Still more lazy thoughts from this one…

Versus AFI: 10 Top 10 – Mystery

Previous: Fantasy

This is the continuation of a series I began in January of this year that examines and remarks on The American Film Institute and its recent propensity to create Top 10 lists. Specifically, the organization’s need to gather publicity by documenting their celebration of cinema’s centennial via a series of TV specials. Each time, the AFI went about giving importance to a set of motion pictures based on criteria and judgments their groups of ‘experts’ determined. It has generated opinions among fans and film aficionados ever since in varying degrees of disagreement. If you’re unaware, the AFI is a non-profit organization created by the National Endowment for the Arts back in the 60s. One of its main charters is the preservation of American film legacy. As they put it,

“Each special honors a different aspect of excellence in American film.”

Unquestionably, their prime purpose was to get people talking about film. So be it. This series on AFI’s Top 10s (out of their 100s lists) for 2012 is my motivated response to compare their picks with a moviegoer (me) per each of their indexes. Naturally, I’m fully aware that readers’ mileage may vary (indeed, we know they will) when it comes to these selections. Fair enough. Either way, it’s going to be painful as picking one above the other always is in such endeavors. You’re invited to add your own and/or disagree all you want in the comments or your blog site (all I ask is that you leave a link so we, the readers, can peruse). Shall we continue?


AFI defines “mystery” as a genre that revolves around the solution of a crime.

  1. Vertigo
  2. Chinatown
  3. Rear Window
  4. Laura
  5. The Third Man
  6. The Maltese Falcon
  7. North by Northwest
  8. Blue Velvet
  9. Dial M For Murder
  10. The Usual Suspects

My list:
  1. Chinatown [AFI #2] – there was no way this wasn’t going to top my genre list. It’s simultaneously my topmost ‘L.A.’ and mystery/noir film. Everything works for and in the motion picture: Robert Towne’s story, cast, Roman Polanski’s best direction, Jerry Goldsmith’s haunting score, and John A. Alonso’s color cinematography that comes off like a shadow-filled black & white film. I re-watched this every year.
  2. Memento – the film that put Christopher Nolan on the map as a filmmaker remains an exceptional work and under appreciated, IMO. The film reveals itself on two separate timelines (one told in reverse). Even after the first scene, which gives away the final outcome, the story prevails as a mystery. This unique tale of man trying to find the murderer of his wife is something to behold.
  3. Vertigo [AFI #1] – just because I have two films ahead of it, doesn’t mean this isn’t my top Alfred Hitchcock film. It is. This is the master director’s masterwork in this particular genre. It is Hitchcock’s most complex and emotional film in his canon. There is nothing in this film that falls short, especially the performances of its tragic leads (James Stewart and Kim Novak).
  4. The Big Sleep - Howard Hawks helped to turn Humphrey Bogart into a matinée idol with this motion picture, no doubt helped by mannerisms still known today by the multitude of Bogie fans. As well, he only cemented his mainstay Hawksian Woman tradition with another Lauren Bacall performance tailored for the screen.
  5. The Maltese Falcon [AFI #6] - John Huston’s début film has demonstrated in over 70 years time why it has remained popular among movie and mystery fans alike. The Dashiell Hammett story adaptation remains the yardstick all other detective films are measured against.
  6. North by Northwest [AFI #7] – my one better pick is easily the most enjoyable and entertaining Hitchcock film among all the British filmmaker’s mysteries (#3 included). Plus, it has what I believe is the master’s best leading man in his filmography, the inimitable Cary Grant, in one of his best known roles.
  7. The Third Man [AFI #5] – no disrespect intended to Carol Reed’s superb post-war mystery-thriller having the film lower on my list. This remains one of the most influential and stylishly shot black & white movies, clearly. Plus, it contains one of the all-time best film entrances ever on celluloid, which can only be Orson Welles initial appearance as Harry Lime.
  8. L.A. Confidential - director Curtis Hansom and writer Brian Helgeland accomplished something next to impossible: adapt James Ellroy’s epic noir novel successfully to the screen. Enough so that the book’s description still applies: A horrific mass murder invades the lives of victims and victimizers on both sides of the law. On second-thought, it was 1997′s Best Picture.
  9. The Prestige - I’m going to make sure Christopher Nolan’s criminally ignored mystery, one involving dueling 19th century magicians, get the praise it deserves. Again, this film uses non-linear storytelling to a great end, and gives ample opportunity for Christian Bale and Hugh Jackson to play both villain and hero, as well as victim and victimizer.
  10. Se7en - the motion picture that really put David Fincher on my radar was this one (let’s agree to ignore Alien³, shall we?). You couldn’t help but notice his talent in this very dark and noirish film about a serial killer inspired by Dante Alighieri’s seven deadly sins. Without question, he changes the lives of all involved. It certainly is one of those films that scars.

Note: I was kind of surprised to have had a harder time with this category that I expected. Some on AFI’s list I merely re-ordered, while others I dropped out of my top ten (most, with a couple of exceptions, would only be relegated to the next tier down). I certainly enjoy Alfred Hitchcock’s films, and two remain well represented on my list. But, Rear Window and Dial M For Murder, enjoyable as they are, clearly don’t rank as high for me as those I’ve replaced them with. Laura, a great noir film, falls just outside of this ranked inventory, and no disrespect was intended in my lowering of it (and it’d probably be my #11).

It could be just me, however I never really regarded David Lynch’s surreal Blue Velvet as a mystery, at least in the same sense as the others here. Perhaps it does, but I certainly wouldn’t have it in my top twenty for this particular genre. Of course, this leaves me to explain my drop of The Usual Suspects. Bryan Singer’s meticulously scripted whodunit remains a fun romp of a film. No question. Still, I find Fincher’s competing motion picture, Se7en (out that very same year as Singer’s), as the darker and more influential work. Plus, Fincher’s film doesn’t out-and-out lie to the audience as Singer’s The Usual Suspects clearly did ;-).

“Elementary, my dear Watson.”

[Yes, you've caught me as I've obviously loaded my list with a number of films (four) based in Los Angeles; five if you count Se7en since most of it was filmed right here.]

What would be yours?

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The Complete Versus AFI: 10 Top 10 Series:

33 Responses to “Versus AFI: 10 Top 10 – Mystery”

  1. Colin

    I don’t know if I’d change much about that list, it’s not far off in my opinion. Like yourself though, I would question the inclusion of Blue Velvet on a list of top ten mysteries. I’d lose it in favour of something by De Plama – Dressed to Kill.

    Of your choices, Memento is a good pick – I reckon I might just take it in place of The Usual Suspects.

    • le0pard13

      Ooh, ‘Dressed to Kill’. Excellent selection, Colin. Always great to have you chime in on these, my friend. Many thanks.

  2. ruth

    Yay, I actually have seen half of them from your list and agreed they all should be included :D I really want to see Vertigo and The Maltese Falcon, those are two on my classics to-watch list. Great stuff once again, Michael.

    • le0pard13

      Yes, definitely catch up with ‘Vertigo’ and ‘The Maltese Falcon’, Ruth. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed. Many thanks.

  3. Arlee Bird

    Both lists are excellent. All Lynch films are mysteries, but as you say not it the traditional sense AFI is defining. Lynch is one of my favorite directors but probably needs to fit into another category entirely, along with Polanski and Fellini.

    One of my favorites that I might have included is Kiss Me Deadly–another L.A. based film.

    An A to Z Co-Host
    Tossing It Out

    • le0pard13

      Always good to hear from you, Arlee. And bringing ‘Kiss Me Deadly’, a fantastic Robert Aldrich film, into this is awesome. Many thanks, my friend.

  4. John DuMond

    I wouldn’t sweat loading your list with LA-based films, as a large number of films take place in LA. Actually, AFI shows its own bias by going heavy on the Hitchcock (4 of his films). Not that I’m complaining, as I’m a huge Hitchcock fan (NxNW being my all-time favorite). THE BIG SLEEP was a definite oversight on the AFI list, one you apparently agreed with. :)

    • le0pard13

      With ‘North by Northwest’ and ‘The Big Sleep’ as genre favorites, and the other things you mention, we’re definitely simpatico, John. Thank you very much, my friend.

  5. Pete

    I’m a sucker for the modern ones so I think your list is much more to my taste than AFI’s. Definitely would have Memento and Seven near the top of my own list! Both great lists and reminded me of a few classics I still need to catch; Maltese Falcon being a priority!

    • le0pard13

      Welcome, Pete. And I’d love to hear your thoughts on ‘The Maltese Falcon’ when you see it. Many thanks.

  6. MovieGeek

    What a great list!!! It is was up to me I would just fill it up with films by Hitchcock… but that’s just me. I just love Rear Window!!!! It’s one of my ultimate favourite films… probably even more than Vertigo.
    It feels kinda strange to find Memento and Seven under the same category. Not sure I would call Seven a mystery film… but hey.. I love it, so I’m happy to see it anywhere!
    I would also put the Sixth Sense somewhere in there I think…
    And how about Inception: can we call that a mystery?

    … and finally a bit of a guilty pleasure: I know it’s silly, but I just love “the Game”.

    • le0pard13

      ‘Rear Window’ is a wonderful film, alright, and you can’t go wrong with James Stewart and Grace Kelly. Yeah, I think you could categorize ‘Inception’ as a mystery. I remain a fan of ‘The Sixth Sense’ and Fincher’s ‘The Game’, too. Great picks, MG. Thanks for reading and adding to this, MG.

  7. janderoo92

    I like your list better! I’d probably have Laura and Usual Suspects vying for 11 spot. Must put the Prestige on my list. Thanks for the recommendation.

      • janderoo92

        Will do. My last post was called “To Live and Lunch in LA” incidentally. No disrespect to Mr. Friedkin. I enjoy revisiting Los Angeles through your time and a place and a theater movie series too.

    • le0pard13

      It’s a great one, Scott. I’m lucky in that the recent re-screenings of ‘Chinatown’ for the last two years have been in packed revival theaters. We really embrace the film here in Los Angeles. Many thanks, my friend.

  8. Eric

    I must say I am surprised to see Blue Velvet make AFI’s top ten. Both sides are quite good overall, and I am especially happy to see L.A. Confidential and The Prestige make appearances on your list. I will never forget the endings of either film. Wow.

    • le0pard13

      Yep, I couldn’t put this one together without L.A. Confidential and The Prestige. That’s for sure. Thanks, Eric.

  9. Novroz

    I like your list better, Mike :)
    You put three of my favorite movies there, se7en (I don’t really like Pitt but this movie beat my dislike on him), memento is amazing and The Prestige….I love Nolan! I think he should make more movies like that and stop making superhero movies.


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