Sunday, July 6, 2014

Movie Guy: AFI Countdown 50 to 46

In this next batch of films, we have both the oldest and the youngest films on the list.

The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001)
Movie-making has changed. At least, big budget movie-making has changed. Actors are in front of green screens, often talking to, running from, or even fighting with something that actually isn't there. This isn't necessarily a bad thing in the right hands, and director Peter Jackson was - at least for this film - the right hands. This is probably the least CGI-infused of Jackson's entries into the world of J.R.R. Tolkien's Middle Earth. Personally, I found the Lord of the Rings trilogy books to be a little over-written. I felt that The Hobbit was perfect, and the subsequent books were . . . a little self-indulgent. They're still good, but I think they actually work a little better as movies - at least, as movies directed by Peter Jackson, who took great pains to be faithful to Tolkien's lengthy descriptions of places and scenery. These are good movies: moving stories, great characters, beautiful scenery, and breathtaking battle scenes. I may not like what Jackson is doing with The Hobbit, but I think that at least one of his LOTR movies belongs on this list, and it might as well be the story that introduces us to Frodo, Sam, and the rest of the nine.

Intolerance (1916)
There are 85 years spanning #50 and #49 on the list. In fact, this is the earliest film on the list. The film most often associated with director and producer D.W. Griffith is the controversial Birth of a Nation (1915) because of its racial stereotypes and glorification of the KKK. Intolerance was Griffith's response to this criticism, and he may have gone just a little bit overboard. This movie is estimated to have cost $2.5 million in 1916. Apparently, that would be the equivalent of about $47 million today. Just for comparison: Birth of a Nation had a budget of $112,000. So this movie cost over 22 times more than that, and it did not do well at the box office. It has, however, had a good deal of critical praise, and, of course, it did make this list, which Birth of a Nation did not.
I'm on the fence on this film. It's ambitious. It's also very pretentious. It's comprised of four separate stories in four separate eras: ancient Babylon (amazing sets), 16th century France, a brief story of the crucifixion of Jesus, and a modern story, which is really the most compelling of the four. The binding theme of the stories is "intolerance," which is a bit of a flimsy thread. "Fortunately," Griffith hammers us with the word "intolerance" over and over and over, so we won't miss the connection.
I actually think Birth of a Nation is a better film, but it will never make the AFI 100 list because of its controversial themes - themes that I , too, find abhorrent. I guess the question is: if a poorly made movie was uplifting, positive, and without controversy, would it be allowed on this list? I f the answer is no, then why disqualify a well-made film that has ugly implications? (There are two Godfather films on this list. Just saying.) However, I will not be making a pitch to have Birth of a Nation added to the AFI 100. I'm just not sure that this film belongs here, either. If you've got three-and-a-half hours to kill, give it a look: I'd be interested to get your opinions.

Rear Window (1954)
Jimmy Stewart is perfect as the temporarily wheelchair-bound photographer who indulges in some innocent voyeurism of his neighbors, but then finds that there may have been a murder. Hitchcock's direction is always tight and controlled, but it is exceptionally so in this film. The tension builds until we are at fever pitch. This movie is a great ride. This is definitely a favorite of mine, and I'm not sure that Grace Kelly was ever better than in this film.

A Streetcar Named Desire (1951)
The author of the original play and co-author of the screen adaptation, Tennessee Williams, said of this film in his memoirs: "marvelous performances in a great movie, only slightly marred by Hollywood ending." I'd have to agree with that. Williams's plays were way too controversial for film at the time. Later films of Cat On a Hot Tin RoofSuddenly Last Summer, and 27 Wagons Full of Cotton (filmed as Baby Doll) would also require significant changes in order to be deemed appropriate for movie audiences. This is not an upbeat story. These are not terribly likable characters. However, it's brilliantly performed, deftly directed, and terribly compelling to watch. Good film. Elia Kazan was a great director.

It Happened One Night (1934)
I love this film. It is one of the earliest and best romantic comedies. It is the model for so many romantic comedies that would follow. Claudette Colbert is perfect. Clark Gable is perfect. Love this movie. if you haven't seen it: see it.

One of the stipulations of the AFI 100 list is that (since the "A" is for American) all films on the list must be American-made. This makes Fritz Lang's German expressionist masterpiece, Metropolis. ineligible for the top 100, but I'd still add it to your to-watch list. There are a few different versions, but there was a very good restoration done in 2002.

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