Looking back on it, I was, as I am sure were many other people, baffled by some of the movies that the American Film Institute (or AFI) chose to include on their lists of the 100 Best American-Made Movies. On the first list especially, precedent was infuriatingly given over to movies that were “important,” rather than movies that were “good.” This, of course, led to a baffling (and honestly somewhat embarrassing) number of movies that were hardly the “best” of anything, and very few of which we should want to use to project to the world what the benchmark of American films are.
But, to their infinite credit, the AFI amended their original list ten years later: switching out some of the more troublesome (not to mention lackluster) entries with fresh ones and allowing for more recent movies to be considered (although the most contemporaneous movie that they included was 2001’s The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring). And now, ten years after that, it’s time for the presumed third instalment of the list, leading many (myself included) to speculate about what movies will get in and, maybe even more importantly, what movies get the boot.
Intolerance: Love’s Struggles Throughout the Ages (1916)
Perhaps the most infuriating movie on the original AFI list was D.W. Griffith’s infamously racist The Birth of a Nation (1915) which depicted the South’s Black population as violent savages and lionized the KKK as champions of law and order. This movie was replaced a decade later with Intolerance: a movie of the same epic scope, but with a decidedly different message (as evidenced by its more flowery title). The problem is that early feature-length movies like Intolerance simply lack the technical prowess and advanced cinematic language that would be perfected by the 1920s (and again by the 1940s). And for as much as I love Hollywood’s nascent silent era, all of its best films come much later: such as the also-listed The Gold Rush (1925), Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927), The General (1927), City Lights (1931) and Modern Times (1936). Either a superior silent feature, such as the tragically overlooked Safety Last! (1923), or simply one of the innumerably excellent talkies that replaced it (particularly one of those from the last two decades) would be a much worthier inclusion.
Gone with the Wind (1939)
It’s easy to understand why this movie made it into the AFI list (particularly the first one): it’s a seminally popular, epically scoped, technically immaculate production that, at times throughout its prodigious runtime, is among the most memorable footage ever committed to film. The problem that, being a product of its time, it is a monstrously racist and historically revisionist film that depicts slavish Black slaves (and, later, servants) as being ingratiated to and even dependent upon their White masters / employers. And while that alone should be enough to replace it with any number of less backwards-headed inclusions, its second half devolves into an insufferable melodrama rife with a venomously revised depiction of history and naked domestic violence. It’s high time that we leave this relic in the past where it belongs. If the AFI is eager to show antebellum South this much, than movies like 12 Years a Slave – which actually show the horrors inflicted on those in bondage – are a far better and more responsible way to go.
Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942)
Ever since the pictures first talked in The Jazz Singer, American audiences have been fascinated with musicals: bombastic vocal blow-outs, choreographed danced numbers and larger than life sequences of every color and stripe. Perhaps the only genre that was more prolific in its heyday was the Western, but certainly not for lack of trying. And, being as popular as it was, it’s understandable that so many of them snuck their way onto the AFI’s previous lists. That being said, however, it’s quite frankly baffling that this particular musical somehow made the cut: between its slavish patriotism, underwhelming music sequences and saccharine narrative, it can hardly measure up to any number of far better movies that somehow got left off of the list. If another musical is absolutely needed, the far more investing Chicago (2002) seems a fitting substitution for it.
The African Queen (1951)
This is another example of a movie that was included more for being the first to do something rather than being the best at it. It was the first sprawling, adventure film in the age of color: bustled along by its likeable leading man and lady and entrenched in a warmly patriotic narrative. The problem is that everything about its two leads is absolutely insufferable, leading to an uncomfortable and, quite frankly, boring slog of an up-river cruise. There are plenty of other Bogart and Hepburn vehicles already on the list, so giving it over to a new set of mismatched A-listers bonding over the course of a protracting voyage, such as Mad Max: Fury Road (2015), would be a far better choice than persisting with this film.
While I can’t argue that Spartacus is a legitimately great movie in its own right, it’s yet another example of a movie included more for historical circumstance than for the content of narrative. Due to the public accreditation of black-listed scribe Dalton Trumbo, this movie – or, more accurately, this movie’s unparalleled popularity – effectively ended the reprehensible Hollywood Blacklist. But, taken on its own merits, it’s merely a really good version of exactly the kind of epic-scaled movie that is already better-represented in Ben-Hur (1959) and Lawrence of Arabia (1962). Its removal would leave room for more modern takes on the swords-and-sandals subject matter, such as the more entertaining Gladiator (2000) or more modern-set sprawling narratives, such as Boyhood (2014).