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 some 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 It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), #20 on the list.
It’s a Wonderful Life is simultaneously the most heartwarming and the bleakest Christmas film. For every scene of warmth, there’s an emotionally soul-crushing one waiting around the corner. Capra immediately lays out the tonal groundwork in the opening stretch, with George Bailey’s imminent suicide being discussed by angels in a lighthearted sequence. The emotional ping-ponging never relents, especially in an early sequence where a young Bailey is at first assaulted by his drunken boss Mr. Gower for not delivering a package, then earnestly thanked and hugged by him when he realizes his nearly-fatal mistake. Capra’s control and balance of tone is remarkable, and Stewart is the perfect vessel to center the film, bringing his inherent charm and warmth to Bailey, making the more despairing behavior from him, especially the scene of his hurtful admonishing of his family, even tougher to watch. Capra considered it his favorite of his films, and it’s tough to argue against him.
Does it belong on the list?
It’s not just the best Christmas film, it’s not just one of the best films on the AFI list, it’s one of the best American films full stop. It absolutely belongs on the list, and much higher than #20.