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 ;-).
AFI defines “epic” as a genre of large-scale films set in a cinematic interpretation of the past.
- Lawrence of Arabia
- Schindler’s List
- Gone With The Wind
- All Quiet on the Western Front
- Saving Private Ryan
- The Ten Commandments
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.”
What would be yours?
Next Up: Courtroom Drama
The Complete Versus AFI: 10 Top 10 Series: