AFI to Unreel List of Top 100 U.S. Films


Drum roll, please.

The suspense is nearly over. On Tuesday evening, CBS will unveil the American Film Institute's list of the 100 greatest American movies of the last century.

The executive producer of "AFI's 100 Years . . . 100 Movies" doesn't believe film buffs will be disappointed with the flicks that made the cut. "You'll go through [the list] and say, 'Yes, yes, yes,' " says Gary Smith, who also directed the three-hour program.

But American Film Institute director and chief executive officer Jean Picker Firstenberg isn't so sure.

"I expect there will be a lot of letters to the editor," she says. But, she adds, these films should be considered "suggestions" for the greatest American movies made between 1896 and 1996. AFI's goal is to celebrate and commemorate the first century of the motion picture and stir interest in American film history.

"This is a suggested exercise," Firstenberg says. "People have different opinions. That's a good thing because what it shows is passion about the movies."

AFI invited 1,500 people, including actors, directors, producers, writers, editors, cinematographers, studio executives, film historians and critics, to vote for the top 100 from a ballot of 400 films. President Clinton, Vice President Al Gore and their wives were also invited to vote.

The 400 films on the ballot, says Firstenberg, were chosen by AFI historians, archivists, curators and catalogers--"people whose lives are devoted to the history of the motion picture. They were very careful in considering the criteria."

Besides a requirement that entrants be feature-length American films, criteria included historical significance, critical recognition, box-office performance, awards history and cultural impact. The voters were encouraged to use the same factors in making their selections.

The ballot consisted of such obvious choices as the beloved "Citizen Kane," "Gone With the Wind," "Stagecoach," "The Gold Rush," "The Wizard of Oz," "Casablanca," "It's a Wonderful Life" and "Singin' in the Rain"; contemporary titles included "Jaws," "Star Wars," "The Godfather," "E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial" and "Taxi Driver," plus cult faves such as "Force of Evil" and "Gun Crazy."

Still, there were some surprising omissions. Though contemporary comedies such as 'Pretty Woman" and "Ferris Bueller's Day Off" made the ballot, revered comedy classics including Ernst Lubitsch's "The Shop Around the Corner," William Wyler's "Roman Holiday" and Billy Wilder's "Sabrina" were not included.

"One movie may have been included in the 400 by this group because they felt it meant something in a particular moment in time," says Firstenberg. "Therefore, it was worthy of consideration."


The CBS special, hosted by Richard Gere and Jodie Foster, features clips from the 100 films and interviews with an eclectic mixture of 50 celebrities, including Woody Allen, Candice Bergen, Cher, Walter Cronkite, Stanley Donen, Charlton Heston, Martin Scorsese and Ben Stiller, who discuss their favorite movies.

Though the broadcast is three hours, Smith says it "goes like a half-hour. There isn't a sequence that's on camera for longer than 45 seconds or a minute."

The first 75 films are unveiled in the first half of the program. The final 25 take up the last 90 minutes. "When you start getting down to the top 25, you are going to spend a little more time on the films than you would with a film that was No. 97 or 84," he says.

Smith says many of the participants became emotional when they talked about their memorable movies. "Dustin Hoffman is crying at one point in the show about a specific situation," he reports. "Burt Reynolds, believe it or not of all people, is doing that. Even Dan Rather got a little bit [emotional]. It's very interesting when people talk about movies and the experiences they had with this larger-than-life carpet ride."

Several more popular films will be highlighted in an opening montage set to a new song, "A Ticket to Dream," written by Marvin Hamlisch and Alan and Marilyn Bergman.

"More than half [of the clips used in the song] are not from the 100," Smith says. "In fact, we use many contemporary films. There are shots from 'Titanic' in there. That didn't qualify because [the cutoff point was] 1996. The '97 movies were not eligible."

The celebration of the 100 films doesn't end Tuesday. Beginning June 23, TNT will kick off a 10-part weekly series that offers an in-depth look at the 100 pictures. The selected films also will get a big push on home video, and Turner Classic Movies will present a festival spotlighting many of the titles every weekend in September.

"These [specials] will be magnets to bring you back to want to see the entire movie again," Firstenberg explains. "It's about reestablishing a relationship with these movies. When I began to see some of these programs being put together, I was really overwhelmed by this flood of emotions that reminds you of the first time you saw various scenes."

* "AFI's 100 Years . . . 100 Movies" airs at 8 p.m. Tuesday on CBS (Channel 2). The subsequent series, also titled "AFI's 100 Years . . . 100 Movies," will air Tuesdays on TNT, beginning June 23. The first two installments will be at 7 p.m.; the others will be at 10 p.m.

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