Critic's Notebook: Todd McCarthy on BBC's Bizarre Poll of Best American Films

Courtesy of Photofest

"Forrest Gump" but no "Unforgiven"? "Marnie" ahead of "Notorious"? THR's chief film critic Todd McCarthy parses a much-touted new poll of the best American films of all time.

The just-released BBC poll of the 100 best American films of all time is both predictable and eccentric: a mirror image in some respects of its fellow British Sight & Sound poll taken every 10 years, and a reflection in other ways of some willfully weird and cultish academic influences.

The top 15, with multiple titles from Orson Welles, Alfred Hitchcock and Francis Ford Coppola and including five Oscar-winning classics, includes nothing made within the last 40 years, suggestive of a reasonable, old-fashioned inclination toward requiring that films stand the test of time before admitting them to the canon. Unsurprisingly, the 1970s ranks the highest among decades, with 21 titles tallied, while only six films made since the year 2000 made the cut.

Four directors rose above the others with five titles apiece: Hitchcock, Stanley Kubrick, Steven Spielberg and Billy Wilder. Right behind with four each are Coppola and Howard Hawks, while Welles, John Ford, Charles Chaplin and Martin Scorsese rated three apiece in the top 100.

The most recent Sight & Sound poll saw Hitchcock's Vertigo finally supplant Welles' Citizen Kane as the greatest film of all time. On the BBC list, however, Kane is back on top, with Coppola's The Godfather sandwiched in between at number two.

At a time when D.W. Griffith's landmark 1915 drama The Birth of a Nation is scarcely ever screened in public due to its racial attitudes, it is mildly surprising to see it still rated as high as it is — at 39 — while another revered Civil War classic with significantly less charged but still controversial treatment of race, Gone With the Wind, is practically off the list at 97.

Among contemporary directors beyond Coppola and Spielberg, it's not surprising to see Scorsese weigh in with three titles, nor Woody Allen, David Lynch and Terrence Malick rating two apiece. But two each from Robert Zemeckis and Spike Lee is a bit eyebrow-raising, as is the late John Cassavetes notching two films on the all-time roster.

In fact, fully one-tenth of the list strikes me as bizarrely unpredictable, in that it's hard to figure out how they made the cut when the likes of Unforgiven, Only Angels Have Wings, Zodiac, Sullivan's Travels, Bonnie and Clyde, Make Way for Tomorrow, Blade Runner, Out of the Past, Fargo, King Kong, Boogie Nights, Anatomy of a Murder, L.A. Confidential and Trouble in Paradise, just for starters, did not.

First off, why is a 14-minute film, Maya Deren and Alexander Hammid's 1943 avant-garde Meshes of the Afternoon, included in what is otherwise an entirely feature-oriented undertaking? To honor short and experimental works is great, but this just doesn't seem to belong here.

Hitchcock's Marnie? Really, it's the 47th greatest American film of all time, rating higher than Days of Heaven, Touch of Evil, The Wild Bunch, Sunset Boulevard as well as Hitchcock's own Notorious, which is arguably his greatest film? I know critic Robin Wood made a highly personal case for this film nearly fifty years ago, but has the whole Tippi Hedren who-ha of the past few years contorted opinion so drastically in its favor? It's far closer to Hitch's worst than to his best.

And where did the enthusiasm for Josef von Sternberg's gorgeous but compromised and convoluted The Shanghai Gesture come from? I bow to no one in my regard for the director, but I've never heard a soul argue that this 1942 drama, which essentially finished him off as a Hollywood director, is superior to the pinnacles of his Dietrich period.

I would ask the same of those who collectively decided that Imitation of Life, amazingly ranked 37th, is Douglas Sirk's best work. Is this the view of a new cult that has gathered around it for sociological reasons? As with Sternberg, I vastly admire Sirk, but more for at least a half-dozen of his other films before this one. As far as the presence of Nicholas Ray's lurid Western Johnny Guitar is concerned, I ask: Where are we, with the Cahiers du Cinema in Paris in 1954? Ray's In A Lonely Place is very comfortable on this list but, as a second choice, The Lusty Men would have been preferable in every way.

Recent academic reappraisal, combined with a willful contrarianism, accounts for the startling appearance of the previously despised and/or ignored Heaven's Gate, aka Michael Cimino's Waterloo. Tellingly, the far superior The Deer Hunter, is nowhere to be found here.

Although both films have their ardent supporters, it is surprising to find Cassavetes' Love Streams and Spike Lee's The 25th Hour on this list. And Godfrey Reggio's Koyaanisqatsi has enjoyed a strong cult following for years with a certain kind of audience, but it was not clear that this cult included film critics.

Among other surprises: William Wyler's The Best Years of Our Lives was a huge success and big Oscar winner in 1946, but its position at number 15, right between Altman's Nashville and McCabe and Mrs. Miller, was impressive coming from a group of contemporary film critics, given the director's lack of a cult following today; the enduring eminence of F.W. Murnau's great 1927 silent Sunrise is heartening, as is the resilience of Max Ophuls' impeccable and heartbreaking Letter From An Unknown Woman. And perhaps the biggest surprise of all, in 26th place right ahead of the far better known Barry Lyndon, Pulp Fiction and Raging Bull, is Charles Burnett's perennially obscure 1978 independent feature Killer of Sheep. It is a film that could barely be birthed, and yet it endures.