A couple of months ago, I completed a longstanding project. My goal was to watch every movie on the list of the top 100 American movies compiled by American Film Institute. I was working with the 2007 version of the list, which updates a 1998 list.
Some of my favorite movies were not on the list, as they were not American. (A movie was deemed “American” if it were financed with American money, even if were otherwise “foreign.”) Thus, for example, Truffaut’s Day for Night was not on the list, though it may not have made the list anyway. Neither was The Umbrellas of Cherbourg.
It is interesting to compare the two lists nearly a decade apart. Certain films moved around on the list, some, both recent and not, were added, and 23 films were dropped. (The Wikipedia article for the first list analyzes differences between the two.) I was surprised that The Birth of a Nation was dropped. For good or ill, it was certainly influential, even though I did not like it. I would like to have seen Doctor Zhivago kept, as well as Fantasia, each of which greatly influenced me personally. My top pick would have been Casablanca, which dropped from second to third place over the decade.
My movie project gave me an excuse to experience some excellent movies I would not have seen otherwise. I now have an increased appreciation of Charlie Chaplin, for example. My concept of the Western was definitely stretched through experiencing Unforgiven and The Wild Bunch. (Watch these at your own risk.) I also saw movies, such as Spartacus, which I should have seen a long time ago.
The movie that was my happiest discovery was F.W. Murnau’s 1927 film Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans. The movie straddled the silent and sound eras. There is no spoken dialogue—speech is conveyed through title cards—but there is an original synchronized soundtrack containing music and sound effects. (Sunrise used the Fox Movietone sound-on-film system.) The movie succeeds despite its being a silent picture. It is a touching fable of conjugal love and rural vs. urban tensions. Sunrise won several awards at the first Academy Awards ceremony, including Best Unique and Artistic Picture.
If you are at all interest in cinema, consider a project similar to mine. There are many more worthy movies out there, of course, but the AFI list will help you hold your own in cocktail party conversations as long as the topic of recent movies doesn’t come up. If you are not much of a movie fan and haven’t seen many movies on the list, the project will take a while.