MOVIES: AFI — Another List, Another List of Misses

    Every year, the American Film Institute does a TV special focusing on some “best of” movie list — best films, best quotes, best heroes and villains, best songs.
  And every year, they (or the voters, whoever they are) manage to demonstrate their lack of imagination, film scholarship and/or taste.
  Alas, this year’s countdown, “AFI’s 10 Top 10” (which aired June 17), is no exception, overflowing with outrageous snubs and inexplicable picks.
  Let’s start with the 10 genres chosen — and wonder where the musicals went. No Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers? (Or Astaire and Cyd Charisse?) No Gene Kelly or Judy Garland or Julie Andrews? Where’s Busby Berkeley? Where’s Baz Luhrman? (And if you don’t recognize the latter name, remember “Moulin Rouge”!) Eliminating those all-singing, all-dancing extravaganzas eliminates a central chapter of Hollywood history.
  Also missing in action: adventure movies of all stripes, from swashbucklers (Errol Flynn as Robin Hood! Douglas Fairbanks and Tyrone Power as Zorro!) to exhilarating, death-defying quests (“Raiders of the Lost Ark,” “The African Queen,” “Only Angels Have Wings”).
  Where’s a category honoring the great horror movies, from “Nosferatu” to “Psycho,” with plenty of room left for “Frankenstein,” “Dracula,” “The Mummy” and “Night of the Living Dead,” to cite but a few favorites?
  A war movie category could have honored such AFI choices as “Saving Private Ryan,” “All Quiet on the Western Front” and “Bridge on the River Kwai” in a more logical category — and made room for classics from “They Were Expendable” to “Stalag 17” to “The Great Escape.”
  And by restricting the comedy category to “Romantic Comedies,” classic comedy figures — from Buster Keaton and Mae West to the Marx Brothers and Mel Brooks — get no shrift, let alone short shrift.
  But maybe AFI’s saving those categories for next year’s special.
  Here are some of the many ways this year’s special blew it, in virtually every category:
  ANIMATION — The first animated feature, “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” is a no-brainer #1 pick, but runner-up “Pinocchio” remains a far greater artistic achievement. I’d put #5 “Fantasia” and #7 “Beauty and the Beast” ahead of #3 “Bambi” and #4 “The Lion King,” but you can’t argue with the choices — or with “Toy Story” (#6), the non-Disney “Shrek” (#8) or “Finding Nemo” (#10). But “Cinderella” (#9) may be the weakest of Uncle Walt’s storybook features; I’d rather see such classics as “Dumbo,” “Sleeping Beauty” or “101 Dalmatians” — or one of Japanese master Hayao Miyazaki’s magical creations (“Spirited Away,” “Princess Mononoke”) on the list.
  ROMANTIC COMEDIES — Charlie Chaplin’s the greatest, but “City Lights” (#1) doesn’t exactly define the term “romantic comedy.” (Unlike #2 "Annie Hall,” #3 “It Happened One Night” (#3) and #5 “The Philadelphia Story." I’ve never much cared for “Roman Holiday” (#4) or “Adam’s Rib” (#7), but lots of people do, so let’s concentrate on some movies that far surpass such contemporary choices as “Moonstruck” and “Sleepless in Seattle.” (Get set to update your Netflix queue, folks!)
  For starters: director Ernst Lubitsch’s enchanting “The Shop Around the Corner,” with James Stewart and Margaret Sullavan as feuding shopclerks who don’t realize they’re pen-pal sweethearts. (It was musicialized with Judy Garland as “In the Good Old Summertime” and updated with Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan in “You’ve Got Mail,” but the original remains unsurpassed.)
  Also utterly enchanting: The Cary Grant-Katherine Hepburn pairings “Holiday,” (another comedy by “Philadelphia Story” playwright Philip Barry) and “Bringing Up Baby"; and the great Billy Wilder’s Oscar-winning 1960 classic “The Apartment,” with Shirley MacLaine and Jack Lemmon as unlikely, but inevitable, sweethearts.
  I could go on, but you get the idea …
  WESTERNS — No one could possibly dispute AFI’s top pick, John Ford’s magisterial “The Searchers.” And #2 “High Noon” is the Western for people who don’t like Westerns, so that’s inevitable. I personally would have moved #5 “Red River” and #6 “The Wild Bunch,” to the second and third slots, ahead of “Shane" and “Unforgiven,” but I can’t quarrel with either choice. “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” and “McCabe and Mrs. Miller” (#7 and #8) are such great movies their offbeat nature is easily overlooked and #9 seems too low a ranking for a landmark like “Stagecoach.”
  And then there’s #10: “Cat Ballou”? “CAT BALLOU”???!!! A likable but lightweight Western comedy that would be totally forgotten if not for Lee Marvin’s Oscar-winning dual role? What a travesty.
  If AFI wanted a Western comedy, how about James Stewart in “Destry Rides Again”? Or Mel Brooks’ “Blazing Saddles”? Even James Garner’s “Support Your Local Sheriff” would have been a better choice.
  Here are a few of the hundreds of Westerns that also are better than “Cat Ballou”: William S. Hart’s “Tumbleweeds” (oops, I forgot, silent movies almost never qualify for AFI lists), Sam Peckinpah’s elegiac “Ride the High Country” (with Joel McCrea and Randolph Scott as aging saddle pals riding off into the sunset), Gregory Peck as “The Gunfighter,” James Stewart in “Winchester ’73” (or “The Naked Spur” or “The Man From Laramie”), James Stewart and John Wayne in “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance,” John Wayne and Dean Martin in “Rio Bravo,” Clint Eastwood as “The Outlaw Josey Wales,” Gary Cooper as “Man of the West” or “The Plainsman” or “The Westerner” …
  SPORTS MOVIES — You could create an entire category devoted to great boxing movies, including such classics as “Body and Soul” (starring John Garfield), “Champion” (with Kirk Douglas), “The Set-Up” (starring Robert Ryan, a real-life college boxer) and Clint Eastwood’s Oscar-winning “Million Dollar Baby” (with Hilary Swank as the title puncher). But the #1 pick in this category, “Raging Bull,” is a no-brainer. (Hey, at least it wasn’t #2 “Rocky.”) Hard to argue with the next four: “Pride of the Yankees,” “Hoosiers,” “Bull Durham” and “The Hustler,” along with #8 “Breaking Away.” But what “Caddyshack” (#7), and “Jerry Maguire” (#10 — this would fit better in the romantic comedy category) are doing here is anybody’s guess.
  A couple of worthy alternatives: Best Picture Oscar-winner “Chariots of Fire” and the football drama “North Dallas Forty,” for starters.
  MYSTERY — You could divide this category into three or four (cop movies, detective movies, psychological thrillers) but you’d never come up with anything better than AFI’s #1 pick, Alfred Hitchcock’s “Vertigo.” I love almost every AFI pick in this category (“Chinatown,” “Rear Window,” “Laura,” “The Third Man,” “The Maltese Falcon,” “North by Northwest”), and while “Blue Velvet’s” a kinky choice, it’s a defensible one, as is “The Usual Suspects.”
  But, much as I adore Hitch “Dial M for Murder” (#9) is far from his best. Much better choices: such classics as “The 39 Steps,” “Notorious,” “Strangers on a Train,” “Shadow of a Doubt.”
They’re all better than “Dial M for Murder” — and so are non-Hitch winners from “The Big Sleep” to “L.A. Confidential."
  FANTASY — “Wizard of Oz” is another no-brainer #1, and while I  didn’t love the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy the way most of the world did, it’s an honorable runner-up. But would someone please explain to me how “It’s a Wonderful Life” (#3) is a fantasy? Granted, it has a fantasy sequence in it, but most of the movie is a bittersweet yet heartwarming comedy-drama of everyday life.
  Yes to “King Kong” (#4) and the magical “Thief of Bagdad” (#9) —and maybe to “Miracle on 34th Street,” “Field of Dreams,” “Harvey,” “Groundhog Day” and “Big,” all of which use fantasy elements but remain grounded in real life.
  How about “The Princess Bride”? Jean Cocteau’s magical live-action “Beauty and the Beast”? (Oops, too French.) Vittorio de Sica’s “Miracle in Milan”? (Too Italian.) Wim Wenders’ “Wings of Desire”? (Too German.) Guillermo del Toro’s “Pan’s Labyrinth”? (Spanish-language alert!) You get the idea.
  SCI-FI — The top two (“2001,” “Star Wars” (technically, “Episode IV — a New Hope”) can be argued back and forth endlessly. I’d put “Blade Runner” (#6), one of the most influential movies ever, above #4 “A Clockwork Orange” and #5 “The Day the Earth Stood Still,” but I’m gad they made room for “Alien” (which I prefer to the slam-bang sequel “Aliens”) and #9 “Invasion of the Body Snatchers.” But I think #3 “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial” and #10 “Back to the Future” would fit more comfortably in the fantasy category, leaving room for such contenders as “Metropolis” and “Solaris” (the Russian one, not the Steven Soderbergh-George Clooney one).
  GANGSTER — Again, this category crosses more than one genre, but at least it salutes such imperishable classics as “The Godfather” and “Godfather II” (#1 and #3, respectively), “Goodfellas” (#2), “White Heat” (#4) and “Bonnie and Clyde” (#5). Hooray for ranking the original 1932 “Scarface” (with Paul Muni) above the 1983 Al Pacino remake (#10). Nice that they also left room for James Cagney in “Public Enemy” (#8) and Edward G. Robinson as “Little Caesar” (#9), along with the eloquent lowlifes of “Pulp Fiction” (#7).
  But I can think of a few other contenders, from “The Departed” to “Once Upon a Time in America” to “Miller’s Crossing,” without even venturing into film noir or heist movie territory. Maybe AFI is saving those genres for next year’s show.
  COURTROOM DRAMA — Much as I love the #1 pick, “To Kill a Mockingbird,” describing it as a courtroom drama overlooks its unforgettable coming-of-age and father-child elements. Same goes for #3 “Kramer vs. Kramer.”
  Bravo, however, to AFI’s choices of “The Verdict” (#4), “Witness for the Prosecution” (#6) and “Anatomy of a Murder” (at #7, it should be much higher).
  But I can think of better movies than such picks as “A Few Good Men” (#5), “A Cry in the Dark” (Meryl Streep’s “the dingo ate my baby” movie, in at #9!) and “Judgment at Nuremberg” (#10 — not a fan of this heavy-handed, good-for-you Stanley Kramer production). Such as? “The Caine Mutiny” (with Humphrey Bogart), “Breaker Morant” (oops, too Australian — just like “A Cry in the Dark”), “Compulsion” and “Inherit the Wind.”
  EPIC — Can’t go wrong with “Lawrence of Arabia” at #1, although the silent version of #2 “Ben-Hur” is at least as impressive as its talkie counterpart with Charlton Heston. (Chuck’s back in the #10 “Ten Commandments,” another Cecil B. DeMille remake of a silent original.) “Gone With the Wind” and #5 “Spartacus” are automatics. It’s also nice to see “Reds” at #9, while #6 “Titanic” is inevitable, if (IMHO) unmemorable except for its spectacular climax.
  “Schindler’s List” (#3), “All Quiet on the Western Front” (#7 — a silent movie!) and “Saving Private Ryan” (#8) all would fit better in another category, but they’re all terrific movies, so I won’t complain — too much — except to wish there had been room for D.W. Griffith’s masterpiece “Intolerance,” David Lean’s “Dr. Zhivago” and “A Passage to India” and Bernardo Bertolucci’s “The Last Emperor,” to cite but a few.
  So ends this year’s AFI rant … and, as frustrated fans always say, wait ‘til next year!

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