The cool thing about stuff like the AFI list of top movie heroes and villains comes from considering what constitutes heroism versus villainy.
In my mind, heroism comes not so much from physical bravery, which is not necessarily that difficult- especially for stupid people. Any idiot can hold their breath for a few seconds and walk into a line of fire.
It generally impresses me much more to see people struggling against their own internal forces, making an ongoing effort to overcome their own demons to figure out what they need to do.
The AFI list had some good but fairly obvious choices, such as Rick Blaine in Casablanca. They had some interesting and less than obvious choices (the best part), such as Juror #8 from 12 Angry Men. There were some cheap, shallow choices, such as Superman. Then there were some plain stupid choices, such as Cool Hand Luke. What was heroic about this character? He was just stupid and suicidal.
Most annoying, however, was their #1 movie hero of all time: Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird. Oh, the great white liberal lawyer has come to save the black man! Crikey. If I were picking someone out for heroism in that movie, it would be Boo Radley.
Anyway, this annoyed me enough to make me conjure up my own list of great movie heroes. Instead of the self-satisfied white lawyer, let's start with...
Malcolm X (Malcolm X)
I'm only marginally knowledgeable about Malcolm X and I don't much trust Spike Lee, so keep in mind that I am judging the character played by Denzel Washington rather than the historical character. With that in mind, however, this character showed great integrity and ultimately even fair humility in doing the right thing by his people and his God, even knowing that it would get him killed. He's certainly a much greater savior figure to the black man than any liberal white lawyer.
Karl Childers (Sling Blade)
Karl really struggled in his soul to do right, but ended up with an irreconcilable division between his Christianity and his imperative need to protect the boy. Ultimately, he sacrificed not just his freedom, but (in his own mind) the salvation of his soul to protect his loved one.
Rachel Cooper (Night of the Hunter)
This old woman showed what a real Christian was supposed to be- captured perfectly in the image of her rocking in her chair through the night, cradling a shotgun to protect the children, singing "leaning on the everlasting arms" with the wolf prowling the grounds.