First off, let me wish you all a Happy Fourth of July! In the future, I will be posting lists and such on Wednesdays, as a part of a “Wednesday Listicles” series. However, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to make a list today, so I’ll start the series off with a special edition: the Top Thirteen Greatest “American” Films.
When I say “American” films, I want to clarify. I’m not doing a list of the best films made in the U.S. the way AFI uses the phrase. What I mean is a list of the thirteen films that truly sum up what America is-for better or worse, a portrait of our flaws and triumphs, our idiosyncrasies and our nuances, our fears and our hopes. To create this list, I looked at the genres that were inherently “American” (gangster, film noir, western and, to a lesser extent, the musical), as well as films that best represented the great cities and regions throughout the land.
There are hundreds of films I could have gone with for this list, from New York’s Annie Hall or When Harry Met Sally…, road trips like Easy Rider, Bonnie and Clyde and Pee Wee’s Big Adventure, the westerns Stagecoach and The Assasination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, and blockbuster, Jaws. My biggest regrets are not being able to include Dazed and Confused, an honest portrait of the American teenager in 1976, and the works of David Lynch, who through his horror finds something innately American. However, I had to narrow this list down to a Top Thirteen, in honor of the Thirteen Colonies. So, without further ado, here are the Thirteen Greatest “American” Films!
There may not be a film to capture the true spirit of growing up in America than Richard Linklater’s 2014 film. Following the same boy, Ellar Coltrane, for twelve years, this film captures what it was like to grow up during the early aughts. People in the millennial generation can easily relate to Coltrane’s Mason, from the broad activities of hiking and attending baseball games, to the more period-specific of playing Wii for the first time and waiting in line for the next Harry Potter book. Through this all, the viewer also watches the growth and change of Mason’s divorced mother and father, played to perfection by Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke. Arquette’s mother struggles to get by in the world, falling for the wrong man over and over while simultaneously trying to make enough money to support the two children she loves. Hawke, meanwhile, is an overgrown child who never grew up. That’s not to say that he doesn’t love his kids, he’s just a twentysomething still trying to find himself, and the audience gets to watch as he does. However, these stories play out in the background, through Mason’s innocent eyes, leaving it for the viewer to understand, not unlike Harper Lee’s narration in To Kill a Mockingbird. In its simplicity of the childhood experience, Boyhood captures the spirit that is America-a little rough, not always perfect, but warm and homey all the same.
Do The Right Thing
Look, I’m not blind. You’d have to be fairly ignorant to ignore the fact that racism is still a major factor in the United States. In fact, the racial divide perhaps makes Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing even more challenging and thought provoking. Following several characters over the course of one unbearably hot day in a Brooklyn neighborhood, the film traces the events that lead to a riot in the community. The film does not treat any of its characters as heroes or villains-the closest thing the audience gets is a surrogate played by Lee himself, Mookie. Sal is not inherently a racist-he is just an Italian immigrant trying to do his best under these circumstances. The rioting crowd may seem like champions of their rights-until they turn on an innocent Korean grocery store. Even the police aren’t treated as violent thugs or monsters, just men unprepared for the situation who react inappropriately under stress. However, the film gets to the heart of what it means to be black in America, and explores what causes its characters (no matter their race) to have these inherent biases against one another. The film doesn’t provide any easy answers, and it doesn’t pretend to. But it does provide hope that any America-be they black or white, Italian or Korean-can see their flaws and work towards a better tomorrow.
This may be one of the odder films on the list, as it not only lacks a summary of one particular region of America, it also is written and directed by a Polish immigrant, Billy Wilder. However, there are perhaps no genres that are as inherently American as the film noir (well, maybe one, but we’ll get to that later). Exploring the seedy themes of greed, sex and murder, Wilder gets to the darkness that exists in the heart of man. Using L.A. as a sordid background to his film’s activities, Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck are both cunning and sinister, dragging each other down in their quest for money. However, perhaps even more American than their greed is the way the crime is uncovered-while Sherlock Holmes or Hercule Poirot would solve crimes with facts or logic, Edward G. Robinson’s Keyes uses his gut, and gives arguably his best performance doing so. Inventing a genre in the process, Wilder crafts a story that drives to the heart of our darkest desires.
Is there a film that is more ingrained into a specific region than Fargo is to the American Midwest? Joel Coen (or, more realistically, Joel and Ethan Coen) carefully painted a portrait of America, in both its most positive and negative light. Yes, the greed and corruption is on display in its most violent nature. However, you also get the kindness and folksy charm you can only find in the Midwest. Frances McDormand is excellent as Marge Gunderson, who may as well be a stand-in for America. Smart, strong, funny and pregnant, Gunderson combines every trait at her disposal to do what is right, and to keep the citizens of Minnesota safe. Money doesn’t matter to her, just so long as she can go out and do what’s right and go home happy to the person she loves. She is what the Coens want Midwesterners to be, and she is what every person should aspire to be.
Ferris Bueller’s Day Off
Ferris Buller’s Day Off is the heart of America, in both its portrayal of Chicago and its lust for life. The key to Ferris is that he lives outside of any one particular group. Loved by all except authority, Ferris’ desire to just enjoy life and create the best day ever allows for some of the most entertaining ingenuities ever to be put on film. This journey through Chicago that John Hughes created allows for a view of the city-and its citizens-that portray the country in its most optimistic and joyous. That Ferris Bueller is one righteous dude.
Could I have picked any other film for this list than Robert Zemeckis’ Forrest Gump? No film better traces the miracles of the twentieth century, for better or worse, than the 1994 Oscar winner. Starring Tom Hanks as the dim-witted hero, Gump perseveres, providing hope to everyone he comes across, meeting three presidents and a slew of other historical figures. However, the only thing that keeps him going, the only thing he finds necessary, despite receiving opportunities that any other person could only dream of, is his love. His love for Jenny, his love for his mother, his love for Lieutenant Dan and Bubba, and his love for life. Gump is the embodiment of America, history and soul.
The Godfather: Part II
The British and the Russian have the “epic” genre pretty well covered. So much so that the United States has not really tried to attempt it. With the exception, of course, of Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather: Part II. The film stands as a testament in terms of filmmaking without exploring its themes, but it is these themes that help elevate it to a masterpiece. Taking place over the course of 57 years and across three countries, the film mirrors a father and son’s respective rises to power. Covering greed, family, immigration, and what the cost of power, Coppola captures every aspect of America, thorns and all, in one thick tapestry that explores the American Mafia.
The Music Man
It’s impossible to make a list of American films and not include a musical. The only question that remains is do I go with West Side Story or The Music Man? In the end, I chose the happier option, mainly because a) Robert Preston is perfect, b) the musical captures the faults and glories of living in a small Midwestern town, and c) There’s something inherently American about someone with little experience in the craft not only writing the book for the musical, but also the music AND the lyrics. The fact that the whole thing turned out as magnificently and lovely as it did is a testament to the talent of all involved.
O Brother, Where Art Thou?
The American South, for all its issues, is arguably one of the most romanticized locations in the United States. And no film captures its romantic nature the way Ethan and Joel Coen’s O Brother, Where Art Thou? One of the first films to utilize digital cinematography, Roger Deakins manages to create photograph-ready images in a surreal sepia tint that immediately puts its viewers to ease. When matched with traditional bluegrass music, the film calls to mind the old South in all its beauty. While the film doesn’t shy away from the faults of the South, by treating them with satire, they proceed to take the wind out of the corrupt while glorifying a state of mind. Through sight and sound, the Coen Brothers defined not just one, but two entire regions of the America.
If I had chosen to rank this list numerically, Rocky would come out on top (unlike the movie-spoiler alert). However Sylvester Stallone crafted a film that truly captures the entire nation in one perfect film. Not only did it portray a city so lovingly that they dedicated a statue to him, but Balboa’s quest is the story of America: he may not be the best, he may not come out on top, but dammit if he doesn’t give it his all, make himself a better man, and in the end, finds happiness. Stallone and Talia Shire bring a down-to-earth realness to Rocky and Adrian, and Philadelphia will forever remember the Italian Stallion.
Saving Private Ryan
America has always loved its war films, from All Quiet on the Western Front to American Sniper (sigh). However, the problem with these films is the over-glorification it gives to war. Not to the soldiers, who deserve our respect and thanks for what they do, but to war, making it seem almost game-like. This is what Steven Spielberg does so well with Saving Private Ryan. While he treats the troops with respect and honor-albeit flawed, as shown with quick moments where they kill unarmed Polish soldiers-he also shows the true horrors of war. I dare you to try and watch the opening sequence on the Beaches of Normandy and tell me that it makes you go “War looks fun.” It’s the stuff of nightmares, and it makes the troops-who, as the film demonstrates in the opening sequence with the older Ryan, are now our grandparents-seem incredibly valiant. As we watch the quest to save one man, we see the true heart of America-caring, compassionate, and willing to risk everything to save our friends and family. While there are arguably better war films, Saving Private Ryan is the one that truly shows what this nation is about.
There were two things I knew about this list: 1) at least one Western had to make an appearance on this list, and 2) John Wayne had to appear on this list. And of all the Wayne films I considered, The Searchers was the only one I kept coming back to. Not only is it John Ford and Wayne’s best, but it also touched on the most issues. Spanning across five years, it portrayed the Wayne-esque Lone Man as just that-a loner, one we both aspire to be and resent, one who cannot reconcile the horrors he sees in the West with civilized life, and ultimately must choose between his family and his deeply held racial prejudices. The film doesn’t shy away from Ethan Edwards’ racist feelings towards the Native Americans, but it also explores where these feelings come from, and explores what it took to civilize the West-these very men we look down upon today. Wayne and Ford created an epic experience in the 1956 Western, one that demonstrates where we came from and where we can go from here.
There Will Be Blood
I spent a lot of time focused on the positive aspects of America, and there’s nothing wrong with that, but when it comes to the themes that drive right to this country’s core in the worst possible ways, few films explore them the way Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood do. Exploring the darker side of the American Dream, watching Daniel Day Lewis’ Daniel Plainview start as a thriving businessman with a beloved adopted son and end as a rich successful murderer without a family is one of the most tragic arcs put on film. However, this is not the sole heart of Anderson’s film. What Anderson wants to explore is the driving forces in America-money and religion-and the conniving hucksters who take advantage. This is what makes the struggle that more fascinating to watch. Plainview and Eli Sunday (the fantastic Paul Dano) may represent the struggle between money and religion in the country, the most interesting layer is neither of them seem to be doing it for their respective cause: Sunday is merely a huckster preying upon people’s faith, while Plainview seems to be doing just because. It creates a new love for America-power. It’s a story that may sound familiar, but has most certainly never been told in this way. Combined with some of the most beautiful cinematography put on film, Paul Thomas Anderson crafted a true masterpiece in There Will Be Blood. It’s the story of America through and through.
I hope you all had a fantastic Fourth of July, and enjoy one of these great films in the near future.
- Do The Right Thing
- Ferris Bueller’s Day Off
- Forrest Gump
- The Godfather: Part II
- The Music Man
- O Brother, Where Art Thou?
- Saving Private Ryan
- The Searchers
- There Will Be Blood