The American Film Institute (or AFI) is an organization that, as per its mission, “educates filmmakers [about] and honors the heritage” of American movies and the American movie industry. They really only makes waves with the larger public once per year — when they come out with the list of the ten best American-made movies and ten best American-made TV series of the year — but once every decade we’re given a special treat: an update to their decennial list of the best American movies of all time.
Because the first list came out in 1998, and an updated version came out ten years after that, we’re at the cusp of a presumed third iteration. It’s an opportunity for them, and us, to revaluate the kinds of films, filmmakers and, in general, stories that we value as a society and which ones are no longer congruous with the image we want to project of ourselves to the larger world. There is a reason, for instance, why movies that made the initial list (such as 1915’s The Birth of a Nation which lionized the domestic terrorism of the KKK and 1939’s Stagecoach, which demonized Native Americans as violent, savage forces of nature that prey upon the fine upstanding white folks just trying to cross the American frontier) were dropped in its follow-up: that kind of racism is not what we, as a people, want to champion as being quintessentially American aspects (although history may have something different to say on that particular subject).
So in looking back on the previous lists — neither of which includes a movie any more recent than 2001’s The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring — it’s easy to see a few more recent movies that deserve to be on this list: both in terms of their wide acclaim, artistic appeal and the intensely kairotic narratives that they choose to tell. Obviously, this means that some movies will have to get the boot when all is said and done (a subject for another time, no doubt), but the greater part of this debate is, as ever, what gets included in the final list.
Over the last two decades, Christopher Nolan has proven beyond any shadow of a doubt that he is this century’s answer to Steven Spielberg: an ambitious, talented and wickedly intelligent filmmaker who enjoys not merely popular success, but critical accolades in equal measure. And while his filmography is a veritable assembly-line of the best and most prescient blockbusters in recent memory, it is arguably his second feature which is his best: a cerebral neo-noir film about a man who is incapable of forming new memories but insists on solving his wife’s murder all the same. Told in reverse-chronological order so as to replicate his unique mental state, it is one of the most mind-bending stories you’re likely to ever see.
Mulholland Drive (2001)
When people complained that their own list of 100 Best American Movies didn’t have many recent movies on it, the BBC’s response was genuinely inspired: make a list the following year for the 100 Best Movies of the 21st Century. The top spot on that list went to this thoroughly bizarre David Lynch neo-noir about an amnesiac woman trying to piece her life back together with the help of a woman whose house she broke into in a haze the night before. And, for the most part, it plays straight with that premise: at least until the final act, which essentially retells the entire story as if from some parallel universe that plays by Whose Line Is It Anyway‘s ethos. In other words, everything’s made up and the points don’t matter. And yet, it’s one of the most intelligent, engrossing and inherently rewatchable films on the market.
There Will Be Blood (2007)
Every once and a while a movie will come along that is so brazenly arresting in both its premise and treatment of the same that it can’t help but become a classic. There Will Be Blood is an epic, decades-spanning tale of greed, wealth and morality: a takedown not just of those platonic concepts, but of the men, women and institutions that are built upon them. Possessing austere and minimal set design, a tightly-wound narrative, iconic performances and a masterclass in direction, There Will Be Blood may very well be the best film of the entire century so far.
Inglourious Basterds (2009)
It’s really strange to reflect on in retrospect, but it took me a shockingly long time to come around to writer-director Quentin Tarantino. By all rights, I should have loved him from the start: a hyper-violent, incredibly stylish filmmaker whose directorial ambition was outstripped only by the quality of his writing. He evoked everything that the teenage boy in me could have wanted: from grindhouse schlock to classic samurai showdowns. And yet, for the longest time, I couldn’t stand the guy, from Pulp Fiction all the way through his output from the last decade. I even hated this movie on first inspection, but came around to it on the second viewing when I discovered a complex, gripping story, expertly told by a man whose cardinal sin may very well be that he simply doesn’t know when to edit down his own work. Still, you would be hard-pressed to find a better film from the last two-decades or within his own filmography, especially one so dedicated to its own exploitative depravity.
The Social Network (2010)
Many have called this movie Citizen Kane for the 21st century. And, in both subject matter and theme, I’m hard-pressed to disagree with them. Even beyond the simple matter of quality (which this film more than measures up to), both follow bombastically successful men at the hem of vast media empires that are ironically incapable of the communication that they have facilitated in others; both, in turn, become bitter and isolated — cut off from their friends (each of whom they have directly and uniquely screwed over) — and longing hopelessly for a simpler, warmer time before their lives became a tangled web of wealth and success. In other words, both are direct indictments, if not outright deconstructions, of the fabled American dream, based on the lives of real men (varying Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst). In fact, I would go so far as to say that Zuckerberg habitually refreshing of his own Facebook page to see if ex-girlfriend Erica Albright accepted his friend request is the modern-day equivalent of Kane’s dying words: Rosebud.