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The Fancy Plans Guide to AFI’s Top 100 Films: Volume 8

February 18, 2011

Better “sometime” than “never,” it’s the penultimate edition of our long-running, long-winded guide to the “American Film Institute’s Top 100 Films That Everyone Agrees are Pretty Much Good Films.”

Previous editions available here:
AFI’s Top 100 Films Archive

Chaplin's imaginative use of color was completely lost on the film stock, which refused to be anything other than black and white.

81. Modern Times (1936)
Another Chaplin-esque masterpiece, thanks to its prominent use of Charlie Chaplin in a variety of roles, including actor, director and writer. A searing indictment of industrialism, Modern Times is heavily metaphoric, which generally means it plays well with film school students, who have a tendency to read lots of stuff into other stuff, and stoners, who like all things “heavy” and/or “deep.”

Of course, Chaplin’s exuberant physical comedy also tends to make these same stoners feel “tired” and “not able to make it into work today,” leaving them free to channel-surf away to less tiring entertainments like children’s programming or test patterns.

James Dean poses in his traditional give-a-fuck style, dwarfing a nearby house with his outsized persona.

82. Giant (1956)
The second third (see also: Rebel Without a Cause [#59]) of James Dean’s cigarette-burned body of work, Giant details the inner turmoil of an outwardly successful family of farmers or oil barons or something.

Its sweeping vistas and temperamental glowering illustrate perfectly the truism that “money can’t buy happiness” and, unfortunately, neither can “no money.” Along with it not being able to “buy happiness,” “no money” is unable to buy much else, like comfort or stability.

Critically acclaimed despite its lack of leather jackets and Sal Mineo, Giant continues to pose a haunting “What if…” in regard to Dean’s severely truncated career as well as a “What if…” in regard to Elizabeth Taylor, who in later years would seem to have been better off “not living.”

Oliver Stone would rehash this same haunting imagery for the final scene of "Any Given Sunday."

83. Platoon (1986)
Coke fiend Oliver Stone draws upon his own experiences as a Christ-figure during the Vietnam War to craft this Charlie Sheen vehicle. Despite being the hot new face on the scene (a scene which apparently included a whole lot of hookers), Sheen is regularly out-acted by co-stars Willem Dafoe, Forrest Whittaker and the local flora.

Stone’s message-laden film uses its Vietnam War backdrop to allow the viewers to fill in the blanks of his forgone conclusions resulting in a minorly epic biopic which fearlessly bashes an unpopular war more than a decade after it ended.

North Dakota: nothing but dead bodies and snow.

84. Fargo (1996)
Midwesterners: when they’re not murdering their partners in crime, they’re murdering English with their flatly nasal interjections, am I right? Supposedly based on a true story that never happened, the Coen brothers’ Fargo is a dark comedy of errors with a mile-wide mean streak.

On the bright side, Frances McDormand took home an Oscar for her portrayal of a small-town policewoman, marking the first time that the Academy has recognized a pregnant woman in this fashion. McDormand delivered a cute acceptance speech while barefoot and on her way the kitchen to make finger sandwiches for the Academy members.

Unfortunately, a hairdressing accident forced Chico Marx to perform the film wearing a melted showercap.

85. Duck Soup (1933)
Comedy classic featuring a troupe of stereotypes performing under a revolutionary surname, one which garnered them some unwanted attention during the McCarthy hearings. The so-called “Marx Brothers” included Groucho Marx, a philandering wisacre whose numerous affectations included a moustache and eyebrows, a constant cigar and the low-slung gait of a hernia sufferer; Harpo Marx, a mute manchild whose penchant for upskirt glances was offset by his harp ownership; Chico Marx, whose Italian accent and bad habits were an inspiration for the Mario Bros., one of whom was inexplicably named Luigi; and Zeppo Marx, whose vanilla personality rarely conflicted with the extras who frequently stole his scenes.

Their comedy was a mixture of verbal wit, absurdist physical comedy and the occasional show-offy musical interlude. Duck Soup is one of their most typical efforts, filled with all the elements listed. (“State Room Scene” not included.)

Clark Gable combated baldness by grooming his back hair upward.

86. Mutiny on the Bounty (1935)
An unflinching look at maritime regulations via the denizens of the HMS Bounty, a seafaring ship (that’s a Cusslerism) whose minor uprising became the stuff of near-legend. This cautionary tale offers a somewhat brutal reminder as to why it’s never a good idea to pick a fight in the middle of the ocean, especially with someone who retains very “old school” ideas about crime and punishment.

Unfortunate things are said, most of them “out of line.” Whips are deployed. Everyone gets too much sun. A hierarchy is challenged. Water pretty much everywhere. Someone gazes intently at or through a sextant. Men speak at length in salty, impenetrable sailor lingo.

Nothing pisses off reanimated corpses faster than dimly lit windmills.

87. Frankenstein (1931)
Original film version of Mary Shelley’s beach novel Dr. Frankenstein, which thrilled vacationers with its fast paced mixture of Jewish golem mythology and British Hammer horror. The “Frankenstein” actually refers to the good doctor who earns the ire of both the Homeowner’s Association and the Chamber of Commerce with his affronts to God and outsized electric bill.

The intrusive townsfolk are none too thrilled with the monster either, thanks to a.) it being a monster (and an affront to God) and b.) its habit of tossing things like children into the nearest river to see if they’ll float.

Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper terrorize the middle of nowhere with their brash hairstyles and lack of proper safety gear.

88. Easy Rider (1969)
Single-handedly introduced counterculture to the US via the druggy, two-wheeled antics of Jack “Deviated Septum” Nicholson, Peter “Jane’s Dad” Fonda and Dennis “Naturally Batshit” Hopper. Consummate professionals all, Fonda, Hopper and Nicholson insisted on doing all of their own riding and stunts, especially as it became apparent that the film’s tight budget meant no stuntmen would be hired.

The film itself alternates between cautionary and hallucinatory, proving by the shocking final act that it takes a lot more than a couple of hippies and their Harleys to change the status quo. While its sentiments and clothing may seem dated, its lack of a propulsive storyline and competent editing ushered in a “new wave” of self-consciously artistic films.

Patton was later court-maritaled for "contempt of uniform." The "ridiculous pants" and "galoshes" were specifically sited.

89. Patton (1970)
One of the finest war flicks of all time, bringing home an Oscar for both George C. Scott and his co-star Enormous American Flag, the latter of which drew positive comparisons to the gold standard of dramatic backdrops, Charles Foster Kane’s Enormous Head.

Although they only had one scene together, critics agree that nothing else in the exceedingly long running time comes close to the nuanced interplay of Scott’s gruff scene-chewing and Flag’s stoic but judgmental silence. Elsewhere, people shoot people and Scott emotes gruffly. E.A. Flag is folded respectfully and shipped off to New Jersey for a scheduled appearance on a Springsteen album cover.

Exceedingly gruff/long.

Early poster mockup for "Amos and Andrew Ridgely."

90. The Jazz Singer (1927)
When Al Jolson’s blackfaced lips nearly synched up to the soundtrack and offensively stated “You ain’t heard nothin’ yet!,” the world of motion pictures was changed forever. No longer would moviegoers have to suffer in silence as a hack pianist cranked out an improvised soundtrack to images of horses running or heavily made-up leading men macking on heavily made-up leading ladies in between title cards stating “Scene missing” or “I want to fuck you like an animal.”

With the advent of sound recording, “talkies” were born, instantly alienating their male audience, most of whom felt that women should be seen and not heard and the deaf, who felt everything should be seen and not heard. (The title cards were hailed by Deaf Gentleman’s Fortnightly as “Braille for the eyes.”)

Now that actors and writers were freed from the tyranny of a single sense, they began cranking out “talkies” left and right, filled to the brim with loud noises and speedy, incessant chatter.

Movies fans spent the next 20+ years being talked at constantly. During the 50s, the backlash began, led by Ghengis Khan impersonator John Wayne, whose easy drawl ran against the grain of whirlwind chatter. As westerns began to take over the cinema, actors went from being described as “hyperactive” and “fedora-clad” to being referred to as “laconic” or “possibly drunk.”

This backlash reached its peak in 1968 when iconoclast and current dead man Stanley Kubrick released 2001: A Space Odyssey, a movie whose epic running time consists of long shots very lightly peppered with low-key conversations between a space crew and their computer. The “barely there” conversation drops to near zero later in the film after the computer is given the “silent treatment” by the sole non-murdered astronaut.

Skip ahead 13 years and the backlash against backlash has begun. “Talkies” are big again! Spearheaded by the indie film industry, chattery films fill the multiplex. The seminal My Dinner with Andre is the touchstone, being nothing more than a filmed conversation between two actors. This trailblazer is followed by Clerks (My Dinner with Andre with more talking, swearing and Star Wars references) and Reservoir Dogs (My Dinner with Andre with more talking, swearing, pop culture examination and chillingly soundtracked earcapitation).

-CLT

12 comments

  1. While your running snark of AFI’s list is always wickedly funny, I would like your take on what you’re watching now. A “Heavy Rotation,” if you will, on the current films you’re watching.


    • The running snark will have to continue for at least one more post (but more likely two, as I forgot one somewhere in the 50-60 range) as I promised myself I’d tackle the whole thing thanks to a dare by someone who now mostly posts under the name “Robert X.”

      As for what I’m watching these days? It’s mostly Netflixed TV shows and other such entertainments that I can spend an hour or so watching without feeling I’ve missed something. Playing a lot of catchup. Dexter, Parks and Recreation, just started Party Down, etc. I haven’t really had time for movies recently but if I do change my viewing habits, you’ll (and by that I mean “readers of this fine, fine blog”) will be the first to know.


  2. I love how Shepard Smith (Fox News) drops a “dontcha’ know” in a Norwegian accent whenever reporting on anything Minnesota related. Fargo was my favorite movie for a solid decade, and the Coen Bros are still my all time fave directors. Frances McDormand was PERFECT as Marge Gunderson. The entire casting of Fargo was brilliant. My daughter can nail “Dad, are ya stayin’ for supper?…Dad?” That line never fails to crack me up. Yah.


    • Fargo is still one of my favorites as well, despite my snarky takedown. (In fact, it’s harder to snark something you know nothing about.) McDormand was perfect in that role, nailing that sort of good-natured toughness that is 90% stubborn determination and 10% snow-covered resignation.

      I grew up with lifelong Midwesterners and have spent many years within the confines of the corn belt (including currently) and the line that truly sums up the Midwestern attitude is Marge’s question when fielding recommendations on where to eat in the Twin Cities:

      “Is it reasonable?”

      That’s 110% pure Midwest.


    • Did you just say you “spent many years within the confines of the cornhole belt (including currently)”?

      Which sexual predilection should I make fun of; confining or cornholing? Ah, why choose when I can do both?


    • I’m just a victim of the Midwest “adding another notch” to its Corn Belt.

      Conversely, the third (unmentioned) option is to just actually read the words the way I typed them.


  3. I’ve never seen Modern Times, or any Chaplin flick actually, but you nailed the stoner market like Ibiza DJ-JC to a hempwood cross. Physical comedy is exhausting as hell to watch when you’re high. But nothing compares to watching Robin William’s in Toys on three hits of acid. That shit all most made me lose it way back in the day.

    I decided to read the top 100 books of all time (again in a few cases) and now you’ve made me realize that I have to watch the top movies as well. Especially if I want to keep my pretend Masters in Fine Arts.

    I wish I were kidding when I say that I though Neil Diamond was in The Jazz Singer. I really do have to brush up on my blackface.


    • You definitely want to avoid any sort of entertainment that will make you even more unable to get up from the couch for hours at a time. Along with the classic physical comedians, you’ll probably want to dodge episodes of “Cops” or Hype Williams videos.

      I saw Toys and found the action scenes with their “blurry camera + missing frames = frantic” to be a clear indicator that Barry Levinson should stick to the kind of movies where people just stand around and talk.

      I think you’re right about Neil Diamond. He was in a much less “minstrel-y” version of The Jazz Singer despite the fact that his music comes nowhere near jazz, no matter what psyche-enhancing drug you’re enjoying.

      Good luck to you and your faux degree, Scott. If that fails, just email the University of Chicago. They seem to hand out honorary degrees like toothpicks at a rib shack.


    • I’ve seen Modern Times a couple of times, but I was too wasted to remember much more than the fact that I liked it.


  4. Giant: I was disappointed because I was hoping to see Liz dressed more like she was in Cleopatra, so my own Giant would explode into a gusher. And poor Jimmy Dean. He coulda been a contender, if not for this scene. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Uz6C23lVdZo which rendered him mere human sausage meat.

    Platoon: Speaking of human sausage meat, Charlie Sheen now looks old enough and post-traumatic-stressed enough to have actually been in the Vietnam War.

    Easy Rider This low budget movie’s surprise success inspired Hollywood at both high and low ends the way few movies have. First, it helped open the door to the greatest era of “self-conscious artistic film” making, as witnessed in the documentary Easy Riders, Raging Bulls Second, it inspired a flotilla of cheesy drive-in movies that have given me much of what little enjoyment I derive out of life.

    Fargo: Francis McDormand did a fantastic job making the character of Sarah Palin look like a somewhat plausible leader…provided it was in a backwards-ass, frozen wasteland full of inbred fucktards. Still, even pulling that off requires an Academy Award winning performance.

    Patton – I recently watched this film expecting to see a documentary on high heeled shoe fetishism, but found it enjoyable nonetheless. The morning-after-the-battle scene near the beginning and the detached view of some battle scenes stripped away some of the viewer blood-lust that war movies, even most anti-war movies, rely on. It was also interesting to note that even in the midst of war, individuals compete for personal glory even at the expense of their own side and the pawns they claim to care so dearly about. Although, anyone familiar with Haliburton (et-al) already knows that.


    • Ah, yes. Cleopatra: the bomb that helped cement the temporary relationship of a drunk and a set of tits. Everything cost so much but covered so little. Two Ciminos up!

      And from there it’s a quick stop as something self-abusing (O. Stone’s conscience) and something self-conscious (every student art flick ever).

      I don’t know about that. McDormand looked like she might have actually read a Newsweek or to in her lifetime. Palin strikes me as the kind of person who bitches about letterboxing.

      Good notes on Patton. I’ve got nothing to add there.


  5. [...] Top 100 Films.” Having typed that mouthful would have seemed to have been enough, but I was challenged (on my home turf!) by FJ/RXJ to tell you about some of the movies I actually like. (This may also [...]



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