In 2007, the American Film Institute revised their previous 1998 list of the 100 best American films of all time. This column will explore my thoughts on 35 films I’ve selected from this list, mostly following along with the Unspooled Podcast, which inspired my journey to complete the AFI Top 100. You can also follow my progress with my ranking and watchlist. This week’s film is The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), #37 on the list.
The Best Years of Our Lives is a nearly three-hour film about the horrors of war. Sound familiar? Surprisingly, this one isn’t an action film, but instead a deeply emotional human drama about the lasting impact war has on soldiers and their struggles to assimilate back into their civilian lives upon return. If that sounds depressing, it’s because it is, especially for 1946. There’s still that omnipresent charm inherent to older Hollywood films, and it gives off a warm secondhand nostalgia for the era, but the comforting black and white aesthetic is juxtaposed with somber scenes of veterans coming to the realization that their old lives are gone forever. At its core, the real draw to this film is the compassionate emotional center and the surprising sense of bare honesty. It doesn’t necessarily demand the extensive runtime, but the narrative follows three very different characters who face very different circumstances and struggles. It’s one of the only films on the AFI list that I hadn’t heard of before, but I was endeared by the film’s earnestness.
Does it belong on the list?
While there are plenty of war films on the list, not many tackle the psychological toll it takes on veterans returning from war so thoroughly (save for The Deer Hunter, in its comparatively weak 3rd act), so there’s a case to be made for this one, but it really has no lasting cultural impact going for it, so I say no.