Film & TV

The American Film Institute’s Terrible Top Ten of 2018

Chadwick Boseman as T’Challa in Black Panther (Disney/Marvel Studios)
In a rush to bad judgment, they heap praise on propaganda and scorn on moviegoers.

It’s the first week of December and the nation’s countless, overeager awards groups have already begun parceling out their year-end encomiums. They kowtow to Hollywood, obviously without having seen all the films yet to be released in 2018 — only movies that the big studios from Disney to Netflix have already decided are award-worthy.

The most egregious of these early-starters is the American Film Institute, which rushed the awards race with its 10 Best choices, sprinting out of the gate before a couple of the listed movies have even opened in theaters. The problem is that movies no longer have a chance to register in the culture or to become beloved or reviled by the public. It’s the case of yet another institution, based in Hollywood or D.C. (the AFI has feet in both), making decisions for the rest of us, indifferent to our participation.

The AFI began 51 years ago, after a Johnson-administration call for an organization committed to preserving America’s film heritage. It was originally funded by the National Endowment for the Arts, the Motion Picture Association of America, and the Ford Foundation, so its list sounds official. But the movie awards game is part of the commercialization of pop culture.

Even the debatable idea that the government should finance artists (through any means) is belied by the endorsement of commercialism rather than artistic expression. Be assured, there’s a political component to this: The films that won the AFI’s approval are all politically motivated and represent social-justice precepts rather than moral virtues or aesthetic standards. In other words, they’re propaganda.

Listed alphabetically, the AFI films assume the same values that are promoted in politically biased mainstream media; the list resembles an index for Saul Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals.

BlacKkKlansman. In this clumsy race satire, “ridicule is man’s most important weapon” — Alinsky’s Rule 5. Spike Lee distorts a black-police-informer (and real-life race-traitor) tale about infiltrating the Ku Klux Klan and then uses slanted documentary footage to incite resistance to the current administration.

Black Panther. This Marvel Comics adaptation works from the idea that “a good tactic is one your people enjoy,” as Alinksy’s Rule 6 states. The black Millennial audience is exploited, its childlike need for empowerment used against it by replacing historical fact and learning with fantasy.

Eighth Grade. By assuming a teenager’s perspective, writer-director Bo Burnham follows Rule 2: “Never go outside the expertise of your people” (the clueless market, in this case). With this approach, he makes the idea of “girl power” maudlin.

If Beale Street Could Talk. Using a minor James Baldwin novel to “go outside the expertise of the enemy” (Rule 3), Barry Jenkins’s white-guilt collage mixes romance with prison reform, religious mockery, and other topical targets. His Baldwinetics fake African-American authenticity.

The Favourite. Through this perverse Anglophilic tale, America’s inferiority complex manages to “maintain constant pressure upon the opposition” (Rule 10). By fostering contempt and scandal, the filmmakers show contempt for the audience.

First Reformed. Here, religious skepticism is the means of carrying out Rule 4: “Make the enemy live up to its own book of rules.” So Ethan Hawke’s manic Calvinist minister is radicalized, becoming a crazed eco-terrorist without faith or redemption.

Green Book. The relationship between a straight white bigot and a gay black artiste dishes up a trite lesson in brotherhood, by which the racist “threat is usually more terrifying than the thing itself” (Rule 9). Everyone is patronized.

Mary Poppins Returns. Moviegoers are forced to endure remake/reboot mania as Hollywood’s dominant form of indoctrination, proving that “a tactic that drags on too long becomes a drag” (Rule 7).

A Quiet Place. This insipid horror film retread, based on the premise that “power is not only what you have but what the enemy thinks you have” (Rule 1), inspired the fallacious label “Smart Horror.” Fanboys, beware.

A Star Is Born. The latest showbiz shell game follows the command to “never go outside the expertise of your people” (Rule 2), thus inspiring more celebrity worship.

Roma. Boutique neorealism in this Mexican import, which won a “Special Award” from AFI, owing to its foreign-language status, helps “keep the pressure on” (Rule 8). Its pathetic “humanitarian crisis” is uncannily in tune with the Caravan vs. Invasion canard now favored by media and open-borders politicians.

It’s obvious from this roll call that the AFI committee is not a group of adventurous filmseekers. (As critic John Demetry responded: “Two Emily Blunt movies!”) The Special Award to Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma reveals ignorance of movie history plus an irresistible urge to conflate political sentiment and artistic objectives. American film culture has reached a point where propaganda has become a goal even while its shameless obviousness goes largely unrecognized.

The AFI list shares a certain smugness with AFI alum Paul Schrader’s recent tirade against the contemporary film audience: “It’s not that us filmmakers are letting you down, it’s you audiences that are letting us down.” Ralph Waldo Emerson’s maxim “Tis the good reader that makes the good book” is offended by these “official” statements on movie quality and film perception. The AFI’s hastiness forces elite political preferences over the public’s intellectual, spiritual, and aesthetic needs.

These insidious “entertainments” destabilize U.S. culture. The rush to proclaim a 2018 movie canon without even a brief test of any film’s probable worth is merely another example of the industry’s habit of deception. Can anyone clean up this intellectual swamp?

Armond White, a film critic, writes about movies for National Review and is the author of New Position: The Prince Chronicles.

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