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By Samuel Stoddard

May 1999

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Friday, May 21, 1999

Another summer is upon us. That means all the movie studios line up with their most expensive looking entertainments, neatly saran wrapped for easy digestion, competing for your box office greenbacks. Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace opened last Wednesday and made $28.5 million just that day. Most movies don't even do half that in their opening weekends.

As I predicted would happen two years ago and again last year, the ceiling would soon be hit on the number of explosions and wisecracks and mass destruction that could be crammed into one movie. Last summer, the ceiling was hit. Neither Godzilla nor Armageddon were terribly successful with respect to their budgets, nor were they particularly good flicks. This summer, the descent from that nasty bump on the head is beginning. But The Phantom Menace isn't just another mindless action flick -- it's the continuation of a cultural phenomenon. Then there's Wild Wild West, opening July 2nd, but that isn't so much an action flick as it is a very, well, weird combination of science fiction and humor in a western setting. So those ninety minute explosion movies have waned in number, and those that remain have taken a sharp 90 degree turn in a new direction. Thank goodness.

This is not to say this summer looks totally different from past summers. As usual, there is a blend of tried and true formula films, with scattered chances at remarkable entertainment. Here's what you have to look forward to:

Julia Roberts stars in two romantic comedies, Notting Hill, which opens May 28, and The Runaway Bride, which opens July 30. John Travolta stars in the political thriller The General's Daughter on June 11; Austin Powers returns the same day. Disney's requisite animated feature is Tarzan, set for June 18. Stanley Kubrick's swan song, Eyes Wide Shut, starring Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman, opens July 16, opposite the man-eating alligator thriller Lake Placid. The following week is a double dose of horror with The Haunting and the The Blair Witch Project. Steve Martin and Eddie Murphy team up for Bowfinger on July 23. Muppets From Space opens June 30. Antonio Banderas appears in the Viking flick The 13th Warrior on August 13, and on August 20, The Muse, from writer-director-star Albert Brooks, opens.

Thursday, May 20, 1999

It has nothing to do with movies, but Dave forwarded a great article about artistic criticism to me that fits in with the topic of the past several journal entries. I found it refreshingly perceptive and illuminating. The article is here: How Do You Know It's Good?.

Friday, May 14, 1999

It turns out I have one more installment of the "Top 100" movie list thread that started back with the May 3rd journal entry (head there now if you're joining us in progress). I want to close with this because it drives home part of what I've been trying to do with this thread: inspire some thought.

Trip P., whose letter is below, was evidently moved to that end; we have exchanged email on the subject. My correspondence with Trip and everyone else who has emailed me on the subject, has in turn inspired some thought of my own. So thanks to everyone for your participation.

Thursday, May 13, 1999

Today is the one year anniversary of this journal. Looking back, I see that the journal has covered more ground than I would have thought. And I'll cover yet a little more by putting a close to this "Top 100" movies thread I began back on May 3rd.

Various and scattered thoughts from readers on "Top 100" movie lists follow:

Monday, May 10, 1999

For those of you joining us in progress, it is advised to back up to the May 3rd journal entry (scroll down) and start there: this is fifth in a series about "Top 100 Films" lists.

The next Top 100 list to spotlight is critic James Verniere's Top 100 list. This is the first list so far that is the opinion of a single person. For that, it deserves credit, for no matter how crazy it might be, it represents an honest opinion. Even if it utterly fails to accomplish what it's supposed to, it fulfills the alternative purpose of expressing one person's opinion.

It raises my suspicions, however, that only three movies were chosen from the 1980s and only one from the 1990s. Granted, the list is subtitled "100 films [that] have stood the test of time," but by that rationale no movie after roughly 1970 should be included. And that's being generous. In other mediums of art, it usually has to stand approximately a hundred years before you can be sure that it's in the books to stay.

I also take exception to the manner in which he constructed his list. He sought great directors first, then picked out the best in their filmographies -- at least that's what the implication is. Perhaps that's why "Night of the Hunter" didn't make it, a brilliant film directed by actor Charles Laughton in his only directorial effort. And it sure seemed like his explicit omission of "Star Wars" and "Rocky" just got discounted for the express purpose of keeping the list from being too populist, not because they don't deserve to be on it. Perhaps I'm being too cynical, so I'll give him the benefit of the doubt: that he wouldn't have chosen either anyway.

At the very least, he recognized Buster Keaton, whose film The General is *the* best silent comedy ever made, even over Chaplin. Saving Private Ryan's absence might be excused by its being too new for its greatness to be fully realized. But where's Schindler's List, more deserving than any film of the 1990s to be there?

Where's West Side Story, the most emotionally powerful musical ever made? Where's My Fair Lady, the most intelligent? At least he put in Singin' In the Rain, the most fun.

I suspect The Right Stuff and Napoleon are there just to boast that he saw them, and Un Chien Andalou, admittedly great, is not a feature length film and was included, I suspect, to show that he went to film school. I have no idea what Tom Jones is doing there, arguably the worst film ever to win the Best Picture award; that year, 1963, is almost universally acknowledged as the Academy's weakest year. A Star Is Born is bloated and cumbersome. The Band Wagon is overrated -- my theory is that nobody's seen it for twenty years, all they remember are the two classic musical numbers, and people put it on "top" lists purely out of habit. If Fred Astaire absolutely has to be represented, at least make it Top Hat. The Bride of Frankenstein is there just because it's James Whale's best film, and after Gods and Monsters, he's forefront in the mind.

I really wish he had done write-ups for all the films, justifying their place, and then write-ups for all the films that were considered or often are considered that say why they weren't included. That'd have been more interesting. I also wish the list was ranked. It isn't; it's sorted by year. The ranking would have been far more telling of his opinions and tastes than simply the list.

Saturday, May 8, 1999

If you're joining us in progress, you might like to scroll down and start with the May 3 journal entry -- this is fourth in a series of editorials on "Top 100 Movies" lists.

The Mr. Showbiz site has its own Top 100 list. It must be noted that this list intentionally only covers English language films made since the birth of the talkies. I'm not sure why they eliminated silent movies from the running, but I find the eliminiation of foreign films to be an admirably fair limitation of scope; it is extremely difficult for a member of one culture to evaluate the greatness of a radically different culture's art -- especially in comparison to the art of one's own culture.

They take their own list and the AFI's list and compare them here. It is interesting to note that their list predates the AFI list by a year and a half. Two months after they constructed their list, they polled their readers and assembled the Top 100 movies of their readers, which is a list not even worth talking about, though it's good for kicks. The problem with reader polls is that they're too dependent on when they're taken. If the Mr. Showbiz site did the poll again, they'd get hugely different results. They are useful in determining the tastes of the culture reading the web site, but not much more.

But back to Mr. Showbiz's list. As I have said, the explanation behind the list is almost always more interesting than the list itself. Mr. Showbiz does some things right and some things wrong. What they did right was the recognition of this simple fact:

"[Compiling such a list] is completely subjective -- you just have to choose the films that moved you most deeply, or made you laugh the hardest, or most radically changed the way you see the world."

True enough. What isn't, which I've mentioned before, is this:

"First, consider balance: No matter how much you love, say, the films of Alfred Hitchcock, you can't put a dozen of them on the list. Ditto Humphrey Bogart, Katharine Hepburn, even Wallace Shawn."

Why not? Obviously personal preference should be eliminated as much as is humanly possible, in spite of the previous quote which I agreed with. I'm an avid fan of the James Bond movies, but I wouldn't put any of them on a list of the Top 100 films of all time. At the same time, what other gauge do you have than how the film struck you personally? The best you can do is to evaluate films in a state of mind as objective and educated as you can possibly be. In that frame of reference, you'll find your personal preference will expand, over time, to include a personal appreciation for films found to be objectively great. For example, I didn't much like Sunset Boulevard the first time I saw it, but I did recognize a portion of its brilliance. Since I saw it, my mind deconstructed it, mulled it over, and my appreciation of it is growing.

At any rate, if a dozen Hitchcock films do actually happen to be among the 100 greatest, it is foolhardy and dishonest not to include them. Otherwise the list becomes useless -- a mere collection of 100 great movies -- not the 100 greatest movies.

Examining the contents of their list, I find a number of problems; here's where I begin picking on them. (Again, I'll be making my own list in the near future and will make it available for other people to criticize.)

North By Northwest is ranked at number 3. By no means is this superior to Hitchcock's Rear Window or Vertigo. It was certainly the father of James Bond, which in turn fathered Indiana Jones, which in turn fathered the modern action picture that gets so much attention today. It has certainly impacted our culture, for better or worse. But it doesn't have the intellectual depth of some of Hitchcock's other work, nor the layers of irony and the subtle reprehension of its characters dark passions. Regardless of whether it deserves a place in a Top 100 list, it certainly doesn't deserve to rank so highly, or as the director's best work.

Citizen Kane at number 4? Too low. Manhattan at number 6? Way too high. Chinatown at 8? No. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance at 9? It's not the greatest western ever made, however great it is. At 13 is 2001: A Space Odyssey, a film that, no matter how many times I see it, I just don't see as a masterpiece. I consider it indicative of the genius of Stanley Kubrick, certainly, but I think it's flawed and not actually a masterpiece itself. I suppose I'll get contradictory mail about this.

The Philadelphia Story is another one I consider overrated, though in this case I do believe it is a masterful work. It clocks in at number 14; it's too high. Ditto To Have and Have Not at number 15, which I suspect was included just to represent Bogart and Bacall.

Bravo for having the guts to include Star Wars at all, a film too popular and fun for many critics to like. It makes number 18, which is perhaps too high, but spotty acting and all, it deserves a place. The Wild Bunch is number 20, again too high. E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial ranks number 24, and frankly I don't understand the hoopla behind that one either. Preston Sturges' The Palm Beach Story ranks 25, which is not a ranking I would make, but I applaud its inclusion: it's a brilliant film, too often ignored, and it's obvious the people at Mr. Showbiz were actually thinking when it came time to include this one.

Blade Runner makes number 26, when it shouldn't be there at all. All About Eve at number 29 perhaps should have been higher, though I'm not yet sure. At number 35 is The Wizard of Oz, which I've already stated really isn't as brilliant as its popularity might suggest. Dr. Strangelove is another prized Kubrick film I just don't get, but to be fair, I haven't seen it for a long time, and I'll need to view it again to make a fair judgment. Pulp Fiction, at 39, is just a fad, a derivative one at that, one that did the same things independent films have been doing for years, but it lucked out and hit the mainstream first. Taxi Driver, at 43, is a bad idea with brilliant execution. Apocalypse Now, at 46, I've mentioned. Unforgiven, at 50, is way overrated. But the brilliance of Network is thankfully recognized at number 51.

Schindler's List ranking as low as 57 is scandalous. Hud, at 58, is laughable. Sweet Smell of Success, at 68, seems a truly odd choice. Out of the Past, at 69, is overrated, but it's an interesting choice, like The Palm Beach Story. All That Jazz, at 70, doesn't belong; nor does The Misfits, at 72, which has more historical importance than artistic. Bravo for including Short Cuts, ranked at 75, a film too new to be given the recognition it deserves. I can't understand the critical furor over Moonstruck, at 80, and The Last Picture Show, at 83, is a weird choice also. Die Hard at 84 is laughable. The Piano, at 93, is not the masterpiece it's thought to be; it just bears the superficial resemblance of great filmmaking. And what's The Terminator doing on a list like this, even at 100?

Again, this isn't a bad list, it's just not a definitive list of the best movies ever made. It's whatever their favorite movies are. It's weirder than the AFI list, but on the other hand, it seems to mean more -- it's a compilation of a lot fewer opinions and is therefore more personal. Browse the list yourself, if you are so inclined, and let me know what you think.

Friday, May 7, 1999

Before I go on to other Top 100 lists, I'd like to address a possible source of confusion. Everett Kaser and I have talked about my recent journal entries at length through email. During that, he brought up some very good points which I will elaborate on after I'm done with this "Top 100" project. I'll do the same for anyone else who would like to submit their opinions of all this, too -- just send me email.

At any rate, I should make it clear where I stand on the definition of "definitive" and what I believe about objectivity with regard to art.

Some believe there is no objective standard against which art can be evaluated. I don't. I believe that there does, in fact, exist such a standard. And if you were omniscient and unbiased by subjectivity, you could perceive that objective standard absolutely.

The catch is that none of us are. Although I believe an objective standard for artistic greatness exists, I don't believe any one human being, or group of human beings, or even all of us, can accurately perceive it 100% of the time, due to the subjective mask we can never fully cast away. So any Top 100 list -- well, one that I would value -- will be an honest and respectable attempt to approximate that objective standard. That objective list, whatever it is, is what I'm calling the "definitive" list. And therefore any claims made about an extant list as being definitive are therefore presumptuous, unless there are qualifications such as "the definitive list of my favorite movies." But if you say "the definitive list of the greatest movies ever made," that says to me you're claiming final authority to the accurate perception of the objective standard, which is ludicrous unless you're God. Who is it for any human being or group of human beings to claim to be the first to see without any subjectivity?

The issues I'll be taking with the Top 100 lists I have and will feature in the journal over the next few days, besides nitpicking about actual choices, are the objections I have about the manner in which they were constructed. I do believe there is a right way to do it that will approximate the objective standard in the most optimal way (given a trained and educated mind to do it) and that there are a lot of wrong ways that skew the results. Maybe I'm just arrogant, but I have yet to find a Top 100 list that was constructed in the manner that makes sense to me, which is partly why I want to try it myself.

Thursday, May 6, 1999

We'll start with the American Film Institute's Top 100 list. Much has been said about it already, so I'll keep it somewhat brief. Here's the AFI Top 100 List. And here's what I think about it.

The top five look good. The Wizard of Oz, at number 6, I suspect was chosen because of how popular it is, not for its artistry in filmmaking. The Graduate absolutely does not belong so high, at number 7. The Bridge On the River Kwai is brilliant but flawed and does not belong as high as 13. As much of a cultural phenomenon as Star Wars is, it doesn't belong as high as number 15. Were this list one person's opinion, I'd applaud the choice to include it at all, because it is too often overlooked by critics because of its popular appeal and sense of fun. But this list is a conglomeration of hundreds of opinions, which means that not only was Star Wars' inclusion inevitable but that the list doesn't mean a whole lot anyway.

Chinatown, at 19, is overrated, I think, but I'm not convinced. Ditto One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, at 20. Maybe people just love Jack Nicholson. It's downright scandalous that E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial, at 25, ranks higher than Jaws, at 48. Throw Apocalypse Now out of number 28. I suspect Rebel Without a Cause, at 59, and know The Jazz Singer, at 90, were chosen for historical purposes, which is absolutely the wrong way to select a list of the "best" movies. Pulp Fiction, at 95, and Unforgiven, at 98, are overrated, and Guess Who's Coming To Dinner, at 99, was probably chosen more for its social themes that, at the time, were progressive.

Except for my quibbles above, some of which are major, others minor, this list isn't terribly offensive compared to some. On the whole, it does seem to contain 100 of the best movies ever made. It's scandalous that Buster Keaton's The General, arguably the best silent comedy, was left out, and although I don't think Preston Sturges should be included purely by affirmative action, The Lady Eve probably deserved a spot. I find it interesting that Fargo was included at 84; I don't think I would have chosen that one myself, but it's an admirable choice and one of the very few on the list where it is apparent some thought was made. A lot of the inclusions, like Frankenstein, at 87, and Dances With Wolves, at 75, feel more like reflex actions than heartfelt choices.

But as my editorial from Monday suggests, I feel the manner in which the list was constructed is more problematic than its contents. For starters, it was intended to be a "definitive" list, which is absurd. Any "best movies" list that claims to be anything more than the mere opinion of its makers has delusions of grandeur. And yet the AFI also admits that the list is subjective, and this is thus why the title of the television special that announced the list, "100 Years...100 Movies" does not say "best" or "greatest" in it anywhere. So I don't know what's going on there.

Secondly, the list was determined by "more than 1500 leaders from the American film community," including writers, producers, directors, historians, movie executives, and critics. Including historians in the pool skews the balance terribly, and it shows. If James Dean hadn't died so young and become such an idol in pop culture, would Rebel Without a Cause even be on the list? And yet his young death had no bearing whatsoever on the artistic and technical accomplishments of the film. Including filmmakers in the list also skews it, though not quite so much. Film critics -- sensible ones that aren't too elitist, though how you'd go about collecting acceptable names is beyond me -- should have been the only ones polled.

Thirdly is the unfortunate fact that these 1500 leaders could only vote on the films named in a list of 400 nominees, predetermined by the AFI panel. There's been tens of thousands of movies made. The more crucial task is picking 400 out of that many, not 100 out of 400. The "1500 leaders" should have had free reign to vote on whatever they wanted. Evidence of how skewed the list of nominees were: only 20 silent films were on the list.

The criteria for the list: the films had to be feature length American films and received critical recognition. It should have stopped there. But the requirements go on. They had to have remained popular over time; as can easily be shown, greatness and popularity don't go hand in hand. They had to have historical significance and impacted American culture; these are possible side-effects of greatness, not greatness itself. They also had to have received recognition from major awards and film festivals, which skews the balance in favor of films that were understood and accepted at the time of their release. This didn't keep Citizen Kane from ranking at #1, but that's obviously a very special case, and its not winning Best Picture at the Academy Awards remains one of Oscar's most notorious moments.

So there you have it. The AFI list is a handy guide for recommending some great films, but it's by no means "definitive."

More on Top 100 lists to come, as well as updates regarding the construction of my own.

Monday, May 3, 1999

As we are nearing the end of the millenium, I am starting to see people come out with "Top 100" lists of the best movies ever made. The American Film Institute started it, and, gradually, individual critics are doing it too. These lists are next to meaningless without explanations behind them of why they were chosen and others weren't, because a list is just a list. And sometimes the explanations don't make it worth much either.

The AFI list is particularly poor, because it was constructed by committee. If it had been one person, at least it would have been the honest opinion of a human being. The AFI list isn't even that. They polled film critics, historians, and other film figures and asked them to vote on the movies they thought were the best, most influential, and most important. My questions: (1) what authority does a film "historian" have in judging what makes a great movie, and (2) what does a film's impact on our culture have to do with anything? Cultural influence is a consequence of greatness, not greatness itself. Get film historians to vote on the greatest movies ever made, and that's why The Wizard of Oz made the top ten, and High Noon made the list at all. Not to knock those films, but when you only pick 100 of the best movies ever made, not being selected is not necessarily an insult.

Other Top 100 lists I've seen that at least only represent one person's views include an explanation for how the movies were selected. I'm reading such things as, "I think of the best work of the greatest directors." Sure, that's a good place to start, but it better not be the place you stop. I'm reading things like, "You can't include all of Hitchcock's greatest work." Why not? What if Hitchcock's ten or so best also happen to be in the top 100? I'm reading things like, "It's an outrage Preston Sturges was not represented in the AFI Top 100." Why? What if his best came in at 101, 102, 103, and 104? Should we institute some sort of affirmative action program and rob the rightful owner of spot number 100? For the record, I happen to think Hitchcock wouldn't quite have ten titles in the top 100, and I think Preston Sturges' The Lady Eve belongs in there (not Sullivan's Travels, which is what I see most critics suggesting). But that's entirely beside the point. This kind of thinking is not the right way to construct a Top 100 list.

Over the next few journal entries, I'll be examining other people's Top 100 lists and ranting about them. And because Top 100 lists are doomed projects from the start, I'll be constructing my own. To show them all how it's done. :-) I'll probably wait until the end of the year, actually, just in case there are any great ones that get made between now and then. But the work will be one in progress: I'm going to post Top 10 lists for each decade of filmmaking on At-A-Glance Film Reviews at a slow but gradual rate. After seven months of thinking about this list -- and seeing the obvious candidates I haven't yet gotten around to seeing -- at least I will have done a thorough job. Then I'll criticize myself, just like all the others.

So what do you think about Top 100 film lists? Are you as cynical as I about their usefulness? Do you enjoy examining them anyway? Is there a title or two consistently overlooked you wish people would discover?

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