Len’s 25 Favorite Films of All Time

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Having just completed watching, in order, the American Film Institute’s Top 100 American films of all time, it begs the question:  what are my favorite movies of all time? There’s really no logic to a personal favorites list – there are many reasons for why a film etches itself into a person’s psyche enough to make it a favorite. I can tell you this, I love to laugh and so many of my favorites are comedies (how else do you explain the fact that Stripes is one of my all-time favorites). I also came of age in the 1980s, so there are tons of films from that decade amongst my favorites.

I make no apologies for loving films that aren’t considered great by critics. Critics measure films differently, as do each of us. Sometimes I’ll love a film simply because of the mood it creates. I do tend to go for films with great scripts, which is perhaps why some of the films on my list may not even be that well known…the dialogue may have captured my heart. Interestingly, only six of my top 25 are also on the AFI list. Not sure what that says about my taste, but then again I tend to go for the indies and the comedies and the AFI has a very poor sense of humor and hardly notices smaller “art” films. Again, taste is a funny thing. After all, I didn’t like Citizen Kane, the top film on the AFI list, and for some reason the AFI left Borat off its list which would definitely be in my top 100!

So, in alphabetical order, here are my 25 favorite films:

All The President’s Men (1976) — Made me want to be a writer.
Almost Famous (2000) – Cameron Crowe is one of my favorite writer/directors.
American Beauty (1999) – Alan Ball is one hell of a writer (see this and Six Feet Under if you don’t believe me)
Annie Hall (1977) — Perhaps the best American movie ever made and still Woody’s best
Baby, It’s You (1983) — My favorite John Sayles film, and that’s saying something given his incredibly underrated filmography
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) — Newman and Redford in American classic. Defined “buddy” pictures
Casablanca (1942) – #3 on the AFI list for a good reason. Here’s looking at you kid.
Diner (1982) — Beginning of Barry Levinson’s great career. Best ensemble cast ever put together.
Diva (1981) — Best French film ever made!
Empire of the Sun (1987) — Spielberg’s best kept secret! Is that a young Christian Bale? Why yes it is.
Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982) — Dude, that’s my skull!
Field of Dreams (1989) — If you build it, he will come! No secrets here…this is my all-time favorite film.
Five Corners (1987) — Jodie Foster, Tim Robbins and John Turturro in John Patrick Shanley written gem you’ve probably never heard of let alone seen.
High Fidelity (2000) — Hard to pick a better John Cusack film. Written by Nick Hornby, one of my favorite authors so there you go.
Hope & Glory (1987) — Academy Award nominee for Best Picture by John Boorman.
Into the Wild (2007) – Incredible true story, great acting, great directing by Sean Penn and the most hauntingly beautiful soundtrack by Eddie Vedder to go with it
Lost in Translation (2003) – Sophia Coppola is a genius.
Manhattan (1979) — Woody’s second best. You’ll fall in love with Mariel Hemingway.
The Philadelphia Story (1940) — Cary Grant, Katherine Hepburn and James Stewart. Ahead of its time.
The Player (1992) — Have to watch several times to catch all the cameos!
Pulp Fiction (1994) – Quentin Tarantino is a sick fuck, but he’s brilliant.
The Right Stuff (1983) — Amazing cast, incredible screenplay and it’s all true!
Rocky (1976) – Invented the underdog story. Yo Adrian!
She’s Gotta Have It (1986) — Spike Lee’s hysterical first film is still my favorite, although I think Do The Right Thing is a better film. Either way Spike Lee is one of America’s top 2-3 directors.
Stripes (1981) — Don’t leave…all the plants will die!

This is my list and it probably contains some films you either hated or didn’t see. But that’s what makes film (and art in general) so great. These films speak to me. What films speak to you?

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AFI #1: Citizen Kane

CitizenKaneStill_1Well, what started as a fun little project on April 17, 2011 has finally come to an end on this the last day of 2013. Ironically, this project began and ended with a disappointing film. I may be in the minority, but I didn’t like AFI #100 Ben-Hur at all, and I can’t say I enjoyed the apparent best American film ever made, Citizen Kane. I didn’t dislike Citizen Kane, I just thought it was much ado about nothing. It certainly isn’t the best American film of all time in my opinion. There were, however, so many amazing films on the AFI list and the project was well worth the experience.

I get that Citizen Kane was ahead of its time in terms of cinematography and editing, but the truth is I’m not a filmmaker so I don’t really care about that. The most innovative technical aspect of Citizen Kane is the extended use of deep focus, according to Wikipedia. Good for Orson Welles. I don’t think any of the other films on the AFI list made the list based on technical merits, yet a jury of 1,500 film artists, critics and historians determined that Citizen Kane was the greatest movie of all time. Okay, I’m not here to disparage the AFI — after all I chose to watch the films on their list. But I’ve seen a shitload of films in my time, some on this list and some not, and I can think of tons that are better than Citizen Kane. Of course, art is subjective.

I did, however, like the themes embedded in Citizen Kane. What I got out of it was that life is about more than acquiring things and wealth, and that happiness is found in the little things. For Charles Foster Kane that meant at the end of his life, a life in which he achieved great wealth and power, he was never happier than when he was a child playing in the snow with his sled. As someone who values life’s simple pleasures I can relate to that message. Critics have also suggested the film is an indictment of capitalism itself, and I can see that and I appreciate that sentiment too. To think that Welles broached these subjects on film in 1941 is pretty impressive given the heightened patriotism of the World War II generation.

So, I don’t agree with the AFI jury but that shouldn’t be a surprise. I didn’t set out to critique the list, but rather to complete a project and the AFI list was as good a list as any. I have to admit though that finishing this quest is both fulfilling and a little bittersweet. I need another list! I have thought of a few ideas, but I’m open to suggestions for the next project. I have considered watching the entire James Bond catalog in order. Or watching every Woody Allen film in order despite having already seen them all and knowing that my wife hates Woody. Anyone know a good list of the best indie films? I’ll be taking suggestions but I suspect I’ll want to launch into something new pretty quickly so send your ideas pronto.

All that said, I’m not quite finished with this project. Several people have asked me during this project about my overall impressions of the AFI list, whether there were any major surprises either way, and of course what are my favorite films. I suspect I have one or two more blog posts coming over the next day or so on these subjects so stay tuned.

Thanks to all of you who followed along with me on this crazy trip. In the 20 months since I started it I moved to California and back, changed jobs twice and had a friggin’ heart attack. I watched movies that I rented at stores, borrowed from the library, downloaded off the Internet, and streamed on NetFlix, Amazon and Google Play. I watched films by myself, with my family, and a few times with friends. It was tons of fun!

Happy New Year!

 

AFI #2: The Godfather

TheGodfatherAlPacinoMarlonBrandoThe Godfather is likely the most critically acclaimed film of all time, even though it did not take the top spot in the AFI survey. Still, it’s hard to find any critic who does not place The Godfather among the greatest films ever made. When it was released in 1972 it was the highest grossing film that year and for many years held the record for the highest grossing American film. It won a handful of Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director and a Best Acting Oscar for Marlon Brando. The film cemented Francis Ford Coppola’s position among the best American film makers, and it catapulted Al Pacino into legendary actor status — which he formalized two years later with his legendary performance in The Godfather Part II.

But there is something else about The Godfather that struck a chord with viewers and has made it such an enduring film. My personal view is that the film speaks to the American immigrant experience and the success of the underdog and that certainly resonates with most Americans. But more than that, The Godfather was the first film to delve into the psyche of the American criminal and give us insight into the motivations of truly bad people. That and we love a good mob hit!

There were plenty of mobster films before The Godfather, but they were caricatures of mobsters, with the likes of James Cagney sneering and shooting his Tommy gun. In The Godfather we have much more robust characters. In The Godfather Part II we learn what drove Vito Corleone to a life of crime, essentially his inability to provide for his family in any other way plus the revenge of his own father’s murder. In The Godfather we see a more measured and mature Vito trying to keep his family where it is while avoiding the pitfalls of the growing narcotics trade. His maturity is in stark contrast to Sonny’s youthful exuberance and lust for power, which ultimately gets him whacked. But the real story of The Godfather is the precursor to Part II, in which we see a young Michael return from war thinking he could stay away from his family business only to be dragged in when things get personal for him. As he sees his father shot he gets a twinge of understanding for the family business, and then when his wife his killed in Sicily and his brother is gunned down he returns to America fully engaged in the family business. It is this change in Michael that provides the climax of The Godfather when Michael kills off the heads of the other four mafia families and whacks Moe Green as well to establish the family’s dominance not just in New York but across America. We see how that turns out in Part II, but the change in Michael is fascinating to watch and he ultimately becomes a much more ruthless killer than his father.

I don’t know anyone who likes The Godfather that doesn’t root for the family, even though we know what they are doing is against the law and immoral. We cheer when Michael kills Captain McCluskey and Sollozzo in the restaurant and we love when Clemenza strangles Connie’s husband for setting up Sonny. Not only do we love it when Clemenza kills Paulie for setting up Don Corleone, but we celebrate his famous line following the kill — “leave the gun, take the cannolis.” We feel compassion for the Corleone family when Sonny gets killed and when Michael’s wife is blown up in Sicily. We root for the killers. It’s the phenomenon that later has us relating to Tony Soprano and Dexter Morgan. Before The Godfather killers didn’t have feelings.

Of course The Godfather is one of the most quoted movies of all time, especially among men but even women love the bad guys. “Don’t ask me about my business Kay.” “Luca Brasi sleeps with the fishes.”  And the most famous line, #2 on the AFI list of best movie lines ever: “I’m gonna make him an offer he can’t refuse.”

So, do I love The Godfather? No, but I like it a lot and understand its place in the history of American film. I also liked Part II, but as I said in that review I think you can’t separate the two films as they are really part of the same story, especially when you consider how Coppola shot the films out of chronological order. I’m not saying it should be seen chronologically, but when you understand the chronology the films are better. The films also gave us several iconic characters and has spawned hundreds of tributes and references. George Lucas, for example, said that the baptism scene in The Godfather was his inspiration for the scene in Episode III when Anakin Skywalker kills the separatist leaders and announces the beginning of the Galactic Empire. If there were no Godfather there would have been no Goodfellas or Casino or Sopranos. The Godfather is truly a great and important American film.

Next: Citizen Kane

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

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

lawrence-of-arabia

“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