'Critics & Slick Hicks Nix Flick Picks!" Walter Huston, we've got a problem - a movie brouhaha, in fact.
The American Film Institute's new list of 100 best US movies is proving to be a splendid target for film critics and popcorn spillers alike. Cinastes and cinephiles, muvviegoers and film fans are busy screaming about favorites left off the list and flawed flicks that made it.
The list started as the 400 - shades of New York social snobbery. It was then boiled down to 100 after balloting by 1,500 film-industry notables.
As the clever were quick to point out, "the usual suspects" were there. To no one's surprise, "Citizen Kane" led the list. "Casablanca" (No. 2) shocked no one. (Even the yin and yang of politics, Clinton and Gingrich, agree on "Casablanca.") "The Wizard of Oz" was there (It's the original "Star Wars" movie, with the Tin Woodsman preceding R2D2, the Cowardly Lion foreshadowing Wookies, the Wicked Witch as prototype for Darth Vader, and flying monkeys practicing for the empire striking back.)
Since only American flicks were eligible, the list-pickers eluded complaints about missing foreign films. But they did face unfriendly fire over the absence of Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd comedies and Ernst Lubitsch dramas, as well as cavils that "Duck Soup" got the nod over "A Night at the Opera" as Marx brothers fare and "The Great Dictator" gave way to two more-maudlin Chaplin works.
If you want to play the game of what's in and what's not, try tackling two puzzles to start: (1) Get the full 400 list and see if you don't find a big sprinkling of mediocre entries. Then, (2) look at the great directors represented on the 400 and 100 lists. Try to decide how much of their whole body of work deserves the label "classic." It's a bit disillusioning, alas.
Hitchcock, Welles, Chaplin, Ford, Sturges et al. reached moments of greatness. But going back and watching all their work is a sobering experiment. None of what we now airily call auteurs produced masterworks nearly as consistently as Mozart, Beethoven, Shakespeare, Shaw, Matisse, and Picasso did.
Not even if you change the rules and draft Bergman, Kurosawa, Truffaut, and Fellini do you turn up a fully consistent creative genius. Film still awaits that kind of long-running prodigy. Or perhaps we should just be wildly grateful, as we settle into seats at the multiplex, that the top film creators at least occasionally carry us off to a mysterious realm of real depth, delight, compelling characters, and memorable stories.
Now we can start to watch for the next 100 of those occasions.