I finally did it.

Last night I watched my last unseen film on the AFI’s original Top 100 list.

If you don’t know, in 1998 the American Film Institute (AFI) polled “more than 1500 leaders of the American movie community” to establish a list of America’s 100 Greatest Movies (they’ve since “revised” the list, which I don’t understand and refuse to acknowledge for a host of reasons which I’ll not discuss now).

I was 24 and living in near-poverty in glorious Jackson, Wyoming in 1998. With few friends and little money, it was fortuitous that the local video store had dedicated an entire wall to the AFI’s shiny, new list. As I recall, 96 of the 100 films were on their shelf (some of these are hard to find) and I set out to watch them all.

At the time, I had seen 48, so I was starting from a good spot. Another 30 or so I had always wanted to see or thought I should, based on historical significance or legendary status. This left about 20 films that I would likely have to force myself to watch.

I dove in and tore off a big chunk of the “always-wanted-to-sees,” watching fifteen of them over the course of that long winter, which, stuffed in between my three low-paying jobs, was actually pretty impressive.

By the summer of ‘99 I had made more friends; I planned and traveled on a remarkable journey; I met my future partner and, I’m pleased to say, my movie-watching was displaced by good times. Eventually, I left Jackson and have yet to find another video store that houses the AFI’s Top 100 within their walls. My noble goal remained unachieved.

In late 2011, many years after discovering Netflix, callings of the list began to haunt me. I dusted off my printed copy from ’98 and set out to finish the goal I’d set so many years before. Two years and four months later (life does tend to get in the way), I’m proud to say I’ve done it. #73 Wuthering Heights was the final installment and though it was a lackluster finale, it feels great to have finally seen them all.

Through the process I kept track, noting those I thought were worth seeing (3 stars or higher in my sole opinion), those which were rated too highly, those that really surprised me, and of course, the shameful few that, in my opinion, have no business being on the list.

While these qualifications are, at their core, very subjective, I tried to maintain as much objectivity as possible, being sure to consider historical or technical significance, notable performances, legendary cast members, and the technical, traditional, or social limitations that existed at the time they were made.

Fortunately, the vast majority of these films, 93 by my count, I deemed “worth watching”, which is to say they were able to capture and hold my attention and leave me glad that I had taken the time, a “thumbs up” if you will.

Of those 93, I thought 31 of them were ranked too highly and, though worth watching, possibly did not belong on the list. This leaves more than two-thirds, 69 films by my standard, that are worthy inhabitants of the list and nothing short of excellent.

Among those 69, I found 14 surprises, meaning films I was dragging my feet to watch or had generally low hopes for. My “Pleasant Surprises” list includes (order based on the AFI ranking):

#92 A Place in the Sun (1951)
#86 Mutiny on the Bounty (1935)
#82 Giant (1956)
#69 Shane (1953)
#67 The Manchurian Candidate (1962)*
#57 The Third Man (1949)*
#54 All Quiet on the Western Front (1930)
#52 From Here to Eternity (1953)
#44 The Birth of a Nation (1915)
#38 Double Indemnity (1944)*
#33 High Noon (1952)
#30 Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948)
#24 Raging Bull (1980)*
#12 Sunset Boulevard (1950)*

Of these, Film Noir (*) clearly won out as a genre, with arguably five titles listed above. You may notice that, of these fourteen, twelve are Black and White which, I’ll admit, is a slight hurdle for me, so it was nice to see how many of these disavow my reticence to watch in grayscale.

To counter the “surprises,” I also assembled a list of complete disappointments. These are the seven films that, no matter how hard I tried, I could not understand their inclusion on the list. I muscled through them, but it was work, and in the end concluded they had no business being on the list as they were either boring, frustrating, or not even remotely funny when they were supposed to be. Here is my list of “Complete Disappointments” (again, order based on the AFI ranking):

#97 Bringing Up Baby (1938)
#96 The Searchers (1956)
#87 Frankenstein (1931)
#73 Wuthering Heights (1939)
#51 The Philadelphia Story (1940)
#45 A Streetcar Named Desire (1951)
#14 Some Like It Hot (1959)

I expect I’ll take some flak for several, if not all, of these. C’est la vie. Four of them I went into with enthusiasm, three I knew nothing about and approached with no expectations. Three I even watched twice, hoping, even wanting, to like them, but to no avail. To stave off dissent as much as possible, I’ll list my reasons for these disappointments.

#97 Bringing Up Baby – despite being a comedy, I simply didn’t laugh. Admittedly, screwballs aren’t my favorite anyway, but if it’s on the list I should at least be chuckling, if not rolling. I like Cary Grant; I like Katharine Hepburn; I love Barry Fitzgerald. None of them helped this ridiculous movie.

#96 The Searchers – I love the Duke, I love westerns, and supposedly being “the greatest American Western of all time” I had high hopes here. Just didn’t click. A lot of the plot seemed disjointed and rambling and I didn’t care much for how the Comanches were portrayed overall, nor did I like many of the characters, least of all Ethan (Wayne).

#87 Frankenstein – I tried. I really, really tried. I watched it twice; I framed it in the time; I didn’t compare it to Shelley’s book; I gave it TONS of leeway in regard to effects. Woof! I was never “scared” nor did I ever feel any danger or dread. Ridiculous plot scenarios, boring “action” scenes, and a dud of an ending made this one of the bigger disappointments.

#73 Wuthering Heights – As I said, the last unseen installment. I know Cathy is supposed to be a horrible person, and I guess I was supposed to think the same of Heathcliff, but honestly, I just didn’t care nor believe their “romance”. It was nice to see Olivier in an earlier time, though he literally stumbles in nearly every scene, but nothing here worth watching really. No, I have not read the book.

#51 The Philadelphia Story – As with Bringing Up Baby, this one didn’t much tickle the ol’ funnybone. I said I like Grant and I like Hepburn, but maybe I just don’t like Grant and Hepburn. Jimmy Stewart made this one slightly more enjoyable than Baby, but overall, a let down with very few laughs.

#45 A Streetcar Named Desire – “What?!” you say, “How can you not like Streetcar?! It’s Streetcar!” Sorry. I’m even a theatre guy; I like Williams plenty; I even kind of like the play. I just didn’t care. And though I’m not the biggest fan of Brando, I’ll point out that I loved #8 On the Waterfront (1954), so it had little to do with that. Still, I wish I could’ve seen Paul Newman play Stanley instead. I watched it twice, and that was twice too many. Just my opinion.

 #14 Some Like It Hot – Here it is, the highest ranked and biggest let down of them all, especially noting that the AFI parked this turd right at the top of their “100 years…100 laughs” best comedies list (which itself is an abomination, but that’s for another time).  Watched it twice, ten years apart; I laughed exactly once, that’s it. And according to the AFI, it’s the funniest movie EVER. I realize that men dressing up as women was probably funnier in ’59, but that’s really the only “joke” in the movie and when you grow up watching Bosom Buddies, and can quote Tootsie verbatim, there’s just nothing here.

So I’m incongruent with 7 of 100 films; that’s to be expected and within the realm of personal preference. In all, a 93% “fresh rating” for the list is still pretty good, and certainly suggests that I’m not too far out of line with 1500 of the American film industry’s leaders.

While I ended on a down note (I should have saved a sure win for last), overall, I’m really glad I finished the list and I can certainly say that my knowledge of, and appreciation for, the American cinema was enhanced by this process. What’s more, many of these have led me to seek out films of certain actors, directors, writers, and genres that I otherwise never would have explored.

If you’re a film lover and haven’t viewed the list, consider giving it a try. You never know what gems you’ll find laying in the halls of history. If you do, here’s hoping it takes you less than 15 years.

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