Staff Writer | Jonah Minnihan

The great film critic Roger Ebert once mused, “Every once in a while I have what I think of as an out-of-the-body experience at a movie … I simply mean that my imagination has forgotten it is actually present in a movie theater and thinks it’s up there on the screen. In a curious sense, the events in the movie seem real, and I seem to be a part of them.”

The American Film Institute (AFI) is an organization that dedicates their time to the preservation of classic film. In 2007, a group of around 1500 film artists, critics and historians within AFI came together to compile a definitive list of the 100 greatest American films of all time.

As a freshman in high school, my film teacher, Mr. Majerus, got me interested in movies. He was the first to introduce me to the likes of Alfred Hitchcock, The Marx Brothers, Katharine Hepburn and Sidney Poitier while pushing me to understand the significance of each of the films I watched.

In 2011, I decided I wanted to watch AFI’s list to become a more well-rounded individual.

During my time watching classics such as “Casablanca,” “The Deer Hunter” and more contemporary titles like “Silence of the Lambs” and “Raging Bull,”  I’ve come to realize that these classic, critically-acclaimed films are a look into the mainstream patterns of the past. These films form a timeline in U.S. history and showcase the controversies and ideologies of the time period.

“Birth of a Nation” is a pro-Ku Klux Klan film that came out in 1915, and was an obvious spite towards the African-American community. “The Deer Hunter” came out right after the Vietnam War and looks at the impact of PTSD on veterans. “All the President’s Men” depicts the Watergate Scandal that happened just four years before the film’s release.

By watching AFI’s top films, the viewer gets a glimpse into issues of the past.

A study conducted by The Association for Psychological Science researched the effect of historical films for student learning and retention of historical events. They found that students who viewed a film based on a historical event were able to recount 50 percent more of the event than those who hadn’t viewed the film

Students were able to understand the history of the nation while also viewing the events through the lens of the film artistry of that time.

From filming techniques, lighting, scoring and even story arcs, the film industry has undergone obvious changes.

These classic films showcase where filmmaking, as an art, was at that time. By recognizing the techniques of the past, the audience can begin to understand the techniques of the present. Simply put, by understanding where filmmaking was, one is able to better understand and appreciate where it is today.

Darragh King, a production development intern at Paramount Pictures echoes this same idea.

“Like any art form, work is created and derived from what we’ve seen and interpreted throughout our own life,” King said. “To study films like the ones in the AFI Top 100 list is to better understand how film concepts have been seen, interpreted and recreated in a new light throughout time.”

After exposing myself to these classic films, I was able to better appreciate and enjoy current films because I had seen their influences.

Josiah Schoen, a senior screenwriting major, noticed a shift back towards the style of more classic films.  

“I’ve been watching a lot of movies lately and I’ve noticed that a lot of the more independent films are going back to the character-based structure, rather than relying solely on visuals,” he said.

Watching AFI’s “Greatest Films of All Time” encourages a more informed moviegoer. By watching these classic American films, one is able to look into the past at the political and artistic climate of America.