Psycho: Paramount
June 14, 2001 at 04:00 AM EDT

Why the latest ”Top 100” movies list is wrong

When does classification stop being useful and become deeply, counterintuitively silly? When the American Film Institute gets involved, apparently.

Today, the AFI released a list of the 100 Most Thrilling American Films, as chosen in a poll of 1,800 ”leaders from the creative community” and tied to a prime-time special hosted by Harrison Ford. This list follows on the heels of the organization’s past lists of 100 Greatest American Films (notable for its lack of anything directed by Preston Sturges or Buster Keaton) and 100 Greatest American Comedies (which included such timeless kneeslappers as ”Auntie Mame” and ”Cat Ballou”).

With this new list, the AFI has finally stepped off the ledge and plunged neck-deep into the muck of the absurd: Here we have a ragbag of undeniably fine motion pictures tied to each other by the most tenuous of semantic whims. Note that this isn’t ”The 100 Greatest American Thrillers” — that classification, while broad enough to include horror films, suspense dramas, murder mysteries, crime sagas, and action extravaganzas, would be too tatty and genre-bound for the august AFI. No, these are the ”Most Thrilling,” a criterion that means, according to the organization’s press releases, ”regardless of genre, the total adrenaline-inducing impact of a film’s artistry and craft, creating an experience that engages our bodies as well as our minds.” Which I guess is corporate doublespeak for… movies.

The AFI wants to have it both ways, of course, which is why it’s also calling this stunt a celebration of ”America’s Most Heart-Pounding Films,” and winking that the prime-time special is ”not for the faint of heart.”

Well, I suppose the top 10 could give you a jolt. From the AFI’s No. 1 pick, ”Psycho,” through No. 10 (”Raiders of the Lost Ark”), we’re in pretty safe genre territory. ”Jaws,” ”The Exorcist,” ”North By Northwest,” ”Silence of the Lambs,” ”Alien,” ”The Birds,” ”French Connection,” ”Rosemary’s Baby” — whether you agree or not, they’d all hold water in a bar argument.

The weirdness starts immediately after. ”The Godfather” at No. 11? One of the greatest dramas ever made, sure, but a thriller? Even a ”most thrilling”? How about ”Bonnie and Clyde” at No. 13? ”Lawrence of Arabia” at No. 24? ”The Deer Hunter” at No. 30? ”Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” at No. 54? ”Braveheart” at No. 91?

And then there’s my personal favorite: ”The Wizard of Oz” at No. 43. ”The Wizard of Oz”?!?? Okay, the flying monkeys were pretty creepy, but did I miss the scene where they mutate into blood-sucking simian vampires?

Look, lists are fun. They’re also both useful and inherently pointless. No one knows that more than the folks who toil here at Entertainment Weekly and who have churned out endless variants of the ”100 Best?” since we stumbled on the gimmick more than a decade ago. And, yes, Pot, you are writing about Kettle. That said, if you’re going to home in on a genre, play fair. Don’t throw in desert epics and Judy Garland musicals just to pad the list and give the video stores something to post by the cash register. In fact, don’t be dumb enough to go with a non-genre as vaporous as ”thrillers” (excuse me, ”most thrilling”) in the first place.

And I won’t even get into the Rotary Club boosterism of the AFI’s specious American-movies-only criteria. Let’s just say that any list of ”thrilling” movies that can’t even consider Clouzot’s ”Diabolique,” Powell’s ”Peeping Tom,” or Woo’s ”The Killer” is already standing on one wobbly leg.

This isn’t about making cogent film-history sense, of course. The non-profit AFI just wants to raise its profile and some funds via ”100 Thrills” sponsors like General Motors, Anheuser-Busch, and (big surprise) Blockbuster. And if this stunt gets any neophyte to check out any of the movies on the list, well, that’ll be a good thing. But wouldn’t you think the country’s preminent pseudo-scholarly film institute would want to appear as if it knew what it was talking about?

And, while I’m at it, doesn’t ”Freaks” belonged on this list?

See the complete list here.

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