sixth Sense- Can you believe this movie was actually nominated for Best Picture?! Now, it may weasel its way onto this list. Give me a break.
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2. Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl- To be fair I've never actually seen it, but I don't know anyone who would claim it's one of the 100 greatest movies in American history. I know their list tends to go mainstream but this is ridiculous. Too bad Michael Bay's Transformers didn't come out last year or it probably would have stood a chance.
3. The Matrix- I was actually planning to do a list of the most overrated movies in motion picture history. Looks like the AFI has taken care of that for me. I appreciate it's special effects were influential and important (in mostly negative ways), but why not reward a movie like Pleasantville or What Dreams May Come? They were visually amazing, but told an emotionally compelling story.
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4. Spiderman 2- I'm sorry I just never got it with this movie. The fact that people whose opinions on film I genuinely respect love this make me think I should give it a second look. I certainly didn't get anything out of it the first time. It just doesn't belong here. How about Richard Donner's Superman or Superman II, or even Tim Burton's Batman? Any of those would be better choices than this.
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5. Mystic River-This is the least offensive of the bad choices and I expected to see it on the ballot. That doesn't make it any easier to take though. I have a tremendous amount of respect for Clint Eastwood as a filmmaker, but I'm sorry this is one of his weakest films and it shouldn't have won (or even been nominated for) Best Picture in 2003. It's essentially a made for tv movie with great performances and a ludicrous ending. I'd rather see any other Eastwood directed movie represented on the list (except Blood Work). Incidentally, Million Dollar Baby is on the ballot and I'm fine with that making it.

Here are some other bad choices on the ballot: As Good As It Gets, Shakespeare in Love, Crash, Apollo 13, Austin Powers, The Aviator, Braveheart, The English Patient, Erin Brockovich, Gladiator, Philadelphia, Shrek, There's Something About Mary

Now, some films on the ballot I'd be thrilled to see make the list. Notice I didn't include any movies that don't need my support because they'll make it anyway (like Citizen Kane, 2001: A Space Odyssey, A Clockwork Orange, Apocalypse Now, The Godfather or Pulp Fiction).

1. Back To The Future- Thank God. Thank God this movie is on the ballot. Now let's just hope it makes it this time. This is one case where the AFI's commercial tastes paid off. One of my all-time favorites.
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2. The Empire Strikes Back-Star Wars will make the list. We know that. If someone put a gun to my head and asked me to pick whether A New Hope or Empire Strikes Back makes it, I'd pick The Empire Strikes Back, the superior film. I guess I should just be grateful The Phantom Menace isn't on the ballot the way they've been doing things.
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3. Fight Club-The REAL BEST PICTURE OF 1999. American Beauty won Best Picture that year. It's on the ballot and will rightfully earn a spot, but this deserves to be ranked right along side it, if not higher. It's paid its dues and deserves it. Strong box office, culturally significant, critical recognition, popularity over time. Check, check, check, check. Has this movie aged well or what?
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4. Requiem For A Dream- AFI, I'm impressed. Getting a little edgy. This was a pleasant surprise when I saw it on the ballot. Will it make the 100? Probably not. Still, it's a victory they even considered it. Massive critical adulation likely forced the issue for them.
5. Harold and Maude-Is there a film as darkly comic and, at the same time, as strangely moving in American cinema history? The very first cult classic deserves a spot. This is long overdue.

Here are some others also on the ballot that I was happy to see and wouldn't mind if they made it:
Badlands, Boogie Nights, Being John Malkovich, A Beautiful Mind, Blue Velvet, The Breakfast Club, A Christmas Story, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Fast Times At Ridgemont High, Groundhog Day, Ghostbusters, Halloween, Memento, American Beauty, Million Dollar Baby, The Shining

And now here are my top 5 movies I want to be considered that are NOT ON THE BALLOT. Keep in mind this is not a list of my all-time favorite films (though a couple are), but rather a list BASED ON AFI'S CRITERIA of what qualifies for the Top 100. Let me first say though that David Fincher's The Game (1997) is one of my all-time favorites but is ineligible because it got no awards recognition, had mixed reviews and isn't "culturally significant." Hopefully Fincher will be represented with Fight Club. I love Roger Avary's The Rules of Attraction (2002) but Paris Hilton is universally liked more than that film, it too received no award recognition and was box office poison. I also think Frank Perry's The Swimmer (1968) belongs at the very top of any list of the greatest American films ever made but it fails to meet any AFI criteria other than critical support. It's so obscure AFI members have probably never even heard of it. So now that I've put this in perspective these are my five write-in picks not on the ballot:

1. Almost Famous- I loved Cameron Crowe's Jerry Maguire also, but this is an outrage. When I saw this wasn't on there I nearly flipped. I really expected it to at least be on the ballot. In 2000 it was robbed a Best Picture nomination, Crowe was robbed of a Best Director nod and Kate Hudson was handed an unfair Best Supporting Actress loss, a blow from which her career has yet to recover. Not only is it one of the greatest American movies, IT IS AMERICA.Time is revealing it to be one of the true greats and "culturally significant." It's also one of the few movies to get a good cry out of this reviewer. If this were in the top 10 of all-time greatest films you'd hear no complaints from me. It's that good. I'd get rid of every other selection I made here for Almost Famous to get a slot in the AFI 100.
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2. Donnie Darko- Richard Kelly's Donnie Darko was released into theaters the week of September 11, 2001. Needless to say, not many moviegoers were interested in watching a movie about a jet engine crashing into a family's house. It came and went with little fanfare. Slowly it started to pick up steam on video and is now considered one of the great cult classics and underdog success stories in movie history. It has its detractors, but even they will admit it's a one of a kind, original work that can only come along, oh, every 100 years or so. It's been analyzed from every angle and picked apart to death, yet still no one can agree on any answers. I was considering putting another time travel movie, 12 Monkeys on here (and it does deserve to be) but came to the conclusion that it doesn't push as many boundaries cinematically. Darko also has one of the most unforgettable and haunting endings you'll ever see.
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3.The Ice Storm-When I decided I would put Ang Lee's quiet 1997 masterpiece on here it occurred to me that I've probably seen this movie more times than any other. Whenever it comes on cable I can never shut it off. It's almost hypnotizing and it's amazing to think such an accurate portrait of this country in the 1970's was directed by a man not even born in this country. It didn't do that well in theaters and underperformed at the Oscars, but it's done exceptionally well on home video and is now widely regarded as a modern classic. I was very surprised it didn't show up on the ballot. Very surprised. Watch it and remember when Tobey Maguire was a real actor. If they want a film of "cultural significance" it'll be hard to find one better than this.
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4. Little Children-As I was browsing through the ballot I was overcome with a feeling I couldn't shake: "Why isn't Little Children on here?" I just expected to see it for some reason. It's tough to explain why I thought that since it came out so recently, but it just feels right. It feels like an AFI Top 100 movie. It's technically brilliant, culturally significant and was nominated for 3 Academy Awards in addition to winning numerous critical honors. More importantly though, it tells us something about how we live and intelligently examines human behavior. Simply put: It's important. I thought this and Brick were the two best films of 2006, but Brick isn't culturally significant like this is. I know it may seem early to judge its place in history, but they're likely going to put the heavy-handed Crash on the list. That film already hasn't held up well at all and it's only been two years. 10 years from now I can guarantee you that Todd Field's Little Children will still be emotionally resonant and relevant. It's a great choice.
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5. The 40-Year-Old Virgin-
I have an idea. If the AFI wants to be mainstream, how about they put a mainstream movie on the list that's actually great and deserves to be there? To their credit, the AFI were one of the few in 2005 to put this film on their best of the year list so I was kind of surprised it wasn't on the ballot. I would put this movie up against any comedy they have on there and it would win. No one could tell me this film isn't far superior to Animal House, Airplane! and Austin Powers. They're not even in the same league. It's probably the most underrated comedy of all-time since it's so funny people often don't give it the credit it deserves for just being a brilliant movie. And I don't care if it's a comic performance, Steve Carell deserved an Oscar nomination. It's slowly revealing itself as the best film of 2005 and possibly the most well written comedy ever. It did get critical and awards recognition, is proving to be culturally significant and did massive box office. They have no excuse.

According to the criteria, here are some other films not on the ballot that deserve to make it: 12 Monkeys, Dark City, Adaptation, Pleasantville, What Dreams May Come, Magnolia, The Big Lebowski, House of Sand and Fog, Before Sunrise, Eyes Wide Shut, Clerks, The Goonies, Straw Dogs, They Shoot Horse, Don't They?, Mulholland Drive, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Princess Bride, The Royal Tenenbaums, The Karate Kid, Say Anything, Superman II, A History of Violence, Seven

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