Still more lazy thoughts from this one…

Versus AFI: 10 Top 10 – Epics

Without a doubt, The American Film Institute has the gift for generating opinions among fans and film aficionados. 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. That, and running its own graduate film school located here in Los Angeles (which has developed a number of notable graduates in the form of filmmakers like Terrence Mallick, David Lynch, Darren Aronofsky, Bill Duke and others). They also give out the AFI Life Achievement Award annually. Notable stuff, indeed.

However, if there’s one thing that has created a niche for them, literally put them onto the air waves and into moviegoers heads (in good and bad ways), it is their fairly recent propensity to create lists. The organization stirred talk around various water-coolers (which has since migrated to the web) when they decided to document their celebration of cinema’s centennial via a series of TV specials. Each time, the AFI went about to give importance to a set of motion pictures based on criteria and judgments their groups of ‘experts’ determined, which they then publicized on television. I still find this ironic since the TV medium traditionally represented film’s competition (and still does). No matter. As they put it,

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

Needless to say, each of these has also generated their own discussion, if not downright vehement disagreement among the movie-going public, on what film truly deserved a Top 10, or 100… whatever, placement on the various categories the AFI centered on, beginning back in 1998. Unquestionably, this was their prime purpose — to get people talking about film. So be it. As I’ve done in various forums since they started this fight conversation, I decided to do a series on AFI’s Top 10s (out of their 100s lists) for 2012, the purpose of which is 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. You’re invited to add your own 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). I’ll kick this off by taking on their 10 Top 10, which examines “America’s 10 Greatest Films in 10 Classic Genres“. Whew. So glad I decided to start small ;-).

Epic

AFI defines “epic” as a genre of large-scale films set in a cinematic interpretation of the past.

  1. Lawrence of Arabia
  2. Ben-Hur
  3. Schindler’s List
  4. Gone With The Wind
  5. Spartacus
  6. Titanic
  7. All Quiet on the Western Front
  8. Saving Private Ryan
  9. Reds
  10. The Ten Commandments
My list:
  1. Lawrence of Arabia [AFI #1] – not great for the discussion that I’m agreeing with the AFI right off the bat, but how can I not with this one. It remains the one I recommend to anyone who has not seen it; and the one to catch whenever the film arrives at some revival theatre. Especially, in the dark and with the movie hall filled to capacity. You won’t regret it.
  2. Ben-Hur [AFI #2] Let’s just say ditto to the above with William Wyler’s grand classic. Plus, this one has one of the all-time cinematic best action sequences ever put on celluloid. Period. Its chariot race has never been equalled in live action, IMO. To say it’s one ‘biblical comeuppance’ actually shortchanges it.
  3. El Cid – director Anthony Mann’s truly underrated, rousing, surprisingly thoughtful epic is one the AFI missed, big-time. Though Charlton Heston is in three movies on my list, I urge those who enjoy this icon of the epic, especially when he’s ‘Heston being Heston’ at his utmost, and not miss this one (like the AFI did). As with a few here, it accords on film a country’s hero. In this case, Spain’s Rodrigo Díaz de Vivar.
  4. Spartacus  [AFI #5] – I move this film up where AFI has it. Outside of Paths of Glory, this is the other Stanley Kubrick and Kirk Douglas collaboration that simply shouldn’t be missed. In many ways, this represented both filmmakers at their best and worst. It’s climatic scene, “I am Spartacus!”, never fails to move me.
  5. Schindler’s List [AFI #3] Steven Spielberg’s Holocaust epic is a moving, heart-rending must see. Arguably, it is the filmmaker’s greatest work. Plus, I’d note it represents actor Liam Neeson’s greatest film performance (this was my Oscar pick that year, but The Academy choose different, the sods). I just have it a little lower compared to AFI’s list.
  6. Titanic [AFI #6] at first, I was surprised to find this film here, and this high. But, on later reflection, and after taking it in again without the hype and box office/director-driven recoil, yeah… I’d keep the film where the AFI has it at. Go figure.
  7. Gladiator – and certainly if the above makes the list (with its mix of old and new filmmaking), then I have to include Ridley Scott’s first large-scale film of the epic past. A different retelling of Anthony Mann’s The Fall of the Roman Empire, with a more compelling lead, it was the first of his collaborations with Russell Crowe. I still think it’s the best of that set of pairings.
  8. The Last Emperor – in my mind, Bernardo Bertolucci’s absolutely gorgeous, mesmerizing historical saga, the intriguing account of the last of China’s emperors, Pu Yi, got short shrift from the AFI and the frakking Academy (especially for ignoring the contributions of actors John Lone and Joan Chen). It remains historically spellbinding, I believe.
  9. Braveheart – what can I say? You know I’m a guy with this pick. However, Mel Gibson’s epic is nothing short of stirring, and yes it is brutal, in this genre’s best sense. It is nothing short of grand scale, but still personal in its telling of Scotland’s greatest hero, William Wallace — even if Scottish crime writer Russel McLean (a great writer he) goes out of his way to rail on Mel’s accent and storytelling in this. It still works for me.
  10. The Ten Commandments [AFI #10] – the word colossal comes to mind with this one… overblown and maybe overwrought may also fit. Yet, I’ll have to give Cecil B. DeMille’s biblical epoch the same slot as the AFI. It just might be the widescreen forefather of all those past and contemporary heroic blockbusters listed above. Undoubtably, it’s the most kitschy film on the list, but that is a major part of its epic charm. “Oh, Moses, Moses.”
Note: yeah, I dropped a few from AFI’s Top Ten list on mine. While Gone With The Wind is the granddaddy of them, it’s lost some with me over time and thus doesn’t make my top bracket for this category. All Quiet on the Western Front and Reds are deserving, remarkable films, but are just lower down on my list only because I enjoy the others more. Is it only me, but isn’t Saving Private Ryan mis-categorized here? It is one of my all-time favorite ‘War’ films, but the AFI doesn’t seem to recognize that genre… at least, for the moment.

What would be yours?

Next Up: Courtroom Drama

The Complete Versus AFI: 10 Top 10 Series:

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89 Responses to “Versus AFI: 10 Top 10 – Epics”

  1. Ronan

    Love your list Michael, you really can’t beat a good epic can you? There just, wel, epic I suppose. I’ve seen everyone of your list except Ben Hur (I know, call myself a film love right?) and El Cid, which I actually have never even heard of! I’ll leave a longer comment later, when I’m not on my lunch at work, with my own selections 🙂 Thanks for another great post Michael. List seem to be in vogue this month 😉

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    • le0pard13

      Thank you for taking the time while at work, Ronan. Not seen ‘Ben-Hur’ yet? Hmm… We may have to place you on Epic Probation, my friend (close to but not quite Double Secret Probation, mind you) ;-). Looking forward to your list on this.

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  2. ponchopadilla

    I think I like your list better than the one by the AFI. And I’m quite glad (but not surprised as I know you for a connoseur) you’ve seen and enjoyed “El Cid”. It’s quite an obscure gem, even though it’s -as you said- “Heston being Heston”.

    But I would dump “Titanic” for “The Great Escape”… just don’t ask me in which order.

    Great list, cousin. I’m looking forward to the follow-ups.

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    • Ronan

      Dump Titanic!?! Never! Titanic is a classic epic, well deserving of its place on any list of epics. Without Titanic, it just isn’t quite so epic.

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    • le0pard13

      You know I’m glad to hear you’re another ‘El Cid’ fan, cousin :-). You nailed it as an ‘obscure gem’, alright. For the longest time, it never had a Region 1 release on disc (I used to have the old two cassette VHS). The 2008 DVD by Miriam fixed that, but where’s the Blu-ray? I’m hoping they given it a BD treatment like the recent one for ‘Ben-Hur’. It deserves certainly it.

      Y’know, I’ve come full circle with ‘Titanic’. Loved it when first released, stayed away from it purposely when first put on disc due to overexposure and ‘Titanic’ fatigue, and re-discovered what I enjoyed initially from a pair of reviews: William Johnson‘s from Dec 2010 (which is no longer online) and John Kenneth Muir’s cult review from his Cameron Curriculum series last summer.

      Great comment, Poncho. Hope to hear from you more as we go through each AFI list. Many thanks.

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      • Ronan

        Ok, my list. In no particular order.

        10. Titanic
        9. Lawrence of Arabia
        8. LOTR trilogy
        7. STAR WARS triligy
        6. The Godfather trilogy
        5. Indiana Jones trilogy
        4. 2001: A Space Odyssey
        3. Gladiator
        2. Schindler’s List
        1. Saving Private Ryan

        Some of these will no doubt be regurgitatef for future lists but hey, that’s movies for ya!

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      • Ronan

        Glad to hear you’re doing each list. That’ll be fun! You’re having some great post ideas here Michael. If you weren’t such a good friend I might be tempted to “borrow” a few 😉

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    • le0pard13

      I see your point, Novroz. LotR does have that epic scale. But, I agree with Poncho that it falls into the Fantasy genre. Don’t worry, AFI has a list for that ;-). Thanks for the comment, my friend.

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  3. headbrass

    I love how these lists stir up debate. I have never seen Lawrence of Arabia. I am a film junky since I was little. What I have a hard time doing, is sitting down to watch these classic films with the right mind set. It’s not fair to the film if I watch The Matrix right before Ben-Hur. You need the situation to be ideal to experience these films the way they deserve to be, if that makes sense. Sometimes I get lazy and just put in the new blockbuster so I don’t have to think.
    I love your list with the incorporation of a few newer films. I think it’s mind numbing when these lists exclude new films.

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    • Ronan

      I know what you mean Head, sometimes I wonder if I shouldn’t be watching this or that profound and important epic, instead of Demolition Man or Die hard with a Vengeance! But to be honest Head, I did all my ‘box-check’ movie watching at Uni. Here’s a riddle for you? Why do we movie fans seem to feel guilty about watching unashamedly entertaining movies and get all hung up on watching movies that will ‘Speak to us’. Don’t get me wrong, The Tree of Life was the film I was most glad I saw last year. But if I had to choose one to watch again, it wouldn’t be that. Most likely it would be something entertaining AND thought provoking. Source Code for example, a rare instance of style and substance being equally matched in a film that was both entertaining AND thought-provoking. Getting the balance is the trick. Some of the old school epics are EPIC but not always that fun to watch. There is something to be said for entertainment for its own sake (as well as entertainment designed to lift our hearts and challenge our minds). Pure entertainment is an art in itself and shouldn’t be taken for granted.
      Cheers, R.

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      • le0pard13

        HB’s point does strike a chord, alright. I’m all about guilt-free movie enjoyment. Be it the action pair you mention, a Mallick film (‘Tree of Life’ is in my current stack to catch up with), discovering the sheer thoughtful pleasure of something like ‘Source Code’.

        “Pure entertainment is an art in itself and shouldn’t be taken for granted.”

        Well said, Ronan.

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    • le0pard13

      Welcome and glad to have you join in on this, HB. Excellent point. Given the historical nature of ‘The Epic’ (I pretty much agree with AFI’s definition… surprisingly) it does take some commitment (your “mind set” term is spot-on to this). Still, I very much understand your need, as someone who has followed film for a long time, to enjoy a blockbuster for the sheer thrill of it. Thanks for the comment and the kind words about my list — I think there is a lot to appreciate in the classic and modern version of ‘The Epic’.

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  4. Steve Langton

    Good, solid list, Michael. Great to see The Last Emperor in there. Lucky enough to catch it on the big screen, and the experience has never left me.

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    • le0pard13

      Steve! Great to hear from, man. Many thanks and great to have another onboard who remembers fondly ‘The Last Emperor’. Seeing that one on the big screen was certainly memorable, alright. I hope you’re doing well, my friend.

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  5. Herbster

    I can’t even agree on the definition of epic. Here is mine. Has to be at least 3 hours long. Should have an intermission. The story has to span years, the more the better. Must have a cast of thousands. Horses were mutilated in the making. Cannot star Warren Beaty.

    What! No Dr Zhivago! Shocking. Where the heck is Cleopatra? Gee Whiz!

    Ok I may have disqualified my own list.

    Lawrence
    Gone with the Wind
    Cleopatra
    Spartacus
    Dr Zhivago
    How the West was Won
    Ben Hur
    Bridge Over River Kwai
    Gladiator
    The Longest Day.

    Desperate to make ten. Too much pressure. LOL

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    • Ronan

      Nice list there Herb, I’m not even sure I could list five. Well, maybe five. But ten would be a stretch. Tell me Herb, how often would you say you watch those on your list? Epics and repeatability seem to me generally to be mutually exclusive. Cheers. Except Titanic. I could watch DiCaprio sink all day! 🙂

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      • le0pard13

        Yeah, given the scope and length of Epics in general, they’re not necessarily high on the ‘let’s start that one over again… right now” class. Maybe ‘Gladiator’ for me — I can watch Russell fight the gladiator and tigers in the Colosseum and stab Joaquin Phoenix endlessly ;-). Thanks, Ronan.

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      • Herbster

        Ronan you are correct sir, repeats are few. Lawrence gets the most, every two years. I own 8 out of the ten I mentioned -LDay and River Kw. Always hard to commit time and get others that are willing. All of these movies are pre-Netflix.

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    • le0pard13

      Herb, you never fail to have the most entertaining of comments, my friend. Great list. ‘Dr. Zhivago’ is a good one. ‘How the West was Won’ is a western, but I see you point on how it also could be considered in the Epic category. ‘The Longest Day’ is a grand War movie with an all-star cast. Glad you could join in with this one (and hope you make the others to come). Many thanks.

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  6. Max

    When I tried to watch Reds I found it incredibly boring. I can’t say that for any of the other films. I’m excited that Aronofsky is going to be making an epic in ‘Noah’. It’s about time we had a new one.

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    • le0pard13

      Glad to see you back, Max. I see your point about ‘Reds’. That one take a commitment, alright, and the material for that period of history is one you have to have an interest in. I didn’t know Aronofsky was making ‘Noah’. Love his work. I look forward to that one. Thanks for the comment and read, my friend.

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  7. Nostra

    Have seen most of them and they are great choices. I don’t think I would be able to create such a list about epic movies without doing a proper search on which ones would be considered epic.

    Recently saw this great documentary, These Amazing Shadows, about the institute and if you are a movielover you probably will enjoy watching it. It has a lot of people talking passionetely about movies mixed with images of some of the greatest movies ever made.

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    • le0pard13

      Excellent point and consideration, Nostra. You don’t see the number of ‘epics’ as you once did decades ago. Certainly, for the ones that are contemporary, CGI is deployed more and more often for ‘large’ scenes. The days of a ‘cast of thousands’ are long gone. Thanks for the comment and the recommendation for ‘These Amazing Shadows’ documentary. I will definitely check this out.

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  8. rtm

    Wow, what a great post Michael, sorry I’m late to the discussion. Apart from Spartacus (sorry but I didn’t like this film at all) and El Cid (haven’t seen it yet) I agree with most of your list. Yay for Ben-Hur and Gladiator… I don’t know what my top 10 would be but I probably would swap Spartacus with Gone With The Wind as I still appreciate that one now and it’s one of the first ever classic Hollywood films I’ve ever seen. Oh I actually have not seen Lawrence of Arabia in its entirety, I have to rectify that situation soon 🙂

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    • le0pard13

      Very kind of you to say, Ruth. So glad you could add to this look at the epic. What I appreciate with these lists is the difference of opinion for moviegoers. GWTW for ‘Spartacus’ is fair and I recognize why that is for you. I love that. Speaking about ‘Lawrence of Arabia’… come back tomorrow for more ;-). Thanks so much for your thoughts and spreading the word, my friend.

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      • ruth

        I really wanted to like Spartacus and as you know I love swords & sandals epic (Ben-Hur & Gladiator being my all time faves after all). But I guess I just didn’t like Kirk Douglas’ performance at all and the whole film just didn’t engage me, not even the lovely Jean Simmons could keep me interested. Sorry Michael, I know you have plenty of company who love that film… what do I know right? 😉

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        • le0pard13

          Wasn’t Jean Simmons lovely in this? And two years after her ‘The Big Country’ stint. And I always appreciate your views, Ruth. Thanks.

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  9. Castor

    Both great lists! I haven’t seen either Ben-Hur or Lawrence of Arabia but I definitely get on those since they are topping both the AFI’s and your list 😀 Glad that you mention Gladiator in yours, it’s a movie I just never get tired of watching. I do respect the AFI for having Saving Private Ryan in there as well as Gone with the Wind.

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    • le0pard13

      Great to have you join in on this, Castor. So glad, too, we have a film in common, ‘Gladiator’, when it comes to the epic. Ridley Scott really does have a way with the genre and he first proved it here with that film. I never tire of it, either. If you can, watch ‘Ben-Hur’ and ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ as they were meant to be see… on the big screen. You’ll get the most bang for the buck there with these. They’re still worth seeing if you can’t make a venue, though. Thanks for the wonderful comment.

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  10. Colin

    Personally, I would definitely strip out Titanic and Reds and replace them with two Anthony Mann movies: El Cid and, for its sheer visual spectacle, The Fall of the Roman Empire.

    I wouldn’t have Saving Private Ryan there either. If I was to include a war movie to replace it then I might have Attenborough’s A Bridge Too Far – it may have its faults but it’s big, noisy, emotive and there’s no CGI in sight. Failing that, Zulu.

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    • le0pard13

      Great additions and thoughts, Colin. We’re both very familiar with the great Anthony Mann, and those are two of his finest, alright. Perfect for this. So glad you’ve mentioned ‘A Bridge Too Far’, as well. I very much agree with your opinion of the piece. Flawed, but what scale, cast, and story, that one. Thanks so much for joining in on this, my friend.

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  11. The Sci-Fi Fanatic

    Okay, nice entry Michael!

    Based on the criteria, would Apocalypto apply? If so, I’ll give you ten that I’ve really enjoyed.

    1. Apocalypto
    2. Braveheart [great selection L13!]
    3. We Were Soldiers
    4. Roland Joffe’s The Mission
    5. Saving Private Ryan
    6. Lonesome Dove
    7. The Passion Of The Christ
    8. Thin Red Line
    9. The Patriot
    10. Band Of Brothers
    11. Black Hawk Down

    I think you may be right about the categorization of war films here, but it is a cinematic interpretation of the past on a sweeping grand scale, which is why I was willing to include others. Whether they qualify or not I’m not sure. Some of mine may be borderline but they certainly have epic moments. It’s safe to say I love Mel Gibson films.

    I will say these are films I love and I’ve seen them a number of times and will continue to watch them again.

    Great post!
    sff

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    • le0pard13

      Wow, what a list yourself, SFF! Great contribution to the thread. I really wish the AFI would add a War Film category. Many here would make it there and in this. Good call on Joffe’s ‘The Mission’. I need to see that one again, I think. And Mel Gibson, whether film fans like him or not, has put together a number of notable pieces together as a filmmaker. Thanks very much for your list and adding your thoughts to this discussion, my friend.

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  12. Matt Stewart

    Yeah, I do like your list better! Especially with the inclusion of Braveheart. Their definition of epic is not exactly what I would think of when I hear the word, but still.

    Thanks for sharing!

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    • le0pard13

      Very kind of you to say, Matt. Yes, I had to include ‘Braveheart in this category. It certainly met their own definition. Thanks, Matt.

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  13. Rachel

    I’m late to the discussion and I don’t have a list … just going to make a petty gripe (hee!): Braveheart would probably top my list and I’m a GAL so you just can’t ever make those assumptions. 😉

    Gladiator = Titanic to me so I agree that if you have one you need the other. However, I would have neither. (I’m so contrary!)

    Have Ben-hur comment but I see another post on it so am moving on to that one…

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    • le0pard13

      Always good to have you here, Rachel. My bad for not thinking you’d enjoy ‘Braveheart’ as much as I. I stand corrected :-).

      Ha! No ‘Gladiator’ or ‘Titanic’? All I can say to that is:

      “My name is Gladiator.” and “I’m the king of the world!” 😉

      Still, I’m all for the contrary. It’s why I started this series on the AFI lists ;-). Thanks, Rachel.

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    • le0pard13

      I certainly recommend those on AFI’s list, and of course, my own ;-). Let me know what you think, my friend. Thanks for reading and commenting.

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  14. Tyler

    I think Gone with the Wind should stay on the list, it is an awesome epic.
    1.Lawrence
    2.Ben Hur
    3.Gone with the Wind
    4.Schindler’s List
    5.Spartacus
    6.El Cid
    7.Braveheart
    8.The Ten Commandments
    9.Titanic
    10.Reds

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    • le0pard13

      Welcome, Tyler, and great to have you join in on this. I certainly can understand why GWTW, and ‘Reds’, would make it on to such a list. Well done and thanks.

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  15. TMT: Whoa | It Rains… You Get Wet

    […] in a Theatre… a Movie… and a Time, a series that was begun here. Since the beginning of my Versus AFI: 10 Top 10 arc, with the Epics category, I saw a natural connection with this line of posts. So for the last few […]

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