In spite of his lifelong love of the movies, Ryan Roach had always had a reflexive dislike of films made before the 1970s. But, by his own admission, he had seen very few films made before that time. Spurred on by challenges from friends, Ryan set an ambitious goal: he would watch, and review, every one of the American Film Institute’s Top 100 Films. Now, almost exactly a year later, he has accomplished his goal.
Ryan spoke with Drunk Monkeys’ Matthew Guerruckey, via email, about his project and what he’s learned about cinema during his year-long crash course.
Drunk Monkeys: What made you set this goal for yourself? Why was the AFI list your jumping off point?
Ryan Roach: I felt like there were lots of movies I wanted to see that I never had, and probably never would, unless I really forced myself to. As I saw it, the only way I could make sure I actually went ahead and watched movies like Gone With The Wind and Jaws and Midnight Cowboy is if I publicly announced my intentions to do so. So I wrote a Note on Facebook about it, tagging all my close friends, trusting that they would hold my feet to the fire if I backed out. AFI was my jumping off point because someone posted a link to the list on Facebook and said how many of the movies they had seen; a lot of my other friends posted their number as well. I had by far the least number of everyone at 31 out of 100. Now I’m at 100. Suck on it, Facebook friends! And, actually, my original thought was to watch all the Oscar winning and nominated movies, but there were quite a few from the early years that weren’t available on Netflix or Amazon, and 400+ movies was too daunting, anyway.
DM: What was the oldest film that you enjoyed before compiling the list? You mentioned in your review of The Wizard of Oz that you were a huge fan of that movie growing up, but were there any others?
RR: Definitely Oz. Bedknobs and Broomsticks. Mary Poppins. All the old Disney stuff I watched as a kid, I guess that counts. But as an adult…no, I don’t think there’s one old movie (let’s arbitrarily define “old” as made before I was born in 1975) that I truly loved.
DM: What was your block against old movies before?
RR: I don’t know exactly. I hardly even watch new movies on DVD or On Demand. I go to the theatre. It’s a weird thing in me. I’ve had movies I’ve wanted to see, but for whatever reason I didn’t make it to the theatre while it was playing and I literally say to myself, “well, too late now.”
I also do that with food. Perfectly good half eaten jars of peanut butter or the last three slices of bread or cheese go into the garbage because they’ve just been there “too long”. Am I over-sharing? I think I’m over-sharing.
DM: Do you think that need to see something in the theater is more indicative of your love of going to the movies, or of wanting to be a part of a the cultural conversation?
RR: I think both, but mostly the former. It’s not just the popular zeitgeist-y movies that I like to go see; the little indies no one has ever heard of are equally exciting. The number of things I love about L.A. can probably be counted on one hand, but at the top of the list is that every little podunk movie with a 20 dollar budget gets shown on at least one screen here. Plus, there’s the L.A. film festival, which I’ll usually attend.
DM: We’ve had numerous discussions before (and during) this project about black and white films. More specifically, the fact that you hated the use of black and white in film. Now that you’ve gotten through the entire list, wherein about 40% of the movies are in black and white, has your opinion changed at all?
RR: Look, it’s not the Black and White per se. Schindler’s List is a great movie, so is Raging Bull. It’s just that usually black and white signifies that the movie was made a long time ago, and the filmmaker has different values than me, and probably doesn’t have much to teach me about the world or have the ability to wow me. At least, that was my mindset. And yes, that has changed, to a degree. I used to be leery of, and reluctant to embrace, any movie made before 1980. I can now crank that back to about 1955 or so. And even then, there are exceptions, like The Wizard of Oz and It’s a Wonderful Life. Although it should be said that in general I feel this applies far more to dramas than comedies. Any comedy made before 1970 I’m still probably going to be skeptical about.
DM: Do you think that has something to do with the importance of slapstick in those early comedies? Why do you feel comedy doesn’t translate as well over time?
RR: My theory is, if I can do it, it ain’t funny. I can fart. I can fall down. I can make funny faces. I can throw a pie. It ain’t funny. It’s cheap and dumb, like saying “get’er done” during stand-up, or “I love America the most!” at a political rally. It takes no thought. I do honestly think people used to be dumber, or at the very least, to be kinder, far less sophisticated and it showed in our humor, or lack thereof.
DM: What is the first movie you remember seeing in the theater, and what are your fondest movie-going experiences?
RR: Raiders of the Lost Ark was the first movie I saw in the theatre, I believe. Or at least the first one I remember. We came in late, which i remember being quite frustrated about. I saw Misery in a tiny theatre in my hometown with my mom and sister. A few rows behind us were some very vocal teens, belonging to a race that has a certain reputation for volume in the theatre. They stood and yelled and hooted and hollered and it made the movie about thirty times more awesome than it probably would’ve been otherwise. I saw Million Dollar Baby and was crying so hard at the end of it. It’s the only movie where I’ve ever really lost in in public, not just crying but sobbing loudly. I couldn’t get a handle on myself. I was totally embarrassed and certain people would start pointing and laughing, and then I caught the eye of a couple seated a few chairs away, and they were both sobbing too, and we all laughed.
During the incredibly shitty movie Bounce there’s a point where Gwyneth Paltrow turns to Ben Affleck and says, totally apropos of nothing, “you know, sometimes you’ve just got to bounce” and two young women in front of me turned to each other, nodded, and both whispered “bounce” to each other with a smirk, which is literally something I still say to this day whenever a movie character awkwardly shoehorns in the movie title during a scene.
But by far the most fun I ever had in a theatre was when I watched Shaun of the Dead with my friend and roommate at the time. The theatre was sold out, and everyone– everyone–in the theatre was having the time of their lives. I remember strangers turning to one another after a particularly funny moment and nodding and laughing with sheer delight, as if confirming to one another that this was really happening, that we were getting to share this moment and remember it forever. Yeah, you definitely don’t get that at home.
DM: Is there an actor or director that you’ve gained a real appreciation of during this process?
RR: Marlon Brando. I didn’t love him in Streetcar, but he was utterly captivating in The Godfather, On the Waterfront, and especially Apocalypse Now. Jimmy Stewart is really great, the perfect Everyman. Jon Voigt was amazing in Midnight Cowboy. Humphrey Bogart, Clark Gable, Vivien Leigh, Gloria Swanson, Katherine Hepburn, and Cary Grant were all great, and all people whom I only had the vaguest idea who they were before I started this. I think Frank Capra was the Spielberg before Spielberg, and I wish he had had access to better effects and color film (See, there I go again). And Malcolm McDowell was perfect in A Clockwork Orange. I also like Kubrick way more than I expected to.
DM: Alternately, is there anyone that you grew to hate?
RR: The Marx Brothers, most especially fucking Harpo. Charlie Chaplin annoyed me, too. Bette Davis–don’t believe the hype. And Fred and Ginger; big fucking deal.
DM: Please explain your irrational hatred of the Marx Brothers.
RR: What’s that? You want to know about my DEAR NATIONAL PLATED of the Marx Brothers? I barely even know that plate; why would I call it “dear”? HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
DM: That’s barely a pun. Groucho is spinning in his grave. While giving a pointed retort to Margaret Dumont, no doubt.
RR: Spinning in his grave, or grinning in his cave? His Hell Cave. Where he lives now, in Hell.
DM: After going through the entire AFI Top 100, how do you view that list as a whole? Is there any glaring omission from the list that you would add?
RR: I feel the list is valid and it picked a lot of movies that are part of our national lexicon. I noticed that many picks were a “token” or type, like a token black movie (Do the Right Thing) and a token gay(ish) movie (Cabaret) a token animated movie (Snow White), etc. There’s no question the list skews “mainstream” and “safe” and also straight, white, and male. But you know, so did movies for the first 70 years or so. They still mostly do, now. And there are a ton of glaring omissions mostly from the 90’s, a few from last decade: American Beauty, Rushmore, Stand By Me, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, The Truman Show, Magnolia, Boogie Nights, Fargo, Requiem for a Dream, The Social Network, South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut, The Big Lebowski, Brokeback Mountain, The Breakfast Club, and Election.
I’ve come away with this mostly with a much greater appreciation for movies from the 70’s, but I think the 90’s are no slouches themselves. I would be hard pressed to say which was the better decade. The 60’s were also pretty good.
DM: Which of the more recent films toward the bottom of the list do you expect to hit the top 10 in the next ten or twenty years?
RR: I should hope ones like Pulp Fiction and The Sixth Sense will do much better once the voters get older.
DM: What film surprised you the most — either as far better than you had expected, or far worse?
RR: I really wanted to love M.A.S.H., Easy Rider, Vertigo,and The Wild Bunch and hated them all. I was also really disappointed in The Philadelphia Story, as I thought Hepburn and Grant were hilarious in Bringing Up Baby and I wanted more of that. Speaking of which, Bringing Up Baby is by far the biggest surprise in the “Like” column, and the only black and white comedy on the list that I really, really loved.
DM: It’s almost impossible to live up to a reputation like Citizen Kane’s. Do you feel it’s warranted?
RR: Yes, actually. It’s not my favorite of the list, but it’s definitely up there, and much much better than I expected. It certainly has all the ingredients of a movie that would top most list-maker’s lists. It’s old for one, that’s the best thing it’s got going for it as far as voter-appeal. It’s quite a timeless and grim story that’s also a parable against the emptiness of capitalism, which appeals to the liberal Hollywood crowd. And it’s very daring and almost trippy at times. It reminds me of a tamer version of something Aronofsky or David Lynch do today.
DM: How do you think Kane measures up against other films being made in the 40’s and how, if at all, do you think it stands up against films being made today?
RR: My knowledge of 40’s films is admittedly still quite limited, but from what I’ve seen, it’s miles and miles ahead of anything from the 40’s, both from a technical and narrative standpoint. The story is unrelenting in its cynicism and bleakness, and doesn’t resolve anything with a happy ending, either. And the dialog was snappy and smart and I loved the way people talked over each other, like a Mamet play. And it’s a technical marvel. I honestly don’t know how a lot of those shots were done without CGI. I think if it were made today, no one would consider it dated at all.
DM: How do you think it specifically compares to The Social Network, which you compared it to before viewing Kane?
RR: Heh, well, I obviously made the comparison without knowing much about Kane, but the broad strokes are similar. Both Charles Foster Kane and “Mark Zuckerberg” are professionally thriving will failures in their personal lives, and both end up bitter and alone. Both films also have smart, rapid fire dialog.
One thing I noticed with Wikipedia is that many of the movies on the AFI list were either critical or box office flops when they came out, or at least received with a mild shrug. I think through the benefit of the passage of time, The Social Network will be considered a classic that was criminally overlooked by the Oscars, much like Pulp Fiction and Goodfellas and Shawshank Redemption and many others.
DM: What film would you put at the top of the list, aside from Kane?
RR: I went into thinking that Pulp Fiction would be number one, slam dunk. It’s definitely in my Top 5 favorite movies of all time. But to my great shock, the movie with the twisted through-the-looking-glass version of Wizard of Oz, where Dorothy and her friends sent not to make a request of the Wizard, but to kill him is my favorite (That movie is Apocalypse Now).
DM: How long did this project did this take you?
RR: I wrote the Facebook Note in early March 2011, not exactly sure of the date. I then wrote a Note reviewing the #100 movie, Ben-Hur. Then someone encouraged me to write a blog instead, which I started on March 18th of last year. So, I didn’t quite make my one year goal, but I was close.
DM: What was the hardest part of this project?
RR: When writing the review/recap, it was finding a “hook” sometimes on the movie itself. If it was a movie I really loved it was no problem, and it was even more fun if it was a movie I really hated. But the “just okay” movies were death sometimes to write about. Especially if they were plot heavy, I would find myself getting bogged down in the minute details, forgetting that the readers probably didn’t give a shit about all that, and just wanted me to comment on the big stuff.
Also, I tried very hard to keep to a two movies a week schedule, which sometimes I couldn’t honor. I like to travel down to San Diego a lot and see my friends down there, and I would often feel itchy and incomplete if I hadn’t written about or seen a movie first. Then I would remind myself that my deadline was completely self-imposed and no one was grading the damn thing, but that didn’t seem to matter. There were also a couple of movies that were just fucking brutal to get through. Like Intolerance. My God. 95% of the movies I watched in one sitting, but Intolerance was a three and a half hour movie that took me nearly a whole day to watch.
DM: How do you feel after accomplishing this pretty time-intensive goal?
RR: I honestly feel better educated about the movies in general, as well as proud for having rediscovered by long-dormant love of writing.
DM: I think everyone reading your recaps notices a very distinct change in your writing, you really picked up a strong structure and rhythm. Did you feel that change as you went along?
RR: Yes, definitely. I got more confident, and it became easier.I let go of the idea that I was actually informing people what happened in the movie. I figure they’ve almost certainly already seen the ones they read, and avoided reading the ones they planned to see in the future. I also liked every once in a while to subvert expectations, and write the thing in first person, or a poem, or what have you.
DM: Besides the continuation of your blog, in one form or another, do you have any other writing projects planned?
RR: I’ve always wanted to write a play about the gay marriage fight, but to avoid any “After-School Special” queasiness, I was planning on a very cynical “both sides are corrupt” take, in the vein of the way Citizen Ruth went after abortion rights advocates and pro-lifers equally. I’m obviously for gay marriage, but that doesn’t mean I can’t have fun with the political aspect of it. I have an idea for a plotline, the trick is finding the time to actually write it.
You can catch up on all of Ryan’s reviews of the AFI Top 100 Films on his blog, where he will also post updates on his future writing projects.