April 11, 2012

AFI Retrospective: 10 I'd Ditch

Okay, part two of this retrospective on this great project. First I talked about ten pleasant surprises, and now the much more difficult task of choosing 10% of these films to demote off the list, in my humble opinion. Let me start by saying: all of these films are great (some greater than others, or should I say some more agreed upon than others). All of them have something to recommend. But some of these could go for a reason or two, which I'll try to explain as best I can.

Top Ten I'd Ditch

Let me start by saying the Marx Brothers were total geniuses, and the scene above is so inspired and magical. Their other film on the list, Duck Soup, is absolutely required viewing. But by comparison, this spoof of the opera world just doesn't hold up nearly as well. It feels less like a coherent whole than the other film, and more like a series of jokes strung together, spliced together with some scenes about opera performers that we wait through to get back to the Marx shenanigans. I'd totally be happy bringing a different Marx film in in its place -- any suggestions?


I just wanted way more out of this story. I know you don't go to a movie like this for plot, but the characters need to at least engage me in a way that keeps me with them for two hours, and the first hour of this just took me out of it. The famous car chase scene is impressive, especially when viewed in a historical context, but not all that unique for a modern audience. William Friedkin made this right before he made The Exorcist, which is way more deserving of this list.


Here's the thing: I actually liked this movie. There's nothing necessarily wrong with it, it's just that at the end of the day it wasn't the most memorable. It's not especially affecting, the plot is simple and the acting is fine. It has a great moral truth to it, some amount of historical power in the canon, and truthfully it was a pleasant surprise. But I had to pick ten. That was the game.


There's maybe a tiny bit of irony in this choice, since Sullivan's Travels is really about the search for "social significance" in Hollywood. In fact, it's a pretty solid satire of the movie industry... but the fact is: I hadn't even heard of it before this list. I think it might have been the only movie on the entire list I'd never even heard of. And there's a reason: while it's cute, it's slight. Do cute, slight films belong on the list? Maybe. Does a more "important" one belong in its place? This is where it gets tricky.


6. The Apartment (#80)

There's just a lot of great comedies on the list, and in my opinion The Apartment falls short. It's a cute story, but the comedic payoff in terms of laughs-per-minute just isn't as high as, say, any of the Charlie Chaplin films, Some Like It Hot, or Bringing Up Baby. Plus, I'm not that enchanted with Shirley MacLaine's performance. Jack Lemmon, yes. Shirley, eh.


5. Unforgiven (#68)

The placement of this film on the list seemed like a way to collectively reward and honor Clint Eastwood for his many contributions to Hollywood and his long and, ahem, "varied" career. Now, I don't think much of him as an actor -- growl growl growl scowl scowl scowl -- but I will admit he has a subtle hand as a director. Maybe it's my distaste for a lot of his movies that influenced this, maybe it was my disdain for Westerns... maybe it's that this film seems like an examination of a genre that didn't really ask to be reexamined. When so many other genres are underrepresented, why are there so many Westerns??


4. M*A*S*H (#54)

Kiss my hot lips! There's some great, even inspired moments in this early Robert Altman film, but for my money his other efforts (Nashville especially but also The Player, not listed here) seem stronger and more focused. His style is one that takes some getting used to, with actors floating in and out of scenes, and the camera ambling around to create the authenticity of an outside viewer, and his other films do a better job of honing this tricky form.


I wrote: "while I'm not sure I agree that it's a brilliant film, it does perfectly personify the tropes of Hollywood crime drama that became so popular throughout the middle of the century, and which still heavily influence modern cinema." The movie does everything it can to be the purest form of film noir, but by following every single rule it feels less exciting than other films from this genre. Am I right? I guess I don't know, I haven't seen a ton of films from this era/genre, but something tells me there's more exciting examples of noir somewhere.


2. Shane (#45)

I likened this movie to an antique, a family heirloom that's pretty janky but you just can't bear to sell it at the family garage sale. I understand that many of the members of the AFI were no doubt Joey's age when Shane came to town, and remember this movie with great fondness. But for a contemporary audience, this felt like an indistinguishable effort, no better or worse than other Westerns at the time. There's also some badly staged fight scenes that don't belong in a good movie. I have no illusions about my bias against this genre, and I'd love for someone to convince me that these movies are good and not just relics.


1. The Wild Bunch (#79)

The truth is, I just got no pleasure out of watching this. The distinguishing feature that merits its place here was supposedly its revolutionary use of violence, but it seems to me that Bonnie and Clyde, made two years earlier, makes better use of gratuitous badassery and has a compelling story and vivid characters to boot. This had neither. Now, because I liked it the least of any movie on this list, I have no doubt that I'll go back to it someday to try to understand it. But for now, this would be the very first movie I'd kick off the list in favor of something else.

And there's my ten! Next, maybe ten that I'd add to the list? That'll be an interesting challenge!

Thoughts? Concerns? Cheers? Rants? Leave a comment!

April 5, 2012

AFI Retrospective: 10 Pleasant Surprises

Hey again, everyone -- long time no see!

So it's been about a week since I finished this blog project, and I wanted some time away to reflect on it. I've decided to wrap this whole project up with a four-part retrospective, starting with this one, where I'm gonna talk about the most pleasant surprises on the list! I had seen about half of the films on the list before, and so these were my favorites of the ones I hadn't seen.

Top Ten Pleasant Surprises

10. The General (#18)

It's a real weird shame that I had never seen any of Buster Keaton's films before, and this one alone definitely turned me into a fan. It's short, it's sweet, and it's legitimately hilarious. And it's 1927, folks -- no CGI, no fancy tricks! Just Keaton doing what he does best. I put this at the bottom of the top ten only because it was not such a surprise to me that I loved it as some of the others here were. Any other suggestions of his films that I should look up?

9. Ben-Hur (#100)

I often said when I was about to start this project that the whole crazy idea felt like a Sisyphean task, like a wild ancient Roman chariot race of improbability, and if I hadn't liked Ben-Hur so much, it might have been tougher to stay motivated for the rest of it. That was a major hurdle to jump right off the bat (mixed sports metaphors?!) but for all the preconceived notions I had about it, I actually had a great time watching it, and would do it again... the next time I was in the mood for that sort of thing.

8. Midnight Cowboy (#43)

The dirty-minded part of me was excited to finally see this 1969 film because it was the first (and only) X-rated film to win Best Picture. It ended up being a beautiful meditation on modern sexuality, and one of the only films on the list to feature any homosexual characters (including, it might be argued, our hero). It felt like it had been filmed yesterday, not 43 years ago!

7. Easy Rider (#84)

This was another film that felt so modern, like it was looking into the future of what films would be. As I went through the list, I found myself most attracted to this great period of American moviemaking, from the late sixties to mid-seventies... I think I wrote about it at some point... maybe about The Godfather, that it felt like a turning point between old and new Hollywood. It was a pivotal moment in many parts of American history, with the civil rights movement, Vietnam, Watergate, Stonewall... just out of necessity, these films start feeling so vivid, so necessary.

Honestly, when I read about the film before I saw it I thought: what? why? I like these actors but this movie sounds boooooooring. But my preliminary research ended up being very misleading: what transpires is a wonderful, simple, buddy movie -- perhaps the most purely patriotic on the entire list -- without any pesky subplots cluttering up the river. Katherine Hepburn is near her very best here ("Nature, Mr. Allnut, is what we are put in this world to rise above.") and Humphrey Bogart won his only Oscar for this, beating out the legendary performance by Marlon Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire. I suppose Brando was only 26 and Humphrey was overdue, so arguments against this don't (ahem) hold water.

Now, to be fair, this film really doesn't belong on this list in the first place, since very little of it is American. This is not me being biased against foreign films, it's just River Kwai really has no business being called an American film. But that's an argument I'll make later. This was another like African Queen where I read a little about it and thought, "uhhh boy. British POWs in Thai internment camps during WWII. Here we go." But it's actually a great adventure story. Maybe the most American thing about it is the sense of national pride and perseverance against a common enemy, but that alone does help this American stick with these guys until that iconic last moment.

4. Sunrise (#82)

This film holds the great distinction of having won a Best Picture award without the added distinction of being listed as a Best Picture over the years, since in the first year of the Academy Awards in 1927, Wings actually won Outstanding Picture, Production, and Sunrise won the award for Unique and Artistic Production. Wow. If that award still existed today, we'd see a lot more interesting films winning Oscars, I can tell you that much. My experience with silent films was limited at best before this list, but Sunrise was such a rich cinematic experiment that it felt like there had to have been sound! And it's 1927, folks -- that shot I posted above was a lot trickier to produce than it would be now. Have some respect.

3. High Noon (#27)
I've been very vocal about my lack of enthusiasm for westerns, and the examples on this list have been largely underwhelming for me (some of them will no doubt show up in the Top Ten I'd Ditch post, coming soon) -- but I can't deny the power and marvelous economy demonstrated in High Noon. A part of my problem with this genre is that it follows, without working too hard, too many of the same rules in every film, but High Noon seems to break the mold in several ways. I should actually watch it again, and this time with a group... any takers?

People asked me throughout this project what films were the most surprising, the most exciting, which ones I "liked" best... and while that's too large a question to usually answer with any efficiency, I'll be damned if I didn't recommend these top two films to anyone who would listen. This story of WWII veterans adjusting to civilian life once again just pulled every heart string I have, and Harold Russell's performance is absolutely unbelievable. In fact, he remains one of only two non-professional actors to be awarded an Oscar (the other being Haing S. Ngor for The Killing Fields), and the only actor to be awarded twice for the same performance. He deserved both. I can't say enough good things -- and I will absolutely watch this again with anybody who's up for it!


This film was down far enough on this list (only the sixth one I watched for the blog) that I saw it over two years ago, but throughout the entire project I have not been able to get it out of my head. Take fantastic actors (including very young Jeff Daniels, Cybill Shepherd and the phenomenal Timothy Bottoms), a gorgeous screenplay by Larry McMurtry, a melancholy approach to storytelling and cinematography -- AND the fact that it mourns the old West, something I would see so often throughout the list and grow to loathe -- plus its American New Wave pedigree -- and it turned into my very favorite new film on the list. Such a visceral experience. I still love that last monologue of Cloris Leachman's -- it hurts so bad, and yet I keep coming back to it again and again. And I have a feeling I'll do the same with this movie. Ahhh.

There were more of these on the list, of course, but these were the ten that stuck out to me. Next up: the Top Ten Films I'd Ditch. This should be fun. :)