AFI president Bob Gazzale said the list, chosen by critics, AFI trustees and TV and film artists, “celebrates America’s storytellers”.
Quirky comedy Silver Linings Playbook and The Dark Knight Rises also feature on the list.
However notable absences included The Master and The Hobbit.
Ang Lee’s big screen version of the award-winning novel Life of Pi, Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, Les Miserables, Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom, Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained and Beasts of the Southern Wild made up the rest of the top 10.
AFI’s picks come ahead of the Screen Actors Guild and Golden Globe nominations later this week. All three are likely to indicate the front-runners for the Oscars in February.
Zero Dark Thirty, which is not in cinemas yet but has been tipped for Oscar success, has already picked up accolades from the New York-based National Board of Review and the New York Film Critics Circle.
Zero Dark Thirty focuses on the role of a female CIA operative in the hunt for Osama Bin Laden
It is therefore notable The Master was absent from the AFI’s list because the Los Angeles Film Critics Association honoured Joaquin Phoenix, Amy Adams and director Paul Thomas Anderson for their work on the film.
The AFI has also revealed its top 10 television shows of the year which include Mad Men, Breaking Bad, The Walking Dead, Homeland, American Horror Story and Lena Dunham’s cult series Girls.
Modern Family, fantasy thriller Game of Thrones, political TV film Game Change and comedian Louis CK’s show Louie were also acknowledged.
No overall winner is chosen from the lists but the creators of the films and TV shows will be celebrated at a Los Angeles event on 11 January.
MOVIES OF THE YEAR
BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD
THE DARK KNIGHT RISES
LIFE OF PI
SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK
ZERO DARK THIRTY
TELEVISION PROGRAMS OF THE YEAR
AMERICAN HORROR STORY: ASYLUM
GAME OF THRONES
THE WALKING DEAD