AFI 100 Years 100 Movies 10 Years 1 World of Movies

Posted in Side Topics at 1:11 pm by Sam

In 1998, the American Film Institute polled some 1500 film critics, historians, and industry leaders and came up with a list of 100 of the greatest, most historically significant films of all time. Ten years later, they did it again, and the television special aired last night.

I figured I should post about it, and I was wondering what to quibble about, but Roger Ebert set me straight when I read his article (which includes the full list): “Lists like these cry out to be disagreed with. . . . In the aftermath of the first list, issued in 1998, I received enough complaints about missing titles to supply two or three more lists. . . . But such lists serve two functions: (1) The television special makes money for the American Film Institute, which is a noble and useful institution, and (2) some kid somewhere is gonna rent ‘Citizen Kane’ and have the same kind of epiphany I had when I first saw it as a teenager. . . . They are going to find movies on this list that were made before their grandparents were born — and, if judging by the kids I saw Buster Keaton’s “The General” (No. 18) with, they might love them.”

He’s quite right. I could complain that The Graduate, while it thankfully slipped out of the top 10, is still in the top 20. I could complain that All Quiet On the Western Front and Fargo are absent. On the other hand, I could express my profound delight that those polled by the AFI have corrected their grievous omission of The General by ranking it #18 this time around. But yeah, in the end, this list and others like it serve to give great movies more exposure, and that is a great thing that supersedes individual controversies.

I’m a stats junkie anyhow, though, and so I immediately wanted to know which titles dropped off, which were new, which titles rose and fell the most, and so on. Wikipedia already has the scoop on that stuff, so check there.

But now I am finally done talking about what I’m not going to talk about, and I can talk about what I will talk about. What interests me in this list is how it reflects the burgeoning recognition of a few key titles that, for whatever reason, have suddenly gained great respect despite already being greatly respected. The British Sight & Sound magazine does a Top 10 Movies type of list every ten years as well (theirs dates back to 1952), and in the 2002 list, Vertigo (1958) and Sunrise (1927) appeared for the first time. Vertigo, in fact, appeared at #2, displacing The Rules of the Game, which had held the spot through the 1972, 1982, and 1992 lists. Five years later, Vertigo climbs 52 spots to #9 on the AFI 100 list, and Sunrise debuts at #82.

Where did the sudden surge of support come from for these two titles? No idea. But great art will always swell and ebb as contemporary perspectives evolve. (Good or mediocre art just ebbs.) Both films are about romantic obsessions. In Vertigo, Jimmy Stewart falls in love with a woman who is killed, then cannot get over her. He meets another woman and becomes obsessed with her, but only insofar as she resembles the dead woman. He remakes her into her image, and she obliges, because if he cannot love her as herself, at least he can love her somehow. It’s one of the most psychologically complex films ever made. It conveys truth and understanding of humanity that even most other great films don’t quite manage.

Sunrise is also about a man’s tumultous obsession with two women. It’s about a man who has grown restless in a marriage and meets an exciting woman from the city that seduces him and puts thoughts of murder into his head. But craving murder and following through prove to be two very different things.

Is it coincidence that these two films touch upon similar themes, or is there some shift in the tide of American culture that makes these themes all the more compelling to us? I don’t know, but it’s interesting to think about, and it’s a great opportunity to rediscover these great, great films.

Here’s another thing that may or may not have anything to do with changing attitudes. D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation appeared on the original AFI 100 list. In any list of movies that attempts to recognize the most influential films of all time, Birth of a Nation needs to appear on it. It cannot be overstated just how much it revolutionized filmmaking. Here is the first feature film that looks and functions like we think of movies looking and functioning. Modern cinematographic and editing techniques are introduced. Close-ups, crosscutting, and on and on — the basic building blocks of modern filmmaking were first assembled and used pervasively in Birth of a Nation.

But the film carries the stigma of racism. The first half less so, but the second is a story about the aftermath of the Civil War in which the Ku Klux Klan are the heroes, shown riding to the rescue of whites under attack by blacks, portrayed as savage and uncivilized. Modern discussions of the film are difficult, because neither the racism nor the brilliance of the filmmaking can be ignored. (Leni Reifenstahl’s Nazi propaganda film Triumph of the Will is similarly problematic.)

Even in 1915, charges of racism were raised, which took D.W. Griffith quite by surprise. His next film was an apology: Intolerance, from 1916, an epic which interleaves four separate stories that illustrate how destructive a force intolerance is and was throughout history. It, too, is a great film and an absolutely critical landmark in film history.

But it’s interesting to see what the AFI Top 100 lists have done. In 1997, Birth of a Nation appeared. In 2007, it’s been swapped out for Intolerance. If that switch occurred from changing social values rather than changing perception of cinematic achievement, how can anyone complain?

If you have interest in watching the movies on the new AFI 100 list, check The Film Lover’s Check List, which includes a page for six earlier AFI lists and will include the new list later today. The Film Lover’s Check List is a nice tool for keeping track of what movies of various lists you’ve seen and what movies you have left to go.

(Note: Because of this AFI 100 post, this week’s Vintage post will be delayed.)


  1. Ferrick (140) said,

    June 21, 2007 at 1:49 pm

    I didn’t realize that the list was being updated and re-worked as much as it was. I thought it was just a retrospective on the first list and how reaction and time have affected peoples thoughts of it. Because of that, I didn’t watch it and now I wish I had. Maybe they will re-run it again this week and I can record it.

    I’ll have to check Wikipedia first. I’m sure there is something in there about how much influence gnomes and a kid named Jimmy in South Dakota have had on cinema.

  2. Ferrick (140) said,

    June 21, 2007 at 2:07 pm

    Here are my big surprises after looking at the changes.

    The Searchers moved up 84 spots to #12. Wow, that is quite a jump and I’m not sure why. I think it was a great movie but I’ve never felt others considered it such a great movie in different circles.

    E.T. actually moved up a spot. I thought it would move down.

    The Godfather, Part II didn’t move at all, staying at #32.

    River Kwai and Strangelove both fell 13 spots. I’m surprised they moved that much.

    It is hard for me to think of movies from the last decade making the list so seeing Fellowship of the Ring on there made me look twice.

    There is a lot of Spielberg on that list. (From Wikipedia: Alfred Hitchcock and William Wyler directed 10 films each. Steven Spielberg and Howard Hawks are next, with eight films each, with Billy Wilder and George Stevens following with seven.)

    Get Titanic the heck off of there! This isn’t the Amazon ratings system. These people are supposed to know better.

    How does Doctor Zhivago, which was #39 before, completely fall off the list?

    I haven’t looked for it yet but in 1997, they had the gold list (top 100) and the silver list (101-250, I believe). I wonder how many of the “New” films in the top 100 were on the silver list before and where the drop-offs ended up. And how many new films are in the silver list.*

    *I’m not sure if the lists were really called the gold list and silver list but those were the colors on the icons they used to represent them.

  3. vivaladisney (4) said,

    June 21, 2007 at 5:30 pm

    I enjoyed watching AFI’s list. And, of course, any time that there is a list, there is going to be controversy and difference of opinion. Some things that I did and didn’t like about the list:

    - No “Third Man”? #57 last time, and didn’t even place this time. I adore that film, and believe that it should have made the list.

    - No “Fargo”. Great American film. #84 last time, absent this time.

    - No “Fantasia”. #58 last time. One of the great animated films of all-time. Perhaps the biggest upset of the list for me.

    _ “Pulp Fiction” being so low at only #94, up 1 place from last time’s #95, I believe it is much better than that. Could have been in the 30s, even higher.

    - “Cabaret” placing at #63. I actually wasn’t much a fan of this film at all. In my humble opinion, shouldn’t have even made the list.

    - “Toy Story” at only #99. Another film that I absolutely adore. Should have been higher.

    - Very happy to see “12 Angry Men” on the list. Even if it’s only at #87, very nice to see it.

    - No “Frankenstein”? The greatest monster movie of all-time. Was #87 last time.

    -”Intolerance” placing at #49, yet “Birth of a Nation” being absent from the list. A little surprised about that. I consider “Birth” to be the superior of the two.

    - “2001: A Space Odyssey” up to #15. 7 higher than last time’s #22. I was happy to see that.

    - “Raging Bull” rising 20 spaces from last time’s #24 to place itself at #4. Not sure how I feel about this. Surprising to see it rise into the top 5.

    - “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” rising 15 spaces to #34. Very happy about that. I love this film. A Disney masterpiece.

    - “The Searchers” being at #12. That’s 84 spaces higher than last time’s #96. I don’t agree with this one. A bit shocking, actually.

    - “The Jazz Singer”, after being #90 last time, isn’t on the list. A very influential film. I believe it belongs on the list.

    -”The Shawshank Redemption” being new at #72. Love that movie. Glad it placed.

    - “Citizen Kane” #1 again. I agree with this. I believe that Citizen Kane is the best film ever made.

    There are some films that i would have added, some I would have taken off, some I would have moved, but, overall, it was entertaining to watch. I enjoy all the AFI specials, no matter how much I disagree with them.

  4. siochembio (82) said,

    June 21, 2007 at 8:59 pm

    I pretty much agree with everything that’s been said. Very angered that “The Third Man” is no longer on the list, but pleased as punch to see “Sunrise” and “The General” make the list.

    Sam, I too questioned the removal of Birth of a Nation in favor of Intolerance. Yes, the second half of Birth of a Nation made me queasy from the content, but you cannot overstate its influence and power. I read the move as finding “an equally good but later and non-racist” DW Griffiths film for the list.

    Oh, and I like Vertigo very much, but I don’t buy that it’s better than The Rules of the Game. I didn’t know that Vertigo had displaced it on the most recent Sight & Sound poll.

    I was happy to see a Preston Sturges film on the list, although I would have gone for The Lady Eve over Sullivan’s Travels, but what do I know.

    It sounds like the AFI wants to start its own version of the Sight & Sound poll, reviewing the list every ten years.

  5. Sam (405) said,

    June 22, 2007 at 10:14 am

    I just made a correction. Despite quoting Roger Ebert saying that the first AFI 100 list came out in 1998, I still introduced my article with the words “In 1997….” I just assumed that, hey, if this is the “10th Anniversary” of the list, the original must have come out in 1997. No, it was 1998, and it’s only been nine years. The Reeler called this a “triumph of marketing mathematics.”

    In a way, this actually makes things nice and clean. sio, I think you’re right that the AFI is trying to reproduce the success of the Sight & Sound poll, and by shifting to years ending in 7, we’ll now get either an S&S list or an AFI list every five years. That is, unless the next AFI 100 list comes out in 2016.

  6. Quartz (3) said,

    June 22, 2007 at 5:14 pm

    I believe The Third Man was taken off the list because it’s an English film, not American.

    Personally, I’ve always been rather dubious about the inclusion of Snow White and Toy Story - Bambi and Finding Nemo are superior films - but it seems to me that the AFI list isn’t just much a roll call of the *best* American films as much as the most *culturally important*. Hence why Titanic even appears at all.

    Finally, as much as I love Charlie Chaplin, am I the only one that thought the inclusion of City Lights, The Gold Rush, *and* Modern Times on the list to be a little overkill?

  7. LaZorra (60) said,

    June 23, 2007 at 12:28 am

    Finding Nemo better than Toy Story? You are insane, my dear.

    I do, however, think it’s probably more accurate to think of it as a “culturally important” list instead of a “best films” list. That’s the only way something like Snow White makes it on there.

  8. Quartz (3) said,

    June 23, 2007 at 6:31 am

    I thought I was going to get teased for liking Bambi.

  9. siochembio (82) said,

    June 23, 2007 at 9:29 am

    Quartz: given that there are only six silent films on the list and three of them are Chaplin, yes, I feel that’s overkill.

    And the “culturally important” argument is completely valid… which is why I am so surprised they removed “A Birth of a Nation.”

  10. Sam (405) said,

    June 24, 2007 at 3:24 pm

    I’d go the other way around. Chaplin’s three isn’t overkill. Six silent films total is underkill. Where’s Greed? The Big Parade? Sherlock Jr. and/or Steamboat Bill Jr.? And since this is about historical significance, where’s Safety Last, containing the single most famous image from all silent film?

    Snow White and Bambi are both great films, but I think Snow White is the better of the two. It, Pinocchio, and Fantasia far exceed anything else the studio did for decades in terms of animation, and in terms of characters…well, Thumper is no small fry, but Dopey is the icon.

  11. joem18b (231) said,

    June 26, 2007 at 12:49 pm

    Was watching a short documentary on Technicolor last night, included in the 2-disk WB set of The Adventures of Robin Hood. It mentioned that Walt Disney wanted to bring color into animation but that he wasn’t 100% sure about Technicolor, so he held back when making Snow White. Didn’t use the full… palette… or something when he made the movie.

  12. joem18b (231) said,

    June 27, 2007 at 12:48 pm

    Also, Walt’s brother Roy argued against introducing color in their animation.

  13. jayiijay (1) said,

    June 28, 2007 at 1:40 am

    AMERICAN FILM INSTITUTE MOVIE BUFF POLL 6/23/07 - TOP 100 (compiled from their website; shocking that Brokeback Mountain didn’t make the “official” list, considering it won the most Best Picture/Director awards ever for a single year (despite the still shocking Oscar loss - then again, Kane lost too), it was a cultural phenom, was ranked #1 box office story of 2005 by boxofficemojo.com,etc.). Here are the results as of 6/23/07

    1. Brokeback Mountain - 124
    2. The Godfather - 76
    3. Gone with the Wind - 44
    4. Star Wars - 43.
    5. Casablanca - 42
    6. The Shawshank Redemption - 42
    7. Lord of the Rings Trilogy - 34 [note: Return of the King - 11]
    8. Titanic - 34
    9. To Kill a Mockingbird - 21
    10. Citizen Kane - 20
    11. The Sound of Music - 20
    12. The Empire Strikes Back - 20
    13. It’s a Wonderful Life - 19
    14. Lawrence of Arabia - 17
    15. American Beauty - 17
    16. 2001: A Space Odyssey - 16
    17. Schindler’s List - 16
    18. The Godfather II - 15
    19. Raiders of the Lost Ark - 15
    20. Pulp Fiction - 15
    21. Doctor Zhivago - 15
    22. Goodfellas - 13
    23. Vertigo - 12
    24. The Third Man - 11
    25. The Best Years of Our Lives - 10
    25. On the Waterfront - 10
    25. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest - 10
    25. Fight Club - 10
    25. Jaws - 10
    30. The Graduate - 9
    30. Singin’ in the Rain - 9
    30. The Quiet Man - 9
    30. Memento - 9
    30. The Color Purple - 9
    35. Sunset Boulevard - 8
    35. All About Eve - 8
    35. Breakfast at Tiffany’s - 8
    35. Rocky - 8
    35. The Princess Bride - 8
    35. Gladiator - 8
    35. Braveheart - 8
    35. Back to the Future - 8
    43. Chinatown - 7
    43. Raging Bull - 7
    43. A Clockwork Orange - 7
    43. Fargo - 7
    43. Blade Runner - 7
    43. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind - 7
    43. Moulin Rouge - 7
    43. Forrest Gump - 7

    51 - 59 [6 votes each]
    Almost Famous, Amadeus, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The Deer Hunter, Patton, Psycho, Some Like It Hot, Taxi Driver, The Wild Bunch

    60-66 [5 votes each]
    Annie Hall, E.T., The Green Mile, Out of Africa, Rear Window, The Searchers, The Sting

    67-90 [4 votes each]
    The Adventures of Robin Hood, Aliens, Ben-Hur, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Crash, Dances with Wolves, The Exorcist, A Few Good Men, Field of Dreams, Good Will Hunting, Heat, It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World, King Kong, LA Confidential, Magnolia, The Matrix, Requiem for a Dream, The Right Stuff, Roman Holiday, Saving Private Ryan, Scarface, A Streetcar Named Desire, The Ten Commandments, The Usual Suspects

    91-122 [3 votes each]
    First 10: “Official” Selections for Top 100:
    American Graffiti, City Lights, The General, The Grapes of Wrath, Network,
    North By Northwest, Notorious, Shane, Silence of the Lambs,
    Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

    Next 22: The Adventures of Robin Hood, Airplane, Apollo 13, Becket, The Big Lebowski, The Breakfast Club, The English Patient, Full Metal Jacket,Funny Farm, Ghostbusters, Gunga Din, Inherit the Wind, Local Hero, Mary Poppins, Million Dollar Baby, Mulholland Drive, Philadelphia, The Royal Tenenbaums, The Shining, Splendor in the Grass, Superman

    INELIGIBLE [2006]
    The Departed - 18
    V for Vendetta - 7

    High Vote-getters among non American (or British) Films
    Spirited Away - 7
    The Good, the Bad and the Ugly - 5
    4 apiece: Once Upon a Time in the West, Passion of the Christ, Pan’s Labyrinth, The Good, The Bad and the Ugly
    2 apiece: City of God, Ikiru, Life is Beautiful, The Motorcycle Diaries,
    The Passion of Joan of Arc, The Pianist

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