My roommate and I are film junkies, and what better challenge than the AFI Top 100? The American Film Institute updated their list in 2007, so that’s the one we went with. It’s been a couple years and we still aren’t done with the list, but we’ve put an enormous dent into the daunting face of this cinematic cliff.
Here are my thoughts on films 100-90.
100. BEN-HUR (1959): We started off with a doozy, a 3 hour and 44 minute epic, complete with intermission and overture. The story of Judah Ben-Hur, portrayed by the craggy, rock-jawed Charlton Heston, is highlighted by an infamous (and surprisingly violent) chariot race, and occurs in tandem with the final years of Christ. Kevin and I decided to take the plunge, watching the entire 4 hour spectacle on one grueling Sunday, and by the time we got to the stone-carved “THE END” across our screen, we were both beaten. The movie itself is wonderful, and production quality of these old-timey epics is second to none. The sheer scope of these is magnificent, but even for a couple of movie elitists like ourselves, Ben-Hur was quite the mountain to climb. (7.4/10)
99. TOY STORY (1995): Between the two of us, we’d probably seen Toy Story a million times, but why not a million and one? The one thing that amazed me about Toy Story is how well it’s held up. The CG of the mid-90s was god-awful, but Pixar showed themselves to be masters of their craft, creating characters in a digital medium that had life behind their eyes. It changed everything. Countless thousands of CGI movies later, the medium has transmogrified into a viable and entertaining form of storytelling, accepted by audiences worldwide. (8.2/10)
98. YANKEE DOODLE DANDY (1942): I was expecting this to be our first dud, and the sing-songy synopsis of a biopic-turned-musical of George M. Cohan didn’t inspire. That said, this was the first time of many in which a movie on this list surprised me with its quality. James Cagney was wonderful, and while his singing voice didn’t amaze, he proved himself a versatile and interesting performer; one of Hollywood’s old-fashioned “triple threats.” (7.5)
97. BLADE RUNNER (1982): To the surprise of some, this was my first time ever seeing Blade Runner, and we watched the director’s cut (which was apparently the superior version of the film). Gotta tell you, I wasn’t inspired. I enjoyed the world and aesthetic of a steampunk-infused mecha dystopia of neo-Los Angeles, but Harrison Ford was forgettable. I couldn’t once latch onto his distant and detached Deckard. Rutger Haur was fantastic as Roy, and his final soliloquy in the downpour is ultimately the film’s highlight. I admit that part of why I didn’t like this movie as much as I thought is that sci-fi just isn’t my genre. I’ll watch it again (a different version) before the sequels come out, and hopefully will see what others love. (6.8)
96. DO THE RIGHT THING (1989): Arguably Spike Lee’s best film, the provocative and powerfully honest story told about a few blocks of Brooklyn is a masterpiece. There’s much about this movie that’s still important and relevant today, and the finale is a lesson for us all. Radio Raheem’s death stings so close to the last couple years worth of police brutality and the argument of racist thoughts and bias among characters that are mostly likeable show that not much has changed in almost 20 years. Beyond that, this is the most color-rich film I think I’ve ever seen. The brilliant set design and use of color alone makes this worth watching, but Sweet Dick Willy is a close second. Fight the power! (8.8)
95. THE LAST PICTURE SHOW (1971): A bleak and ultimately forgettable feature, I personally felt nothing of significance from The Last Picture Show. It’s certainly not a bad film at all, as the story harkens back to the the sordid events of a small Texas town in the early 1950s. The ensemble cast, highlighted by a wrenching performance by Cloris Leachman, contrasts several coming-of-age stories against the older populace, aging in frustration and heartache. Ultimately concluding on a bitter and somber note, this was a unique modern-era picture that made me feel quite dismal, all through a bleached out montage of black, white, and grey. (6.6)
94. PULP FICTION (1994): Back in the 90s, Tarantino was a revelation in cinema, penning screenplays for True Romance and From Dusk Til Dawn (in which he also co-starred) and directing Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, and Jackie Brown. The latter three films under his direction were showcases for his now-trademark homages to spaghetti westerns, grindhouse cinema, samurai flicks, and countless other schools of film. A former video store rental clerk, Tarantino’s reverence to film is second to none, and Pulp Fiction is a love letter to all of his inspirations, thrown in a blender with some fantastic actors, unforgettable dialogue, and a bucket of blood. (9.6)
93. THE FRENCH CONNECTION (1971): A gritty look into some romanticized undercover police work, one of my favorites – the great Gene Hackman – takes us on a brutal journey into the drug-smuggling undercurrent in New York City. Ethics of the police trade against the war on heroin dealing are thrown out the window, and you can tell this movie inspired countless other films and video games (Grand Theft Auto IV in particular). Famous for the car chase sequence beneath an elevated train, The French Connection makes up in dogged determination & gunfire for what it lacks in elegance. (7.4)
92. GOODFELLAS (1990): One of my favorite movies, I never pass up a chance to re-watch Scorsese’s crimson-slathered jewel, the violent and fascinating story of Henry Hill’s life in and outside of the mob. The finest career performance of Ray Liotta hit stride perfectly alongside Joe Pesci’s defining role as Tommy DeVito and the mobster gravitas that only the timeless Robert DeNiro can provide. Goodfellas has it all: Editing, framing, cinematography, music, lighting, dialogue, long takes, set design, costume design, multiple time periods, acting, brilliant supporting cast, and they say “fuck” 300 times; good for 2 “fucks” a minute. You can’t ask for more than that, folks. (10)
91. SOPHIE’S CHOICE (1982): Oh God. I thought I had seen every depressing movie under the sun, but Sophie’s Choice was perhaps the hardest non-documentary movie I’ve sat through. Meryl Streep could’ve retired after Choice, as it’s likely the single greatest performance of any actress yet to grace the screen, and topping it will be impossible for her or likely anyone else. There’s so much nuance to her portrayal of Sophie, both in the quirky sedation of the modern iteration and the horrified, broken equivalent during her time in Auschwitz. I’m not sure I’ll ever watch Sophie’s Choice ever again (thus the asterisk), simply because it’s so heartbreaking, but I recommend it to you all. (8.9*)
Tune in next time for films 90-81.