Better than AFI’s Top 100: Un Certain Regard

(For an introduction to the project and an index of other entries in the series, click here. For a list of more than 800 films which I considered for the top 450 and my eligibility qualifications, click here. And for a way to vote on what you think the top 100 American narrative fiction feature films are, click here. If I’ve written a full-length review of the film on this site, I link to it in the movie’s title.)

Like Daniel Plainview with a bowling pin, I’m finished. But one of the funny things about creating a canon of the 100 greatest movies in American history is that you look back on it and you think to yourself that there sure are a whole bunch of movies missing. When the first AFI Top 100 came out twenty years ago, Jonathan Rosenbaum got so worked up about it that he wrote a long condemnation of it, followed by an alternate list of 100 movies, alphabetically ordered, which he might have chosen instead. (Looking back on his list, there are several films we share in common.) Canonicity is a troublesome concept. On the one hand, it’s a useful shorthand for people trying to grab hold of a discipline, to find a jumping off point. On the other, exclusion is exclusion is exclusion, and even on a list like mine, there are distinct exclusions which are partly the fault of one hundred years of features made predominantly by white men and partly the fault of a twenty-six-year-old dilettante with a blog. There’s not a single movie directed by a woman on my list; there are three movies by African-American directors, and like those white ministers who only seem to have heard of Martin Luther King, Jr., two of those three are Spike Lee joints. I like my list and at the same recognize its severe shortcomings. Being a relative movie tenderfoot with a genuinely limited budget has curtailed my list further than I’d like; there are just only so many movies in the local libraries (though goodness knows I’ve worked those over).

With all that said, I’ve compiled a list of twenty-five movies that did not make my top 100 for various reasons, which I’ve detailed below in some categories. In a different month or year, maybe these movies fall in and other movies fall out. After all, what good is a canon if it doesn’t stretch itself?

Movies I Love and Thus Have Possibly Underrated

  • The Aviator (2004), directed by Martin Scorsese.
    • For a time this was probably my favorite movie, so I have a hard time judging it one way or another. I think the movie is probably a little overlong; it could have stood to lose even ten minutes somewhere or other. Yet the movie is a joy. This is Leo DiCaprio’s best performance, and I don’t think he’ll ever eclipse it. He’s the right mix of boyish youth and slightly off-kilter personality which defines his best performances, and while the latter remains I think it’s fair to say the former is gone for good. Howard Hughes is not an interesting person in the grand scheme of things; he was fabulously wealthy and dabbled in the sort of things that wealthy people have the privilege to dabble in. I don’t know how DiCaprio and Scorsese did it, but he is an interesting person in that movie. We see so many facets of his personality that we can’t help but root for the SOB. His shy pride when he comes home to Kate Hepburn (who was interesting and who Cate Blanchett just absolutely duplicated) from crash-landing in a beet field, telling her that he’d broken the air speed record that morning, is childishly sweet. His possessiveness is alternately funny and creepy, and DiCaprio has it in himself to do both. Add in the Blanchett performance and the unique color of the movie (that golf course doesn’t seem real), and this might be 101 on my list. If I didn’t love it so much it would probably be in.
  • Beauty and the Beast (1991), directed by Ron Clements and John Musker.
    • My top 100 has two animated movies on it, Toy Story at 23 and WALL-E at 58. My first draft of the list (which probably had about 85 movies out of 100, but in a very different order) had Beauty and the Beast, but eventually it fell off and never came super close to returning. This has been one of my favorite movies for over twenty years; I don’t pretend to be able to do a good job analyzing it rationally. On the whole, though, I’m confident in calling it the best movie of the Disney Renaissance (as I have on a B&B B&B), and there’s a strong case to be made that the best movie of the best period in animated movies in American history is probably a top 100 pick. It’s beautifully animated, has, by some abstruse calculations on my end, the second-best soundtrack of the Disney Renaissance, and has a lovely story.
  • Mary Poppins (1964), directed by Robert Stevenson.
    • Seriously. There’s not a single scene in this movie that’s short of good; some of them, especially towards the tail end of the movie, are magical. Julie Andrews won Best Actress for playing Mary Poppins, and I challenge anyone to dispute the wisdom of that ruling; Andrews plays a character whose tagline is “Practically perfect in every way,” which is quite a statement to live up to. By golly, does she do it. Mary Poppins has a delightfully tart tongue and eyes perpetually ready to roll; she’s wise not in any pretentious way, but in having the authority of common sense. No person in the history of the movies would make a better angel for a shoulder. My favorite scene in the movie doesn’t even have her in it; Bert and Mr. Banks share, through the introspective and awfully honest “A Man Has Dreams,” what it means to recognize that your life isn’t what you dreamed of. The rest of the movie is the story of recognizing that your life can improve once you wake up a little bit. In the meantime, to tide you over, there’s a killer joke in there about a man with a wooden leg named Smith and dancing animated penguins.
  • JFK (1991), directed by Oliver Stone.
    • JFK is so hypnotic when it works, and so very outlandish when it doesn’t. Donald Sutherland in that movie works; I love his performance, as fast-talking as anyone else’s in the film, but one which expresses an alternate history so horrifying that we dare not believe a word he says; even Kevin Costner as Jim Garrison seems loath to accept it all at once. But Sissy Spacek as Garrison’s wife (for whom a name seems almost gratuitous based on her role) is at the heart of a bad subplot, and Joe Pesci as David Ferrie is outrageously campy in a movie that cannot afford a moment of it. Here’s another movie which could stand to lose a little fat.
  • Reds (1981), directed by Warren Beatty.
    • I’ve written a very long piece on Reds in the past detailing what I love about and what drives me wild about it, but here’s the tl;dr: before the intermission it is a nearly perfect movie, and after it is solidly good, but also very tired. Before the intermission, it’s the story of Jack Reed and Louise Bryant. After the intermission, what with their separation, the film has to focus on Jack’s failure as a Communist politician and it breaks down.

Squeezed Out Genre Flicks 

  • In a Lonely Place (1950), directed by Nicholas Ray.
  • Kiss Me Deadly (1955), directed by Robert Aldrich.
  • Laura (1944), directed by Otto Preminger
  • Out of the Past (1947), directed by Jacques Tourneur.

    • Four classic films noirs here, each of them very different from the next, and chronologically each is a little more grandiose than the last. Laura is the fairly straightforward one of the bunch, down to its New York setting and tired-looking investigator. By the time we hit Kiss Me Deadly a decade later, part of the plot features a nuclear device. Out of the bunch, Out of the Past is probably the one that comes closest to the top 100 for me. Jane Greer as the nearly omnipotent and endlessly worried Kathie is an elite femme fatale, for everyone knows she’s evil just about from the get-go and she still sucks them in. Even Kirk Douglas and Bob Mitchum aren’t immune! In a Lonely Place could easily have snuck in as well; it’s one of Bogart’s great performance, for one thing, and for another it inverts our expectations. As Dix, Bogie is the mysterious, dangerous figure and Laurel (Gloria Grahame) is the one who must figure out for herself what his level of culpability might be in a murder case. Tourneur has strong ambience on his side; Ray has the emotion.
  • The Last House on the Left (1972), directed by Wes Craven.
  • The Thing (1982), directed by John Carpenter.

    • They aren’t the same genre, precisely – Last House is a gross low-budget indie slasher and The Thing is a monster special effects thriller – but the cult classic status of both films is inarguable. Both of them, for being popcorn flicks at heart, have really fascinating backgrounds. The Last House on the Left is the American update on The Virgin Spring, which is not Bergman’s best movie, but there’s a certain lightning quality to its most gripping scenes. The Thing, which had been adapted to the screen before, is based on a really fine short story called “Who Goes There?” Last House suffered in my rankings essentially due to the production quality, while The Thing is probably within a dozen spots of making the list but falls short. But both are highlighted, in my opinion, by scenes which are so taut that you stop breathing while watching. Neither one can bear that out all the way through; if they had, it wouldn’t be a contest getting them in.
  • Twentieth Century (1934), directed by Howard Hawks.

    • There was a time making this list when it felt like Howard Hawks, especially his 1930s, were going to eat this thing alive, and there’s still a bunch of Hawks in here despite omissions like His Girl Friday. Twentieth Century probably doesn’t have the casual name recognition of other Hawks screwball comedies, like Bringing Up Baby  or His Girl Friday, though it’s impressive enough in that it helped write the rules of the genre. Lombard is charming in the film – when she died a little less than a decade later, she’d be the highest paid actress in Hollywood for good reason – and one feels a little for the weird way that her character gets jobbed by John Barrymore. Yet for its place in history it’s certainly worth the thought here.

Malik Monk Honorary Category (Good at One Thing but Not So Much Anything Else)

  • Avatar (2009), directed by James Cameron.

    • Avatar is the highest-grossing movie in world history, and we spent a lot of time panning it in the moment for having a recycled plot that was based on some of the worst stereotypes of racist moviemaking along the lines of “White Man: Like the Native Americans/Japanese, but Better.” The writing is bad, the acting is fine but who could tell one way or another, the story is not engrossing. But the visuals…there were people who experienced some genuine anguish at not being able to live in a place like Pandora, which was so expressly beautiful. People reported having real depressive episodes about it. Other movies have had giant effects budgets, and other movies have looked fabulous, but I don’t think any movie has ever immersed its viewers into a different existence like that.
  • Long Day’s Journey into Night (1962), directed by Sidney Lumet.

    • Here’s a movie which has some finest actors ever to go up on the screen. Ralph Richardson and Katharine Hepburn are the parents, and Jason Robards and Dean Stockwell play their sons. It does not get much better than that. But Long Day’s Journey is a cyclical play, one which spirals in on itself over and over again over the course of a few hours. Two characters meet. They try to play nice. Old resentments crop up. They fight. They say that they shouldn’t fight. And so on and so forth until everyone is met with an obstacle which goes further than their ability to snipe at each other. It is an exhausting movie. On the stage, I think it’s a more effective wringer. But the acting, for people who love that best, is matchless.

Movies Which Would Probably Be Here if I’d Just Seen the Darn Things Because I Don’t Go to the Theater That Often

  • Moonlight (2016), directed by Barry Jenkins.
  • The Tree of Life (2011), directed by Terrence Malick.

    • I’m an imperfect cinephile, and part of the problem is that I watch a lot of movies on my television as opposed to the big screen, which of course is fundamentally different and more wonderful. It just costs money.
      The most recent movie on my top 100 list is The Social Network, from 2010. There’s only one similar gap on the list, from Intolerance in 1916 and Greed and Sherlock, Jr. in 1924. Obviously the circumstances are very different; the AFI estimates that more than half of all movies made before 1950 are lost for good, for one thing. We don’t have that problem now. I am probably being a little unfair to the movies of the past decade, although a quick glance at the best picture winners since ’10 as a shorthand reveals a whole lot. The King’s Speech is ineligible and bad; The Artist likewise; Argo is eligible and at least as bad as those two; 12 Years a Slave is very good, but personally I think it falls short of a top 100 spot; Birdman is whatever, honestly; Spotlight is good, but not as good as 12 Years a SlaveMoonlight we’ve covered. If I did this over again, which I’m sure I will, I think BoyhoodBlack SwanSelma, and especially Life of Pi will get more consideration from me alongside Moonlight and The Tree of Life.

Movies Which Would Probably Be Here if the Local Library Had Them/if I Got an Enormous Grant for My Lame Hobbies

  • The Last Detail (1973), directed by Hal Ashby.
  • Love Streams (1984), directed by John Cassavetes.
  • Freaks (1932), directed by Tod Browning.
  • Rio Bravo (1959), directed by Howard Hawks.
  • Rosemary’s Baby (1968), directed by Roman Polanski.
  • Strangers on a Train (1951), directed by Alfred Hitchcock. (UPDATE: 6/23/2017. I have seen Strangers on a Train. It was, in fact, at a local library I haven’t patronized very much. It would have had a puncher’s chance at the top 100, but it probably falls short anyway.)
  • Trouble in Paradise (1932), directed by Ernest Lubitsch.

    • I know these are all very good movies. I have not seen any of them, so I’m taking people’s word for it. I intend to rectify the issue. I might have included them before I saw Saving Private Ryan and realized it was totally blah despite the fact that people seem to adore it and since then I have become more suspicious of consensus. That about sums it up! (UPDATE: 6/25/2017. I have seen Trouble in Paradise. It was, in fact, at a local library I hadn’t patronized very much. I think if this were a top 150, Trouble in Paradise would have snuck in to the back half.)

Movies Which I Haven’t Seen, But if I Had, I Would Have Had to Choose from Because This List Can Only Take So Much John Ford

  • My Darling Clementine (1946).
  • She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949).
  • They Were Expendable (1945).
    • See above, but add “John Ford directed them.” I noted in one entry that no director had more nominated movies in my original list of 860 movies as Ford had, which is why he merits a category all to himself.

Five Directors Shut Out of My List Who Could Breach It Next Time Around Whose Movies Aren’t Mentioned Above

  • Wes Anderson
    • The Royal Tenenbaums and The Grand Budapest Hotel are wonderful movies, but I’ve never been Anderson’s biggest fan. Are other people ambivalent about Anderson?
  • Richard Linklater
    • If I think about how none of Before SunriseBoyhood, and Dazed and Confused are on this list I’ll have to redo it, and so let’s skip it entirely.
  • Vincente Minnelli
    • I love musicals, sure, but as a general rule I like musicals from the post-Company era of Broadway far more than those which predate Sondheim. In other words, the movie musicals that most people associate with “movie musicals” are the opposite of the ones I care about, which, ironically, don’t adapt to film well at all. So it’s not that in a future iteration I wouldn’t think about Meet Me in St. Louis or The Band Wagon, but that you couldn’t invent a director less likely to be snubbed on a list by me than Minnelli.
  • George Stevens
    • George Stevens always gets short shrift on lists like these (or, in his own life, at the Oscars), but I don’t think any one ever disputes his greatness as a director. Neither do I. Moving right along.
  • Whit Stillman
    • Metropolitan is, in my eyes, the perfect filmic rendition of what a movie based on a Fitzgerald short story ought to be. The Last Days of Disco is an absolutely marvelous movie. I’m in much the same boat with Stillman as I am with Linklater, neither of whom will ever really receive the acclaim that they deserve for being masterful tone-setters within their work.

Four Movies Which Aren’t on My List Which Are on Everyone Else’s and I Feel Like I Should Explain Myself A Little

  • The Graduate (1967), directed by Mike Nichols.
    • It’s a boring movie and I’m not over forty. I also can listen to Simon and Garfunkel without needing a montage.
  • On the Waterfront (1954), directed by Elia Kazan.
    • Kazan was a snitch, and this is a movie about being a snitch. Maybe that’s petty, but so is caving to HUAC at the height of McCarthyism.
  • Schindler’s List (1993), directed by Steven Spielberg.
    • I think I’m mostly immune to Steven Spielberg as a director. Very few directors are so worried that I won’t feel something while watching his or her movie, and I loathe overcompensation in a movie. Schindler’s List is a good movie, more or less, but Schindler’s List is a conundrum. It desperately wants me to be moved by the Holocaust but seems not to recognize that I already am, so much so that I worry desperately about a movie which sanitizes the details of genocide for a Hollywood production. As a technical, performed endeavor, Schindler’s List is about as good as Spielberg ever made. As a thought exercise it skeeves me out.
  • The Silence of the Lambs (1991), directed by Jonathan Demme.
    • It’s a famous bit of trivia that Anthony Hopkins was only in this movie for sixteen minutes, which is a record for brevity for a Best Actor winner. This movie is more than two hours long, and the parts without Hopkins – not to demean Jodie Foster, who is really very good in this movie – lag. Don’t @ me.
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