In celebration of “Becoming AFI”, a terrific new book released this month about the American Film Institute, I thought it would be fun to take a look back at their famous 100 Years, 100 Movies list, and zero in on 10 of the top films that fit into the Cause Cinema subgenre.
I was the Festival Director for AFI in 1998 when their list first came out, and had the pleasure of working with Authors Jean Picker Firstenberg and James Hindman, AFI’s CEO and COO at the time. This was a great experience, as the institute truly celebrated the art of film; and these two really gave me the flexibility to really expand their renowned festival.
In 2007, AFI revised their list to consider newly eligible films released from 1997 to 2005. Here was the criteria they asked the jurors to follow in their selection process:
Virtually all the selections below are dramas, many a reflection of their times. Yet, themes of war and racism, justice and corruption are still relevant today.
Each film is listed based on its AFI 100/100 ranking, along with the year and director.
9 - Schindler's List (1993) VIEW TRAILER
Award-winning masterpiece - a profoundly shocking, unsparing, fact-based, epic of the nightmarish Holocaust. Businessman Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson) arrives in Krakow in 1939, ready to make his fortune from World War II. After joining the Nazi party primarily for political expediency, he staffs his factory with Jewish workers for similarly pragmatic reasons. When the SS begins exterminating Jews in the Krakow ghetto, Schindler arranges to have his workers protected to keep his factory in operation, but soon realizes that in so doing, he is also saving innocent lives.
12 - The Searchers (1956) VIEW TRAILER
In this revered Western, Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) returns home to Texas after the Civil War. When members of his brother's family are killed or abducted by Comanches, he vows to track down his surviving relatives and bring them home. Eventually, Edwards gets word that his niece Debbie (Natalie Wood) is alive, and, along with her adopted brother, Martin Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter), he embarks on a dangerous mission to find her, journeying deep into Comanche territory. The film's complex and nuanced themes include: racism, individuality, the American character, and the opposition between civilizations.
19 - On the Waterfront (1954) VIEW TRAILER
Dockworker Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando) had been an up-and-coming boxer until powerful local mob boss Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb) persuaded him to throw a fight. When a longshoreman is murdered before he can testify about Friendly's control of the waterfront, Terry teams up with the dead man's sister Edie (Eva Marie Saint) and priest Father Barry (Karl Malden) to testify. Corruption and problems of trade unionism bubble beneath the surface.
23 - The Grapes of Wrath (1940) VIEW TRAILER
After their drought-ridden farm is seized by the bank, Tom (Henry Fonda), loads up a truck and heads West with his family. On the road, the Joads meet dozens of other families making the same journey and holding the same dream. Once in California, however, the Joads soon realize that the promised land isn't quite what they hoped. The film honestly and realistically recreates the socio-economic impact of the Great Depression and a mid-30s drought upon one representative family.
33 - One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975) VIEW TRAILER
When McMurphy (Jack Nicholson) gets transferred for evaluation from a prison farm to a mental institution, he assumes it will be a less restrictive environment. But Nurse Ratched (Louise Fletcher) holds a tight leash, keeping her patients at bay with abuse, medication and sessions of electroconvulsive therapy. Their battle, anchored by McMurphy’s desire for basic human rights, eventually escalates, affecting all the ward's patients. The Director, Milos Forman noted that the asylum was a metaphor for the Soviet Union and the desire to escape.
30 - Apocalypse Now (1979) VIEW TRAILER
Francis Ford Coppola
Detailing the confusion, violence, fear, and nightmarish madness of the Vietnam War, Apocalypse Now takes to Vietnam in 1970. Captain Willard (Martin Sheen) takes a perilous and increasingly hallucinatory journey upriver to find and terminate Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando), a once-promising officer who has reportedly gone completely mad. In the company of a Navy patrol boat filled with younger adults, a surf crazed officer (Robert Duvall), and a whacked out freelance photographer (Dennis Hopper), Willard travels further and further into the heart of darkness.
25 - To Kill a Mockingbird (1962) VIEW TRAILER
Scout Finch (Mary Badham), 6, and her older brother, Jem (Phillip Alford), live in Alabama, spending much of their time with their friend Dill (John Megna) and spying on their mysterious neighbor, Boo Radley (Robert Duvall). When Atticus (Gregory Peck), their widowed father and a respected lawyer, defends a black man named Tom Robinson (Brock Peters) against fabricated rape charges, the trial and related events expose the children to evils of racism the message of moral tolerance.
53 - The Deer Hunter (1978) VIEW TRAILER
A powerful, disturbing and compelling look at the Vietnam War through the lives of three blue-collar, Russian-American friends in a small steel-mill town before, during, and after their service in the war.
87 – Twelve Angry Men (1957) VIEW TRAILER
An American courtroom drama that tells the story of a jury made up of 12 men as they deliberate the guilt or innocence of a defendant on the basis of reasonable doubt, forcing the jurors to question their own morals and values. In the US, a verdict in criminal trials by jury must be unanimous. 12 Angry Men explores many techniques of consensus-building and the difficulties encountered in the process, as the men come to terms with the decision they face.
96 – Do the Right Thing (1989) VIEW TRAILER
Salvatore "Sal" Fragione (Danny Aiello) is the Italian owner of a pizzeria in Brooklyn. A neighborhood local, Buggin' Out (Giancarlo Esposito), becomes upset when he sees that the pizzeria's Wall of Fame exhibits only Italian actors. Buggin' Out believes a pizzeria in a black neighborhood should showcase black actors, but Sal disagrees. The wall becomes a symbol of racism and hate to Buggin' Out and to other people in the neighborhood, and tensions rise.