Wednesday, July 22, 2015

BBC's Poll Results of the 100 Greatest American Films

I usually don't put a great deal of stock in Top 10, 50, or 100 lists, whether they're for songs, second basemen or movies. I never feel that the item that's third on the list is clearly better than items four or fourteen. Its not that I think that they're completely inaccurate. If something makes one of these lists it usually deserves to be considered as one of the best in the category. To me, the Top 10/50/100 lists are useful for starting meaningful conversation, something much more valuable than the specific ranking of certain items.

This week released the results of a poll of the "100 Greatest American Films". To qualify as "American" the film must have been fianaced by US backers. At first I wasn't sure about this being the sole criterion for consideration. Does it matter that 32 directors on the list were born outside of the US? But after reviewing the titles, none stood out as anything other than an American film.

The poll was conducted among film critics from around the globe. Each was asked to provide an ordered list of the 10 films which they feel "on an emotional level" are  the greatest in American cinema. First place on a critics list earned a film 10 points, 10th place earned it 1 point.

And the award for Best Picture goes to...

What else could it be other than Citizen Kane? Orson Welles' 1941 masterpiece has been at or near the top of every critics' poll for over 50 years. Film fans love the film, but not nearly as much as the critics. Its a great story, well-told, and the novice Welles employs every technique that he admired from other films.

Here are the top 10 films according to the BBC poll.

1 Citizen Kane Orson Welles 1941
2 The Godfather Francis Ford Coppola 1972
3 Vertigo Alfred Hitchcock 1958
4 2001: A Space Odyssey Stanley Kubrick 1968
5 The Searchers John Ford 1956
6 Sunrise FW Murnau 1927
7 Singin' in the Rain Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly 1952
8 Psycho Alfred Hitchcock 1960
9 Casablanca Michael Curtiz 1942
10 The Godfather Part II Francis Ford Coppola 1974

By the way, the number 11 film on the list is Welles' 'The Magnificent Ambersons' from 1942. Not a bad couple of years' work by a first time director.

The nominees for Best Director are...

Okay, I have to admit that I got a little geeky with the list. It was so neatly formatted that I just had to paste it into a spreadsheet so I could do my own analysis.

C'mon. You'd do the exact same thing. Admit it.

Noticing that several directors make multiple appearances on the list, I wondered if one of them might be the "home-run king" of American film. I was surprised to find that there wasn't one "king", but a small group of directors who account for a disproportionate number of great American films.

Four directors appear on the list for five of their films: Alfred Hitchcock, Billy Wilder, Stanley Kubrick, and Steven Spielberg.

Coppola, Howard Hawks and Martin Scorcese each have four films on the list. Welles, John Ford, and Charlie Chaplin each make the list three times.

Together, these 10 directors account for 41 of the Top 100 films.

And the Best Decade for American films is...

In a companion piece to the poll results, Tom Brooks observes that "contemporary films didn't fare well" in the poll, noting that the most recent film in the top 10 is Coppola's 'The Godfather Part II' from 1974.

Let's turn to the spreadsheet for some insight on a similar question: What decade produced the most (and the least) number of films on the Top 100 list? The results are not completely surprising.
1910's - 1
1920' - 4
1930's - 6
1940's - 15
1950's - 15
1960's - 10
1970's - 21
1980's - 13
1990's - 9
2000's - 4
2010's - 2
Some of this makes sense. The 40's and 50's were a great period for American films. The industry had matured and had absorbed a lot of talent fleeing from Europe. The 70's reflect the rise of the great independent directors: Coppola, Scorcese, Robert Altman and to a lesser extent, Spielberg.

What's more troublesome is the glaring shortage of great American films in the 90's, 00's, and 10's. And lets extend that period a bit. of the 13 Top 100 films in the 80's, 10 were produced before 1985.

So what has happened to American films in the past 30 years? The migratation of talent from cinema to television didn't really start until the late 90's. Could it be explained by changes to the economics of the US film industry? The revenue from international distribution of US films has grown tremendously and favors popular blockbusters. Umm, maybe.

Maybe this has something to do with the critics, who for some reason are biased towards older films.


The first link below is to the article on the results of the poll. The last link is to a companion article that briefly explains why each of the top 25 films deserves its inclusion on the list.

The 100 Greatest American Films

What's So Good About Citizen Kane?

The 25 Greatest American Films

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