AFI Top 100: Review & Thoughts of 90-81

Let’s continue on down the list of my AFI Top 100 countdown.

90.  SWING TIME (1936):  Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers delight in what is generally a forgettable bit of novel and overwrought cinematic ham that gets counterbalanced by charming exhibitions of remarkable dancing and singing ability.  In the era of the 1930s, movies were much more a form of escapism, ushing in a new era of “talkies” that offered far more happiness and wonderment than is possible in the average lives of the paying filmgoer at the time (or even still, really).  The story is like so many others of the time:   Talented showman is betrothed to an ill-fitting fiance; hijinx ensues; showman meets equally talented and less-shiny female counterpart; they dance and sing wonderfully; original marriage is called off; proper relationships come together; everybody is happy and the world is full of laughter and magic in the end.  This movie isn’t meant to dazzle with structural mastery or technical prowess – it’s a glamorous romance full of incredible dancing that makes you forget the weary world we exist in, and lose yourself in the sighing glow of a beautiful 1930’s facade.   (7.3)

89 . THE SIXTH SENSE (1999):  M Night Shyamalan, believe it or not, used to be the toast of the town; his name spoken with great frequency alongside Alfred Hitchcock’s.  Declared an instant classic, Sixth Sense was a film with tremendous impact in pop culture, and audience members were told not to spoil the twist ending for anyone who hadn’t seen it yet.  While the Big Twist was a form of storytelling that Shyamalan went to the well one too many times on, it certainly didn’t make his movies poor:  Signs, Unbreakable, and The Village are all well-directed movies with interesting and unique stories that I personally enjoy very much, but none of those would’ve happened without Sense exploding onto the scene.  It’s not just a scary movie.  There’s a lot of fantastic use of color and framing; subtle clues to the audience about the true nature of events unfolding before their eyes are hidden all throughout the 107 minute run time.  (8.2)

88.  BRINGING UP BABY (1938):  In typical 1930’s fare, Cary Grant stars as a meek and overly polite paleontologist who is – you guessed it – set to marry a fiancé who isn’t at all appropriate for him and will surely drag him into a boring, miserable life.  A twist of fate places him in the arms of the zany Katharine Hepburn, who leads him on a series of bumbling misadventures with, of all things, a leopard named “Baby,” who spends the bulk of the feature providing comic relief as the assorted cast run in exaggerated horror of the docile big cat.  Baby is a decent enough lark, and clearly the combination of Grant and Hepburn was something incredibly special, but to me it felt like the plot of any number of vintage television comedies.  You could absolutely see Sheriff Andy Taylor or Lucy Ricardo in a goofy situation where they get stuck with a leopard and capers ensue, but perhaps that’s why Baby was so important – it set a high standard (for the time) as to what a classic, if not inoffensive comedy could be.  That said?  I wasn’t a big fan.  (6.1)

87:  12 ANGRY MEN (1957):  The definitive courtroom drama, Henry Fonda leads a brilliant cast of jurors who must decide the guilt or innocence of a teenage defendant.  Chances are excellent some of you watched this in school at some point, as the film’s unfolding arguments marvelously showcase powers of deduction, the dangerous nature of bias and assumption, and ultimately how deliberate care of the evidence can provide reasonable doubt.  Driven almost entirely by dialogue and the intimate direction of the cast, 12 Angry Men breezes through its 96 minute run time and, for me at least, provides timeless performances I can watch again and again.  Much like To Kill a Mockingbird influenced countless people to pursue being an attorney, Men may have directly gotten people excited about getting jury duty letters in the mail.  (9.4)

86.  PLATOON (1986):  Oliver Stone’s career has taken me on an lot of bizarre journeys, but maybe none more brutal than this helicopter ride into the jungles of Vietnam.  Charlie Sheen’s performance as the bushy-tailed volunteer soldier is an odd fit.  His character is meant to show the transformative effect that the war had on so many, but ultimately I never got that from him.  The remainder of the cast is very well done, however:  Willem Dafoe’s turn as the flowery optimist was countered powerfully by Tom Berenger’s career-defining role as the murderous Sergeant Barnes.  Stone’s own personal experience in Vietnam was essential to painting this work with such care, making sure that viewers realized the horrors done to not only the damaged men of the American military, but those exacted upon the Vietnamese villagers caught in the middle of it all.  (7.8)

85.  A NIGHT AT THE OPERA (1935):  I’d seen a few of the Marx Bros. comedies in bits and pieces over the years, but had never sat through a whole feature.  Comedy often has great trouble spanning across eras since a great deal of the humor is not only topical, but often linked to the general sense of “funniness” for the time.  That said I spent a great deal of this 1935 movie laughing my ass off, and I couldn’t believe how funny Opera turned out to be.  It’s honestly one of the most ridiculous movies I’ve ever seen, and Groucho Marx spends virtually the entire film insulting everyone he meets to great effect.  The other Marx Bros. are funny in their own ways, particularly the mute Harpo; the group themselves are all very talented musicians as well.  I don’t know what you’re doing today, but if you have 90 minutes, take the time to watch this silly-ass movie and have a belly laugh.  (8.4)

84.  EASY RIDER (1969):  I really don’t have a heck of a lot to say about Easy Rider, beyond that the movie was exceptionally bizarre, felt like I was watching a college film student’s attempt at being trippy/deep, and ultimately walked away from it feeling like I’d been cheated of my time.  The best part of the movie is Jack Nicholson’s cameo, and once his part is done I felt there was no further meat on the bone worth eating.  I get the romance:  Counter-culture, freedom of the open road, drugs, hippies, etc., but…ugh.  Rider was bleak, often-pointless, and not my favorite thing I’ve ever watched.  I won’t watch it again.  (3.8)

83.  TITANIC (1997):  This was the first movie I remember utterly laying waste to the Academy Awards, winning 11 of the 14 awards for which it was nominated; Titanic also dominated pop culture: “My Heart Will Go On” was on the radio every 15 minutes.  Leonardo DiCaprio’s hairstyle was adopted by millions.  For all of its dominance, Titanic has not aged particularly well for odd reasons, namely the two leads delivering relatively unimpressive performances, if you consider the work they both went on to do.  It’s unusual to see DiCaprio play it so canned and safe when I’m now acclimated to seeing him display a larger range of emotion; Winslet too has shown how much more she’s capable of (The Reader comes to mind).  By comparison Titanic seems lacking, yet the supporting cast of Billy Zane, Bernard Hill, Jonathan Hyde, Victor Garber, and Frances Fisher all provide excellent pillars for the film to rest upon.  As only James Cameron can do, Titanic is far less about knocking you out with dialogue & depth and more about taking you into the world, and he deserved a bevy of awards for his achievements in filmmaking:  Incredible set design, use of miniatures, not overplaying his hand with CG, and keeping his editing simple; it all made for a very satisfying plunge into saltwater, tinged with roses and diamonds, that people will likely hang onto for a very, very long time.  (8.1)

82.  SUNRISE:  A SONG OF TWO HUMANS (1927):  Our first silent film on the Top 100, Sunrise is a story of a Man being tempted by a Woman From The City into conspiring to kill his Wife, and yes – those are the characters’ names.  Some breakthroughs were employed in Sunrise, including intricate set pieces and innovations in sound and scoring, leading to carving the picture into a major revelation for the industry that prominent filmmakers would reference often as a turning point in years to come.  From the perspective of an amateur movie pundit in 2017, Sunrise was an interesting experience unto itself; a foray into unfamiliar and unexplored territory.  The story is exceedingly simple and the execution (for its time) was quite novel.  Certainly not something I’ll own at home, but a feature I wouldn’t mind watching more times in the future.  (6)

81.  SPARTACUS (1960):  Another major Hollywood epic, Spartacus echoes similarly of Ben-Hur in terms of its scale and cinematography, but contains a story much more condensed and maybe a bit more fun.  Kirk Douglas is a true bravado in his leading role, but honestly I enjoyed the bit part played by Peter Ustinov, known better for being the voice of Prince John in Disney’s adaptation of Robin Hood.  Spartacus had a lot of big moments typical of classic epics, to be sure, but the moments that stuck out to me the most were the enormous quantities of extras and the sheer size of the sets.  The acting was otherwise, in my opinion, a bit too theatrical and dusty for my tastes.  I’d definitely recommend Spartacus, but don’t feel like it’s required viewing.  (6.8)

Tune in next time for films 80-71.

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