NEW YORK — The results are in. According to 1,500 movie luminaries chosen by the American Film Institute, the greatest American film is "Citizen Kane," the 50th greatest is "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid," and the 100th greatest is "Yankee Doodle Dandy."
Could anyone quarrel with such an audience-friendly list, compiled by the AFI to celebrate the first century of American cinema? Only a motion-picture grinch would try to second-guess it.
The voting criteria seem reasonable - historical significance, critical recognition, popularity, awards. And the contest serves a helpful purpose by reminding us that plenty of funny, touching, scary, uplifting, and all-around entertaining pictures were produced before most of us were born, and might delight us again if we'd give them a chance.
That said, there are aspects of the list that deserve a closer look.
Voters ranged from film-industry insiders to politicians, selecting from 400 choices on an AFI ballot. Not surprisingly, the outcome has the democratic virtues of accessibility and appeal.
But is it news? Surely we already knew that "Casablanca" and "The Godfather" and "Gone With the Wind" (Nos. 2 through 4, respectively) are perennial favorites! Shouldn't the AFI be trying to spotlight more than the sheer popularity of famous movies? And if so, shouldn't the diversity, audacity, and occasional profundity of American cinema get more acknowledgment than a "greatest hits" approach is likely to provide?
Taking the answer to be yes, there are three important areas where the AFI list comes up short. The voters might protest that they simply picked their favorites without worrying about details like dates or directors. Still, the ways in which their list "just happens" to be narrowly focused reveal aspects of our movie consciousness that could use broadening.
Silent movies. Yes, most spectators regard silent films as relics of a bygone time. Yet they make up one-third of cinema's first century, and their heyday was marked by a steady stream of invention and surprise.
Only five of the AFI choices are silent, and two of these - "Modern Times" (No. 81) and "The Jazz Singer" (No. 90) - have sequences with sound. Where are classics like "Intolerance" and "The Crowd," or any of Buster Keaton's hilarious comedies? Such omissions are all the more regrettable since many are easily available on video.
Minority movies. It's true that the American film industry has been dominated by white men since its earliest days. Still, one needn't board a political bandwagon to observe that minority filmmakers have made great strides in recent decades - if not great enough for the AFI selectors to notice their efforts.
Women ranging from Ida Lupino to Jodie Foster have directed significant American movies, yet not a single such effort made the cut. Ditto for pictures by African-Americans and other ethnic minorities. Is there really no place for a colorful, endlessly talked-about item like Spike Lee's masterly "Do the Right Thing"? If so, there's more residual bias in the film community than one would hope as it enters its second century.
Documentaries and avant-garde films. Commercial movies aren't the only movies, as a wide variety of museums, libraries, arts centers, and festivals love to remind us. There's a thriving tradition of pictures that take their cues from centuries-old insights similar to those of the greatest painting, music, and poetry. At least a nod to such cinema - to Errol Morris's haunting "The Thin Blue Line" or Stan Brakhage's explosive "Dog Star Man," for example - would have lent the list more depth.
Returning to the positive side, it's worth noting that more than one movie on the list - including "Citizen Kane" and "Singin' in the Rain" (No. 10), were money-losing disappointments when first released. Moviegoers should take heed: The profit margin on opening weekend, today regarded as the alpha and omega of cinema success, can be a mighty misleading measure of quality, durability, and plain old entertainment value. The current top-rated hit can be tomorrow's forgotten flop, just as this weekend's slowest starter could breeze its way into the AFI's next ranking.
* AFI's ranking of the Top 100 American movies ran in last Friday's Arts & Leisure section.