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 “courtroom drama” as a genre of film in which a system of justice plays a critical role in the film’s narrative.
- To Kill A Mockingbird
- 12 Angry Men
- Kramer vs. Kramer
- The Verdict
- A Few Good Men
- Witness For The Prosecution
- Anatomy Of A Murder
- In Cold Blood
- A Cry In The Dark
- Judgment at Nuremberg
- To Kill A Mockingbird [AFI #1] – yeah, I’m two lists into this series and I’m in agreement with the vaunted AFI’s #1 in each. So? But really, there’s no way I can topple this one in my eyes. Harper Lee’s masterwork was splendidly adapted by Horton Foote, remains the best film in director Robert Mulligan’s career, and endures as a moving, thoughtful film experience. While it may be regarded as simple compared to other courtroom dramas with its morality and inequity on display, it prevails as a testament to the genre and the meaning of justice.
- The Verdict [AFI #4] – I’m going with one of director Sidney Lumet’s other courtroom dramas that is not the obvious choice as my close second. Paul Newman’s alcoholic and down-on-his-luck Frank Galvin is miles removed from Gregory Peck’s Atticus Finch, but he equally binds the story in real and meaningful ways. IMO, this is Newman’s best performance (rewarded or otherwise). Plus, both he and Lumet benefited from a searing script by David Mamet (adapted from Barry Reed’s novel).
- 12 Angry Men [AFI # 2] – this is one of the greatest directorial début efforts in cinema, I think. Sidney Lumet couldn’t asked for a better inception, or leading man (Henry Fonda). Though highly stage-bound with just about everything occurring in a hot, muggy, and cloistered jury room, that never gets in the way of a compelling story that weighs the guilt or innocent of a man on trial. The director, who has had some of the most noted courtroom scenes and dramas ever on film, set the hallmark with this one.
- Breaker Morant – I’ll break away entirely from the AFI with this film, one they may not have considered at all. Bruce Beresford’s screen adaptation of the Kenneth G. Ross’ play, which was based on true events during the Boer War, is a thought-provoking and castigating film. One that thoroughly meets AFI’s definition for the genre. Edward Woodard and Bryan Brown, as the Australian officers scapegoated for and by the British empire and its political aims, are nothing short of electric in this. It remains my top pick in the military sub-set for courtroom drama.
- Witness For The Prosecution [AFI #6] – I’ll move up Billy Wilder’s courtroom who-done-it to this slot. No surprise, it’s based on a Agatha Christie novel/play. While it was also Tyrone Power’s last film, that’s not why it remains this high on the list. The trademark cynical, snappy dialogue associated with Wilder, and veterans Charles Laughton and Marlene Dietrich performing at their older best are the chief reasons this lives on as a deserving classic.
- Anatomy Of A Murder [AFI #7] – again, I’ll move another one up. Probably the only Otto Preminger film I’ll have in this whole series, but it really is a worthy one (his best, no doubt). Controversial for its time, its adult storyline had plenty of ambiguity and great actor performances in James Stewart, Lee Remick, George C. Scott and the late-Ben Gazzara. This is one movie that in point of fact benefits from its black and white cinematography. Grayscale fits it perfectly.
- Paths of Glory – since I mentioned and listed their second collaboration high up on my Epic list, I can’t leave off Stanley Kubrick’s and Kirk Douglas’ first film together. It is another exemplary military courtroom drama. The 1957 film became one of the first in a string of anti-war films of the 50s and the decade to follow. Again, it deals with subordinates scapegoated by court-martial so the ineptitude of their superior officers could be protected. It is another stark work that remains memorable for its theme and imagery.
- The Caine Mutiny – see, this is why the AFI gets a bulls-eye painted on its back by long-time cinema fans. Leaving off the Ed Dmytryk-directed, Stanley Kramer-produced, film translation of Herman Wouk’s play for other non-deserving fare is almost criminal. Watching Humphrey Bogart as Lt. Commander Queeg should be required screening for movie fans and actors alike. Having Jose Ferrer, Van Johnson, Fred MacMurray, and even a young Lee Marvin there ain’t bad either.
- A Few Good Men [AFI #5] – the Rob Reiner crowd-pleaser film adaptation of the Aaron Sorkin play does deserve its place on such a Top 10 list. No question. I just have the film lower, that’s all. Its star-studded cast works well — especially Jack Nicholson (in decidedly non-Jack mode) — using the trademark Sorkin dialogue to extraordinary effect. I can watch and quote from the last of my military courtroom films no end, just like all of those on this inventory.
- In Cold Blood [AFI #8] – I’ll keep Richard Brooks 1967 adaptation of Truman Capote’s true-crime novel in my tensome, just dropping it a couple of notches from AFI’s. It is the only documentary-like film in the set. But in this case, that is its strength. As well, Robert Blake and Scott Wilson give haunting portrayals for a pair of tormented murderers that will stay with the viewer long after the end credits finish.
What would be yours?
Next Up: Gangster
The Complete Versus AFI: 10 Top 10 Series: