Friday, December 1, 2023

10 Movies From The AFI Top 100 List You Should Definitely Watch

By Hannah Lorence 

With a combined runtime of nearly 210 hours, watching every single movie on the American Film Institute’s Top 100 list is a commitment. Each film on the list has its own merit in the cultural context in which it was created and contributes in some meaningful way to the conversations that were happening at that time, but as I watched each film, I had to ask myself: “If this film were removed from the list, would it really matter in the grand scheme of cinema history?”  

We don’t need multiple retellings of the horrors of the Vietnam war. Between “Apocalypse Now,” “Platoon,” “Taxi Driver” and “The Deer Hunter,” is it really necessary to drive the point home that the war was awful? Why not make room on the list for women filmmakers or directors of color? There are so many diverse artists who make up this country’s history and have important stories to tell.

Even though not all of the movies justify their existence on the list, many made a big impression on me. Some of them are indelibly ingrained in my memory. They are absolutely worth your time, so even if you don’t want to tackle the whole list you can at least seek out these titles. Even if you’ve seen every film on this list there’s never a bad time to revisit a timeless classic!

Here are 10 movies from the AFI Top 100 list you should definitely watch…

​All About Eve

Why You Should Watch It

“All About Eve” is undoubtedly one of the best-written movies of all time. The characters are developed nearly seamlessly as they glide from scene to scene. You want to cheer for everyone despite their obvious flaws. “All About Eve” is a melodramatic girl fight at its best and you are going to be onboard from the first scene.

The film follows an aging actress, Margo Channing, (Bette Davis) who takes a stage acting protégé, Eve Harrington, (Anne Baxter) under her wing. The seemingly innocent, budding actress cleverly makes herself indispensable all the while scheming to oust Channing and become a star herself. The story captures the allure of fame which proves less glamorous than one might think. It hammers home the age old adage, “be careful what you wish for.”

With amazing performances from Bette Davis, Anne Baxter, and George Sanders, this quiet, cunning, high stakes game of wits will delight you all the way through.

Awards Season Wins

Unsurprisingly, “All About Eve” won Best Writing, Screenplay at the 1951 Oscars as well as 5 other top prizes including Best Actor for George Sanders Best Director for Joseph L. Mankiewicz, Best Costume Design for Edith Head and Charles Le Maire, Best Sound (Recording) for Thomas Moulton, and Best Picture for producer Darryl Zanuck.

I think Margo Channing (Davis’ character) would agree with the fact that neither starring woman took home the gold is a true tragedy (and Margo would say it with dramatic flair!)

Ben Hur

Why You Should Watch It

You might be familiar with the chariot race or the slave rowing scenes from 1959’s, “Ben Hur.” In many ways the film defines the sweeping epics of the era. It has it all: Action, adventure, romance, intrigue, and a hefty three act structure that follows the life of one man as he overcomes the impossible to survive the betrayal of a friend.

This film holds up because the themes are timeless and the flashy action sequences and tragic plot points aren’t emotionally manipulative. The hopeful message at this film’s core anchors the story so that Judah Ben-Hur’s hard exterior, which has been molded by the harsh reality of life and the people who have hurt him, slowly softens as his character is changed by forgiveness and love.

The film’s technical merits are nothing to balk at either. The lengthy chariot race scene required some of the riskiest stunts ever to be performed on a movie set up until that point. The scene boasted 15,000 extras and was shot on an 18-acre set constructed just outside of Rome. Shooting the sequence cost about a quarter of the film’s entire budget and the crew spent 10 weeks filming it.

Awards Season Wins

“Ben Hur” was the first of only three films to win 11 academy awards which included: Best Picture, Best Actor in a Leading Role for Charlton Heston, Best Actor in a Supporting Role for Hugh Griffith, Best Director for William Wyler, Best Cinematography (Color) for Robert Surtees, Best Art Direction-Set Direction (Color) for William Horning, Edward Carfagno, and Hugh Hunt, Best Costume Design (Color) for Elizabeth Haffenden, Best Sound for Franklin Milton, Best Film Editing for Ralph Winters and John Dunning, Best Special Effects for A. Arnold Gilespie, R. A. Mcdonald, and Milo Lory, and Best Music for Miklós Rózsa.

West Side Story

Why You Should Watch It

Another iteration of Shakespeare’s enduring classic “Romeo and Juliet” but with dancing, sassy Latinas, and a New York City setting. What’s not to love? “West Side Story” has been on people’s radar once again as Steven Spielberg attempts a remake, but it’s the original that really captured audience’s hearts. The story is surprisingly relevant to the current cultural moment as it tackles discrimination and prejudice, ultimately showing that love is the only thing that can transcend our differences.

The choreography in this film is striking. Unlike most modern movies that don’t bother lingering on lengthy dance sequences, this film gives the dancers the screen time they deserve-honoring the lost art of choreography. With technicolor still in its hay day, the film is beautifully composed with colors that pop and compliment the musicality.

Awards Season Wins

“West Side Story” has the most Oscar wins for a musical of all time. The film received 10 total awards including Best Picture, Best Actor in a Supporting Role for George Chakiris, Best Actress in a Supporting Role for Rita Moreno, Best Director for Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins, Best Cinematography (Color) for Daniel Fapp, Best Art Direction-Set Direction (Color) for Boris Leven and Victor Gangelin, Best Costume Design (Color) for Irene Sharaff, Best Sound for Fred Hynes and Gordon Sawyer, Best Film Editing for Thomas Stanford, Best Music-Scoring of a Musical Picture for Saul Chaplin, Johnny Green, Sid Ramin, and Irwin Kostal, and Best Writing (Screenplay based on material from another medium) for Ernest Lehman.

​It’s A Wonderful Life

Why You Should Watch It

There’s no doubt “It’s a Wonderful Life” is a Christmas classic, but there’s a reason it is an enduring film beyond that. The story that follows George Bailey, successor to a family-owned bank who can’t quite seem to escape his small town and follow his dreams, is a timeless classic because it shows that small acts of kindness can have a big impact on the people around us.

The movie showcases Jimmy Stewart at his best. All of the endearing qualities we associate with Stewart, his voice, mannerisms, etc. all come together to make a memorable character that drives home the movie’s message: it isn’t our accomplishments that make life meaningful, but the people we share it with. Through George Bailey’s story we are reminded that even though life is hard sometimes, it is still worth living – a message that’s important at Christmas and all year long.

Awards Season Wins

Sadly, the film did not take any Oscars home at the 1947 Academy Awards, but it did receive a few nominations including Best Picture, Best Actor in a Leading Role for Jimmy Stewart, Best Director for Frank Capra, Best Sound Recording for John Aalberg, and Best Editing for William Hornbeck

Singin’ In The Rain

Why You Should Watch It

The sheer talent on screen in “Singin’ in the Rain” is enough to make your jaw drop. A film that defined the musical genre, Gene Kelly, Debbie Reynolds, and Donald O’Conner make their way into audience’s hearts by singing, dancing, and even playing the fiddle.

Following the advent of “talking pictures,” “Singin’ in the Rain” is a story about film history itself – portraying the bumpy transition from silent film in a romanticized look at the evolution of film as we know it. Fair warning though, watching this movie might make you want to jump out of your seat and start dancing.

Awards Season Wins

Surprisingly, this film only received two nominations and no wins at the 1953 Academy Awards. The film was nominated for Best Music, Scoring of a Musical Picture for Lennie Hayton and Best Actress in a Supporting Role for Jean Hagen

The Lord Of The Rings: The Fellowship Of The Ring

Why You Should Watch It

A director with lesser talent and vision would not have done justice to the classic source material by J.R.R. Tolkien. Thank goodness for Peter Jackson’s big vision and love of the book because it oozes out of every scene in “The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring.” There’s no doubt the film holds up so well because it stays so close to the original story.

Jackson is able to transport you to the fantastical land of Middle Earth as themes of courage, perseverance, and the triumph of good over evil are all held together by loveable characters that inspire and delight. The computer graphics and visual effects were groundbreaking at the time of its release and though the trilogy of films didn’t take home the Best Picture win until the third installment, the film still made waves upon its release, causing Jackson to earn his place among some of the greats.

Awards Season Wins

Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring took home Oscars at the 2002 ceremony for Best Cinematography by Andrew Lesnie, Best Makeup by Peter Owen and Richard Taylor, Best Music (Original Score) by Howard Shore, and Best Effects by Jim Rygiel, Randall William Cook, Richard Taylor, and Mark Stetson.


Why You Should Watch It

One of the most beautiful love stories ever told with World War II as a backdrop, “Casablanca” captures the magic of cinema in a way that few other films have. The story follows Rick, an American expatriate who owns and runs a bar in Monaco and is stunned when his former lover finds her way into his life again. You ache for these characters-not only for Rick and Ilsa to find a way to be together again, but also for the war to end.

The movie is a genuine snapshot of the world at the time. When the French national anthem plays during one of the scenes in Rick’s bar, real life French extras sing along with tears streaming down their face knowing the realities of war off set. This film is one of the most quotable of all time – fixing its place in film history.

Awards Season Wins

Still in the middle of the war, the 1944s Oscar winners were significant as the cultural moment dictated the storytelling at the time. In fact, free passes to the ceremony were given out to men in uniform. “Casablanca” took home the award for Best Picture, Best Director for Michael Curtiz, and Best Writing (Screenplay) for Julius J. Epstein, Philip G. Epstein, and Howard Koch. Fun fact, the Epstein brothers are the only twin brother writing duo to ever win the award together.

​Schindler’s List

Why You Should Watch It

Spielberg’s retelling of the holocaust is undoubtedly one of his best films. The movie is important, not just because it portrays a harrowing event in history, but also because it provides a beautiful cinematic experience that earns its spot as one of the most memorable and gut wrenching films of all time.

Despite the fact that Spielberg tackled such a big story with “Schindler’s List,” the character’s did not get lost in service to the retelling of the event. Whether they were murderous Nazis or concentration camp prisoners, each character is presented as a complex human being with warring desires and vulnerable moments in the midst of tragic circumstances. Its Spielberg’s deftness in handling his characters that elevates this movie.

Awards Season Wins

“Schindler’s List” won seven Oscars at the 1994 ceremony including Best Picture for Steven Spielberg, Gerald R. Molen and Branko Lustig, Best Director for Steven Spielberg, Best Writing (Screenplay based on material previously produced or published), Best Cinematography for Janusz Kaminski, Best Art Direction-Set Direction for Allan Starski and Ewa Braun, Best Film Editing for Michael Kahn, and Best Music (original score) for John Williams.

To Kill A Mockingbird

Why You Should Watch It

Did you know Harper Lee’s classic novel that we were all made to read in middle school has an excellent film adaptation with the nearly perfect Gregory Peck? “To Kill a Mockingbird” is still a timely tale about race equality and standing up for what’s right and good. The story, told through the eyes of a child, is still an important exploration of weighty topics.

Not all cinematic interpretations of literature can do them justice, but this film exceeds expectations – helping us fall in love with Atticus Finch, Scout, and Jem all over again.

Awards Season Wins

Gregory Peck won Best Actor at the 1963 Academy Awards and the film was also recognized for Best Writing (Screenplay based on material from another medium) won by Horton Foote, and Best Art Direction-Set Direction (Black-and-white) won by Alexander Golitzen, Henry Bumstead, and Oliver Emert

The Silence Of The Lambs

Why You Should Watch It

The Silence of the Lambs” is the unsung feminist film of the 90s. Jodie Foster’s Clarice Starling is up there with Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley and Linda Hamilton’s Sarah Connor. With disturbingly convincing performances from Anthony Hopkins as the highly intelligent cannibal serial killer, Dr. Hannibal Lecter, and Ted Levine as Jame Gumb, a predatory serial killer, this film is a master class in suspense.

If you don’t watch this film for the performances, watch it for the stunning filmmaking courtesy of director Jonathan Demme. Every shot is carefully crafted to serve the story and characters. Even though the material is disturbing, this film is a true American classic.

Awards Season Wins

The Silence of the Lambs” won several awards at the 1992 Academy Awards including Best Picture for Edward Saxon, Kenneth Utt, and Ron Bozman, Best Actor in a Leading Role for Anthony Hopkins, Best Actress in a Leading Role for Jodie Foster, Best Director for Jonathan Demme, and Best Writing (Screenplay based on material previously produced or published) for Ted Tally.

Despite the time investment, there’s something incredibly satisfying about joining countless other people who enjoy the art of film by watching films that have defined America’s cinematic history. Whether you watch the handful of films mentioned here or go through the whole list, I can promise it is a rewarding experience. 

Have you seen all of these films? Have you seen all of the films in the AFI Top 100 List? Do you think there’s anything that does or does not belong there? Let us know in the comments section below or on our Twitter account.

You can follow Hannah and hear more of her thoughts on the Oscars and Film on Twitter at @hannitachula

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