2015, Movies

BBC Culture’s 100 Greatest American Films

So the BBC released a list of the 100 Greatest American Films (of the last 100 years, by the way) two months ago. It’s a pretty decent list, all things considered, but it’s hardly perfect, by any means. I am presenting the list below, with my thoughts:

  1. Citizen Kane (1941)
    • The usual consensus candidate for Greatest American Movie of All Time, I have a hard time objecting to it. I do feel like there are a couple films that deserve the level of recognition Kane gets, but it’s hard for me to argue for another film altogether. I mean, given when it was made and how innovative it was – for Hollywood, at the time – it’s hard to really claim that any other American film is “Greater,” though there are better ones, certainly.
  2. The Godfather (1972)
    • This is where my quibbles start. Not only is this not the second best American movie ever made, it’s far from the best from the 1970s, in my opinion. (It’s sequel might make my Top 5 of the ‘70s, this one more likely my Top 10 of 15, just for that decade.) Of course, this is about Greatness not necessarily quality, and it’s hard to argue there’s a more iconic American film from the ‘70s at this point. Frankly, Chinatown is a “Greater” movie and a better one. I’m not saying it’s the second best American movie ever made, but it should be in the Top 10, and it’s a prime candidate for the Greatest American Movie of the ‘70s. I would be much happier to the see the Godfather a little lower on this list.
  3. Vertigo (1958)
    • My Hitchcock obsession has long passed and so it has been many, many years since I have seen Vertigo. Hitchcock was, of course, British, but I think we can say this is an American movie. And it might be the best Hitchcock film I’ve seen. But I have really strong doubts about it being considered the 3rd Greatest American film ever. I feel like I could make a pretty good list of films that are both qualitatively better and more influential. Yes, the ‘50s were a relatively fallow time for American cinema, but we shouldn’t try to compensate for that by overstating the importance of possibly Hitchcock’s best movie.
  4. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
    • This is the only other movie in the Top 5 that I’m completely on board with. Sure, some of its effects have dated rather horribly – the ape suits, the slit scan – but others have not, and, far more importantly, it’s the first (American) science fiction film for adults: the first one to express the idea that intelligent life in the universe might be something other than men with silly hats and stilted English. To this end, Kubrick created the greatest special effects yet seen in a feature-length film and created perhaps the most iconic artificial intelligence villain in film history. Ebert used to say that it’s films like this that would be talked about centuries from now, and I agree.
  5. The Searchers (1956)
    • I am a revisionist Western guy, not a classical one. And so I always get kind of annoyed with the John Ford-worship even though he’s admittedly iconic. But this is probably his best movie and certainly a candidate for a) the Greatest classical Western ever made and b) the best American film of the ‘50s. I’m not sure it’s either as I haven’t watched it in over a decade, but it’s probably deserving of Top 15 at the outside.
  6. Sunrise (1927)
    • Undoubtedly one of the great American films of the ‘20s – perhaps the greatest drama – I still have trouble thinking of this as on par or greater than the best of Chaplin and Keaton – both of whom should have movies in the Top 10 on any truly great list of Greatest American Films. I’d put Sunrise in my Top 25 perhaps, but not this high.
  7. Singin’ in the Rain (1952)
    • My hope was that a British list of American films would ignore American musicals to a much greater extent than an American list. Oh well. This is probably the “Greatest” American movie musical ever, but that doesn’t mean I have to like it. I guess I would grudgingly put it on my list, if I wrote one, but I can’t say it would be this high.
  8. Psycho (1960)
    • Psycho poses a number of interesting questions:
      1. Can we really celebrate an otherwise good or great movie with a terrible ending? (To that I would answer “yes.” The French Connection is The Greatest Cop Movie of All Time despite how it’s incredible, shocking wonderful ending is ruined by one of the worst Post Scripts in movie history.)
      2. How much emphasis to we put on iconic films as “great”? Psycho was the most iconic horror film before Jaws and remains one of the most iconic horror films ever. But it’s not Hitchcock’s best film by any means and it’s utterly ridiculous to have this movie above Bonnie and Clyde, The Graduate and other pioneering American films from the ‘60s (not even dealing with other decades…)
  9. Casablanca (1942)
    • One of the most overrated American movies of the golden age, in my thinking. It’s good, but it’s not “great.” It’s certainly among the most iconic American films, but that doesn’t make up for what is, in my opinion, a flawed film.
  10. The Godfather, Part II (1974)
    • Having both Godfathers in the Top 10 is rather egregious, in my view. The second film is a classic as well – more ambitious than the first and, arguably, a better film. Is the first one more iconic? Probably. But if I were in charge, I would have Part II higher than the first one, and probably neither in my overall Top 10. (If either would feature in the Top 10, it would be this one. So, in that light, maybe 10th isn’t should a bad spot for this one.)
  11. The Magnificent Ambersons (1942)
    • The first of these movies I haven’t yet managed to see – this has to qualify as perhaps the most under-seen “talkie” on this list. It’s odd to me to pick a film that so many people likely haven’t seen in its proper cut. But anyway, I can’t comment at the moment.
  12. Chinatown (1974)
    • Easily in my Top 10.
  13. North by Northwest (1959)
    • Another Hitchcock. That’s three films in the Top 15 and despite my early childhood love for Hitchcock – and despite recently seeing the enjoyable and informative Hitchcock/Truffaut – I cannot stomach three Hitchcock films in the Top 15. It makes zero sense. There are other filmmakers.
  14. Nashville (1975)
    • Altman’s best film, possibly. And certainly in my Top 25 or perhaps higher.
  15. The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)
    • I haven’t seen this film in probably close to 20 years. But, if I remember correctly, there are far greater films about soldiers coming home. Yes, it was a trailblazer, but I doubt it holds up.
  16. McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971)
    • One of Altman’s better films but not among my favourites and not one that I would have in my Top 100, I don’t think.
  17. The Gold Rush (1925)
    • As far as I’m concerned, at least one Chaplin film should be in the Top 10 or 15. I’m not sure it’s this one, but it’s necessary.
  18. City Lights (1931)
    • Ditto
  19. Taxi Driver (1976)
    • Though I haven’t seen it in years, this is not Scorsese’s best film and there are a couple that should be in a Top 25 or Top 50 instead of this one.
  20. Goodfellas (1990)
    • A pretty near perfect film. Probably would be in my Top 25.
  21. Mulholland Drive (2001)
    • I like this Lynch movie a lot, but I wouldn’t put it anywhere near my list of Top 25 greatest, let alone Top 100.
  22. Greed (1924)
    • I hope to see this soon. Can’t comment.
  23. Annie Hall (1977)
    • I feel like this is a legacy of the AFI lists. This is not Allen’s best movie and is highly overrated I think.
  24. The Apartment (1960)
    • Not Wilder’s best movie. Not deserving of any Top 100 list, in my opinion.
  25. Do the Right Thing (1989)
    • Far and away Lee’s best film, and a very important one. Probably on my Top 50 or so.
  26. Killer of Sheep (1978)
    • Haven’t seen it; cannot comment.
  27. Barry Lyndon (1975)
    • A great film, but hardly Kubrick’s second best. Debatable whether or not he deserves two films in the Top 25. But a classic and (until recently) underrated.
  28. Pulp Fiction (1994)
    • I prefer Kill Bill, but there’s no denying the influence of this movie. Probably deserving of somewhere in the Top 50 or Top 75.
  29. Raging Bull (1980)
    • I love Scorsese but three films in the Top 30 is excessive even for perhaps the greatest American director of his era. It should be higher than Taxi Driver on any list, though.
  30. Some Like Hot (1959)
    • Another one of those highly overrated Wilder comedies. He has made better movies.
  31. A Woman Under the Influence (1974)
  32. The Lady Eve (1941)
    • Saw this when I was too young to judge fairly, but I have never been too impressed by Sturges’ work. Still better than Capra.
  33. The Conversation (1974)
    • I was a massive fan of this movie when I was young. I haven’t seen it since then and doubt it would make my Top 100.
  34. The Wizard of Oz (1939)
    • Iconic and important, and maybe I’d grudgingly put it on for those reasons, though I wouldn’t want to.
  35. Double Indemnity (1944)
    • As close to a perfect, mid ’40s noir as exists. I would still prefer some other noirs to be on the list, but this is a decent choice.
  36. Star Wars (1977)
    • Glad to see it this low, as I would have expected it to be way higher. So important for the history of American film, but would only make my Top 100 for influence reasons.
  37. Imitation of Life (1959)
    • A Top 100 list without any Douglas Sirk movies would be a Top 100 I can get behind.
  38. Jaws (1975)
    • I feel very similarly about Jaws as I do about Star Wars.
  39. The Birth of a Nation (1915)
    • I’m torn here – and uninformed, having not watched this in nearly 20 years – as this is an incredibly important technical landmark that should probably be bumped off this list in favour of another of Griffith’s technical landmarks which isn’t so horribly racist.
  40. Meshes of the Afternoon (1943)
    • Haven’t seen; cannot comment.
  41. Rio Bravo (1951)
    • Such an influential film, probably belongs.
  42. Dr. Strangelove (1964)
    • Kubrick’s second most important film by far, and in my Top 25.
  43. Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948)
    • I love Ophuls but haven’t seen this one. I would have a different film on my list if it weren’t just American movies.
  44. Sherlock Jr. (1924)
    • Finally, some Keaton! I would have The General in my Top 10.
  45. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)
    • It’s been so long since I’ve seen this film that I cannot comment.
  46. It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)
    • I would be completely okay with a list of the Top 100 films of all time which does not include any Capra.
  47. Marnie (1964)
    • Possibly the oddest choice in the Top 50, as one could make a good argument from pretty much every other film – this used to be considered lesser Hitchcock. I haven’t seen it in so many years, I cannot say.
  48. A Place in the Sun (1951)
    • I loved this as a teen. Cannot comment now.
  49. Days of Heaven (1978)
    • Probably in my Top 25 or Top 30. Certainly deserving of a Top 50 spot.
  50. His Girl Friday (1940)
    • The best of these screwball comedies by a long shot. In my Top 50 or Top 75, probably. Glad to see a list with so few of these movies. (The AFI list is full of them.)
  51. Touch of Evil (1958)
    • Welles’ second best film (to the best of my knowledge) – don’t know whether it should be here or not, but I’m not offended.
  52. The Wild Bunch (1969)
    • Though I am a fan of this film, I feel there are at least two revisionist westerns more deserving of high spots. That being said, it would probably be on my Top 100.
  53. Grey Gardens (1975)
    • This is an important movie, but as the first documentary on the list, it’s kind of an odd choice. There are far more important and far greater documentaries, though the greatest documentary of the 20th century isn’t in English, which I guess would disqualify it from this list.
  54. Sunset Boulevard (1950)
    • Wilder’s best film? Would be on my Top 100.
  55. The Graduate (1967)
    • On my Top 25 or 50, most likely.
  56. Back to the Future (1985)
    • I haven’t seen it as a kid, but I have a hard time conceiving it on my list.
  57. Crimes and Misdemeanors (1988)
    • My candidate for the best Allen film (from memory). On my Top 100.
  58. The Shop Around the Corner (1940)
  59. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)
    • A classic, but I’m not 100% sure if it would be on my Top 100 list. Top 100 American films probably, but Top 100 of all-time would be harder.
  60. Blue Velvet (1986)
    • This is among Lynch’s most important work and is more deserving of this spot than Mulholland Drive was of its higher spot.
  61. Eyes Wide Shut (1999)
    • Another odd choice for a Kubrick film. Maybe I need to re-watch it?
  62. The Shining (1980)
    • I would possibly – possibly – argue that this might belong on a Top 100 of American movies.
  63. Love Streams (1984)
    • Haven’t seen it so cannot comment.
  64. Johnny Guitar (1954)
    • I don’t believe this belongs on a Top 100.
  65. The Right Stuff (1983)
    • I always thought this movie was underrated and I’m shocked to see it here. Might make my Top 100. Top 200 for sure.
  66. Red River (1948)
    • Saw too long ago to comment.
  67. Modern Times (1936)
    • This belongs way higher up. Perhaps Chaplin’s greatest accomplishment, and if I was sure I’d say it’s a Top 10 film.
  68. Notorious (1946)
    • Haven’t seen in so long that I cannot argue for or against.
  69. Koyaanisqatsi (1982)
    • Probably belongs on any Top 100 list. Maybe not this high though…
  70. The Band Wagon (1953)
    • Haven’t seen it.
  71. Groundhog Day (1993)
    • I don’t agree. But I haven’t seen it in 15 or 20 years.
  72. The Shanghai Gesture (1941)
    • Haven’t seen it.
  73. Network (1976)
    • On my Top 25 or 50, most likely.
  74. Forrest Gump (1994)
    • No, no, no. No.
  75. Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)
    • I haven’t seen this in 20 years and cannot comment.
  76. The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
    • I agree with many that Star Wars is the weaker film to this one, but Star Wars is more important.
  77. Stagecoach (1939)
    • Probably in my Top 50-75. I think.
  78. Schindler’s List (1993)
    • The Pawnbroker should be here if we’re going to pick one Holocaust film from Hollywood.
  79. The Tree of Life (2011)
    • Haven’t seen this, cannot comment.
  80. Meet Me in St. Louis (1944)
    • No. No. Just no.
  81. Thelma and Louise (1991)
    • Haven’t seen it in 20 years.
  82. Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
    • On my Top 100.
  83. Bringing Up Baby (1938)
    • I will never understand the love for this movie.
  84. Deliverance (1972)
    • A borderline case for me. Not 100% sure it would be in my Top 100.
  85. Night of the Living Dead (1968)
    • In my Top 50, maybe even my Top 30.
  86. The Lion King (1994)
    • Not my kind of movie. I can’t be fair but I don’t see how this should be on the list.
  87. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)
    • Probably on my Top 100 of American films.
  88. West Side Story (1961)
    • No.
  89. In a Lonely Place (1950)
    • Wouldn’t be on my Top 100, but it’s not a terrible choice.
  90. Apocalypse Now (1979)
    • This would be in my Top 15, probably.
  91. ET: The Extra Terrestrial (1982)
    • This is another movie where I really can’t agree.
  92. The Night of the Hunter (1955)
    • On my Top 100.
  93. Mean Streets (1973)
    • This would also be on my Top 100, in place of Taxi Driver.
  94. 25th Hour (2002)
    • No. Really can’t figure out why it’s here.
  95. Duck Soup (1933)
    • I hope to re-watch this soon.
  96. The Dark Knight (2008)
    • Not on my Top 100 but maybe my Top 200.
  97. Gone with the Wind (1939)
    • I’m not sure I can put this on a Top 100 list, but I know why it’s here.
  98. Heaven’s Gate (1980)
    • This whole reappraisal feels like the pendulum has swung too far in the other direction.
  99. 12 Years a Slave (2013)
    • Probably on my Top 150, not sure about Top 100.
  100. Ace in the Whole (1951)
    • On my Top 150 for sure, not sure about Top 100.

Here are a bunch of features that could have been on there instead. These are all fictional features (documentaries below) and bold indicates a particularly egregious omission. Keep in mind, some of these I haven’t seen in years.

  • The Age of Innocence (1993)
  • Alien (1979)
  • All the President’s Men (1976)
  • American Beauty (1999)
  • Anatomy of a Murder (1959)
  • Bad Day at Black Rock (1955)
  • Beat the Devil (1953)
  • Being John Malkovich (1999)
  • The Blair Witch Project (1999)
  • Blazing Saddles (1974)
  • Bob Roberts (1992)
  • Body Heat (1981)
  • Bonnie and Clyde (1967)
  • The Cabin in the Woods (2012)
  • A Christmas Story (1983)
  • A Clockwork Orange (1971)*
  • Criss Cross (1949)
  • Crossfire (1947)
  • Dead Man (1995)
  • Dead Ringers (1988)*
  • The Exorcist (1973)
  • Fantasia (1940)
  • Fargo (1996)
  • The French Connection (1971)
  • Full Metal Jacket (1987)
  • The General (1926)
  • Grindhouse (2007)
  • Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986)
  • High Noon (1952)
  • Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)
  • Kill Bill (2003)
  • The Killing (1956)
  • The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976)
  • Kiss Me Deadly (1955)
  • The Lady from Shanghai (1947)
  • The Last Command (1928)
  • The Last Picture Show (1971)
  • The Long Goodbye (1973)
  • The Lost Weekend (1945)
  • The Maltese Falcon (1941)
  • The Manchurian Candidate (1962)
  • M.A.S.H. (1970)
  • Memento (2000)
  • Million Dollar Baby (2004)
  • Missing (1982)
  • The Missouri Breaks (1976)
  • The Mosquito Coast (1986)
  • Mystic River (2003)
  • 99 Homes (2014)
  • No Country for Old Men (2007)
  • Once Upon a Time in America (1984)*
  • On the Waterfront (1954)
  • Out of the Past (1947)
  • The Ox-Bow Incident (1943)
  • The Parallax View (1974)
  • Paths of Glory (1957)
  • The Pawnbroker (1964)
  • The Phantom of the Opera (1925)
  • Platoon (1986)
  • The Player (1992)
  • Point Blank (1967)
  • Punch Drunk Love (2002)
  • Raising Arizona (1987)
  • Rear Window (1954)
  • Repo Man (1984)
  • Ride the High Country (1962)
  • Seconds (1966)
  • Se7en (1995)
  • Sin City (2005)
  • Slacker (1991)
  • The Sting (1973)
  • Syriana (2005)
  • Team America: World Police (2004)
  • The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)
  • This is Spinal Tap (1984)
  • The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948)
  • Twelve Monkeys (1995)
  • Unforgiven (1992)
  • The Usual Suspects (1995)
  • A Wedding (1978)
  • Zodiac (2007)

*Not entirely made/financed in/by the US

Here are some documentaries more deserving than Grey Gardens:

  • Bob Dylan: Don’t Look Back (1967)
  • Burden of Dreams (1982)
  • Capturing the Friedmans (2003)
  • Grizzly Man (2005)
  • Hoop Dreams (1994)
  • Lake of Fire (2006)
  • The Last Waltz (1978)

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