Feature: "AFI's MIAs"
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By D. Scott Apel

All film buffs have played the "Top 10" game at some time, passionately defending their choices of The Best Films of All Time. But when execs at the prestigious American Film Institute decided to play the game, they also decided to play it in a suitably big way. As part of the Institute's "100 Years, 100 Movies" celebration, the AFI recently unveiled its choice of the 100 greatest American movies of all time -- a selection that has generated both kudos and controversy.

Starting with a list of over 40,000 American movies produced between 1896 and 1996, the AFI culled a selection of 400 candidates, based on such criteria as critical recognition, awards won, popularity, historical significance and cultural impact. The Institute then invited a blue ribbon panel of over 1,500 film industry artists and executives (as well as some influential critics, one AFI member from each of the 50 states, and the president and vice president and their wives) to vote on the top 100.

Overall, it's a solid list of films -- respectful, wide-ranging and intelligent. No one educated in "cinema" can argue with a large percentage of the choices as belonging among the best American movies ever made. But then again, given 40,000 titles from which to choose, it's not difficult to put together a list of 100 great movies -- and given that, no one with an interest in film will be able to accept the list precisely as it stands. So, to add one more vote to the panel -- or one more voice to the din -- below is our own modest suggestions for refinements to the AFI's 100 Greatest American Movies list, divided into three categories.

1. Mistakes Were Made

Few will argue that the movies below are good. But do any of them seriously qualify as among the Top 100?
Amadeus. Seriously, how recently have you rented this?
Tootsie. Tsk, tsk. It's a fun film, but is it better than The Producers? A Night at the Opera? Sullivan's Travels? All three were candidates in the Top 400 list, and all three are far superior flicks.
An American in Paris. Two Gene Kelly films but no Fred Astaire? As Ross Perot might say, "That's just sad."
Fargo. A tragically overrated effort -- not even the Coen Bros.' best movie (that would be Raising Arizona).

2. Titles From the Top 400 That Should Have Made the Top 100

With only minimal comments to justify their inclusion, because if you have to ask.
The General. Three Chaplin films in the 100 and no Buster Keaton? Unthinkable.
A Night at the Opera. How can the voters include Duck Soup but not this best of the next phase of the Marx Bros.' career? Both belong in the top 100.
Sullivan's Travels. No Preston Sturges films in the 100? A tragedy. How could this be allowed to occur?
The Producers. Simply the funniest film ever produced. Nashville. Robert Altman reinvented storytelling on film with this labyrinth. 20 years ago, they were calling it a work of genius. How quickly they forget!
Blue Velvet. The Pulp Fiction of the '80s -- a movie which reinvigorated the moviegoing experience.
The Hustler. It's perfect. What more can you ask?
Touch of Evil, Out of the Past, Gun Crazy and Night of the Hunter. OK, Double Indemnity made the 100, but only a single film noir in a genre America invented? I think not.
The Adventures of Robin Hood. Until Raiders of the Lost Ark came along, this was the action flick to beat.
Spartacus. Maybe Ben-Hur was supposed to satisfy our lust for epics.
And let's not overlook The Lost Weekend, White Heat and Stalag 17.

Missing in Action

A short list of great films that never even made it to the 400 finalists list -- and why not?
The Bride of Frankenstein (1935)
The Crimson Pirate (1952)
Forbidden Planet (1957)
The Great Escape (1963)
Rio Bravo (1959)
The Elephant Man (1980)
Woodstock (1970)

Regardless of the issues any of us might have with the AFI's list, however, familiarity with its Top 100 is a damn good starting place for anyone interested in a crash course in American movies -- particularly when tweaked by those of us inspired to expand the list through critical viewing.

D. Scott Apel is the former video columnist for the San Jose (CA) Mercury News, and is author of the video guide Killer B's: The 237 Best Movies On Video You've (Probably) Never Seen.

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June 30, 1998