This week the BBC, in an act of international diplomacy, released a list of the 100 greatest American films ever made. As most lists of this type are, this feels like a popularity contest, with safe choices edging out the more unusual, provocative ones.
But there were a few movies that really jumped out at me, and two I’ve never heard of (!), so here we are, talking about the BBC’s contribution to film criticism.
If I made a personal top 10 list today, I’d definitely give slots to Billy Wilder, Howard Hawks, and Alfred Hitchcock. (Since you asked, Sunset Boulevard, His Girl Friday, and… oh, don’t make me choose). Hard to be upset about those titans appearing here, but they do take up 4 or 5 movies each. In fact, there aren’t even 60 directors/director teams on this whole list! The list bends over backwards for auteurs, from Kubrick to Spielberg, at the expense of a more diverse group. How many people really would list Close Encounters of the Third Kind ahead of The Empire Strikes Back?
Despite the obvious choices, there are some novel films here excluded from the more populist AFI lists. At #26 and #40, the two brand new to me: Killer of Sheep and Meshes of the Afternoon. Further on, some real surprises of consensus: Marnie; Back to the Future; Thelma and Louise (over Alien and Blade Runner?); Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. From the past ten years, we have 12 Years a Slave, The Tree of Life, and (delightfully) The Dark Knight.
I wish the BBC elucidated which “62 international film critics” they polled. As a fan of Orson Welles, I admire Citizen Kane, but I’d swear critics are just nominating it by rote. The cultural elite have convinced themselves the film canon has a natural, unavoidable order, and Kane is our Ulysses, public opinion be damned. I’m ready for a new entry to American film. Film historians relentlessly push Kane as if it’s heads and tails above the likes of Vertigo or City Lights, or even Intolerance, On the Waterfront, The Maltese Falcon (all absent here).
I wouldn’t pick The Birth of a Nation, though. It’s side by side, laughably, with Jaws. Though both are pretty terrifying.
Movies I’ve seen: 76
Most popular decade: the 1970s (21)
Movies directed by women: 2 (co-directed)