AFI #3: Casablanca

casablanca_movie_poster“Of all the gin joints, in all the towns, in all the world, she walks into mine.”

These lines uttered by Rick Blaine set into action events that change the lives of several unsuspecting people who find themselves in Casablanca at the onset of World War II. When you think about it, it’s not much of a plot and it takes place over the course of just a few days…nevertheless Casablanca went on to win an Academy Award for Best Picture and become one of the most beloved films of all time. A great many films have been about more important subjects and featured far better performances, but there is something about Casablanca that resonates with so many film goers.

It’s certainly a great love story. Rick and Ilsa fall madly in love in Paris but as the Germans roll in she leaves him standing at the train station in the rain. Why? Because the heroic husband she thought long dead has turned up alive. Upon running into each other again in Casablanca, she is torn by her feelings for Rick and her allegiance and love for her husband. At the same time, Rick finds himself questioning everything he believes in, and while he is heartbroken by the loss of Ilsa he knows the choices he must make are far greater than he. Yes, it doesn’t take much to see that the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.

It’s also a war movie, and World War II to boot. You have French patriots and Vichy sympathizers and Nazis, who always account for a great war picture! There is a mysterious American and hero of the underground. There are the profiteers like the unfortunate Ugarte and bar owner Signor Ferrari. You have the dueling national anthems. You have the intrigue of the passage to Lisbon and the murder of the German couriers.

But for me what sets Casablanca apart and what lands it not just at #3 on the AFI list but also among my personal top 10 is the brilliance of the screenplay. I know what you’re thinking…of course he likes the words, he’s a writer. But I submit to you that Casablanca is so great because it consists of some of the greatest dialogue ever performed on the silver screen. The wonderful words begin at the very start and continue unabated until the final line of the film. Yes, Casablanca is one of the most quotable films ever, but the dialogue is special even beyond those nuggets. But just for sheer fun, here’s what everyone remembers:

“I’m shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here!” — Captain Renault

“We’ll always have Paris.” — Rick

“Here’s looking at you kid.” — Rick

“Play it, Sam. Play “As Time Goes By.” — Ilsa

“Round up the usual suspects.” — Captain Renault

“I remember every detail. The Germans wore gray, you wore blue.” — Rick

“Louie, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.” — Rick

But it’s not just these iconic lines. Every bit of dialogue is brilliant. Here’s a particular favorite of mine:

Renault: I’ve often speculated on why you don’t return to America. Did you abscond with the church funds? Did you run off with a Senator’s wife? I like to think that you killed a man. It’s the romantic in me.

Rick: It’s a combination of all three.

Renault: And what in heaven’s name brought you to Casablanca?

Rick: My health. I came to Casablanca for the waters.

Renault: The waters? What waters? We’re in the desert.

Rick: I was misinformed.

And yes, the performances are enduring. Can you think of Humphrey Bogart and not think of Rick? No matter the great performances, Claude Rains will always be Captain Louie Renault. Ingrid Bergman won three acting Oscars…remember for what films? She was not even nominated for Casablanca. It doesn’t matter, she’ll always be Ilsa Lund.

Casablanca is 102 minutes of movie perfection.

Next: The Godfather

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AFI #6: Gone With the Wind

Gone_with_the_Wind

Based on the Margaret Mitchell novel, 1939’s Gone With the Wind is arguably the most popular film ever made and one of the most successful as well. It is of course the story of the American south during the Civil War, but really it is simply a sweeping and epic story of love. Note that I didn’t call it a love story, because it’s not that. It’s more like a misguided or forbidden love story. Surely the main characters love people who don’t return their affection in the way they’d like. Scarlett O’Hara loves Ashley Wilkes, but while he sometimes thinks he loves Scarlett, he is really only in love with his cousin Melanie Hamilton. And for all his bravado, Rhett Butler loves Scarlett despite her inability to return his affection. All of this is set against the demise of their beloved south, although Mitchell surely romanticizes the lifestyle far too much.

It’s truly hard not to enjoy Gone With the Wind. It is a classic of American film and the story is wonderful. But for my money Gone With the Wind is one of the greatest films ever because of its tremendous performances. And that begins, undoubtedly, with Vivien Leigh’s tour de force as Scarlett. Has there ever been a more epic female character in the history of film? Leigh’s Scarlett is beautiful, charming, manipulative, strong and tragic — all at once! Leigh’s Oscar-winning performance is one for the ages and I defy you to take your eyes off of her when she’s on the screen. Leigh made plenty of films over her career, but she will always be immortalized as Scarlett O’Hara and rightfully so.

Clark Gable, who surprisingly did not win the Best Actor Oscar for his portrayal as Captain Rhett Butler, was almost as epic as Leigh. Butler is the epitome of the leading man…he is smart, handsome, strong and savvy. He makes millions during the war as a profiteer, knows how to have a good time, and is the only man who sees beyond Scarlett O’Hara’s facade and truly gets her. Unfortunately for Butler he truly loves Scarlett, and that leads him only to tragedy. By the end he at least knows when it’s time to get out! Gable’s Butler is one of the best male characters ever to be captured on film, and if you disagree…frankly I don’t give a damn.

Gone With the Wind is the definition of an epic and it deserves its lofty place on the AFI list. It is indeed an American classic.

Next: We crack the Top 5 with Singin’ in the Rain

AFI #7: Lawrence of Arabia

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“The trick, William Potter, is not minding that it hurts.” — T.E. Lawrence

Let’s see, a four-hour movie set in the Arabian desert with no women in the cast and long, drawn out scenes of emptiness. Yeah, that’s good for seven Academy Awards including Best Picture. Lawrence of Arabia is nothing if not ambitious. The trick indeed is not minding that it hurts.

If I’m being honest I didn’t really like Lawrence of Arabia. I mean, I sort of liked the first few hours, but by the time I got to the three-hour mark I was done. I made it to the end, but I lost interest around the time the Arab army attacked Damascus. I get that Director David Lean was going for long and slow to simulate the vastness of the desert, but he could have easily told this story in 120 minutes instead of 227. And yes, the cinematography was wonderful but after a while it too got boring. It’s interesting to me that The Bridge on the River Kwai (also directed by Lean) was #36 on this list despite being a much better film in my humble opinion.

Alas, I was not an AFI voter so my opinion doesn’t count. I did enjoy quite a bit of Lawrence of Arabia. I thought Peter O’Toole was great, but I’m a big fan. He’s one of those actors who always seems to play Peter O’Toole in films (my favorite, for the record, was 1982’s My Favorite Year). O’Toole has this amazing way of looking both serious and like he’s up to no good at the same time, which was a key attribute of his Major T.E. Lawrence. I also thought Omar Sharif was fabulous as Sherif Ali and Anthony Quinn was brilliant as Auda Abu Tayi. Too bad I can’t say the same thing about Alec Guinness, who was miserably cast as the Arab Prince Feisal — really, you can’t find a middle eastern actor to play the role of a sheik so you cast an old white British guy? Was Omar Sharif the only middle eastern actor in Hollywood at the time?

The film also has some very classic lines, so kudos to the screenwriter and likely the real Lawrence may have had something to do with it as well given the film is based on his life and the book he wrote about it. Here’s a gem:

General Murray: I can’t make out whether you’re bloody bad-mannered or just half-witted.
T.E. Lawrence: I have the same problem, sir.

Ultimately I’d say Lawrence of Arabia was decent but too damn long. Certainly not one of the top 10 American films ever made. One of the most ambitious…sure.

Next, another behemoth: Gone With the Wind

AFI #8: Schindler’s List

SCHINDLER'S LIST (1993) OLIWIA DABROWSKA STEVEN SPIELBERG (DIR) 025 MOVIESTORE COLLECTION LTDI’m not going to attempt to provide a review of Schindler’s List because frankly it’d be a waste of time. It is clearly one of the greatest films ever made and to offer my semi-professional opinion on it as a film would be unfair to Mr. Spielberg. Suffice it to say Schindler’s List is brilliant. As are the performances by Liam Neeson, Ralph Fiennes and Ben Kingsley.

Instead, what I’d like to offer is my opinion on the purpose of film in general. Because let’s be honest, Schindler’s List is not entertaining and I have argued on this blog before that the main purpose of movies is to entertain. When I saw Schindler’s List I walked out of the theater looking like I’d been run over by a train. I was emotionally drained and disturbed. I swore to myself I would never see it again, despite believing that the film was so important that everyone in the world had a responsibility to see it. I didn’t want to see it again because as someone who grew up in the Jewish community I had had my fill of Holocaust education. I knew everything I needed to know about these tragic events and, well, “never again.” Of course, Schindler’s List added the previously unknown story of Oskar Schindler and the Schindler Jews, but once I knew that story I didn’t want to be reminded again about the Nazis. But I have been pretty true to watching these AFI films again, and in order, so I carved out three hours recently and watched it again.

So is the purpose of film to entertain? As I said above, I have used “lack of entertainment” as an excuse for why I haven’t enjoyed some of the films on the AFI list. But in the past couple of days I have seen several films that reminded me that film is art and art can also be educational. In some cases, art can even be revolutionary. In that context, Schindler’s List is as important a film as has ever been made. If art can cause a sea change in ideas and understanding, then that too is a worthwhile purpose. Entertainment is important, but so is providing understanding and empathy and knowledge and context of history. So for that reason I can say Schindler’s List is one of the most important films ever made and if being important is a measure of art then Schindler’s List is also a great film — even though it is not “entertaining” in the popular sense.

Ultimately I go to films to be entertained, but as a lifelong learner I also go to films to be educated. Documentary films do this, but so does drama (fiction or based on true events). For example, just because Dances With Wolves is fiction does not mean it does not effectively educate viewers on the events surrounding the extinction of Native Americans. And of course, any drama is “based on” true events. Filmmakers take literary license and that’s ok. Even documentary filmmakers take license and spin stories to their narrative.

I also watch films to be moved. I was thinking about this very thing the other day when I was coming out of a screening of Kill Your Darlings, which was based on true events. I loved the film, and I loved it because it was a tremendous story and I love a good story. I always say I like to be entertained, but what I really mean is that I love to be taken on a journey. It’s why I love to read fiction and why I love movies and even story-driven television shows. And it’s why I have spent close to two years now watching every damn film on the AFI top 100 list!

Next: Lawrence of Arabia

AFI #9: Vertigo

james-stewart-vertigo-thumb-400x230-32546Vertigo is the fourth and final Alfred Hitchcock film in the AFI top 100, and of the four I’d rank it as the second best behind North by Northwest, which is one of my favorite Hitchcock films and #55 on the AFI list. For the record, my favorite Hitchcock film is To Catch a Thief, which is not on the AFI list

Vertigo is a solid thriller, with an incredible twist that catches most viewers off guard. The film is almost always included by reviewers as one of the best American films ever made and some even suggest it is the best American film ever. I don’t know what film those people watched, but like a lot of films it likely gets better the more you think about it afterward. I did some reading about the film after viewing it last night to see what all the fuss was about, and much of it centers on the themes rather than the plot. In that retrospect, and in an Academic sense, the film does indeed deal with several key issues not the least of which is society’s manipulation of and abuse of women. Vertigo centers on John “Scottie” Ferguson, a retired cop who unbeknownst to him is set up by an old college buddy to play a role in a crime. Of course, the crime is perpetrated upon a woman and even after the deed is done Scottie himself takes advantage of a woman’s love to its sordid and unfortunate conclusion. Even the subplot, the suicide of a woman 100 years earlier, is misogynistic. The film is all about the manipulation and destruction of women!

Which brings us to Mr. Hitchcock himself. Some critics believe Vertigo is a self-analysis of Hitchcock himself, with the Jimmy Stewart character as Hitchcock. If so, is Hitchcock self-aware of his misogyny or is the film a critique of those who criticize him? I’m not sure, but there is certainly a lot written about it on the Internets. One thing that is clear is that in many of Hitchcock’s films his lead female characters are icy cold women to whom bad things happen. This is clearly the case in Vertigo with the demise of both Madeleine and Judy and god only knows what Hitchcock is trying to say about manipulative women with the mother in Psycho! I’ll give him this much, he sure knows how to pick gorgeous women to star in his films. Kim Novak is stunning in Vertigo (both playing Judy and Madeleine) and I gushed about Eva Marie Saint in North by Northwest. But without question his most beautiful star, and for my money one of the most beautiful actresses of all time, is Grace Kelly who not only stars in Rear Window but is also the star of To Catch a Thief and Dial M For Murder.

So, what is Hitchcock’s legacy relative to the AFI top 100? His four films on the list is the top performance by a director, so does that make him the best American director according to AFI? I’d say several directors have had better single films, but it’d be hard to argue that Hitchcock didn’t have the greatest portfolio of films ever. My personal opinion is that he’s easily one of the top 10 best directors ever, though I wouldn’t put him at number one. That place is reserved for Martin Scorsese in my book, followed by Woody Allen and Spike Lee. But that’s an argument for another blog post!

Next up: Schindler’s List

AFI #11: City Lights

CharlieChaplinCitylights2City Lights is the story of a tramp (played by Charlie Chaplin of course) who finds himself in love with a blind and poor flower saleswoman and at the same time accidentally befriends a suicidal millionaire. Yep, it’s a story you can only find in the movies.

I had two reactions to City Lights, so let’s begin with the film itself. I laughed a lot watching City Lights, at times out loud, and a few times uncontrollably. So given the point of the film is to laugh, I give credit to writer, director and star Chaplin. The plot is pretty loosely tied together — at times it seems more like a collection of vignettes or comedy sketches. But ultimately the plot holds on from start to finish and it may or may not have a happy ending depending on your perspective. Spoiler alert: the girl gets her sight back and money to save her from being homeless and to move her budding flower business off the street and into a storefront.

Several of the Chaplin bits are hysterical, including one where he tries to save the millionaire from killing himself and they both end up in the bay several times and a classic bit where he awakens after sleeping on a statue to find the statue has been revealed to an audience that includes the mayor and other dignitaries. For me though, the best bit is when he tries to earn money to help the flower girl by boxing. If this scene doesn’t make you laugh out loud you do not have a sense of humor:

All that said, I am surprised by how highly ranked City Lights is, and even more flummoxed by the fact that AFI included three Chaplin films in the top 100. City Lights is very funny, but it’s not the 11th best American film of all time. I agree one Chaplin film should have been included in this list, and I agree that City Lights is the best Chaplin film and worthy of the accolades. But including Modern Times (#78) and The Gold Rush (#58) is overkill. I really enjoyed Modern Times, but it’s the same shtick as City Lights. As for The Gold Rush, I hated it (I nearly fell asleep and turned it off after an hour).

By the way, I do like Charlie Chaplin, but for my money the Marx Brothers are way funnier!

Next Up: we crack the top 10 and head down the stretch run with The Wizard of Oz

AFI #13: Star Wars

star-warsIt’s not often that a film makes as big a mark on the world as Star Wars did in 1977. You can argue that it’s a bit corny and that the special effects don’t hold up, but you can’t really argue that it changed the industry forever. From a box office perspective, the original 1977 film kicked off a franchise that has earned more than $4 billion (yes, I said billion). Star Wars: A New Hope has made three-quarters of a billion over the years. In 1977 the film earned more than $300 million — prior to Star Wars, the highest profit 20th Century Fox had every made in one year was $37 million. It is, to this day, the sixth highest grossing film (domestic) of all time!

The film also changed special effects forever. Sure, they look hokey today, but at the time of the film’s release the special effects were mind-blowing and set the bar for decades to come. And of course, the cultural impact of Star Wars continues today as we prepare for the latest installment in the franchise to be directed by JJ Abrams. Even kids born in the last few years know the difference between a Jedi and a Sith, know Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader, and know what one means when they say “may the force be with you.” Star Wars is, to be sure, a deeply ingrained part of American (and global) pop culture. Not bad for a little $11 million film that nobody expected to be successful.

But if you are of a certain age (say 47 for example) then Star Wars likely played an integral role in your childhood. Much like the generation before remembers where they were when Kennedy was shot, my generation remembers the time they went to the theater to see Star Wars. For me, it was some time around Memorial Day 1977 and I saw it at the Loma Theater on Rosecrans Blvd. in San Diego and I waited in a line that wrapped around the theater. By the way, the Loma Theater is no longer with us but the sign remains as part of a Bookstar. My generation had Star Wars lunch boxes, Jedi t-shirts, made models of the Millenium Falcon and played with Luke and Han action figures. It was the first true blockbuster and the first film to make millions off tie-ins and toys. Like I said, it changed Hollywood forever.

So, the question is, is it a good film? Is it worthy of the number 13 slot on the AFI list? Hell, most of us could argue that it isn’t even the best of the franchise (Return of the Jedi is the best in my book). But really when you combine the film itself with the impact it had it’s hard to argue against its place among the best American films ever and I will not argue against it.

I love Star Wars. I have loved it since that day in 1977 when I was 11 years old and I loved it again today when I watched it for the umpteenth time. It has everything a kid needs in a film. Action. Heroes. Villains. Spaceships. Lasers. Explosions. A sexy princess (what 11-year-old boy didn’t have the hots for Carrie Fisher at the time). Sure, the plot is contrived and cliché, but who cares when you have Luke and Han firing lasers at storm troopers.

Next up: The Searchers

AFI #14: Psycho

psychoPsycho is the third of four Alfred Hitchcock films on the AFI Top 100 list, joining North By Northwest (No. 55), Rear Window (No. 48) and Vertigo (No. 9). I am certainly a Hitchcock fan, but I’m not as huge fan of Psycho. I’d seen it before and watching it again yesterday it felt a little dated and suffers from something that a lot of the films in this list suffer from — its reputation is better than the film itself. This has been a common theme for me on this journey. Films that are supposed to be American classics or “great” turn out to be dull, dated or flat-out bad. Psycho is a good film, but it’s not worthy of being #14 on this list and in my humble opinion it’s not even among Hitchcock’s best.

I think Psycho definitely has a place in film history, being perhaps the first successful and critically well received “horror” films. And it definitely deserves credit for its disturbing matricide theme and Anthony Perkins’ terrific portrayal of Norman Bates. Perkins set the standard for the “psycho” character and he plays it so quietly and internally that it will live on as one of the best film characters ever created. Unfortunately for Perkins he was never able to move beyond Norman Bates and the typecast despite clearly being a promising young actor. That being said, I suppose most actors would be thrilled to leave a legacy like Norman Bates.

But in terms of entertainment I really wasn’t that impressed. I am a huge fan of North By Northwest and To Catch a Thief. Vertigo and Rear Window are just ok for me, but I can definitely say I liked all of those films more than Psycho. That being said, you have to give Hitchcock credit for the creation of Norman Bates and for giving us the shower scene, which had people across the world afraid to get wet for years and has been stolen in tribute on many occasions. Few film fans will ever forget those two legacies.

I also have a bone to pick with the ending. The film should have ended with Bates’ arrest. Instead, Hitchcock takes us to the police station where the psychiatrist comes out of his interview with Bates and then tells us the whole story of how Bates ended up the way he did. The whole scene isn’t needed. It was patronizing to have someone explain the plot to us at the end — we got it without the narrative. He killed his mother and brought her back to life through his psychosis and related actions. I like it better when the  film goer is left to explore the themes on his or her own following a film. Makes for great after film dinner conversations!

Next: Star Wars

AFI #15: 2001 A Space Odyssey

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“Morally pretentious, intellectually obscure and inordinately long … a film out of control.” — Historian Arthur M. Schlesinger

Well, it’s never a good sign when you have to go on the Internet after watching a film to find out what the hell it was about. For the second time in my life I sat staring at the screen dumbfounded at 2001: A Space Odyssey, uncertain as to why I put myself through the entire 160 minutes of torture. I’ll admit it — I don’t get it. Maybe I’m just not smart enough or maybe I’m just not into science fiction enough. All I know is that I hated 2001: A Space Odyssey when I first saw it and I hated it again yesterday!

I really think the reason this film is rated so highly by the AFI is because the academics who vote for these polls are too embarrassed to admit they hated it too (and probably didn’t understand it either). Look, I get the basics. Mankind is some kind of alien experiment and by the time we are advanced enough to get to Jupiter our alien overlords move us toward the next phase of evolution. Great. We passed Go. Move directly to the next level. Thank you alien overlords.

But why all the weird special effects Mr. Kubrick? Why did this film feel like it was filmed in slow motion? Why did you put us through lengthy segments where nothing happened set to classical music? Why the black monolith? Why did you leave so much unexplained to the point that I had to go on Wikipedia to try to decipher the damn thing. Why? Why? Why?

Feel free to disagree my minions.

Next: Psycho

AFI #19: On The Waterfront

on_the_waterfrontWell, we’ve cracked the top 20 and things are heating up, literally. Temperatures are rising on the docks in 1954’s On The Waterfront, a film that reminds one how amazing movies and acting can be. I don’t even know where to start with this film, so I’ll just jump right in. The story is intense, focusing on a washed up boxer (Terry Malloy played by Marlon Brando) who works on the docks and runs errands for a mobster union boss. When he becomes the central figure in a mob hit and falls for the sister of the dead stool pigeon his life gets turned upside down and he’s torn between staying D&D (deaf and dumb) or singing like a canary (talking to the cops). Throw in a priest with the passion to make things right on the docks and you get the age-old right versus wrong debate.

For film lovers On The Waterfront has it all, but nothing better than Brando’s performance as Terry Malloy. Brando had been nominated for Best Actor three times prior to this film, but he finally won his first Oscar for his portrayal of Malloy. I don’t think it’s hyperbole to say that his performance is one of the greatest ever captured on film and it has become iconic. It’s impossible to take your eyes off Brando in the film as his character begins as a happy-go-lucky guy with a cushy union job and no worries to the central figure in a major crime wave. He plays Malloy with his characteristic intensity and you believe he is a dumb New York dock worker who maybe got hit a few too many times as a prize fighter. And of course, he utters the classic monologue in the back of a cab when his brother threatens to kill him if he snitches on the mob:

“You don’t understand. I coulda had class. I coulda been a contender. I coulda been somebody, instead of a bum, which is what I am, let’s face it.”

Nearly 30 years later Robert De Niro used the same lines while winning an Oscar himself for playing Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull, which for the record is No. 4 on the AFI list.

But back to On The Waterfront. It took home eight Oscars including Best Picture, Best Director for Elia Kazan and Best Supporting Actress for newcomer Eva Marie Saint. Kazan’s direction was marvelous and along with Leonard Bernstein’s Oscar-winning score provided the perfect mood for the big city docks. Karl Malden was terrific as the priest, who acts as the moral compass for the film and makes the comparison between the sacrifice of the “stool pigeon” and the sacrifice of Jesus. His speeches to the dock workers were also worthy of his Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor.

When you think of film in the 1950s On The Waterfront rises to the surface as a masterpiece. Four of the top 20 AFI films are from the 1950s, but On The Waterfront really encompasses the style of the decade. Bernstein’s score has a lot to do with it, but also Kazan’s direction and Brando’s method make the film edgy and alive. But make no mistake — this film as all Brando. And if you don’t like it then I’d be happy to give you a one-way ticket to palooka-ville!

Next: The General