Movies, Lists, and Greatness

Nearly 20 years ago (time flies) the American Film Institute made a list of the top 100 American movies for the centenary of American film. They made the list by

[inviting] more than 1,500 leaders from across the American film community – screenwriters, directors, actors, producers, cinematographers, editors, executives, film historians and critics among them – to choose from a list of 400 nominated films compiled by AFI and select the 100 greatest American movies.

Which is okay, I guess. This is a pretty good crowd to ask about movies; they should know a fair bit about them. But they limited them to a pre-culled list of 400, which is not so great. But the really interesting thing was that 9 years later, in 2007 they did it again.

The brief text on their site makes it sound like they asked all the same people again, thought I would have expected at least a few of them to have been unavailable. Perhaps some of them had died in the intervening years, or were out of town, disinclined to participate, something. Be that as it may, the differences between the lists are what really caught my attention. And there are some significant differences. Hit that jump and let’s discuss.

In the space of 10 years, the list turned over by nearly a quarter. 23 films dropped off and 23 new ones were added. If this is the list of the best of the best of the best, then I wouldn’t have expected that much change and if it did have that much change I would have thought that most of the new films were from the intervening 10ish years. Nope. Only 3, maybe 4, of the “new” 23 were not yet made when the first list released. (The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, The Sixth Sense, Saving Private Ryan, and maybe Titanic.)

Here are the other 19 newly added films:

  • Toy Story
  • The Shawshank Redemption
  • Do the Right Thing
  • Sophie’s Choice
  • Blade Runner
  • All the President’s Men
  • Nashville
  • Cabaret
  • The Last Picture Show
  • In the Heat of the Night
  • Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
  • Spartacus
  • 12 Angry Men
  • Sullivan’s Travels
  • Swing Time
  • A Night at the Opera
  • Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans
  • The General
  • Intolerance
Not terrible choices, I guess. I haven’t seen them all, but I’d probably pick some of those for a top 100 of American film. (Maybe not Shawshank,  or a couple others.) Fascinatingly, The General went from off the list to number 18. The best any of the others did was 49 (Intolerance). I suspect it was left off the first list of 400. Now let’s take a look next at what got bumped to make room.

  • Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner
  • A Place in the Sun
  • My Fair Lady
  • The Jazz Singer
  • Patton
  • Frankenstein
  • Mutiny on the Bounty (1935)
  • Fargo
  • Giant
  • Dances with Wolves
  • Wuthering Heights
  • An American in Paris
  • The Manchurian Candidate (1962)
  • Close Encounters of the Third Kind
  • Stagecoach
  • Rebel Without a Cause
  • Fantasia
  • The Third Man
  • All Quiet on the Western Front
  • Amadeus
  • From Here to Eternity
  • The Birth of a Nation
  • Doctor Zhivago
I’m sorry Pixar, but Doctor Zhivago got bumped to make room for Toy Story? That seems… surprising. The Third Man, The Birth of a Nation, Stagecoach, and The Jazz Singer? Moreover, Doctor Zhivago went from being 39th on the list to gone. That’s a long way to fall. Seeing it and some of those others, I suspect that there might have been a rule change about eligibility that caused some films to be considered British instead. Leaving that aside, even if a movie managed to hang on, some of them saw their relative position shift wildly.
The Searchers went from position 96 to 12. Nothing else came close to moving 84 spots on the list (unless we count the aforementioned The General, which moved an effective 83 spots, a virtual 101 to 18.) City Lights gained 65 spots, Vertigo picked up 52. Some also tumbled a great deal. Doctor Zhivago lost at least 62 spots by falling off. The African Queen dropped from 17 to 65, 48 spots. Ben-Hur lost 28 spots, A Clockwork Orange, 24 and The French Connection, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and The Bridge on the River Kwai all lost 23.
Still, this isn’t a bad couple of lists for being made via a vote. It’s not the list I would have made, but then of the 123 films across the two lists, I’ve only seen a bit more than half of them though I’d be willing to watch most of the rest. If you’re interested in the lists, I’ve linked them both above, of course, but I’ve also got a link to a file that makes the comparison a bit easier.

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