How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the List(s)

This week I finished a nearly decade-long quest to watch all the films on  the American Film Institute’s list of top 100 films (both the 1998 list and the 2008 list – which is 123 films total). This project carried me through my 20s and into my 30s and through all the major life transitions of that period. So since absolutely nobody asked, I want to mark this occasion by offering you my thoughts on the list and my experience of watching these films. 

When I started watching these movies, I would have considered myself someone who “didn’t like movies”. Not liking movies was part of my personal version of the misguided too-cool-for-everything 20-something ethos many of us adopt at some point along the way (for context, I was also someone who “didn’t like sandwiches”). Why did I start watching the films on these lists, you ask? An ex-boyfriend.

I watched the movies more-or-less in order from lowest ranked to highest ranked, finishing with Citizen Kane just a couple days ago. I don’t remember much from the early days of watching the list, but I can tell you that somewhere in the middle my relationship to films changes completely. Alongside the AFI top 100, I started watching all 10 Academy Award Nominated Best Picture films each year. This meant I’d started seeing movies in the theater. I found the in person experience of movies enchanting. I would go to movies without seeing any previews – I’d just show up because the film was on the list or was a best picture nominee. I started seeking out opportunities to see films in-person that weren’t on these lists. I attended screenings at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts Staney Kubric retrospective and at the Brattle Theatre’s Wes Anderson retrospective. Slowly but surely, I became a movie person. 

Pretty late in the game, I discovered the Unspooled podcast with Paul Scheer and Amy Nicholson. As a longtime podcast girlie, this was an immensely important event for me. Listening to Paul and Amy provide historical context and grounded commentary on the films opened a whole new world to me. It also opened me to the rampant criticism of the AFI lists.

It makes sense, of course, that people in the film industry wouldn’t love these lists. A definitive ranking of films is superficially preposterous. What could possibly be the inclusion/exclusion grounds? Let alone the justification for ranking The Silence of the Lambs at 74 and Rocky at 57 and West Side Story(1961) at 51? These are films of different genres and the fine grained nature of ranking seems ill suited to a project like categorizing film greatness. 

Upon the release of the 1998 list, film critic Jonathan Rosanbaum critiqued the list for “the increasing lack of any viable distinction between what used to be called Public Works and corporate greed”. He continued “Whether in the present circumstances this has grown out of a holy or unholy alliance between the AFI, Blockbuster Video, CBS, TNT, Turner Classic Movies, and the home video divisions of 13 film studios—all of which have planned a summer full of jolly hoopla around this tacky list to promote their joint efforts—doesn’t really matter. What does matter is the rise of corporate cultural initiatives bent on selling and reselling what we already know and have, making every alternative appear more scarce and esoteric, and not even attempting to expand or illuminate the choices made in the process.” I admit, in the post-Blockbuster world, where movies seem on the edge of extinction,  part of me found this criticism laughable. Still, I understand the concern that lists like these merely promote certain corporate interests. Lists aren’t a reflection of the artistic merit of the films or of their cultural importance (although this might be a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy). Does my decision to watch all of these films mean I’m just a sheep following corporate interests?

Importantly, Rosenbaum spends most of his time not elaborating on the corporate pressures on the film industry, but instead criticizing the AFI’s particular inclusions and exclusions. Rosenbaum deems Citizen Kane is a worthy film, while the likes of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?, Pulp Fiction, and Forrest Gump are not. If you feel called to disagree with any of those assessments, perhaps that is the point? What I’ve found so valuable about the AFI lists isn’t necessarily their particular content, but the way they’ve served as a gateway into a world that was previously inaccessible to me. 

When I started watching movies, I didn’t have much to say about a film beyond whether or not I had enjoyed the experience of watching it. Watching the list movies allowed me to see connections between films, introduced me to high quality acting, cinematography, and the concept of a film as a piece of art. This list provoked me, and Rosenbaum, and so many others to engage with film differently – to move beyond being entertained by Hollywood magic and into consideration of different dramatic choices and their positionality in relation to historical cultural trends. 

In the end, all “top” film lists will tell a story that is equally as much about the person or people who constructed the list as it is about the greatness of the films. Just like each year’s “Best Picture” winner isn’t necessarily the “best” movie made that year. But these lists help me (and I’d like to venture, us) engage with and enjoy a form of art that truly enriches the experience of being alive. Rosenbaum himself, rather than leaving his criticism of the list itself to speak for themself, created his own alternative top 100 American films list he thought better reflected the greatness of American cinema. It seems to my mind that these lists do more to spark thoughtful conversation about film than to stifle it. 

So I’m going to offer you my own sub-list based on completely subjective criteria – a “Katherine’s ‘top ten’ films from the AFI lists” list. My list is both about and not about how much I “liked” a film,  about and not about how culturally significant I found a film, about and not about how much I loved an acting performance, about and not about how much a particular film has stuck with me etc. Mostly, I’m sharing this list because I like movies and I like talking about them. 

I’m really grateful for this whole experience, but mostly I’m happy that I get to head to one of my favorite theaters (Tryon Theatre) this evening to enjoy another movie that will hopefully make me think about my life and our world a little differently. I’m grateful to get to consume the art that so many thoughtful creators put out there for us, and I truly wouldn’t be here without silly little lists.

Katherine’s “top ten” from the AFI lists

(alphabetically, because I’m not insane)

Film Title1998 ranking2008 ranking
12 Angry Men (1957)N/A87
Cabaret (1972)N/A63
The Deer Hunter (1978)7953
Do The Right Thing (1989)N/A96
Easy Rider (1969)8884
The Godfather (1972)32
In The Heat of the Night (1967)N/A75
The Philadelphia Story (1940)5144
Psycho (1960)1814
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966)N/A67
Honorable mention goes to: Annie Hall (1977), Doctor Zhivago (1965), Giant (1956), and Rear Window (1954). 

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