This is similar to what Edward Copeland on Film, Jim Emerson, and The Siren are doing in response to the new AFI list, but not quite.
I’m hardly the most absolutely qualified person to make such an alternative list, but I will take the same route of Jonathan Rosenbaum regarding the post-1997 version of the AFI list (see his cutting remarks here) and present my Alternative Top 100 American Films. I’ve tried to cover as many bases as possible, although I am not well versed in the avant garde and certain other byways of American cinema. They are all among my favorites, and in each case I will make a brief argument for inclusion and even present an “Alternative to the Alternative,” another similar film that would most likely have the longest of shots to be included in a list like this. None of these films appear on either the 1997 or 2007 version of the AFI’s list. The list is alphabetical and presented in groups of ten.
1. Airplane! (80, Abrahams, Zucker, Zucker)
The progenitor of a certain kind of distinctly American, anything goes, quantity over quality, rapid-fire genre parody, itself a more focused version of ZAZ’s Kentucky Fried Movie with touches of Mel Brooks, Airplane! eschews traditional plot and character concerns for sheer jokiness. Seemingly random sight gags, pop culture references, and witty wordplay abound in this take-off of disaster movies, helped along by some of the most straight-arrow acting into a profoundly silly movie since Dr. Strangelove.
Alternatives to the Alternative: Top Secret! (84, Abrahams, Zucker, Zucker). Perhaps even goofier than Airplane!, by the same writers/directors.
2. Alien (79, Scott)
Frightening to the core, Ridley Scott’s sci-fi masterpiece presents the age old haunted house, monster-behind-every-corner framework in a fascinating new milieu, a working class cargo freighter in space. With a cast of reliable character actors whose lived-in bodies and faces lend some realism to what amounts to an outer space horror story, the film makes the most of confinement and the less than streamlined futuristic nature of the Nostromo to mount suspense. The single most disturbing creature design ever put on American screens doesn’t hurt either.
Alt to the Alt: Dark Star (74, Carpenter). The second most claustrophobic spaceship movie ever made. Both were written by Dan O’Bannon, even.
3. All That Jazz (79, Fosse)
Bob Fosse’s 8 ½. Perhaps even more infused with the best qualities of Fellini’s narcissistically brilliant metafilm than Woody’s Stardust Memories, writer/director/choreographer Fosse puts his alter-ego Joe Gideon (a fantastic Roy Scheider) smack dab in the middle of a maelstrom of a musical number. The best depiction of life and death as show business in the American cinema.
Alt to the Alt: The Band Wagon (53, Minnelli). Considerably less depressing, but life and theater intertwine not dissimilarly to Fosse’s masterwork. Speaking of…
4. The Bad and the Beautiful (52, Minnelli)
Does to Old Hollywood what All That Jazz does to New Hollywood. Kirk Douglas is backstabbing wunderkind Jonathan Shields, and the film outlines how he totally fucks over every person in his professional and personal life. His ego destroys “the little people” left and right, illustrated with a superb flashback structure and capped with a dour but ambiguous ending.
Alt to the Alt: A Star is Born (54, Cukor). Garland and Mason destroy the Hollywood illusion from the inside out. The ’37 version isn’t half-bad either.
5. Badlands (73, Malick)
Terr’s first feature, and one that, in my view, eclipses the likes of Bonnie and Clyde with its dirt road American poetry and stoic visual blankness. Bursts of violence punctuate the self-made myth of Martin Sheen’s performance, while Sissy Spacek’s flat narration (a device repeated in Malick’s future films) provides counterpoint to the luminous back road cinematography. It’s a particularly fierce landmark from a profoundly visual American auteur.
Alt to the Alt: Deadly is the Female/Gun Crazy (50, Lewis). An exciting, low budget Freudian take on the lovers-on-the-lam genre.
6. Ball of Fire (41, Hawks)
Brains meets beauty as linguistics expert Gary Cooper wants to study singer and mob moll Barbara Stanwyck in perhaps Hawks’s single most witty flick. Backed by a cadre of reliably off-kilter supporting players (from Henry Travers to Dan Duryea), the two leads wrap their lips around slang and science talk in equal measure, as the charmingly goofy plot rushes headlong into marriage, gunfights, and a maddeningly perfect example of physics at work.
Alt to the Alt: What’s Up, Doc? (72, Bogdanovich). This screwball throwback does pretty well to resurrect the genre for its running time, complete with musical numbers and some fast-paced action, just like Ball of Fire.
7. Breaking Away (79, Yates)
Misfit townies taking down the jocks in a bike race sounds like the typical underdog sports movie, but it’s the performances and details that put Breaking Away ahead of the pack. Begin with Dennis Christopher as the ostensible protagonist, an awkward Italian wannabe who can possibly rise up from his rut by pedaling. Mix in the touching but still hilarious performances of Barbara Berrie and Paul Dooley as his parents, pre-stardom Dennis Quaid and Daniel Stern and pre-Little Children creepy Jackie Earl Haley as his Cutter friends, and the movie suddenly has a heart and soul longer than the Little 500.
Alt to the Alt: The Bad News Bears (76, Ritchie). Foul-mouthed kids who are both funny and sympathetic. Also features one of Matthau’s most underrated performances.
8. Broken Blossoms (19, Griffith)
As glad as I am that the superior Intolerance ousted Birth of a Nation from the list, the AFI could have been even more successful by including the infinitely simpler and more emotionally engaging Broken Blossoms. Griffith’s most affecting work is anchored by the profoundly sad performances of Lillian Gish and Richard Barthelmess, whose ethnicity as Chinese is used more conceptually than literally. Proves to the skeptical that a silent film can be just as sensitive and powerful as a talkie.
Alt to the Alt: Way Down East (20, Griffith). The next best Griffith/Gish melodrama, stark and beautiful to look at.
9. The Brother from Another Planet (84, Sayles)
John Sayles has a maverick sensibility and has been able to cut an interesting swath across American independent cinema. My personal favorite of his out-there depictions of the US is the sci-fi fable/social commentary Brother from Another Planet, starring a mute Joe Morton as a black visitor from above. A funny but sobering allegory for immigration and the urban experience.
Alt to the Alt: After Hours (85, Scorsese). A nightmare vision of urban alienation with a blacker humor than Brother.
10. California Split (74, Altman)
One of the most easygoing and freeform of Altman’s already easygoing and freeform 70s works, this examination of a gambling duo benefits from the breezy, jazzy lead performances of Elliott Gould (the Altman actor) and George Segal. Mirroring the protagonists’ meandering from incident to incident, the film offers a fascinating portrait of a workaday risk-taker and his more wary companion. Even the expected jackpot climax is upended in true Altman style.
Alt to the Alt: The Sting (73, Hill). A much slicker gambling movie, but one whose star wattage burns just as brightly but with a different color than Split.
SEE PART TWO.