December 15, 2009

These are just the rules and regulations

Hey, movie lovers. Back, nearly giddy with thinking about how many movies I should really see before the new year (there's at least four in theaters ... Up in the Air, Avatar, An Education, Nine ... and several more on DVD or Hulu ... and a bunch I'll probably skip til later) and fretting about last-minute Christmas shopping. I don't ever learn, do I?

I just wanted to post once more before we take off on this Herculean horse race of a goal and look at the criteria that the AFI publishes about its lists. For the Top 100, they listed seven major criteria.
  • Feature-length: Narrative format typically over 60 minutes long.
Well, this one's pretty basic. Although have you seen a feature film lately that wasn't sixty minutes? The shortest one I can think of is Yossi & Jagger (highly recommended), which I saw this spring, at only 67 minutes. But it told a whole story, and I didn't feel jilted at the end. Does a movie NEED to be longer? I sometimes find myself hesitating to move a movie to the top of my Netflix queue if it's over 100 minutes. Attention span problem? Not necessarily, I just want a story told efficiently. I'll watch a four-hour movie if that's how long it takes to get the point across.
  • American film: English language, with significant creative and/or financial production from the United States.
Well, right. This makes sense. Otherwise, how are you going to make a list? If you include any foreign country's canon of film, you'll need to include everyone's, and nobody has time to see all the movies in the world. Although I do wish I saw more foreign flicks: of the 70- or 80-odd movies I've seen this year so far, only eight or nine were foreign. I could do better.
  • Critical Recognition: Formal commendation in print, television, and digital media.
This is where the criteria start to get fuzzy. Time limit and country of origin are pretty set in stone, but "formal commendation" in media is definitely a matter of opinion... isn't it? "Recognition" and "commendation" are almost euphemisms, but I get what they mean: the media is on the movie's side.
  • Major Award Winner: Recognition from competitive events including awards from peer groups, critics, guilds, and major film festivals.
This is also tricky. Ben Hur and Titanic both made the list (at #100 and #83, respectively) and each won eleven Oscars, tying for the most ever for one film ... with The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, which was left off the list (the first installment of those movies, The Fellowship of the Ring, is included at #50). Intolerance, the oldest film on the list (released in 1916), was made before the Oscars, or any other awards voting body, were even around. I know some of this might seem moot -- who cares about awards, anyway? -- but it's interesting to include this criterion when there's no way to judge "peer groups, critics, guilds, and major film festivals" against each other.
  • Popularity Over Time: This includes success at the box office, television and cable airings, and DVD/VHS sales and rentals.
This is one I'm very interested in. How well does a film stand up after many years? I feel like there are movies from last year that I don't think hold very well after two or three viewings, but then there are some that I could watch endlessly without ever tiring of them. Is Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind the best film of this decade? It's endlessly watchable, and I could argue that it is, but there are several others that qualify.
  • Historical Significance: A film's mark on the history of the moving image through visionary narrative devices, technical innovation or other groundbreaking achievements.
This is perhaps the most objective criterion on the list, but sometimes it's easily categorized. For example, the two (only two!) animated films on the AFI Top 100 are there for very clear reasons: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (#34) was the first feature-length animated film, and Toy Story (#99) was the first feature-length computer-animated film. (I have serious objections to those two being the only animated films on the list, but that will be covered later.) They are both major contributions to the list for obvious reasons. Some reasons aren't so clear.
  • Cultural Impact: A film's mark on American society in matters of style and substance.
This ties with the previous marker for "most objective" on the list, as it's just as hard to pinpoint and maybe even harder to articulate. What's difficult here for me is putting myself into a historical context where a Western or a biblical epic seems relevant in the 21st century. It could be argued that Mean Girls had more cultural impact than Crash, for example, but does that make it a "better" movie, more worthy of being on the list? I'm not entirely convinced.



  1. Are you going to read up on movies you have not seen previously before you see them for this project? Or are you going to go in blind, as they say?

  2. It'll probably depend on the movie. I am trying to view them from an academic standpoint, but I do want it both ways. I've seen a lot of them before and I've at least heard of almost all the rest, so there shouldn't be too much to "read up on."

  3. I think you mean subjective when you say objective in this post, Max. Objective is based on facts, subjective is based on personal opinions!

    Interesting reading so far!

  4. Oops. That is what I meant. Thanks Andrea!