By David Sterritt, writer of The Christian Science Monitor
The Christian Science Monitor
The results are in. According to 1,500 movie luminaries chosen by the American Film Institute, the greatest American film is "Citizen Kane," the 50th greatest is "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid," and the 100th greatest is "Yankee Doodle Dandy."
Could anyone quarrel with such an audience-friendly list, compiled by the AFI to celebrate the first century of American cinema? Only a motion-picture grinch would try to second-guess it.
The voting criteria seem reasonable - historical significance, critical recognition, popularity, awards. And the contest serves a helpful purpose by reminding us that plenty of funny, touching, scary, uplifting, and all-around entertaining pictures were produced before most of us were born, and might delight us again if we'd give them a chance. That said, there are aspects of the list that deserve a closer look. Voters ranged from film-industry insiders to politicians, selecting from 400 choices on an AFI ballot. Not surprisingly, the outcome has the democratic virtues of accessibility and appeal. But is it news? Surely we already knew that "Casablanca" and "The Godfather" and "Gone With the Wind" (Nos. 2 through 4, respectively) are perennial favorites! Shouldn't the AFI be trying to spotlight more than the sheer popularity of famous movies? And if so, shouldn't the diversity, audacity, and occasional profundity of American cinema get more acknowledgment than a "greatest hits" approach is likely to provide? Taking the answer to be yes, there are three important areas where the AFI list comes up short. The voters might protest that they simply picked their favorites without worrying about details like dates or directors. Still, the ways in which their list "just happens" to be narrowly focused reveal aspects of our movie consciousness that could use broadening. Silent movies. Yes, most spectators regard silent films as relics of a bygone time. Yet they make up one-third of cinema's first century, and their heyday was marked by a steady stream of invention and surprise. Only five of the AFI choices are silent, and two of these - "Modern Times" (No. 81) and "The Jazz Singer" (No. …