Critic's Notebook: What the DGA 'Best Films' List Got Wrong

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The Directors Guild poll of the 80 best-directed films of the last 80 years unwisely snubbed foreign cinema, Hollywood giants like Howard Hawks and more recent American auteurs like Robert Altman, David Lynch and Terrence Malick.

The 1970s rule as far as the Directors Guild of America is concerned. In a poll of DGA members (published last week) taken to identify the 80 best-directed films made in the 80 years since the guild's founding in 1936, 18 of the chosen movies were released during the decade of the so-called New Hollywood, a period when a significant number of the guild's current membership were in their formative years or ramping up their careers.

Francis Ford Coppola, who on Friday planted his hand-and-footprints in the cement in the forecourt of the hallowed Chinese Theater, dominated that decade and the list itself by placing three films in the top 10: The Godfather, which is No. 1; The Godfather Part II, at No. 6; and Apocalypse Now right behind in seventh place. Another of the so-called Movie Brats, Steven Spielberg, tied Stanley Kubrick for most titles on the list with five apiece.

The most startling bit of information in the DGA's announcement is that only 13.7 percent of the membership voted in the poll, or 2,189 people. Why so shy or lazy? I've got to think that a much higher percentage votes for the annual guild awards. Putting together lists like this can be fun, so I wish more of this knowledgeable group had participated and thereby given the results a bit more weight.

But tallies like this always strike sparks in different ways and can be interesting to break them down. The mid-century decades dominated, with the 1950s rating 14 titles and the 1960s notching 13. By contrast, the venerated 1930s slipped in just two films, and from 1939 at that, the inevitable Gone With the Wind and The Wizard of Oz, both directed by Victor Fleming.

The 1940s did a bit better, with nine classics in the mix, led by Citizen Kane at No. 2, Casablanca at No. 5 and It's A Wonderful Life at No. 15.

On the other end of the spectrum, the membership has been reluctant to quickly anoint films made in this century as all-time classics. Only four films released since 2000 made the list, and they're all in the lower realms of the ranking: Avatar, The Hurt Locker, There Will Be Blood and Birdman.

The DGA has been parsimonious, to say the least, in its consideration of foreign-language films, including only two Kurosawa classics — Rashomon and Seven Samurai — and four Italian features — 8 ½, The Conformist, The Bicycle Thief and Cinema Paradiso. No French or Swedish films, nothing from Germany, Spain or anywhere else. No Bergman, Bunuel, Renoir, Truffaut, Godard, Visconti, Antonioni and so many others.

By largely ignoring the 1930s and opening the door just a bit more on the 1940s, the guild also snubbed quite a few of the great Hollywood masters, including Hawks, Lubitsch, Sturges, Cukor, Minnelli, Preminger and multiple Oscar winners such as McCarey, Stevens and Zinnemann.

Also left out entirely were some of the most successful and/or acclaimed filmmakers of the late 1960s and 1970s, such as Penn, Altman, Frankenheimer (no The Manchurian Candidate?), Friedkin and Bogdanovich.

And then there are some of the top directors of the past 20 years or so who went similarly unmentioned: David Fincher, Terrence Malick, David Lynch, Oliver Stone, Michael Mann, Steven Soderbergh, Wes Anderson and Ang Lee. And there are no genuine film noirs, which I thought might have crept onto such a list by this time.

Combing through the rundown a third and fourth time, I was surprised by the durability of certain Oscar-garlanded titles that I thought no one cared much about anymore, such as Doctor Zhivago, The Sting, Gandhi, Cinema Paradiso and Forrest Gump. I was stunned that, if two Sergio Leone films were going to make the list, one of them would be cumbersome and little-seen-in-its-day Once Upon a Time in America. It's beyond my imagination that The Shawshank Redemption is rated by the rank-and-file as the 17th best-directed film of the past 80 years. And what is it about Birdman that made it the only film released over the past seven years to rate a mention?

Now if only the remaining 86.3 percent of the guild would name its favorites, we might have something to go on.

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