Friday, May 25, 2012

AFI Part II of IV (75-51)

Keep On Filin', The Whole World's Filin' At You 

      And so my reconstruction of the AFI 100 continues with numbers 75-51 ...  

75). Giant
George Stevens is a director whose work functions according to the principles of human drama, imparting, even if inconsequential, a glimpse of humanity. His lens maneuvers through the intimate and grandiose, the minutia and majestic, dissecting the frame and unearthing traces of humanity. Rock Hudson's metamorphosis, rejecting his myopic, racist past, comes at an honest moment where the dramatic tension—and subsequent renewal of faith—is earned; not manufactured to provide an unwarranted moral lesson, a common toxin of most human dramas. It's no coincidence that three of Stevens' most revered films occupy a place in my AFI 100. Wow! I discussed a film starring J---- D--- without mentioning J---- D---. By the way, he who shall not be named delivers a spellbinding performance. 

74). It Happened One Night
There are three films in all the history of the Academy that swept the five major categories (Actor, Actress, Screenplay, Director, and Picture). Frank Capra's It Happened One Night is one of them. Capra distinguishes himself as a voice of optimism. In the aftermath of the Great Depression, where unemployment is widespread and pessimism runs roughshod, a picture extolling the virtues of kindness and determination is sorely needed. Capra proves to be a most adept tactician, instilling in the bleak reality outside the picture encompassing this period of discontent, a glimmer of the form of laughter. Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert, two of the enduring icons of the Golden Age, are mined for comedic use. And their exploits lay the groundwork not only for screwball comedy, but virtually every subsequent romantic comedy to follow. Together with Capra, Gable and Colbert confirm that entertainment can be the Great Distraction. 

73). Saving Private Ryan
Where to begin? With a stab of pathos harboring in a Spielbergian facade of realism, Saving Private Ryan—flanked by the words EPIC and WAR—flourishes as a thunderous, heroic, and violent spectacle. A company of soldiers, surrounded by blood blankets and themselves arrested by war's brutal grips, forge ahead in what is essentially a suicide mission, persisting against routine gunfire barrages and the looming, ominous smell of death. Why? Because a soldier's conduct otherwise would be unbecoming. Spielberg stages the action in such a meticulous, engrossing way that the soldiers' plight seems all-too real. And that's the point. World War II happened. These violent engagements, while depicted with a photographic gravitas, did, in fact, happen. The very human and heroic—some would contend, jingoistic—through-line that characterizes Spielberg's theater of war is, for me, the "maker's mark," a phrase famously coined by Mr. Ebert. 

72). Shane
George Stevens once again finds himself in prime, AFI real estate. Well, that's because I'm the proprietor. SPOILER! I'm that guy who re-watched the ending of Shane myriad times to ferret out some tangible visual cue that could confirm to me whether or not Shane lived or died, as he rode off into the fading sunset...hmmm, perhaps I just answered my own question.  On that superfluous note, I'll end my mini-discussion with one of my favorite quotes from the classic western: "A gun is as good or as bad as the man using it. Remember that."

71). The Graduate
My first reminiscence of The Graduate, Mike Nichols' tour de force comedy-drama, is always the music; specifically, Simon and Garfunkel and their dual hits, functioning as leitmotifs, Mrs. Robinson and Sound of Silence. My next remembrance is the performance of a relative newcomer, Dustin Hoffman. His faces (yes, he is a contortionist), mannerisms, inflections, are like a map of neurosis, a young man who is clearly bemused by the world he inhabits, uncertain of his future. His actions in the beginning reflect a certain whimsy, but as the story unfolds and his world view expands, he begins to act with more self-assurance. That final sequence is a study in mood, atmosphere, and psychology. For those yet to see it, I will not spoil the magic. Just trust in the hands of Nichols, an accomplished playwright, who at the time had already captivated cinema with his feature-film debut, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?.

70). Stagecoach
John Wayne is a cinematic icon, a folk hero, a man whose presence and stature paint a picture of a time and place that is indubitably American. The Western, along with the classic Gangster picture, are two of the most successful creations of American cinema. They represent, quite simply, a breed of masculinity that consists of men sporting guns; from this central totem stems all the associated conventions, particularly posturing, in which visual and emotional elements converge to form a thematic whole. Of course these two genres have undergone transformations. But John Ford is responsible for planting the formative seed. He is, to parlay the two genres, the Godfather of the Western. With Stagecoach, Mr. Ford uncovers a gold mine of narrative possibilities in the herculean form of a rugged stalwart, the aforementioned John Wayne. Wayne's famous introduction to the silver screen, wielding a rifle and a saddle, standing serenely against a desert backdrop of Fordian elegance with the buttes of Monument Valley lurking in the distance, culminates in an unforgettable close-up. Wayne and Ford would flourish together and in the ensuing decade produce what is still my favorite Western of All-Time, Searchers. Stagecoach may not be my favorite Ford picture, a rung below Searchers, but it will forever hold a fond place in my heart.

69). In the Heat of the Night
Norman Jewison's film has an energy that I find simply irresistible. For my money, it's the fledgling bromance between Sidney Poitier and Rod Steiger that seals the deal. Predating Riggs and Murtaugh (Lethal Weapon) by exactly thirty years, Poitier and Steiger, at first bitter enemies at polar ends of the racial spectrum, gradually develop a rapport. Their bond culminates with a magnificent departure reminiscent of the farewell in Plains, Trains & Automobiles. In other news, I just won the "Who Can Reference Two 1987 Movies In A Post About A Movie Made Thirty Years Prior" game. 

68). Psycho
Hitchcock, Perkins, Shower. Not 'nuff said. Alfred Hitchcock, as has been mentioned innumerable times, is the chieftain of suspense. Psycho demonstrates that he's also the de facto provocateur of violence and sexuality, precursors of the New Hollywood that would emerge later in the decade. I still recall vividly my first experience being subjected to Hitchcock's arsenal of psychological terror. And Anthony Perkins, I can safely declare, is chiefly responsible. His portrayal of Norman Bates, a man sprung from a fiery cannon of duplicitous impulse, is sensational. I suspect Hitchcock's more lurid proclivities invigorated the capable Perkins, who, largely because of this film, canonized a new kind of villain. Horror fans everywhere can rejoice immemorial. 

67). Spartacus
Stanley Kubrick's signature is on this film, but as most Kubrick enthusiasts could attest (I'm among the ardent group), it doesn't quite match the Kubrick oeuvre. I suppose the reasons for the artistic disconnect are numerous. 1). An uncharacteristic lack of creative control; as we know, Kubrick's a perfectionist. 2). Kubrick did not write the script. 3). Difficulties and creative differences between Kubrick and cinematographer Russell Metty interfered with Stan The Man's vision (many scholars contend Kubrick is mostly responsible for the cinematography having effectively superseded the authority of Metty, though I cannot say for certain). Despite what can be viewed as creative shortcomings, Spartacus is still a damn good film. And immensely fun. Kirk Douglas, Laurence Olivier, and Peter Ustinov (who took home an Oscar) give towering performances. I'd feel remiss if I did not mention Charles Laughton as well. His quirky charisma carves an indelible mark into the film's narrative. "I'm Spartacus!" is a line as famous as the historical figure. Once you allocate the three hours necessary, you'll know exactly why. 

66). Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Coupled with Mike Nichols' theatrical direction—his feature-film debut—Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton breathe vigorous life into characters whose movement, accommodated by only a handful of set pieces (adapted from the famous play), was largely static. WAOVW?, therefore, distinguishes itself as a crown jewel of acting. Taylor's and Burton's dynamism provide the impetus while Nichols' deft hand, unquestionably the mark of a playwright, probes into psychological depths that, at first glance, would seem impenetrable. Sandy Dennis and George Segal also animate character's whose sociological affairs are generally perfunctory. The high praise of Edward Norton, naming it one of his five favorite films, lured me in. But what corralled my undivided attention, captivating me from the first line of dialogue, was the quartet of Taylor, Burton, Dennis, and Segal. You'd be hard pressed to find a film featuring a more superlative acting display. 

65). Some Like It Hot

64). Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans

63). The French Connection

62). Sullivan's Travels

61). All Quiet on the Western Front

60). Close Encounters of the Third Kind

59). Mr. Smith Goes to Washington

58). The Last Picture Show

57). The General

56). All the President's Men

55). Do the Right Thing

54). The African Queen

53). Fargo

52). Rocky

51). To Kill A Mockingbird

*As my inaugural segment demonstrates, I'm only giving insights for the first ten films listed. As soon as I divulge the complete 100 Films, I will revisit those earlier entries. My purpose at that point will be to elucidate those selections with other random observations. That's the plan. 

*****STAY TUNED FOR PART III: 50-26*****


  1. "Plastics."
    Nice to see Close Encounters made the list. It still holds up rather well after all these years.

    1. Haha! Close Encounters admirable placement on my list was inevitable. I'm always amazed by the sheer wonder of Spielberg's imagination. I became a kid again when the Aliens emerged from the mothership. Just brilliant!

  2. TKAM would definitely be much higher on my list, but that may be because I have such a fierce love for the film and the story.

    All of these are excellent choices and there are a few here that I haven't seen in a long time so a rewatch is probably in order.

    1. Interesting observation, Mel, because I wrestled with TKAM's position quite passionately. Atticus Finch is one of my all-time favorite movie characters. Gregory Peck, likewise, is one of my favorite Classic Movie Stars. I suppose I'll be second guessing that choice for sometime.

  3. Wow - so many incredible movies! This is turning into quite a fun ride, Mr. V!

    1. Thanks, Craig! Glad to see you're enjoying my journey to the Realest of Real AFI 100's. HAHA!

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