The American Film Institute Celebrates Film Across Time 

By Caroline Madden

For over fifty years, the American Film Institute has been one of the most important organizations for the cultivation and preservation of United States cinema. Through a variety of extraordinary programs and initiatives, the AFI honors the medium of film as a cultural touchstone, educational tool, and historical record. 

The illustrious institution was founded by a 1965 presidential mandate from Lyndon B. Johnson calling for the conservation and advancement of American film, then officially established in 1967 under the leadership of A Place in the Sun and Giant director George Stevens. Film historian Bob Gazzale serves as the current president alongside a board of trustees chaired by Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy, as well as other prestigious members of the film industry. 

Perhaps what the AFI is best known for is its lists. Based on a particular theme or category, these lists aim to educate audiences on the best cinema has to offer and inspire them to identify and discuss the artistic merits of a well-made film. In order to determine what films would be included, hundreds of titles were named on ballots and sent to a jury of over 1,000 creative professionals including directors, screenwriters, actors, editors, critics, and more. From 1998 to 2008, the results of these rankings were presented in television specials on CBS.

The most important list for any fledgling cinephile is “100 Years . . . 100 Movies” which ran in both 1998 and 2007. Viewers can use them as guideposts to becoming film literate and knowledgeable about cinema’s evolution throughout the years. Some of the selected films include the infamous classics On the Waterfront, Apocalypse Now, and Goodfellas. The coveted #1 spot belongs to Orson Welles’ mystery drama Citizen Kane

There are other lists based on genres, namely “100 Laughs” (the gender-bending titles Some Like it Hot and Tootsie rank highest), “100 Thrills” (the fabled thrillers Psycho and Jaws top the list), “100 Cheers” (featuring the inspiring films To Kill a Mockingbird and Rocky), and “100 Passions” (the seminal Casablanca takes the crown for most unforgettable romance, and King Kong is a unique addition). 

Fun rankings like “100 Heroes & Villains” contain the notorious characters Darth Vader and Clarice Starling, and “100 Movie Quotes” commemorates infamous lines that have embedded themselves in popular culture, as in “I’m gonna make him an offer he can’t refuse” and “You talkin’ to me?” Another list entitled “100 Stars” mostly honors classic Hollywood screen legends such as Humphrey Bogart and Bette Davis. 

Audiences can also turn to the American Film Institute’s Top 10 films and television programs of the year which have been curated since 2000. Last year, some of the top films were Chloe Zhao’s Oscar-winning Nomadland and the visceral The Sound of Metal. For television, the list featured the Netflix dramas The Queen’s Gambit, The Crown, and Unorthodox.

It is important to note that the AFI recognizes the power they have in determining film canon and how minorities have been silenced throughout cinema history. On their website, they state: “American film has marginalized the diversity of voices that make our nation and its stories strong—and these lists reflect that intolerable truth. AFI acknowledges its responsibility in curating these lists that has reinforced this marginality and looks forward to releasing new lists that will embrace our modern-day and drive culture forward.”  It will be exciting to see what new diverse lists they come up with. 

Another award the American Film Institute offers is the Life Achievement Award, “a singular distinction bestowed upon artists ‘whose work has stood the test of time,’” their website explains. Some of the past winners include distinguished stars and filmmakers Jane Fonda, Al Pacino, Steven Spielberg, and Billy Wilder. However, the AFI does not just recognize mainstream cinema and well-known celebrities. From 1986 to 1996, the Maya Deren Independent Film and Video Artists Award saluted achievements in non-commercial independent filmmaking. Underground film legends Stan Brakhage, Kenneth Anger, Shirley Clarke, and Ken Jacobs were among the honorees, as well as other indie filmmakers Barbara Kopple and Marlon Riggs, and video artist Nam June Paik. These bold artists pushed the boundaries of what film could do as an art form rather than just a narrative vehicle. 

The American Film Institute also educates audiences—from well-read cinephiles to those with a burgeoning interest in film—through their magazine American Film. In circulation from 1975 to 1992, the magazine boasted “serious, gossip-free articles” and in-depth film analysis that “tried to approach film as art . . . without writing in a style that would be limited to graduate students,” according to the New York Times

AFI re-launched the magazine as an ongoing monthly digital edition in April 2012. These online issues included a review, throwback pieces from the print publication, filmed interviews from the AFI Conservatory, and a section called The Daily List that featured news and cute trivia games where readers put films in chronological order or guess where a movie quote is from. Some of these issues can still be accessed on their website

One of the most significant contributions the American Film Institute has made to the preservation of cinema is the AFI Catalog. What began in 1968 as a research tool for film historians continues as an initiative to index all commercially made and theatrically-exhibited American motion pictures from the birth of cinema in 1893 to the present. The catalog currently consists of more than than 60,000 feature films and 17,000 short films. These records were presented in hardcover books entitled The American Film Institute Catalog of Motion Pictures, but now you can access the titles through their online database

The American Film Institute has another archival initiative housed in Hollywood’s Louis B. Mayer Library. The AFI Archive is a treasure trove of moviemaking materials including unpublished scripts, storyboards, scrapbooks, and other production documents. You can also find unique items like Martin Scorsese’s early drafts of Mean Streets or studio correspondence and audience comment cards about Fritz Lang’s You and Me. 

Not only does AFI honor the films of the past, but they also celebrate the films of the future during the AFI Fest—a “world-class five-day event, showcasing the best films from across the globe to captivated audiences online and in Los Angeles,” per their Facebook. With over 125 films, the festival bolsters a varied and innovative slate of programming that mixes the work of accomplished auteurs and dynamic new talents. Many of the films screened go on to achieve Oscar nominations or wins. 

Films are presented in the exciting categories Galas, Special Screenings, New Auteurs, Documentary, World Cinema, Cinema’s Legacy, and Shorts. This year, some of the buzzed-about films at the festival include Jane Campion’s intimate drama The Power of the Dog, Andrea Arnold’s searing documentary Cow, and Ninja Thyberg’s controversial Pleasure. The festival runs from November 10–14. 

Through annual tributes and conversations, the AFI Fest also recognizes influential artists: Christopher Plummer, Isabelle Huppert, Barry Jenkins, to name a few. Past guest Artistic Directors of the festival have been the renowned filmmakers Pedro Almodóvar, Bernardo Bertolucci, David Lynch, and Agnès Varda. There is no better way to celebrate the constantly expanding film industry and its stars than with Hollywood’s premier film organization, the American Film Institute. 

The AFI is also dedicated to nurturing the next faces of film through its intense conservatory program. The AFI Conservatory boasts a rigorous seven-day work week that provides budding filmmakers with numerous hands-on opportunities to develop their craft within several disciplines: cinematography, directing, editing, producing, production design, and screenwriting. It is a highly-selective two-year master’s degree program with a maximum of 140 graduates per year. Under the tutelage of working professions with credits such as Star Wars: The Last Jedi and Juno, those who are lucky enough to attend this school are guaranteed tangible filmmaking experience, providing them the technical and artistic skills required to tell their stories. While living in the heart of Hollywood, students are afforded numerous networking opportunities with key industry professionals. 

If you are interested in studying filmmaking, consider applying to the AFI Conservatory, ranked the #1 film school in America by The Hollywood Reporter and one of the top five graduate film programs in the Princeton Review. You would join the laundry list of prominent alumni such as Terrence Malick, Darren Aronofsky, and Ari Aster. Fellow graduate and Wonder Woman helmer Patty Jenkins reflects on her time at the conservatory: “I deeply believe they helped me find my voice and defining principles of story and craft that inform me to this day.” Glee writer and producer Brad Falchuk stresses that the “AFI Conservatory is for artists who are serious about finding their voice and have stories to tell. It’s an amazing experience, and it will change your life.”

The AFI offers other learning opportunities. The Directing Workshop for Women is a tuition-free course of study for women with professional directing aspirations. Some notable alumni include Lesli Linka Glatter (Mad Men, Homeland, Twin Peaks) and Jennifer Getzinger (Mad Men, Orange Is the New Black, Jessica Jones).  Since its creation in 1974 by scientist and Rockefeller Foundation board member Mathilde Krim, more than 350 women have participated in the eight-week program. 

When the workshop first began, many famous actresses like Margot Kidder and Lily Tomlin were attendees. After its fourth year, the Directed Workshop for Women became exclusively committed to developing fresh talent, and today there is a particular focus on fostering women of color and women in the LGBTQ community. The Young Women in Film program gives female high school students from Los Angeles the opportunity to study pitching, screenwriting, producing, cinematography, editing, and production design for eight weeks under the mentorship of other accomplished women in the film industry. 

The AFI is an unparalleled institution dedicated to sustaining cinema history and shaping its future. If you’d like to know more about this storied institution, read the book Becoming AFI: 50 Years Inside the American Film Institute or visit their website. From their exceptional educational programs, extraordinary valuables in the archive, informative lists to guide you to your next movie watch, and so much more, it is clear that the American Film Institute is the leading organization for the appreciation of contemporary and historical filmmaking.

Did you like this article?
Give it a vote for a Golden Bowtie


Keyframe is always looking for contributors.

"Writer? Video Essayist? Movie Fan Extraordinaire?

Fandor is streaming on Amazon Prime

Love to discover new films? Browse our exceptional library of hand-picked cinema on the Fandor Amazon Prime Channel.