Kern: When we started the site and pitched ideas for columns, I decided to go with covering each film in the AFI Top 100. Finishing up watching every film on the list was already a project I’d been working on and I thought it was a great way, like your Best Picture column, to structure the column so it wasn’t just random films I wanted to talk about. I’ve now seen every film on the list, though it’s been eye-opening to revisit some of them a second time, but I know you’ve recently been working your way through them as well. Rather than start by talking about some of the highlights, I thought it’d be interesting to talk about which ones you think absolutely do not belong on the list. Luckily, I’ve already covered by lowest rated ones, so I won’t be spoiling anything for anyone who follows the column, but my bottom three are MASH, A Clockwork Orange, and The Wild Bunch. Ironically, all three came out between 1969 and 1971, so it could be that I just have a distaste for the way they capture that era, but none feel like particularly strong examples of their respective genres or like they include important statements that need to be included on the list. I know you also have a distaste for A Clockwork Orange, but would you agree about the other two? And which would rank at the bottom for you?
Henry: Much like Soderbergh, whose filmography I just finished and we just discussed, I saw that you were plowing through the AFI 100 and decided I had to finish it if you had. I can’t watch three times as many films as you this year and not finish at least a couple of these lengthy projects. I had 30 some films left a few months ago when I looked but didn’t really get into the swing of it until the last two weeks when I watched the remaining 24. So some of them I haven’t seen in a while and my memory may be fuzzy but others are fresh first watches. One of those I haven’t seen in a long time is A Clockwork Orange but you’re right, I have no love for that film at all and wouldn’t say it belongs on there. Frankly, I don’t much like Dr. Strangelove either and I’d have little qualms knocking off Spartacus as well since there’s so many other films that do the same sort of thing better. When Kubrick hits, as with 2001 A Space Odyssey, one of my favorites on the list, there’s nothing like it, but they perplexingly chose most of his weakest films to include. Get me The Shining and Eyes Wide Shut and I’m a happy guy but these three all range from intolerable to pretty decent and don’t come close to representing the best of his career. Truthfully though, I don’t think I would put any of his beyond 2001 on my own personal list of a top 100 American films. I’m right there with you on MASH as well, which I find to be among the weakest of Altman’s films and far overshadowed by the show. The Wild Bunch I did like but it was one of the lesser westerns on a list already oversaturated with westerns (though in a way the western is the most American genre so it deserves to be featured heavily on this list) so I wouldn’t have any problem dropping it from the list but it’s not quite the bottom. As has been noted in my Best Picture column, I can’t stand The Sound of Music and flatly despise West Side Story so those two would be very near the bottom for me in rankings of both Best Picture winners and AFI films. Also from the column, though my piece on it is still a few weeks from publication despite being written already, is Platoon which has always rubbed me the wrong way and would fit somewhere with those other two. At the very lowest position though would have to be Sophie’s Choice. For all the films on the list that I find insanely overrated, apart from West Side Story, there’s no other film that legitimately makes my skin crawl. Both of those films attempt grand messages that truly do deserve a place in high art but botch the delivery so terribly that I can’t imagine how everyone isn’t sickened. Watching a movie trying to show the horrors of the Holocaust really being about an annoying virgin trying to get laid, I can’t believe anyone involved in the film took it seriously for one second. It’s the kind of sick joke that almost pushes it to Fury Road levels for me.
Kern: Wow. I’ll be looking out for that rewatch then. Yeah I remember editing your scathing pieces for West Side Story and The Sound of Music, and I figured those two would be near the bottom if not firmly in the last two places. I enjoyed both a lot but I’m ambivalent toward them enough that I wouldn’t care if either or both got kicked off. I’m not generally a musical fan, though (apart from Singin’ in the Rain), so I wonder what musicals, if any, you’d replace them with? Do you think Singin’ in the Rain is enough to represent the genre?
You throwing Cats on there?
Henry: If we threw out those two, Cabaret would still be on alongside Singin’ in the Rain but I have no great love for Cabaret either. Singin’ in the Rain is definitely an essential musical that earns its spot on the list but I don’t know that I could quite say having only one on there would be right even if I don’t like a lot of the bigger ones. If we can count The Red Shoes then it’s better than any film on the entire list and definitely should’ve been featured and La La Land is a superb recent example. I don’t know if My Fair Lady would qualify for the list but that would be my pick for a 60s musical. Get me the Elvis ’68 Comeback Special too since that’s the greatest bit of musical film. All jokes aside, I did like Cats more than a couple dozen films on the list, including all the musicals but Singin’ in the Rain, so I could make an argument. There’s a lot of films on there I don’t necessarily think deserve their spots, though the impact is sometimes large enough to overcome it, but the musical selection is the most egregious to me. Do you have any segments of the list like that or any musicals you would add?
Kern: Musicals, not so much. Generally speaking it’s not my bag, which is why being surprisingly entertained by West Side Story and Sound of Music was enough for me to be like “yeah sure keep em on there.” One huge example of what you’re talking about where the impact or representation outweighs whether or not I think it’s genuinely one of the best American films of all time is The Grapes of Wrath. I liked it and everything, but it wouldn’t come close to my personal list. The reason I would vote to keep it though is because I really can’t think of any better films about the Great Depression, and I think that era needs to be represented in some form. (Happy to take suggestions if you’ve got any!) But that’s the reason I voted to keep The Grapes of Wrath while axing Goodfellas, which I think is a much much better movie overall. Well, that, and the fact that I think having a general cap for how many films from one single director should be represented, and Goodfellas wouldn’t crack my top 3 for Scorsese. What do you think of that rule? I know you love Scorsese as much as me, probably more. Do you think he earns several slots or do you think there should be a limit to the amount of films from one director?
Henry: I agree on The Grapes of Wrath. A list of the greatest American films should represent the various eras of American history alongside different genres of films and styles of filmmaking and the Great Depression has very little representation in film. Paper Moon is the only film coming to mind that I think shows the era nearly as well but it’s less of a classic. I think Scorsese is one of the greatest directors, especially in American film, but the list would be so much more interesting if there were caps on how many films a director could have. I would even go as far as saying one is plenty per director to avoid the monopolies that Spielberg and Kubrick and Ford have on the list but it would be difficult to decide which one for some of them should be included. Maybe stretch it to two on occasion but there would be a lot more representation here if they didn’t just go for the same directors again and again. I like Goodfellas a fair bit but I don’t even know that it would crack my top ten from Scorsese so I would definitely scratch it off the list. He has so many great films and my favorites of his like The Color of Money and Kundun often aren’t the cannonized classics so I think I would have to narrow it down to either Raging Bull or Taxi Driver if I went for a lone Scorsese inclusion on the list. I prefer Raging Bull of the two and it gives sports films a bit of a feature on the list but Taxi Driver is immense and undeniable. My own personal list, ignoring the goals of the list, would absolutely feature The Departed above any of those though.
Kern: I actually think The Departed is a great choice to replace Goodfellas. That would definitely be one of my 2 or 3 from Scorsese if I were making the list. I’m also not big on some of the choices for Kubrick or Spielberg on there either, so I think limiting to one or two would be a good choice to boost diverse representation so it’s not just the same guys we all grew up on. I get that it would be tough having to choose The Canonical Spielberg film, because you can make a strong argument for a few of them, but it feels unnecessary to have a director dominate 5% of the list. I think we’d both agree on 2001 being the Kubrick pick that deserves to be on the list, but if you had to limit it to only one film from the other directors who have 3+ films on the list, which film you put on the official list: Capra, Chaplin, Coppola, Hitchcock, Huston, Scorsese, Spielberg, & Wilder.
It’s a Wonderful Life for Capra because it’s the quintessential Christmas movie (and also my favorite of the bunch). The Great Dictator for Chaplin, which bizarrely isn’t one of the 3 on there already, because it has so much thematic resonance even all these decades later. Apocalypse Now for Coppola because it’s by far the best war film on the list (which has way too many as it is). I’d probably go with North By Northwest for Hitchcock even though it’s not my favorite of his, just because it shows so many different modes from his as a filmmaker. If it’s not obvious from my column, I don’t care for Huston’s work really at all, so I’d take them all off. Scorsese I think I’d choose The Departed after all is said and done, for the same reason as my Hitchcock pick. For Spielberg, I’d say Raiders, just because it’s the rare action movie that I adore and even though many would argue for Jaws as having the biggest cultural impact, I think Raiders is close behind. Billy Wilder I’m relatively lukewarm on, but The Apartment if my favorite of his and I think it’s a really refreshing romantic comedy that tackles weighty thematic material very well, so it’d earn a spot just based on that.
Henry: As I said earlier, I loved The Departed, I just don’t quite think it meets what a film needs to be on the list. A list of my personal favorite films would definitely include it, even if not limited to American films, but here I think it needs a level of far reaching influence or at least depiction of a part of America not otherwise shown on the list that other Scorsese films have more of. So 2001 A Space Odyssey I’m with you on and luckily it also happens to by my favorite Kubrick, but I can’t follow you all the way. The diversity of topics does keep It’s a Wonderful Life on as my Capra pick though because it wouldn’t be representative of American film to not include at least one about Christmas and that’s the only real choice even if Elf is the best film about the season. Similarly, it hurts to cut Schindler’s List from it but, as a function of the type of list this is, not too many action films show up and Raiders has to keep its spot, plus it’s sublime. North By Northwest is my favorite Hitchcock and so many of his have had such profound influences that it makes it hard to decide but the cut at the end to Cary Grant laying pipe should be enough to keep it. The Great Dictator might be my favorite Chaplin as well but he’s really there to represent the Silent Era so I wouldn’t put a talkie on for him. I could go either way between City Lights and Modern Times really. City Lights I marginally prefer but Modern Times has the scene everyone knows him from. I think the list is somewhat oversaturated with noirs but I would still go with Sunset Boulevard for my Wilder pick because I’m not so keen on his comedies and it runs in a good area that’s also about the film industry. Likewise with Huston, I can’t get rid of The Maltese Falcon as one of my favorite films and the template for the genre, though both of his other inclusions are very solid examples of what their genres were in classic Hollywood. Coppola poses the most difficult challenge for me because I would call Apocalypse Now the greatest war film, an essential inclusion on any list, and one of my very favorites, even surpassing The Godfather, but The Godfather is a titan of cinema that I think has probably introduced more people to serious cinema than any other film and had major ramifications on the types of films other people made and how they made them for years to come. It’s like Citizen Kane as a film that gets its spot fully on reputation before even considering the film itself and I can’t argue for its removal. Now I’m convincing myself into thinking two would be a better number but only in some very limited occasions. The list is only made of like 60 directors, all men and mostly white, and some genres have more than ten films on there, so I think there’s a lot of work to be done to make it a true representation of American film and having the same people make up half the list does nothing for that, but if we are going to allow for multiple films from directors, I don’t know how they didn’t think Malcolm X deserved to be on there alongside Do the Right Thing. Another big area for improvement that was obviously out of their control is that it has essentially no films from the last two decades, something that would probably do a fair bit to switch it up as we’ve gotten further removed from the popularity of westerns and more people have had the opportunity to make films while some of those who seemed like vital voices when the last list came out have fallen out of memory quickly. What are some recent films you would add if you made it today? I’m really talking 90s through today I suppose because the 90s were still recent and maybe not enough time had passed to really evaluate the films from then well when the list was made.
Kern: The most obvious one for me that comes to mind is Mulholland Drive. I think if they were to revisit the list now, it has a solid shot of getting on there. I’d love to see more enigmatic films on the list, and there’s really no better example from the past 20 years. It may not have as apparent of a cultural impact as some others, but it’s tough to judge without being a few decades removed, as you said. One that does have an obvious cultural impact that I would include, though, is The Blair Witch Project. Not a year goes by where we don’t get at least one found-footage horror movie, for better or (more often) worse. Not only was it a massive success and revolutionary for the genre, but I’d argue it’s easily one of the scariest films of the past few decades. It’s tougher to argue for more recent films, because you’d pretty much be arguing to kick off a classic for something that hasn’t even really settled in yet (trading Yankee Doodle Dandy for Magic Mike XXL for instance), but the one from the past decade I’d most like to see added would be The Tree of Life. I think Malick’s style has certainly had an impact on a lot of modern independent cinema, and, on top of being his best film in my estimation, The Tree of Life is a perfect representation of his work and his ability to make a very specific and deeply personal story feel entirely universal. I think in all likelihood, there are a few films from this century that would have a good shot at making the list if they were to revisit it, like The Dark Knight, The Social Network, and Get Out. I wouldn’t have a problem with any of those three, either. What are some recent ones you’d like to see added?
Henry: You know as well as anyone that Magic Mike XXL easily outranks all 100 films on the current list for me so I’d replace Swing Time or whatever dance film with the far superior one in half a heartbeat. Sometimes the rules don’t apply and I have to obey the heart. Same goes for Ocean’s Eleven. But yeah more realistically, I’m with you on Mulholland Drive and The Tree of Life and those other three aren’t really favorites of mine but they definitely warrant inclusion in their own ways. Superhero films have been such a thing in film recently that I would imagine a list made now would certainly include The Dark Knight at the very least but Get Out, The Social Network, There Will Be Blood, Moonlight, La La Land, No Country For Old Men, and Lady Bird all feel like they would be the definite inclusions if the receptions they’ve all found at awards shows and among cinephiles now are anything to base that off of. I would lean in a bit of a different direction though. There’s hardly any comedy on the list and what is there is a certain type. When Harry Met Sally should round out the romcom selection and make it a bit more modern but we need some stupider stuff. Give me Adam Sandler and Jackass. Superbad could maybe earn a spot too. For animated films, how could we skip Shrek (note: since the writing of this, the National Film Registry has inducted Shrek into its ranks, maybe I’m onto something)? The list takes itself far too seriously and it loses some of its relevance in depicting American cinema as a result. For a bit of a more serious spin though, Up in the Air and Michael Clayton are two I really love that I think are great depictions of modern America and the struggles we face today that would be good counterpoints to The Grapes of Wrath and provide some much needed Clooney representation.
Kern: Yeah I think one of those Apatow films would definitely make it on there. They do tend to go with the Very Serious Films or at least the Oscar contenders/winners, so I fear that something like Green Book might sneak in next round. I’d be overjoyed to see some more comedy or Clooney on there, or just give me both and put Burn After Reading on there. You’re right, the list could use a little silliness, so it’s not just a collection of Homework Movies, even though some of those tend to be more entertaining than you’d initially think. I think I mention it plenty in some of the columns for comedies I’m not completely in love with, but the one film I’d add if I had the opportunity would be His Girl Friday. What would be the one movie you’d add if you could?
Henry: Homework films is a great term for them. I enjoyed most of the films on the list and loved quite a few but they aren’t always the easiest to embrace the idea of and many need a certain mindset that prevents them from being watched on just any day. The addition of comedies would make it a lot more approachable and more representative of what American cinema actually is, not just the recognized canon of the great important works, and I think that should’ve been more of a goal. That said, though it is a comedy, the film I would add if only given one spot is also something of a homework film. As His Girl Friday is as well. I’m going all the way back to the Silent Era for mine and saying Safety Last is the peak of the era and its exclusion is a real shame.
Kern: I love Safety Last too, and would trade any of the silent Chaplin flicks on there for that one in a heartbeat. Now for the big question, and a timely one: does Citizen Kane really belong at the top? Do you think it’s really representative of the greatest achievement in American film, and if you were a voting member would that be the #1 on your own list or would you put something else like Lawrence of Arabia at the top spot? It wouldn’t top my list, but I think it’s #1 for good reason. I’d be dismayed if Vertigo ever overtook it like it did on the Sight & Sound poll in 2012.
Henry: I prefer Lawrence of Arabia to any other film on the list but I think its inclusion is somewhat off. It’s really a British film no matter what arguments they want to make to try and claim it for America. Honestly there’s a solid 20 films from the list that I would easily place above Citizen Kane in my own rankings as well. That said, it has to be number one because it’s what it is. Maybe you could almost convince me that The Godfather has that sort of place in the cultural mind at this point but nothing else could really compete. For the number one I think it needs to be a film that has had profound influence on American cinema and remains high quality today. Citizen Kane fits the bill.
In Conversation 2001: a space odyssey a clockwork orange adam sandler alfred hitchcock apocalypse now billy wilder burn after reading cabaret cary grant cats charlie chaplin citizen kane city lights do the right thing dr strangelove or how i learned to stop worrying and love the bomb elf elvis 68 comeback special eyes wide shut francis ford coppola frank capra george clooney get out goodfellas green book his girl friday its a wonderful life jackass jaws john ford john huston judd apato judd apatow kundun la la land lady bird lawrence of arabia mad max fury road magic mike xxl malcolm x martin scorsese mash michael clayton modern times moonlight mulholland drive my fair lady no country for old men north by northwest oceans eleven paper moon platoon raging bull raiders of the lost ark robert altman safety last schindlers list shrek singin in the rain sophies choice spartacus stanley kubrick steven soderbergh steven spielberg sunset boulevard swing time taxi driver terrence malick the apartment the blair witch project the color of money the dark knight the departed the godfather the grapes of wrath the great dictator the maltese falcon the red shoes the shining the social network the sound of music the tree of life the wild bunch there will be blood up in the air vertigo west side story when harry met sally yankee doodle dandy