The Fancy Plans Guide to AFI’s Top 100 Films: Volume 8February 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
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).