In the spring of 2017, a friendly nimrod with good intentions and only a tyro’s understanding of, hem hem, cinema, decided he wanted to create a list of the top 100 American movies which would be better than the American Film Institute’s. While recognizing that he did not have the learning to make such a definitive list on his own, he felt some pressure to do so quickly: it had been ten years since the last AFI list, and since the first two were separated by about ten years, he felt the next AFI Top 100 breathing down his neck. It turns out that moron could have waited a little while. It’s been five years since I started doing my research and making my spreadsheets for that project, and in the interim I have watched thousands of American movies and even co-created a podcast where I consider the 2007 AFI list in some detail. I could have waited to make a better, wiser list, but I thought I was under the gun. Turns out that I had one of those laser tag guns pointed to my head instead.
The question of which movies would end up on the 20xx AFI list, whether it was a list for a 20th Anniversary or 25th Anniversary or what have you, is an engaging one because it has everything to do with the listmakers. Look at AMPAS, which was one way around the same time the last AFI list came out, and now is actively very different. A group which was seen as fusty and curmudgeonly because of its membership privileging old white men has been altered since 2008. Now it’s seen as fusty and curmudgeonly because a group which is far closer to equal representation by sex and significantly more open to people of color doesn’t want to put Spider-Man: No Way Home as one of its ten best movies of the year. The AFI board of trustees is a pretty diverse group anymore, and while the board has never chosen the films—that happy responsibility has been left to a mostly anonymous group of about 1,500 voters, albeit without a real sense of how the list is molded once the ballots come in—it says something about AFI’s values and preoccupations. This is a group which has a land acknowledgement on its website; it’s almost impossible to imagine anyone involved with AFI in 1998 thinking about that for even a moment. In other words, I expect that the listmakers will change here, more than they did from 1998 to 2007, but I don’t necessarily expect that the criteria will be very different. The purpose of the original AFI list was to sell VHS cassettes of classic films. In 2022 and beyond, that’s obviously a risible motivation for the AFI, but the point stands. This group has never made a really surprising choice on one of its GOAT lists, or even on one of its themed lists. The criteria proffered to voters asks them to consider box office, the Oscars, popularity. Unless those criteria are rescinded, there’s going to be some stodge in an AFI Top 100 by design. All the same, I feel very sure that whatever the next top 100 is will be more representative of the vast diversity in American movies.
That was the first guiding principle I took as I tried to come up with the next top 100 movies AFI will choose. Here are some others:
- In 2007, twenty-three films were dropped. I’ve dropped twenty-one, but I’d understand someone’s perspective if that felt low to them; it wouldn’t shock me if thirty percent of the 2007 list were knocked off next time out.
- The AFI put sixty-two directors on their ’98 list and sixty-five on their ’07 list. With that in mind, the list should not represent more than seventy directors.
- On a similar note, Steven Spielberg has been the most represented director on both iterations of this list; he, as well as other historically meaningful directors (Martin Scorsese, Stanley Kubrick, Frank Capra, Billy Wilder, Charlie Chaplin, etc.) should have some number of films on the final list. On the other hand, major directors who defined the 1930s through the 1950s, such as John Ford, Howard Hawks, John Huston, George Cukor, William Wyler, and so on, should still be represented but maybe not as much.
- War movies have historically done very well, and horror has historically not done very well. The next AFI list will probably move the total number of the former down a little bit, but will most likely look for more scary stuff. Basically I tried to be faithful to genres as they had them.
- The AFI has favorite decades and least favorite decades. The silent era and the 1980s, for whatever reason, have always been underrepresented; the 1960s have always been overrepresented. The final list should reflect some kind of increased parity, but is also more likely to recognize recent films than either the ’97 or ’07 because it’s easier to include more diverse filmmakers that way.
- The AFI is notorious (to me, anyway) for including films which are really not American but they want to claim credit for, usually by way of some Yankee producer. The Third Man and Doctor Zhivago were both dropped from the ’98 list, but some key offenders either remained (Lawrence of Arabia, The Bridge on the River Kwai) or were added (Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring). I decided the best course was to act like they were going to be generally rapacious about calling all Anglophone cinema “American” unless people say “innit” in the dialogue.
- I was going to do a whole TED talk here about being more cognizant of the personal failings, indiscretions, and outright sins of major moviemaking figures, but what I really want to say is that I think Roman Polanski is going to get excised from this list. (I am very curious to see what the AFI voters make of movies produced by Harvey Weinstein, though I imagine that will lay lighter on their minds.) Chinatown is a landmark film, it has been in the top quarter of the AFI list both times, and I understand it’s still very popular. I just don’t think the AFI lets it through.
- AFI has kept its top 100 to narrative features, and I don’t think they’re going to open the door to documentaries or shorts this next go-round.
- It is incredibly difficult to pull indicators of future success when the sample sizes are small and the criteria are probably outdated. To make predictions, I used the following lists, which generally combine popular favorites, critical sensibilities, and some level of recency:
- AFI Top 100 (1998) and AFI Top 100 (2007)
- I didn’t use any of the AFI’s other lists, because most of them predate the Tenth Anniversary Top 100, and inclusion on one of those lists which are measuring genre execution or quotability or something similar just doesn’t feel relevant to the endgame here.
- The most recent publication of the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They? eligible films list, updated in February 2022.
- The BBC’s 2015 list of the top 100 American films, voted on by critical and scholarly types.
- The Hollywood Reporter’s 2014 list of the top 100 Hollywood favorites, voted on by industry insiders.
- The top 100 films as compiled by Filmsite, which is a powerful resource for people interested in older films
- Inclusion in either one of Jeremy Arnold’s The Essentials, a list of 104 films denoted that way via Turner Classic Movies, which published both books.
- AFI Top 100 (1998) and AFI Top 100 (2007)
- Finally, it’s worth saying that these films, to me, are absolutely not the hundred best American movies ever made. I would not put most of these films anywhere near such a list. Is E.T. really a better movie than Wanda? Is One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest better than My Brother’s Wedding? Is To Kill a Mockingbird better than Remember the Night? I don’t think there’s even much of a conversation to be had, but the point—at least in the first two iterations of this top 100!—has been to reward people for seeing what they’d seen before, not open them to films they may never have come across.
But I know. You’re here to see the recipe, not to read the blog with the heartwarming story about family attached to it. I’ve got my predictions below, with movies organized into tiers of relative certainty. If you want to scroll way down, you can see my extremely hilarious attempt to predict the top 100 in order, which is where I abandon reason entirely and go off vibes.
Tier 1: The Locks (29)
- 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968, Kubrick)
- Apocalypse Now (1979, F. Coppola)*
- Casablanca (1942, Curtiz)**
- Citizen Kane (1941, Welles)*
- City Lights (1931, Chaplin)
- Double Indemnity (1944, Wilder)*
- Dr. Strangelove , etc. (1964, Kubrick)*
- E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (1982, Spielberg)*
- The Godfather (1972, F. Coppola)**
- The Godfather Part II (1974, F. Coppola)**
- Gone with the Wind (1939, Fleming)**
- The Graduate (1967, M. Nichols)*
- It’s a Wonderful Life (1946, Capra)*
- Lawrence of Arabia (1962, Lean)**
- North by Northwest (1959, Hitchcock)
- On the Waterfront (1954, Kazan)**
- One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975, Forman)**
- Psycho (1960, Hitchcock)
- Raging Bull (1980, Scorsese)*
- Schindler’s List (1993, Spielberg)**
- The Searchers (1956, Ford)
- Singin’ in the Rain (1952, Donen and Kelly)
- Some Like It Hot (1959, Wilder)
- Star Wars (1977, Lucas)*
- Sunset Boulevard (1950, Wilder)*
- Taxi Driver (1976, Scorsese)*
- To Kill a Mockingbird (1962, Mulligan)*
- Vertigo (1958, Hitchcock)
- The Wizard of Oz (1939, Fleming)*
What makes these locks? To start with, all of them have been on both AFI lists. Almost all of them appear on both the BBC list and the THR list; all of them appear on Filmsite’s list. The vast majority of them appeared in the top third of the last list, and those that didn’t (Taxi Driver, Dr. Strangelove, North by Northwest, and so on) are, in this blogger’s opinion, pushed down because the directors of those films made movies higher up the list. To Kill a Mockingbird is 365th on TSPDT’s 2022 list, which makes it an outlier in this crowd. The Graduate and Schindler’s List are hanging out in the low 200s, but otherwise everything else in this group is within the top 15% or so of their most recent Top 1,000.
I’ve maintained for some time now that movie stars drive this list; these films do a remarkable job at giving us most of the major male stars of Hollywood, with a few key female stars scattered in there as well. (You’ll be able to see more women on the next tier; I’m sure the AFI voters are less sexist than they were fifteen years ago, but no one’s lost money betting that Hollywood treats men better than women.) Not that the Oscars are everything, but the ones with a single star got a Best Picture nomination, and the double-starred movies won Best Picture. As for the ones without the nomination, the only one not in the top twenty-five of the ’07 list is North by Northwest. I still think it’s a lock because it is a) included in literally all my indicators, b) a perpetually popular Alfred Hitchcock movie, and c) an obvious way to get more Cary Grant on this list.
All the same, out of my list of locks, North by Northwest troubles me a little. So does Taxi Driver. And so does Lawrence of Arabia, which has at least two strikes against it and might be fouling off pitches just to stay alive. First of all: not American! It just isn’t! Second, this is a movie which plays pretty fast and loose with race onscreen, and I don’t know how willing the AFI is going to be to include those movies this time around. There’s the length, there’s the fact that a potentially younger electorate might know feel the devotion to it that the older one did…I worry. I still think it’s a lock. It dropped two spots from 1998 to 2007 and that put it in seventh, directly ahead of Schindler’s List, Vertigo, and The Wizard of Oz. Then again, another lengthy ’60s epic by David Lean that was only cosplaying as American went from thirty-ninth to off the list entirely last time. I think it’s a little too smart to expect Lawrence of Arabia to get the treatment Doctor Zhivago did, but out of the twenty-nine locks listed above, that’s the one I’d least want to put on my bike in a rough neighborhood.
Tier 2: The Safe Bets (32)
- All About Eve (1950, Mankiewicz)**
- Annie Hall (1977, W. Allen)**
- The Apartment (1960, Wilder)**
- The Best Years of Our Lives (1946, Wyler)**
- Bringing Up Baby (1938, Hawks)
- The Deer Hunter (1978, Cimino)**
- Do the Right Thing (1989, S. Lee)
- Duck Soup (1933, McCarey)
- Easy Rider (1969, Hopper)
- Forrest Gump (1994, Zemeckis)**
- The General (1926, Bruckman and Keaton)
- The Gold Rush (1925, Chaplin)
- Goodfellas (1990, Scorsese)*
- The Grapes of Wrath (1940, Ford)*
- High Noon (1952, Zinnemann)*
- Intolerance (1916, Griffith)
- Jaws (1975, Spielberg)*
- King Kong (1933, Cooper and Schoedsack)
- The Maltese Falcon (1941, Huston)*
- Nashville (1975, Altman)*
- Network (1976, Lumet)*
- Pulp Fiction (1994, Tarantino)*
- Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981, Spielberg)*
- Rear Window (1954, Hitchcock)
- Rocky (1976, Avildsen)**
- Saving Private Ryan (1998, Spielberg)*
- The Shawshank Redemption (1994, Darabont)*
- The Silence of the Lambs (1991, Demme)**
- The Sound of Music (1965, Wise)**
- Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927, Murnau)**
- West Side Story (1961, Wise and Robbins)**
- The Wild Bunch (1969, Peckinpah)
I was a real pedant about the difference between a lock and a safe bet (I know, who would have guessed). The way I looked at these films was the way I look at a 1-16 or 2-15 matchup in March Madness. It is literally possible that the 1- or 2-seed might fall to the 15- or 16-seed, but I’m never going to put that on my bracket because the odds just aren’t favorable enough. Let’s take them by class.
Annie Hall is the weirdest one in this tier, but that movie is more approachable than Chinatown, and the charges against Woody Allen have never stuck quite as hard as the charges against Roman Polanski; whether or not it’s sensible, I just kind of think Annie Hall is safe but that there’s no way that any other Allen movie is seriously up for consideration.
Forrest Gump, Goodfellas, Jaws, Pulp Fiction, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and West Side Story are all a little unfairly in this second tier instead of in the first one. They’ve got every indicator that I used to put movies like North by Northwest and Double Indemnity and Raging Bull in the top tier. I’m essentially punishing those movies for being more fun, or at least appearing that way. If you want to nitpick, an activity where I am so inclined, all of these movies are not precisely the belles of the AFI ball. Of this group, all of these dropped a few spots from their high points in 1998. The exceptions? Goodfellas and Pulp Fiction, which have been in the 90s both times and gone up just a spot or two.
All About Eve, The Apartment, The Best Years of Our Lives, Bringing Up Baby, The Deer Hunter, Duck Soup, The Gold Rush, Network, Rear Window, Rocky, Sunrise, The Silence of the Lambs, The Sound of Music, and The Wild Bunch have been on both AFI lists. Each of these movies also made one of the BBC and THR lists, but not both. I am seriously unconcerned with the films of this group as well—who thinks that All About Eve and Rear Window are going to get yeeted from the next list?—so we can keep moving.
Do the Right Thing, The General, Intolerance, Nashville, Saving Private Ryan, and The Shawshank Redemption are in the same boat as the movies in the previous category, except all of them were new adds to the 2007 list rather than appearing on both. I am not worried about any of these either; I actually expect three of them to move up the list in a big way. Intolerance also has the added bonus of being the sole movie from the 1910s on the AFI list, and while I’d love to see the AFI engage more with cinema that’s more than a century old, I just don’t think that’s what this list is for. (The galaxy brain move is to replace Intolerance with Within Our Gates as the list’s ’10s representative, but as admirable as that would be, I can’t see them going for a movie as relatively obscure as this; Within Our Gates wasn’t even on the initial list of 400 nominees in 2007.)
Then there’s the group that I think is a little vulnerable in this setting, although I’d still qualify all of the following films as being 95% safe. None of the following movies made the BBC or the THR lists, but they do appear on at least one of the Filmsite or TCM Essentials lists, on top of being twice included on the AFI lists: Easy Rider, The Grapes of Wrath, High Noon, King Kong, The Maltese Falcon. I think these are all in still, but more because they represent something groundbreaking in American filmmaking. Whether or not you actually want to call The Maltese Falcon the first American noir or whatever is an entirely different animal, but to me these are safer because of their acknowledged classic status than they are because of current adoration for them. It’s also worth noting that the only one of these which does not appear on the top half of either AFI list is Easy Rider, but that movie did move up between 1998 and 2007, and I can’t imagine the first hit of New Hollywood getting dropped.
For those of you counting, we’ve filled 61 spots so far, and I think all of those are basically guarantees.
Tier 3: The Legacies (18)
- 12 Angry Men (1957, Lumet)*
- Blade Runner (1982, R. Scott)
- Bonnie and Clyde (1967, Penn)*
- The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957, Lean)**
- Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969, Hill)*
- A Clockwork Orange (1971, Kubrick)*
- It Happened One Night (1934, Capra)**
- The Last Picture Show (1971, Bogdanovich)*
- Midnight Cowboy (1969, Schlesinger)**
- Modern Times (1936, Chaplin)
- Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939, Capra)*
- Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937, Hand)
- A Streetcar Named Desire (1951, Kazan)*
- Titanic (1997, Cameron)**
- Tootsie (1982, Pollack)*
- The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948, Huston)*
- Unforgiven (1992, Eastwood)**
- Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966, M. Nichols)*
All of these films have made at least one AFI list. Five of them appeared only on the 2007 list: 12 Angry Men, Blade Runner, The Last Picture Show, Titanic, and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? The rest of the lineup has appeared on both lists. Despite all that, all of these movies are at some risk of being supplanted for one reason or another by candidates that the AFI might find more worthy; the best argument they have for being on the list is that they’ve been on this list before. Thus, legacy admissions.
The AFI and the many, many resources that TSPDT has put together to make their list rankings have not always gone together smoothly. For example, when the AFI put Titanic, Tootsie, and Who’s Afraid on their ’07 list, none of those movies rated in their top 1,000. Clearly, those films are on a critical upswing, and we’ll exclude them from this chart I’m about to make. Then there’s a group that neither gained nor lost more than twenty places over this decade and a half, and then there are some where the critical favor has cratered. See if you can spot which is which.
Before we start, a big shoutout to Butch and Sundance for being a delta zero movie over the past fifteen years. The raindrops are still falling on their heads. Anyway, everything from Bonnie and Clyde over scares me. The most recent movie of the bunch is, in fact, Bonnie and Clyde, which is turning fifty-five this year and is only a few months younger than Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Age is obviously part of the way a movie gets on a list like this, but age also does terrible things to movies. Once we’ve decided that the movie no longer holds appeal, then the voices who want to speak for it start to rail thinly indeed against a roar of silence.
These films are in a rough situation because there are so many ways to nitpick at them. There’s a more obvious Huston, a more obvious Kazan, a more obvious Capra, a more obvious Lean to choose. As someone who thinks we should be elevating Ernst Lubitsch at the expense of Frank Capra, even I think the “Capra-corn” jibe has gone too far. But as Capra becomes less and less fashionable, I don’t know that there will be room for three of his movies on this list. I’ve never read anyone who treats It Happened One Night as a lovable movie on its own terms. It’s only ever “the Clark Gable breakout role,” “the first key screwball,” “the first movie to win the Big Five at the Oscars,” which is to say that it’s more trivia than Bridge on the River Kwai is, once again, a British spy infiltrating our American movie establishment. Where Bonnie and Clyde was once viscerally violent, you can find stuff just as gory on network television these days. Treasure of the Sierra Madre and Bridge on the River Kwai are neither one of them all that racially sensitive. You can go on and on, and yet…I still have all of them making this list. Every one of those movies was in the top half of the AFI list in 2007, and the only movies which were dropped from the top half to off the list entirely then were Doctor Zhivago and The Birth of a Nation, which, yeah. What’s undeniable is that there’s a weakness in those movies’ rundowns compared to what they would have been able to boast fifteen years past.
There are two films in this tier which I think are likely to leave sour tastes in some voters’ mouths, and they are the extremely similar films A Clockwork Orange and Tootsie. I may be overreacting to Clockwork, because that movie checks off as many of my indicators as Goodfellas or Raiders of the Lost Ark, but it’s also the movie which had the third-highest drop from ’98 to ’07 without being cut entirely, and it is, to put it mildly, not for everyone. (The only two movies which had a greater drop are not included in my predictions, which is not doing anything for my anxiety.) Tootsie I think is probably still safe, coming in hilariously at 69th on the 2007 list, but I know that the Michael Dorsey/Dorothy Michaels business does not come off as universally funny as it did some years ago.
There’s a little subgroup in here which I think is not vulnerable based on the metrics so much as it’s vulnerable because a similar movie will come around and replace them. Modern Times and Snow White are definitely at the top of my list for this. I kind of think the limit on Chaplin is three movies, and with The Great Dictator unfairly getting more play than Modern Times in our present moment, it wouldn’t surprise me to see the lowest-ranked Chaplin get bumped. Similarly, Snow White seems like it’s ripe to get replaced by one of the huge number of princess movies out there, but the challenger hasn’t appeared just yet; the Disney Renaissance movies have had two chances to knock Snow White off that pedestal and they haven’t done it yet. On the other side of this spectrum, I’d think Unforgiven would be vulnerable if there was another western which had come out in the past thirty years with the same level of critical and industry acclaim. As it stands, I’d guess Unforgiven makes another huge jump; the only movies to rise higher than Unforgiven from ’98 to ’07 were Vertigo, City Lights, and The Searchers.
I have now filled 79 spots. At this point, I am through predicting films which have already appeared on an AFI Top 100 and am moving on entirely to new entries. That means that I am leaving off the following movies from the ’98 and/or ’07 lists.
Locked Out of
Heaven the 20xx AFI List (43)
- All Quiet on the Western Front (1930, Milestone) / ’98 only
- All the President’s Men (1976, Pakula) / ’07 only
- Amadeus (1984, Forman) / ’98 only
- American Graffiti (1973, Lucas) / both ’98 and ’07
- An American in Paris (1951, Minnelli) / ’98 only
- The African Queen (1951, Huston) / both ’98 and ’07
- Ben-Hur (1959, Wyler) / both ’98 and ’07
- The Birth of a Nation (1915, Griffith) / ’98 only
- Cabaret (1972, Fosse) / ’07 only
- Chinatown (1974, Polanski) / both ’98 and ’07
- Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977, Spielberg) / ’98 only
- Dances with Wolves (1990, Costner) / ’98 only
- Doctor Zhivago (1965, Lean) / ’98 only
- Fantasia (1940, Hand) / ’98 only
- Frankenstein (1931, Whale) / ’98 only
- The French Connection (1971, Friedkin)
- From Here to Eternity (1953, Zinnemann) / ’98 only
- Giant (1956, Stevens) / ’98 only
- Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967, Kramer) / ’98 only
- In the Heat of the Night (1967, Jewison) / ’07 only
- The Jazz Singer (1927, Crosland) / ’98 only
- Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001, Jackson) / ’07 only
- The Manchurian Candidate (1962, Frankenheimer) / ’98 only
- M*A*S*H (1970, Altman) / both ’98 and ’07
- Mutiny on the Bounty (1935, Lloyd) / ’98 only
- My Fair Lady (1964, Cukor) / ’98 only
- A Night at the Opera (1965, Wood) / ’07 only
- Patton (1970, Schaffner) / ’98 only
- The Philadelphia Story (1940, Cukor) / both ’98 and ’07
- A Place in the Sun (1951, Stevens) / ’98 only
- Platoon (1986, Stone) / both ’98 and ’07
- Rebel without a Cause (1955, Ray) / ’98 only
- Shane (1953, Stevens) / both ’98 and ’07
- The Sixth Sense (1999, Shyamalan) / ’07 only
- Sophie’s Choice (1982, Pakula) / ’07 only
- Spartacus (1960, Kubrick) / ’07 only
- Stagecoach (1939, Ford) / ’98 only
- Sullivan’s Travels (1941, Sturges) / ’07 only
- Swing Time (1936, Stevens) / ’07 only
- The Third Man (1949, Reed) / ’98 only
- Toy Story (1995, Lasseter) / ’07 only
- Wuthering Heights (1939, Wyler) / ’98 only
- Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942, Curtiz) / both ’98 and ’07
At the risk of making what’s already a pretty bloated blog even bloatier, I’m not going to get into every one of the drops. In a number of cases I’ve tried to think about what kinds of movies would act as reasonable like-for-like replacements; that’s definitely the case for Sullivan’s Travels, The Sixth Sense, and Toy Story. Mostly I feel bad for men named George. Cukor and Stevens are completely excised from the AFI list after this, and in the latter case I think that’s only going to happen with the death of George Stevens, Jr., who founded the American Film Institute and who has presided over AFI lists which have included four different movies by his father. Given that Stevens, Jr. is eighty-nine years old, it really seems like his longevity is going to mean the difference between including Stevens and not. (To be clear, I think George Stevens is one of our great directors and given my ‘druthers there’d be at least one of his pictures on such a list as this.)
Tier 4: The First-Timers, 21st Century (10)
- Brokeback Mountain (2005, A. Lee)*
- The Dark Knight (2008, Nolan)
- Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004, Gondry)
- Get Out (2017, Peele)*
- Lost in Translation (2003, S. Coppola)*
- Million Dollar Baby (2004, Eastwood)**
- Moonlight (2016, Jenkins)**
- Mulholland Drive (2001, Lynch)
- No Country for Old Men (2007, Coen Brothers)**
- There Will Be Blood (2007, P.T. Anderson)*
David Lynch has never made one of these lists before. Mulholland Drive wasn’t even on the list of 400 nominees for 2007, when it would have been around 650th on the TSPDT list. Fast forward to the present, and Mulholland Drive is generally recognized as the best American film since 2000, perhaps the best film since 2000 not named In the Mood for Love. I recognize that this is something of a stretch, but for me, it was a choice between putting Terrence Malick on one of these lists for the first time or putting David Lynch on here, and I’ve gone with Lynch. (Again, if I were in charge of a top 100, those guys would combine for some ludicrous number of films.) Even in the moment, Lynch’s direction was recognized within the industry as exceptional enough to get him an Oscar nomination; since then, Mulholland Drive is a L.A. neonoir as essential as Chinatown or Blade Runner.
None of the rest of these feel particularly controversial. The films which are old enough to have been on the list of nominees for 2007 were on that list (Lost in Translation, Eternal Sunshine, Brokeback), and the films that weren’t are some combination of the buzziest of the new century (The Dark Knight, Get Out) or the best-reviewed (No Country, There Will Be Blood, Moonlight). The real question is whether or not the AFI will spring for even more recent films. In 2007, they included only four films from the preceding decade, but in 1998, with the decade’s most renowned year still to come, the AFI included eight pictures from the ’90s. Maybe I’m crazy and we ought to be gearing up for like, Nomadland and Black Panther and The Irishman or something, but my guess is that they try to catch up to the generation they didn’t include last time. In terms of representation, this ain’t perfect, but there’s not a more diverse group of ten filmmakers anywhere in the last AFI list.
I have now filled 89 spots, leaving eleven for first-time entries from outside the 21st Century. Take a whole shaker of salt with you for the next part of this trip.
Tier 5: The First-Timers, 20th Century (11)
- Back to the Future (1985, Zemeckis)
- Fargo (1996, Coen Brothers)*
- Groundhog Day (1993, Ramis)
- The Lady Eve (1941, Sturges)
- The Lion King (1994, Allers and Minkoff)
- The Matrix (1999, the Wachowskis)
- Night of the Hunter (1955, Laughton)
- Rio Bravo (1959, Hawks)
- The Shining (1980, Kubrick)
- Thelma & Louise (1991, R. Scott)
- Touch of Evil (1958, Welles)
So I’ll be real here, who has any idea what they’re going to do with movies that they’ve had the chance to include before but didn’t, but I wanted to fill some holes in the list.
|Type of Film||Film In||Film Out|
|Preston Sturges||The Lady Eve||Sullivan’s Travels|
|’90s Animated||The Lion King||Toy Story|
|1999 Phenomenon||The Matrix||The Sixth Sense|
|Classic Western||Rio Bravo||Shane|
|Stanley Kubrick||Spartacus||The Shining|
If it wasn’t filling a hole, then I basically wanted to pick something that had good marks from TSPDT and/or BBC, as well as a place on the THR list. (It’s killing me that I don’t have more movies with serious Oscar consideration up there, because that’s been a major piece of my calculus so far.) That’s what yielded Back to the Future, Groundhog Day, The Lion King, The Shining, and Thelma & Louise as good options for me; all of them are on the BBC list and the THR list, and they have permeated the culture at highbrow and lowbrow (read: meme) levels. That leaves the consideration for movies which are just extraordinarily well-received by the critical commentariat. Touch of Evil was a toss-up for me with The Magnificent Ambersons, as I expect the AFI is going to get another Orson Welles movie on there, but because it’s the higher-rated movie at TSPDT and has bigger stars, I gave it the edge. Night of the Hunter has long been one of the obviously missing films from this list, and it also gives the list a Robert Mitchum to boast. And Rio Bravo is second only to The Searchers among westerns on the 2012 Sight and Sound list.
That leaves two films from the 1990s, one of which has never appeared on the AFI list, while the other is my sole reclamation from the 1998 list. Thelma & Louise checks a lot of boxes, especially for what I imagine the new crop of voters will be looking for. It’s about women, emphatically about women, and it has great performances from key performers of the ’90s and ’00s. If you think Alien has a better chance of making it than Thelma & Louise, then ignore everything I just said about it and stick Alien there; I had a space open for one Ridley Scott movie and no more. The other ’90s film is Fargo, which was a middling 84th on the ’98 list and then was dropped, merely the sixteenth-highest movie to be culled from that list. At this point, I think the Coen Brothers have enough respect—and nostalgia!—on their side to get a second movie on the list, and I’ll take my chances with Fargo…but if you think it’s The Big Lebowski, put The Dude on this list instead.
That fills 100 spots. Two quickie charts.
|Decade||Number of Movies|
No, we’re not done yet, why would we be done.
Tier 6: The Vibe Checks
I’m going to toss ten movies out here which I think have a shot to make the next AFI list without any real sense of why. Some of them have been on the AFI list before, some have literally no checkmarks next to any of my indicators, and all of them are going to get listed here so if they do get on the list, I can say, “Well, I almost put them on the list, do you have any idea how many movies were eligible,” blah blah blah.
- All the President’s Men (1976, Pakula) / This was on the 2007 list, but not very high. It’s still the ur-text for all journalism movies made in the past half-century, it’s got Redford and Hoffman, and it’s a great favorite.
- Boyz n the Hood (1991, Singleton) / An hugely influential film for a huge number of Black filmmakers, and well-liked after all these years. Out of the top 1,000 on TSPDT, but I don’t have the AFI being held back by that elsewhere.
- Bride of Frankenstein (1935, Whale) / I don’t know how much the evaluation of the Universal horror films has changed since 1998, when Frankenstein found its way to the back end of the original list, but in the present time there’s not one which is as well-reviewed as this truly bizarre movie where the star is not really Boris Karloff or Bela Lugosi but Ernest Thesiger’s Dr. Pretorius.
- The Empire Strikes Back (1980, Kershner) / Only one sequel has ever been on the AFI list, and that’s The Godfather Part II. In an age where sequels are everything, maybe the AFI makes room for another one. T2 spoke to me here, but The Empire Strikes Back is reaching a point where, depending on your audience, this is the superior film to Star Wars. I ultimately held off because I struggle to believe that they’ll put two Star Wars films on the list, but this is one of a pretty select group of movies to make both BBC and THR.
- The Exorcist (1973, Friedkin) / Still one of the highest-grossing R-rated movies ever, The Exorcist also packed in ten Oscar nominations. I can’t believe this movie hasn’t been on either AFI list, but I couldn’t quite get it onto the top 100 because it just doesn’t have any indicators telling me to include it. I still almost did it anyway.
- The French Connection (1971, Friedkin) / Another Bill Friedkin effort, albeit one that has gotten onto both AFI lists. This was a tough cut for me, but it’s been sliding pretty hard and I am not entirely sure it’s as well-loved as it was even fifteen years ago.
- The Great Dictator (1940, Chaplin) / Covered this one a little bit earlier when talking about Modern Times. There is, funnily enough, no American feature by Chaplin that I’d like to see less on the AFI list than this one.
- Greed (1924, von Stroheim) / There’s a recognized four-hour cut of this film now, which I hope will make it more accessible. Then again, silent movies don’t fare well on the AFI list anyway, even silent movies as majestic as this one.
- His Girl Friday (1940, Hawks) / This might be the movie that feels most like an AFI movie that isn’t actually on the AFI list. I don’t know if the next list is the one that takes a flyer on it, but the indicators are pretty good and it’s in the public domain.
- Shane (1953, Stevens) / As long as George Stevens, Jr. lives, we may never be able to escape the shrill cries of Brandon de Wilde.
As promised, and it was not a promise I should have made, because all it can do is make me look like an even bigger schmuck, I’ve made a mock ranking. (Trying to predict the actual ranking of these films, even with the amount of prep I’ve done, is like watching a zillion college basketball games and then filling out your bracket…you just know something stupid will happen and it’ll all go kerflooey.) I have my AFI brain on again, so yell at them for what I do. One thing I did try to be faithful about was their patterns for moving movies around the list. For example, only three films didn’t move at all between ’98 and ’07, so I limited myself to three films which didn’t change spots at all.
The 20xx AFI Top 100 List (Extremely Unauthorized and Unofficial)
- The Godfather
- This entire project of mine is kind of big swing, but this one feels like the biggest. Citizen Kane has topped both of the other lists, but in 2012, Vertigo famously ascended to the top spot in the Sight and Sound poll. As of publication we don’t know where Vertigo will land on the 2022 poll, but the point is more that there’s an opening for some film besides Kane to be at the top. My guess is that a new-look AFI goes with the last list’s number 2, The Godfather, in the top spot.
- Citizen Kane
- The jump for Vertigo is basically because of the Sight and Sound poll.
- Casablanca has now dropped two spots from its original place on the ’98 list, which is going to be a statement about how 1940s films will do on this list.
- Schindler’s List
- Schindler’s List gives Steven Spielberg, the most recognized director on this list, his highest-ranked film ever. This is also something of a radical choice, because my research says Schindler’s List is probably only third on your average Spielberg ranking.
- Raging Bull
- Singin’ in the Rain
- City Lights
- Chaplin hits the top 10 for the first time.
- The Wizard of Oz
- E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial
- E.T. has been ranked highly, and with some years behind it it makes the big jump. Spielberg now has two films in the top ten, making him the first person to grab two since Victor Fleming put Gone with the Wind and The Wizard of Oz in the top ten of the ’98 list. (This is a feather in Spielberg’s cap anyway; in recent years there’s been a push to credit George Cukor with more in both films, which is probably appropriate.)
- Gone with the Wind
- Gone with the Wind, one of the most racist and most influential films in Hollywood history, also happens to be remarkable in terms of its accomplishments in score, acting, adaptation, and so on and so forth. The AFI has already kicked off The Birth of a Nation for even more virulent racism, but a lot more people in the present had seen and loved Gone with the Wind. I expect Gone with the Wind to make this list, and place highly; I also think removing it from the top ten will be a symbolic gesture.
- The Searchers
- Eagle-eyed readers will recognize that Unforgiven is now the highest-rated western on the AFI list. This would make me claw my eyes out and so I’m fairly certain it’ll happen. To make the case with less solipsism, we live in a time when people prefer to consider the “revisionist” or “reevaluated” rather than the original. My guess is that this is the true feather in Clint Eastwood’s cap, and John Ford isn’t here to pretend he doesn’t care.
- Lawrence of Arabia
- Lawrence takes a tumble for reasons fairly similar to those Gone with the Wind took a tumble.
- 2001: A Space Odyssey
- The General
- Star Wars
- Sunset Boulevard
- It’s a Wonderful Life
- Saving Private Ryan
- I don’t think Spielberg can have three in the top twenty, or, indeed, that anyone can have three in the top twenty. But Saving Private Ryan has become the shorthand for “great modern war movie,” for reasons that I find utterly baffling, and it has been fortunate enough to be one of the first films in our modern grievance era to have such a grievance (i.e., Shakespeare in Love).
- No Country for Old Men
- The General landed at 16 on the 2007 list despite being unranked in 1998 and despite no Buster Keaton making it in 1998. I expect something similar here with No Country, made by directors who did not make the 2007 list but who have made a universally acclaimed film that deserves attention.
- On the Waterfront
- The slide for this film, which began in 2007, has been halted a little.
- Do the Right Thing
- Spike Lee’s film should be much higher than this, and if the AFI does what Rolling Stone did with their most recent Top 500 Albums list, this will be number one. The AFI does not seem to me to be even as revolutionary as Rolling Stone.
- Some Like It Hot
- The Godfather Part II
- The Silence of the Lambs
- One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest
- Apocalypse Now
- The Deer Hunter
- Even since 2007, The Deer Hunter has risen in critical estimation. It’s jumped seventy-four spots on the TSPDT list, Cimino has undergone some reevaluation, and this is a classic film for two beloved elder statesmen of American acting, Robert De Niro and Christopher Walken.
- The Grapes of Wrath
- All About Eve
- Double Indemnity
- North by Northwest
- North by Northwest is now higher than it even was in 1998. My guess is this film has regained some popularity, enough to make it the third-rated Hitchcock.
- High Noon
- To Kill a Mockingbird
- To Kill a Mockingbird the novel has gotten some accusations of soft racism, and I’m not sure even Gregory Peck will be able to stem that tide.
- The Best Years of Our Lives
- This is a joke just for me, basically. Best Years has been thirty-seven two lists in a row, so I figure why not go for three.
- Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs
- King Kong
- The Graduate
- The Graduate continues to fall like a hailstone aimed directly at Dustin Hoffman’s car. This movie was seventh in 1998, seventeenth in 2007, and now…it’s acclaimed, but I’m not sure where the passion is for a movie that carried the bourgeois zeitgeist of a bourgeoisie that’s in the process of giving up the geist.
- The Maltese Falcon
- On my very first attempt to rank these films a few months ago, Network was top ten. I thought the predictive qualities of the film would be too tempting to resist. As it stands I still see a jump, but the indicators don’t back up a skyrocket.
- Forrest Gump
- The highest film from the 2010s, second-highest from the 21st Century, and second-highest for a Black director. It wouldn’t shock me if Moonlight ended up higher than this.
- Annie Hall
- A compromise between canceling Woody Allen’s film outright or just dropping it to some anonymous place where people won’t notice too much.
- The Night of the Hunter
- The highest-ranked of the new 20th Century films. Another big swing, maybe even at the level of The Godfather, but the critical consensus about this movie is undeniable at this stage.
- Dr. Strangelove, or How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love the Bomb
- Taxi Driver
- Mr. Smith Goes to Washington
- My resolution for the Mr. Smith quandary I detailed up there.
- The Bridge on the River Kwai
- West Side Story
- The Shawshank Redemption
- IMDb’s top-ranked movie sneaks ever closer to the top half of the AFI list.
- Rear Window
- The Sound of Music
- Raiders of the Lost Ark
- Spielberg’s lowest-ranked movie by my estimation, which just furthers the moistness of the tongue bath that I expect the AFI list to give him.
- Bonnie and Clyde
- Midnight Cowboy
- This might still be a little high for Intolerance, but I just can’t see the AFI dropping Griffith entirely.
- Back to the Future
- The Treasure of the Sierra Madre
- 12 Angry Men
- 12 Angry Men, an old movie for people who don’t watch old movies, definitively ends a larger stretch of ten films or so which have fallen compared to where they were in 2007; this one has jumped twenty-five places.
- The Lady Eve
- The Gold Rush
- Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans
- About as high as I can see Sunrise getting; I just don’t think the AFI is ready for a non-Chaplin silent to breach the top third, no matter how exceptional it is.
- Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
- I’m guessing here, but by my guessing game of “what would personally tick me off a lot,” Eternal Sunshine making the list above the next three films would really make a lot of sense.
- Duck Soup
- The Shining
- This goes in roughly the spot where A Clockwork Orange did in 2007; as you can tell, I’m predicting a French Connection-style fall for another 1971 Best Picture nominee with a lot of violence and a nasty piece of work for a protagonist.
- The Apartment
- It Happened One Night
- The AFI’s pre-rebuke of Capra continues; the fourth AFI list may choose just to divest itself of this film entirely.
- Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
- It’s not been a great showing for the late Nichols, and I’m entirely open to the hypothesis that I’m underrating support for him. If the acclaim for Mark Harris’s new book about him is any indication, I might have done better to try to squeeze Silkwood or Working Girl on here instead.
- Modern Times
- Pulp Fiction
- Like Goodfellas, one of the loud and profane 1990s bête noires that the AFI couldn’t quite love, this one finally gets moved up about as far as a movie can move up at one time.
- The Wild Bunch
- Bringing Up Baby
- There Will Be Blood
- Easy Rider
- The Matrix
- The AFI welcomes two trans directors to the list, but also recognizes one of the most inescapable films of the turn of the century. It may not be this high, but the Academy tends to be fairly hospitable to sci-fi.
- Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid
- Another little joke for me; this is where Fargo was in 1998.
- Million Dollar Baby
- Eastwood gets his second movie.
- Rio Bravo
- Howard Hawks and John Wayne finally get more space on the AFI list after being shunned a little in 2007; here they get to rebuke a slumping High Noon from relative shouting distance.
- The Last Picture Show
- Lost in Translation
- Blade Runner
- Not much more love for Blade Runner on this go-round; my guess is that this film has something of the niche quality that Goodfellas or Pulp Fiction had.
- Touch of Evil
- Thelma & Louise
- Get Out
- A Clockwork Orange
- Brokeback Mountain
- I was looking for the recent film that would hold a place while not necessarily holding a ranking, and Titanic, which is scoffed at a fair bit, fits the bill.
- The Dark Knight
- All right, fanboys, there’s no need for violence. Just put that gun down and we’ll do whatever you say.
- Mulholland Drive
- I said I thought it would make it, but I didn’t say I thought it would be all that high.
- The Lion King
- Lion King replaces Toy Story and gets one extra spot on its predecessor. Very circle of life.
- A Streetcar Named Desire
- In 2007, a couple movies collapsed to a point where they were nearly off the list. I think that’s Streetcar, which has an unrecognizable acting style, but maybe it’s something else.
- Groundhog Day
- The danger of putting this one last is that you may never actually get to number 99.