The American Film Institute recently ranked the top ten films in each of ten genres. All such ‘best of’ rankings are, of course, just for fun and meant to provoke vigorous debate about films that did not make the cut as well as the unworthy ones that did. They are not meant to be taken more seriously than that. I was puzzled, however, as to why comedies were not included as a separate genre, the closest category being the vaguer ‘romantic comedies.’ The omission of musicals as a genre was also puzzling. Maybe those lists will come out later.
I had only two major objections. I was shocked that Walt Disney’s Jungle Book did not even make it into the list of best animations, even though to my mind it is easily the best of that genre, and one of my favorite films in any genre. That favorite of film critics Pulp Fiction of course made the list in the gangster category, although I hated the film, with its gratuitous violence and racially offensive language. I vowed never to see a Quentin Tarantino film again after that.
It turns out that I have seen a lot of the top 100 films (63), a sign of a happily wasted life. I recall one year when I was about 16 when I kept a log of the all the films I had seen that calendar year. I counted over one hundred, or on average one every three days, all in the movie theater. I was able to do this because the theater was walking distance from my home and the manager was a friend of my father and gave us a pass to see films free. Since my parents did not stop me from this indulgence as long as I was keeping up with my schoolwork, I saw almost every film that was shown. I have to admit that I saw a whole lot of lousy films. Time seems much more precious to me now and so I am much more choosy about what films I watch.
I have seen all ten of the top animations listed by the AFI. The other genres that I have seen most of were westerns (8), mystery (8), and courtroom dramas (7), while the least was fantasy (4).
I have seen all of the #1 ranked films except for The Searchers in the western category, which I plan to see soon, and City Lights in the romantic comedy category. I have always been a fan of good westerns, many of which had strong stories and characters and promoted values of honor and justice.
While one can quibble with the top rankings in each genre, the one film whose #1 will be unquestioned is 2001: A Space Odyssey in the science fiction category.
I recall seeing it in a wide-screen theater when it was first released in 1968 and it stunned me with its brilliance. My impression of it was so vivid that I did not want to see it again on the small screen using videotape or DVD. Instead I waited and waited for it to be re-released on the big screen, to capture again the awe of space that it inspired. There had been rumors of this being done in 2001 but that did not occur. I then thought that it might happen this year on its 40th anniversary but when that did not seem likely to happen, decided to give up and watch the DVD.
There is always danger in re-watching a film that one has fond memories of from the distant past, the fear that one will be disappointed. 2001 is not one of those films. Watching it again, even on a small screen, was a wonderfully rewarding experience. Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke combined to make one of the truly great films of all time, something that lifted science fiction films from cliché-ridden, quasi-horror, gimmicky films with cartoon-like aliens creatures into a true work of art.
What impressed me is how well the film stood up 40 years later. Not only did the science still remain credible, the special effects were also wonderful, which is amazing when you consider that Kubrick did not have the benefit of computer graphics, and all the visual effects had to be captured directly on film.
The film may not appeal to modern filmgoers, jaded by the action fantasies of films like Star Wars. In 2001, the plot is simple and there is no frantic action, no explosions, no shoot outs with laser guns, no light sabers, no love story, no sex, not even human conflict. 2001 played down these traditional film staples. In fact, all the actors seemed to be deliberately underplaying their roles, leaving the enigmatic computer HAL 9000 that runs the spaceship as the most interesting character. And yet, all these things that sound like negatives actually combine to make the film utterly engrossing.
Although 2001 grabbed the imagination of two young boys George Lucas and Steven Spielberg as to the tremendous possibilities of science fiction film making, their own films in this genre went off in different, and in my view, inferior directions.
2001 is a highly visual film, almost ballet-like with its minimal dialogue. The first half-hour is totally word-free, leading up to one of the most memorable visual transitions in the history of filmmaking. The last half-hour is also wordless. Kubrick does not rush scenes or have frequent jump cuts, exploiting the seemingly slow pacing and the ambient sounds of breathing to capture the silence and immensity of space. The attention to detail of how things work in space (how people can walk when weightless, how to simulate weak gravity on a spaceship, how to eat and drink, the difficulty of using toilets, etc.) gives the film a scientific credibility and timelessness that will ensure that it remains the top film for the next hundred years.
The film was not well received when it first came out. Its measured pacing bored some who were used to the action clichés of the older films in this genre and the famous enigmatic ending confused the general public as to what was going on. But science fiction fans had hours of fun debating what it all meant.
I also recently watched another science fiction film that I had never heard of previously, and that was Colossus: The Forbin Project which also deals with a computer that decides to take control, this time on Earth. The film was interesting mainly because of its probing, like 2001, of what might result if a computer becomes a truly intelligent, self-aware, self-learning device, and raises the notion of the nature of consciousness and whether computers will be able to create it. The excellent website Machines Like Us probes just these issues and its editor was the one who tipped me off to the existence of this film.
Watching Colossus so soon after the re-watching of 2001 was perhaps a mistake. Although the ideas the former film explored were intriguing, the quality of the filmmaking was nowhere close to that of the latter. The execution of the idea needed the genius of a Kubrick to really do it justice.
If you have never seen 2001: A Space Odyssey, you have missed a treat. It is a landmark in filmmaking.
POST SCRIPT: How to avoid discussing the election