Reviewed by Colin Jacobson

Title: American Film Institute: AFI's 100 Years, 100 Movies (1998)
Studio Line: Image Entertainment

To commemorate the first century of American moviemaking, The American Film Institute has embarked on a celebration of America's greatest movies - AFI's 100 Years...100 Movies.

The centerpiece of this unprecedented celebration is the selection of the 100 greatest American films of all time, as determined by leaders from across the American film community. Choosing from a list of 400 American movies compiled by AFI historians, this blue-ribbon panel has selected the 100 greatest feature films, judging such factors as critical recognition, major award winners, popularity over time, historical significance and cultural impact.

AFI's 100 Years...100 Movies was originally broadcast as a three-hour CBS primetime special on June 16, 1998, during which the 100 greatest movies were first revealed. This centennial celebration of American movies is unprecedented in its scope.

Director: Gary Smith
Cast: Various
DVD: Standard 1.33:1; audio English Dolby Digital 2.0; subtitles none; not closed-captioned; single sided - double layered; 24 chapters; not rated; 145 min.; $29.99; street date 9/28/99.
Supplements: None.
Purchase: DVD

Picture/Sound/Extras: D+/C+/F

Whether one agrees or disagrees with the selections found on the American Film Instituteís list of the Top 100 American films, I think itís ultimately a positive force. During his audio commentary for Citizen Kane, Roger Ebert opined that such charts are really fairly ridiculous, and in a way heís correct; different movies attempt different things, so itís almost apples and oranges to compare them. However, I think such tabulations are a lot of fun to consider, and in cases like this, they serve a greater good: they provoke a discussion of movies that otherwise might go ignored by a substantial portion of the population.

I really donít know how many of the films in the Top 100 Iíd seen prior to the existence of the list, but Iíd be shocked to learn Iíd viewed more than half of them. Since we created the afore-linked page devoted to the chart, Iíve gone through many more the flicks, and itís been a genuine education. Some have impressed me, while others left me totally cold, but Iíve been happy to take the ride.

The list was formally revealed to the public during a June 1998 TV broadcast, and that is the show we find on this DVD. AFIís 100 Years, 100 Movies presents the entire program, though mercifully free of commercial interruption; the full broadcast ran three hours, which meant about 45 minutes worth of ads!

Three different actors host the show. We hear from Jodie Foster, Richard Gere and Sally Field, all shot separately. Actually, ďhostĒ may be strong a term. They appear intermittently after commercial breaks to frame the next set of flicks. They add little to the proceedings, though I was shocked at how good Foster looked. I barely recognized her; I wouldnít have distinguished her if not for her distinctive voice. Who knew she was such a babe?

Anyway, in addition to these brief introductions, the bulk of the program consists of clips from the 100 movies that made the list along with comments from a huge roster of participants. These include folks involved in some of the Top 100 films themselves; in that category we find directors Sidney Lumet, Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, William Friedkin, Woody Allen, Stanley Donen, and Clint Eastwood, actors Charlton Heston, Dustin Hoffman, James Earl Jones, Sylvester Stallone, Samuel L. Jackson, Richard Dreyfuss, Malcolm McDowell and Anne Bancroft, as well as writers Larry Gelbart, William Goldman, Robert Towne, and Ernest Lehman.

A variety of others involved in movie-making appear too. We hear from director Mel Brooks, actors Halle Berry, Burt Reynolds, Chevy Chase, Brooke Shields, Whoopi Goldberg, Julia Roberts, Candice Bergen, Cher, and Ben Stiller. MPAA president Jack Valenti also turns up, and I suppose one can consider singer/songwriter Carly Simon as a filmmaker as well; she actually won an Oscar for a song she wrote for Working Girl, and sheís composed material for other flicks as well.

The rest of the participants veer from the logical to the bizarre. Bill Clinton pops up to discuss High Noon, while newsmen Dan Rather and Walter Cronkite also make appearances. Larry King offers another media perspective, while the Gene Siskel stands as the only movie critic in the bunch, which seems odd to me. So far, so good, but the remaining contributors enter the realm of the weird. Moguls Ted Turner and Donald Trump provide their remarks; the latter gives us the amusing revelation that he watched King Kong because he owns the property and he wanted a better look at the building!

Turnerís contribution almost made sense, as one of his statements addresses Gone With the Wind; since heís in Atlanta, I can see the connection. As for the others, itís anybodyís guess why we hear from any of them. The roster includes ex-duchess Sarah Ferguson, baseball man Tommy Lasorda, soap opera star Susan Lucci, and magician David Copperfield. Buh? Who chose these people?

100 Years flies rapidly through the 100 films in question. Typically we see a few snippets of movie footage and hear a short remark or two. The first 50 movies are covered in 55 minutes; considering the introductions from the hosts and other ďbumpersĒ that remind us of the most recent group revealed, this left maybe a minute per flick. The pace slows slightly as the list grows. It takes an additional 31 minutes to get through the next 25, and the top 25 fill about 54 minutes of screentime.

Nonetheless, the presentation always felt too hurried. There simply isnít enough time to give us any form of real information about the films, and it never becomes an engrossing or provocative experience. Actually, ďneverĒ is an overstatement, as a few good moments exist. Interestingly, Hoffman is the strongest contributor by far. He adds a wealth of good information about his own movies - three of which make the list - and some others as well. Most revealing is his emotional discussion of his attitude toward his character in 1982ís Tootsie, but his other material is good as well.

One major weakness of 100 Years stems from the films the subjects discuss. Even though a lot of these folks worked on the movies involved, too few of them actually talk about their own flicks! The presentation almost becomes cruel at times. For example, after a short chat about E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, Spielberg pops on screen. However, he doesnít tell us anything about his own film; instead, he remarks about the next one on the list, 1980ís Raging Bull!

Sure, itís good to hear additional perspectives on these movies, but this becomes ridiculous. Why do I care what they say when the filmmakers themselves are available? What could have been a nicely informative and revealing piece too often veers into the ďI really like Movie XĒ territory. No, the level of discourse doesnít usually fall that far, but between the rapidity with which the show flies through movies and the odd matching of participants to flicks, the overall show seems less than satisfying.

One surprise: 100 Years includes much more graphic violence than I expected. Films like The Godfather Part II, Bonnie and Clyde, and Chinatown showed moderately bloody material that I wouldnít expect to see on broadcast TV. In addition, the clips from The Graduate offered a little nudity that I didnít think weíd see.

The DVD:

AFIís 100 Years, 100 Movies appears in varied aspect ratios on this single-sided, double-layered DVD; due to those erratic dimensions, the image has not been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. Much of the material was fullscreen 1.33:1, but this wasnít constant. In addition to the 1.33:1 shots, both interview and film clips appeared in ratios from 1.66:1 to 2.55:1.

Compilations such as this can be a serious pain to grade because of the wide variety of materials, and 100 Years aggravated the usual situation due to the immense span it covered. It included films from 1915 to 1996. Despite the breadth of the coverage, though, quality didnít vary all that much, mainly because 100 Years did a generally poor job of presenting all of the visual materials.

For the purposes of the ďD+Ē I gave to 100 Years, I only considered the new interview footage. I figured that this was the only material over which the packageís producers really had any control, since it was produced strictly for the program. While some of those shots looked pretty good, most of them demonstrated some serious problems that rendered the image generally unsatisfying.

Sharpness looked okay during close-ups in 1.33:1 shots, but otherwise, the show featured some very blurry and soft impressions. Take note of Foster when she first appeared; she remained fuzzy until she finally got right in front of the camera. Some shots would look more detailed than that, but this opening example set the stage for the material that would follow.

Jagged edges cropped up quite frequently throughout the show, and some moirť effects also appeared despite the general softness. In addition, 100 Years suffered from some of the most atrocious edge enhancement Iíve witnessed. Frankly, I think a lot of the softness resulted from the heavy EE, for this factor added a roughness to everything it touched. The haloes around participants seemed strong and made the show even less attractive.

For the interviews, colors remained fairly subdued, but they never rose above the level of good to decent. At times, they looked reasonably rich and warm, but on other occasions they came across as excessively heavy and dense. Black levels appeared acceptably deep and solid, though, and shadow detail was fine, though it didnít really play a factor in this production.

The preceding comments covered the newly recorded interview footage; how did the film clips fare? Even worse, unfortunately. The program offered a genuine hodge-podge of elements, and these appeared in varying states of repair. Obviously, newer pieces suffered from the fewest print flaws for the most part, but one unfortunate qualifier affected all of them: edge enhancement. The same haloes that marred the interviews appeared during the movie clips; if anything, the problem seemed more severe for these bits. Ultimately, 100 Years offered a fairly unattractive visual experience.

The Dolby Digital 2.0 soundtrack of 100 Years was better, but it still lacked many positives. As was the case with the image, I based my audio grade on the interviews; the film clips offered too many variables for me to factor them into the equation. In regard to the soundfield, obviously the interviews provided few opportunities to spread the action. Music heard during introductions and breaks demonstrated pretty nice stereo separation and also moved cleanly to the surrounds for minor reinforcement. Unfortunately, the dialogue also bled slightly to the sides; most of the speech stayed in the center, but the imaging showed a modest tendency to move to the side at times. It wasnít a terrible problem, but it became a bit of a distraction.

Interview audio quality appeared fine for the most part. Dialogue suffered slightly from some excessive echo effects, but overall speech came across as reasonably natural and distinct. I heard no problems related to intelligibility or edginess. Music seemed nicely warm and rich throughout the show, and it offered fairly good bass response. Overall, the mix was very ordinary but it worked well for the material in question.

As far as the movie clips went, obviously these were a very mixed bag. Some sounded pretty good, with nicely broad soundfields and reasonably rich audio, while others provided atrocious audio by todayís standards. Frankly, most of them flew by so quickly that it was tough to get a real bead on them, but I had no strong complaints about the quality of the movie audio.

In regard to extras, there arenít any. Actually, the programís end credits runs a listing of some basic credits for the 100 films in question. Otherwise, the show lacks any kind of bonus materials, which is a disappointment; additional information about the flicks in question would have been appropriate.

Perhaps the disc didnít include any supplements because they would have made the central program look even weaker. AFIís 100 Years, 100 Movies offers an extremely superficial and generally uninformative look at a lot of classic films. Periodically it gives us some good notes, but the whole package moves by so quickly that thereís no time for detail or depth. Picture quality frequently looked terrible, and the audio was decent but unexceptional. The package provides no extras. In the end, this show was probably fun to watch when it hit the airwaves in 1998, but three years later it ceases to entertain or involve the viewer.

Note that this review covers the 145-minute edition of AFIís 100 Years, 100 Movies. A much longer 460-minute DVD set also exists. Iíve not seen this package and Iíve been unable to find much information about it, but Iíd guess that itís simply a much longer rendition of the same program seen here. With a list price of $79.98, the show wonít be for everyone, but honestly, if the subject interests you, Iíd think the long cut would be the way to go. The short oneís an unsatisfying look at the subject, so Iíd be surprised if the extra five-plus hours didnít add much-needed depth.

Viewer Film Ratings: 3.3333 Stars Number of Votes: 9
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