Another year, another irrelevant movie list from the American Film Institute. On Tuesday, the film preservation organization will announce its 100 greatest songs in American movies, and I bet the list will ignore the riskiest, most interesting ways movies use music.

You can get an advance peek at how dull their choices are if you visit the AFI’s Web site. Although the 100 greatest movie songs are supposedly “top secret,” the site (www.afi.com/tvevents/100years/songs.aspx) spills the beans on what will probably be the Top Five when the list is revealed on a CBS special Tuesday night: “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” “Singin’ in the Rain,” “Moon River,” “The Way We Were” and “As Time Goes By.”

That last song is from “Casablanca,” which raises the question: Is there no AFI list that “Casablanca” isn’t perched atop? Year after year, the AFI coughs out a Top 100 list, which is really just an excuse for yet another marathon clip-job TV special. Year after year, the same movies are mentioned. Year after year, “Casablanca” is declared the best-loved, most-romantic, most-adventurous, most-whatever movie of all time. Really?

None in the AFI’s Top Five should be there, if you ask me … which the AFI did by sending me a ballot, along with 1,500 other moviemakers and writers. Paging through the ballot of 400 “suggestions,” I discovered the AFI isn’t too high on my favorite movie songs. In part, that’s because its list is all-American, so there’s no room for the uncontainable joy of Toni Collette and Rachel Griffiths’ performance of “Waterloo,” from the Australian “Muriel’s Wedding.” And that’s partly because the AFI ignores lesser-known songs, such as Mink Deville’s gorgeous “Fairy Tale Romance” from “A Princess Bride.”

But mostly that’s because the AFI is interested in two things: 1. shoving in every crappy Oscar winner (Who can forget that magical moment in “White Knights” when “Say You, Say Me” debuted? Well, me.); and 2. scrounging up a song or two from every musical ever made, including not just “Broadway Melody of 1936,” but also “1938” and “1940.” As a result, scenes that find new ways to connect movies and music are ignored.

My own list starts with “Wise Up” from “Magnolia,” one of the most devastatingly effective uses of music in the history of film.

Its appearance in the film echoes the unnerving, thrilling rush you get when you flip on the radio and hear exactly the song you were just thinking about. “Magnolia” focuses on nine characters in various states of crisis. Just before “Wise Up,” there’s a long speech in which a dying man (Jason Robards) confesses to a nurse all the mistakes he has made in his life. While he speaks, the movie shifts to scenes of other characters, and we realize that, although he’s talking about his own life, he could just as easily be talking about theirs.

Then Aimee Mann’s “Wise Up” begins, and each of the main characters, with a key exception, is shown singing along to it. What’s oddest about this audacious sequence is that it’s not an instantly recognizable song these characters would be likely to know – like, say, “Old Time Rock “n’ Roll” in “Risky Business” – and they don’t appear to be listening to it on their stereos or radios. The song seems to be coming from inside their heads. It’s as if, instead of the characters singing the song, the song is singing them – telling them to listen to its message about dealing with pain.

“Wise Up” establishes a connection between characters in the film who don’t even know each other, hinting that we are all more like each other than we are different. The song says that we all have regrets, but we also all have the opportunity to act on them. It says, “What if all of us could learn from each others’ mistakes?”

Nor will I quibble if “All That Jazz,” from “Chicago,” makes the list, because it’s both a snappy reminder of how exhilarating a song-and-dance number can be and a daring story-telling device that swiftly introduces us to the theme of stardom-at-any-price. Also on my list was another opening song, Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power,” which is coupled with Rosie Perez’s inspired dancing in the opening credits of “Do the Right Thing.” The sequence doesn’t tell us who the characters are or what their story is, but it does prepare us for a blast of power, anger, passion and pride.

“Fight the Power” hits us like a sonic boom, but the last entry on my Top Five couldn’t be quieter. It’s from “Shoot the Moon”: Diane Keaton is alone and naked in a bathtub, crying, smoking and singing the Beatles’ “If I Fell.” Playing a woman who’s about to be divorced from an unfaithful man, Keaton haltingly finds her way through a song about deciding whether falling in love is too painful and measures her own deep sadness against the sweetly unrealistic woe of the song.

You can see the seeds of Keaton’s “Shoot the Moon” scene in Thompson’s “Love Actually” scene. Both feature people singin’ in the rain: using music to help them through a tough time. Both show characters who turn to music when their feelings are too complicated to put into words. And both get at the power of music and movies to tell us that we are not alone, that no matter what we are feeling, someone has felt it before and made it through.


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