Many of us at Hammock are amateur film buffs, and our staff meetings often end with a thumbs up/thumbs down of the weekend’s top movies. At the risk of nominating myself for the ultimate film geek award, I have to admit that, for the past two or three years, I have been on a pursuit to watch all the movies in the American Film Institute’s 100 Greatest American Movies of All Time. Now, I realize that all lists are arbitrary and subjective, but I figured the AFI list was probably better than most, as it was voted on by an army of film experts. I was this close to finishing when, last year, AFI did the unthinkable: They REVISED the list.
After calming down my Taxi Driver-like rage, I started comparing the lists (bemoaning the exclusion of epics like “Doctor Zhivago”) and added the new films to my queue. A few nights ago, I viewed the final movie on my list, “Sunrise,” a 1927 silent film by F.W. Murnau, that tells a beautiful story of forgiveness and redemption.
As a result of my self-imposed cinema class, I’ve created somewhat of a monster. I continue to add new films to my watch list and annoy friends as I pontificate on the finest work of Orson Welles, John Huston and Billy Wilder. If you don’t have time for your own reel-to-reel movie festival (i.e. have more of a life), take a look at a few of the AFI films by genre that earned my critical nod—and beware of a few I wouldn’t rewind:
Western: Most unexpectedly complicated: My dad loves Westerns (he watched double features every Saturday growing up), but I’d rarely agree to watch with him, assuming all were too predictable and cookie-cutter for my taste. But after connecting with Gary Cooper in “High Noon” (1952), Humphrey Bogart in “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre” (1948) and John Wayne in “The Searchers” (1956), it’s possible that I’m a new convert to the genre. And who doesn’t enjoy the ironic humor and undeniable charisma of Paul Newman and Robert Redford in 1969’s “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid”?
War: Most surprisingly touching: “All Quiet on the Western Front,” a WWI film from 1930, still has relevance in its depiction of the horrors of war (though it fell out of the list in the revised version). It was just as moving to me as 1978’s “The Deer Hunter,” another devastating look at the sacrifices that war demands. And I’m not sure if this fits in the genre since there are no scenes on a battlefield, but I cried like a baby at 1946’s “The Best Years of Our Lives”—a story of three WWII veterans adjusting to very different lives when they return home.
Epic: Most disappointing: For all the films that connected with me, there were many that I just couldn’t recommend, even if I knew I was supposed to like them. David Lean’s 1962 “Lawrence of Arabia” is famous for its lovely cinematography, and the iconic desert scene is definitely a stunner, but it often bored me. Blasphemous, I know.
Probably the worst thing about AFI updating its list is that it forced me to watch two movies by D.W. Griffith. After suffering through three-plus hours of the 1915 “Birth of a Nation,” the AFI gurus of 2007 then said, no, his 1916 “Intolerance” is the superior masterpiece of the silent film era. Another three hours I will never get back.
Though not an epic, the Marx Brothers’ 1933 movie, “Duck Soup,” was just as difficult of a slog. It’s safe to say that the humor of Chico, Harpo, Groucho and Zeppo is lost on me. I did, however, get the unintentional humor of the interminably long “Spartacus” (1960), but I doubt my laughter at the famous “I am Spartacus” scene is the takeaway Stanley Kubrick had in mind.
Romance: Most joyful: I was completely charmed by the 1934 Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert romantic comedy “It Happened One Night.” Its elements—the meet-cute device, the fiery chemistry between the stars and screwball humor—are mimicked in a lot of romantic comedies today, but it did it first and best. All others should bow before this delightful movie’s throne.
This genre is all about the right mix of chemistry: I wasn’t expecting Katharine Hepburn and Bogart to give off quite as much spark as they do in the fun 1951 adventure “The African Queen.” The clever ways that director John Huston shows their affection growing is sweet to watch.
And I better understood Charlie Chaplin’s charm after the bittersweet romance “City Lights” (1931), a story of the Little Tramp’s love for a blind flower girl. You’d have to be made of stone not to tear up at the final scene.
Thriller: Most deliciously creepy: I’ve long been a Hitchcock fan, but I found new things to appreciate in re-watching “Vertigo” (1958), “Psycho” (1960), “North by Northwest” (1959) and “Rear Window” (1954).
The 1950 psychological drama “All About Eve” features a fun twist; the turn Anne Baxter makes from innocent to manipulator, one-upping the great Bette Davis, is chilling to watch.
That’s (Almost) a Wrap: Finally, here are the AFI films that made it into my top 10:
1. “Casablanca” (1942)—The beautiful cinematography, the unforgettable characters, the spot-on acting, the can’t-it-be-different ending, the memorable dialogue: Not sure what could knock this out of my all-time No. 1 spot.
2. “Citizen Kane” (1941)—You know how some movies get so hyped there’s no way you could ever appreciate them? Orson Welles’ mysterious, spooky, flawlessly constructed masterpiece is not one of them.
3. “The Graduate” (1967)—Benjamin Braddock perfectly embodies the disillusionment of youth. It’s made me a life-long Dustin Hoffman fan, and 1982’s “Tootsie” is another gem. (We’ll forget about the Ishtars.)
4. “On the Waterfront” (1954)—I loved Marlon Brando’s “coulda been a contender” scene, a touching illustration of longing and regret, and it made me better appreciate the actor’s status as the greatest actor of his generation.
5. “To Kill a Mockingbird” (1962)—Has there ever been a more heroic character than Gregory Peck’s Atticus Finch?
6. “Chinatown” (1974)—The film’s eerie tension and shocking violence bowled me over. Faye Dunaway is amazing in her freakout scene, and Jack Nicolson’s gritty detective made for just the right anchor for this cool, creepy film noir.
7. “It’s a Wonderful Life” (1946)— Jimmy Stewart has never been more appealing than in this Frank Capra classic. (I won’t even try to count how many times I’ve seen it.)
8. “Vertigo” (1958) or “Psycho” (1960)—Don’t make me choose!
9. “The Best Years of Our Lives” (1946)—In the taxicab scene with the three war heroes, watch how well the actors play their characters’ ambivalence about returning home.
10. “It Happened One Night” (1934)—Wonder who wins in the Clark vs. Colbert hitchhiking contest?