100 Exceptional American Movies in 10 Genres: 2017 Version

After finishing my last series with the grandiose title (“Better than AFI’s Top 100“), I thought I’d take a longer break from a series. “The British Film Institute’s top 100 British films turns twenty in 2019,” I said to myself. “You could catch up on those in eighteen months. Or,” I said, and this is where it gets really grandiose, “Sight and Sound has another decennial poll for 2022. Just think: ‘Better than Sight and Sound’s Top 250!’ You’ll need every bit of five years to do it, but it sounds fun!”

In other words, I can’t quite force my brain to turn off the “over the top” spigot that’s been flowing since late February.

Fortunately, the American Film Institute has lots of material to rip off borrow from, and after their Top 100 lists of ’97 and ’07, the special they did that captured my imagination the most is their “10 Top 10” series. In 2008, the AFI released a list of one hundred American films, broken up into ten genres, that they thought numbered among the best of those genres. I already had the research lying around for American movies, and genre has become more interesting to me as I’ve watched more movies. Whether or not we think about it during the movie, the conventions of the genre dictate our expectations for the film; in many ways the success of a movie is reliant on how well it conforms to, adapts, transcends, flouts, and/or challenges its genre. Looking back at my own top ten, each one of those movies somehow puts a powerful twist on its genre, and that can elevate a movie from great to perfect.

The Searchers is probably the best example of that sensibility. It’s clearly a western. It’s got John Ford behind the camera and John Wayne in front of it, it’s set in post-Civil War Texas, people ride horses, Native Americans are the villains, the land is like a character unto itself, etc. But it also kicks westerns right in the teeth. One of its protagonists, the John Wayne character, is a borderline evil man with all of the nasty prejudices of the time that we usually ignore in other westerns. Its other protagonist, the Jeffrey Hunter character, is the real hero of the story. He’s also partly Native American himself, and while he is impressed by his opposite number, he also refuses to be dominated by him. What could have been, and what almost certainly would have been, a straight story ten years earlier is given an acid bath. The Searchers is still an enormously problematic movie in half a dozen ways, but it isn’t blind, either, and it has a stronger knowledge of its genre than a more straitlaced example like Stagecoach or Rio Bravo, as good as those movies are.

When the AFI did its 10 Top 10, they chose ten broad, popular genres: animation, courtroom drama, epic, fantasy, gangster, mystery, romantic comedy, science-fiction, sports, and western. (One can quibble, I guess, with making “animation” a genre, but whatever, it’s their list and they were on TV.) They also used any American movie (and, in my view, plenty that weren’t) available to them. My list will differ on both fronts.

Let’s take the second part first. I could have decided that I wanted to use many of the same movies that I’d already discussed for my Top 100 list. I didn’t. Part of the reason is purely personal: I’ve already written about those movies, and I didn’t care to dig up the same ground after having dug at it for some time already. But I also wanted to talk about different movies because there are plenty more that deserve that talk. 2001: A Space Odyssey would have fit very nicely into one of my genres, but we all know how it fits there already. That’s why I call this a list not of the “best” movies from a genre, but of “exceptional” movies. (I will give a couple examples from my Top 100 for each category just to give a sense of what I looked for, as well as how my other list would fit in with these lists.) I also won’t use a movie twice, even if it fits in well for two or more different genres; that’s another reason I think of these as “exceptional” instead of straight-up “best.”

I’ve chosen ten genres that the 10 Top 10 series didn’t touch. On the whole I would say my genres are a little more specific than theirs, which is neither good nor bad. And because I’m trying to be laser-focused on genre, I’m judging primarily on genre as opposed to overall quality. I wouldn’t argue that the best movie in any of these genre top tens is necessarily the best one of the bunch, but merely is the best at doing a certain genre. Is that an incredibly subjective line to draw? It sure is! To be open about my criteria, I’m leaving a brief description next to each of my genres below.

As I complete more and more of the series, this section will act as an index from which you can access any post in my “100 in 10.” Enjoy!

Biopic biopics tell a significant piece of the story of a real person’s life…cradle to grave is not necessary, but with some exceptions a biopic must consider a period of months or years to fit the qualification

Examples from the BtAFI’s Top 100: Raging Bull, Goodfellas, Malcolm X



10. Hacksaw Ridge

9. Big Eyes

8. The Elephant Man

7. Jackie

6. The Diary of Anne Frank

5. Marie Antoinette

4. Reds

3. Milk

2. The Aviator

1. Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story

Family Drama – family dramas derive the heart of their storytelling from the conflicts and tensions within a family

Examples from the BtAFI’s Top 100 – The Magnificent Ambersons, A Woman Under the Influence, Make Way for Tomorrow



10. Long Day’s Journey into Night

9. We Need to Talk About Kevin

8. The Squid and the Whale

7. Fiddler on the Roof

6. Boyhood

5. Hannah and Her Sisters

4. Shadow of a Doubt

3. The Incredibles

2. Mary Poppins

1. Eraserhead

Location – location movies rely on a specific, excellently rendered setting to achieve full effect, and thus the location is made both indelible and essential

Examples from the BtAFI’s Top 100 – Rear Window, Fargo, The Apartment

(Link to 10-6)

(Link to 5-1)

10. Once Upon a Time in America

9. The French Connection

8. The Shawshank Redemption

7. Beauty and the Beast

6. Out of the Past

5. The Thing

4. Thelma and Louise

3. Apollo 13

2. Avatar

1. 12 Angry Men

Lovers these movies derive the heart of their storytelling from the lovers who dominate the plot…movies about lovers do not have to be romantic, necessarily

Examples from the BtAFI’s Top 100 – Casablanca, All That Heaven Allows, The Shop Around the Corner



10. The Awful Truth

9. Sabrina

8. Trouble in Paradise

7. Roxanne

6. Harold and Maude

5. Before Sunrise

4. When Harry Met Sally…

3. Picnic

2. A Single Man

1. Before Sunset

Period period pieces rely on a particular moment in history for their telling, and require that moment to be depicted through sets, costume, etc.

Examples from the BtAFI’s Top 100 – Singin’ in the Rain, Gone with the Wind, The Age of Innocence



10. L.A. Confidential

9. The Last Days of Disco

8. A Christmas Story

7. Inside Llewyn Davis

6. A League of Their Own

5. Gangs of New York

4. Schindler’s List

3. Zodiac

2. The Master

1. American Graffiti

Speculative speculative movies take a high-concept plot and ask “What if x came to pass?”

Examples from the BtAFI’s Top 100 – 2001: A Space Odyssey, Blade Runner, WALL-E

(Link to 10-6)

(Link to 5-1)

10. Arrival

9. The Iron Giant

8. The China Syndrome

7. Edward Scissorhands

6. Tootsie

5. Groundhog Day

4. Burn After Reading

3. The Purple Rose of Cairo

2. Seconds

1. JFK

Sprawling – sprawling movies have a wide eye looking at great distance, space, or numbers of people

Examples from the BtAFI’s Top 100 – Star Wars, Short Cuts, Raiders of the Lost Ark



10. Cloud Atlas

9. Titanic

8. Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World

7. 12 Years a Slave

6. Silence

5. Fantasia

4. Giant

3. Heaven’s Gate

2. Gettysburg

1. Life of Pi

Taut and Cold these movies are thrillers, technically, but aim for a detached or open-ended reading in lieu of closing the case

Examples from the BtAFI’s Top 100 – Vertigo, The Shining, Chinatown



10. Black Swan

9. Rebecca

8. All the President’s Men

7. Laura

6. The Silence of the Lambs

5. The Killing

4. Take Shelter

3. Meek’s Cutoff

2. Nightcrawler

1. Cape Fear

Veterans of Foreign Wars VFW movies consider that most American quality of Yanks fighting abroad

Examples from the BtAFI’s Top 100 – Apocalypse Now, Coming Home, The Best Years of Our Lives



10. The Hunt for Red October

9. They Were Expendable

8. The Big Red One

7. The Big Parade

6. All Quiet on the Western Front

5. The Great Escape

4. The Deer Hunter

3. Patton

2. Inglourious Basterds

1. The Thin Red Line

Young Adult young adult movies look at the world from the perspective of people who are growing up and becoming mature…the genre works best with high school students, but can extend to people in their first year or two out of high school as well

Examples from the BtAFI’s Top 100 – The Last Picture Show, The Social Network, Back to the Future

(Link to 10-6)

(Link to 5-1)

10. Breaking Away

9. Stand by Me

8. Mean Girls

7. The Fox and the Hound

6. Ferris Bueller’s Day Off

5. Election

4. Dazed and Confused

3. Metropolitan

2. Badlands

1. Elephant

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