Monday, January 05, 2009

The Top 10 American Movies

Law professor Stanley Fish has compiled what he contends is a list of the top 10 American movies of all time, and he shares it with readers of the New York Times.

One of the reasons for compiling such a list is to provoke a discussion, and I have a few things to say about Fish's list.

In his introduction to the list, Fish writes, "Only the first two films are in order. The others are all tied for third."

I have no problem with that. But there were a few movies that were left off the list, in my opinion.

Let me start by saying that I have no real problem with his choice for #1 — "The Best Years of Our Lives" — which remains, in my view, perhaps the best examination of the readjustment issues faced by veterans returning from war.

It boasts a great cast — Fredric March, Myrna Loy, Dana Andrews, Teresa Wright — as well as a very special performance by Harold Russell, a real-life veteran who lost both his hands in a grenade explosion during World War II.

Russell didn't appear in very many movies — in fact, he only appeared in a couple of films more than three decades after his performance in "The Best Years of Our Lives," and his roles in them were limited. He also made a couple of appearances on TV series in the 1980s.

Acting wasn't Russell's calling. He became a business executive after publishing his autobiography in 1949, and President Johnson made him chairman of the President's Committee on Hiring the Handicapped in 1964.

But he certainly made his mark with that 1946 film classic. At the Academy Awards ceremony, he became the only person to receive two Oscars for the same role. He was the recipient of the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor, and he was given a special Oscar for "bringing hope and courage to his fellow veterans."

Nor, I should say, do I have a problem with Fish's second choice, "Sunset Blvd." from 1950 — director Billy Wilder's brilliant satire of the movie industry starring William Holden, Gloria Swanson and Erich von Stroheim.

The film has been parodied many times — perhaps the best parody was done by Carol Burnett and her ensemble cast from her TV variety show in the 1970s. And, as Charles Caleb Colton observed, "Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery."

The third movie on the list, "Double Indemnity," is a noteworthy movie, if for no other reason than the fact that it truly signaled the start of the "film noir" era in filmmaking. Fred MacMurray, as Fish aptly points out, plays the anti-hero, obsessed wtih Barbara Stanwyck and easily persuaded to kill her husband. Wilder directed that film as well.

The other movies on Fish's list — "Shane," "Red River," "Raging Bull," "Vertigo," "Groundhog Day," "Meet Me in St. Louis" and "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn" — are all well-made films and deserving of recognition.

But, as long as Billy Wilder is being recognized, where is "Some Like It Hot?"

For that matter, why aren't films like "Citizen Kane," "The Godfather," "Gone With the Wind," "The Wizard of Oz," or "Casablanca" mentioned?

What about "To Kill a Mockingbird" or "North by Northwest" or "High Noon?"

American movies are too rich, too varied to be restricted to a top 10 list.