Happy 4th of July, America!
Based off the title for this article, you might be wondering, "What does he mean by films about America?". Don't worry, I'm not entirely sure either, but let me tell you my thinking behind this list of films about America. These are not selections based literally on films about America, i.e. Revolutionary War, but films I feel capture a certain essence about what it feels like, and what it's felt like to be an American. Films that have captured a certain time and place in our society and culture, experiences that are uniquely American. I felt that this 4th of July I would make a list of films I would show someone if they didn't know anything about our country.
1. The Godfather & The Godfather, Part II - 1972 & 1974 - Francis Ford Coppola
A high school history teacher of mine told me once, "If you want to see a film that's about America, look no further than The Godfather and The Godfather, Part II. Author Tom Santopietro, in his book analyzing the novels by Puzo and the subsequent films, The Godfather Effect, asserts that, "what Puzo delivered - brilliantly - was nothing less than a disquisition on the madness, glory, and failure of the American dream." Early in the novel, Amerigo Bonasera declares “I believe in America.” The novel then depicts a nation where Mafia and big business are two sides of the same coin: both are corrupt, tell the truth selectively, and do exactly as they wish.
2. Nashville - 1975 - Robert Altman
I loathe country music, but when it comes to Robert Altman's magnum opus Nashville, as Keith Carradine's character Tom Frank sings, "I'm Easy". Molly Haskell, in her Criterion Collection essay on Nashville, writes, "If Robert Altman’s radically freewheeling, multicharacter country-music extravaganza didn’t revolutionize filmmaking as some of its partisans predicted it would, it did capture as no other film has ever done the full complexity of America, rich with contradictions, rife with neurosis, and convulsed by the celebrity madness of ambition and envy."
3. Gangs of New York - 2002 - Martin Scorsese
As the films' tagline claims, "America was born in the streets", and boy was it a violent birth indeed. Scorsese's brilliant film tears open the history book pages and rearranges them in a passionate film about one of the darkest times in American history. Chuck Rudolph, writing for Slant Magazine, said of the film, "A movie about history that in turn becomes history. The most unsettling aspect of Martin Scorsese's definitive masterpiece is not its vision of poverty, violence and turmoil in 1860s Manhattan, or even its chilling assault on the American government for its crimes against the immigrant citizens of our country. Instead it is the understanding that Gangs of New York itself may be the last of its kind: a huge, visionary epic so grand in its construction and so passionate and willful in its imagery that it has no place in today's marketplace of easily digestible entertainments."
4. Once Upon a Time in America - 1984 - Sergio Leone
In terms of landmark American films, Sergio Leone's incredible epic, Once Upon a Time in America, doesn't immediately come to the mind of most moviegoers. This is because the version that was released to the American public on June 1, 1984, was a 139 minute recut of Leone's 229 minute cut shown in European cinemas (the version shown at the 1984 Cannes Film Festival was 269 minutes long), that resulted in the immediate panning of version shown in American cinemas. Those who saw Leone's extended cut, however, commented on the "murder" that Warner Bros. did to Leone's masterpiece, and eventually Leone's intended cut became widely available on DVD and Blu Ray. The film explores themes of childhood friendships, love, lust, greed, betrayal, loss, broken relationships, and the rise of mobsters in American society. The restored film premiered at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival, but due to unforeseen rights issues for the deleted scenes, the film's restoration ran for 251 minutes. However, Martin Scorsese (whose Film Foundation helped with the restoration), stated that he is helping Leone's children gain the rights to the final 24 minutes of deleted scenes for a complete version of Leone's original 269 minute version. On June 5, 2014, Warner Bros. announced a home video release for an "Extended Director's Cut" of the film, with a runtime of 251 minutes, on September 30. Hopefully one day, Leone's full and magnificent vision of America will available for all cinema buffs to see.
5. JFK - 1991 - Oliver Stone
Most moviegoers and film critics only focus on the conspiracy aspect of this film and like to criticize Oliver Stone in terms of "historical accuracy". However, what JFK does best is plunge us into the aftermath of an American tragedy. There's an incredible sense of time and place that Stone brilliantly recreates. The film is really about the right all American citizens universally share, the quest for the truth, the right to challenge our government and not be called Un-American, but a patriot. As Kevin Costner's Jim Garrison tells us, looking directly at the audience in an impassioned final speech, "It's up to you." No matter what criticisms the film faces from a historical perspective, it's an incredible snapshot of a wounded nation that still hasn't recovered from President Kennedy's assassination. I'd like to point out also that JFK is very much in the vein of a Frank Capra picture. Stone has said that Garrison is his Jimmy Stewart from Mr. Smith Goes to Washington in this film.
6. The Right Stuff - 1983 - Philip Kaufman
Philip Kaufman's brilliant film deserves way more recognition as a landmark American film. Unfortunately, the 192 minute running time didn't translate into box office gold, but the film nonetheless has been hailed as a masterpiece. The late Roger Ebert, wrote in his review, "it joins a short list of recent American movies that might be called experimental epics: movies that have an ambitious reach through time and subject matter, that spend freely for locations or special effects, but that consider each scene as intently as an art film".
7. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington - 1939 - Frank Capra
When this film was released in 1939, it was attacked by the Washington press, and politicians in the U.S. Congress, as anti-American and pro-Communist for its portrayal of corruption in the American government. Indeed, the story of a naive freshman Senator who wants to do actual good in Washington while surrounded by corrupt politicians would be called anti-American by politicians at the time. Nevertheless, Smith’s filibuster and the tacit encouragement of the Senate President are both emblematic of the Capra's belief in the difference that one individual can make.
8. Citizen Kane - 1941 - Orson Welles
Orson Welles seminal directorial debut is considered by many, including the American Film Institute, as the greatest American film of all time. This claim results in many backlashes by those who think another film is the "greatest" of all time. My thoughts are, simply, that Citizen Kane is a great film. The story of Charles Foster Kane parallels that of America itself. A self made man, undone by his own ego and hubris. Essential viewing for any serious cinephile.
9. Fargo - 1996 - Joel and Ethan Coen
The Coen Brothers fashioned this slice of Americana unlike any other film that's come before or after it. The film captures both the best and worst of America through doomed characters desperate for money like William H. Macy's (in a brilliant performance) Jerry Lundegaard, and noble, regular Americans doing their job like Frances McDormand's Oscar winning performance as Marge Gunderson. "There's more to life than a little money, you know. Don'tcha know that? And here ya are, and it's a beautiful day. Well. I just don't understand it."
10. Dogville - 2003 - Lars von Trier
One of the most radical and rewarding cinematic experiments ever made, Lars von Trier's masterpiece is simply about, as he put it, "evil can arise anywhere, as long as the situation is right." The film has been called anti-American, and people are quick to criticize von Trier for having never been to America before, but this striking film asks us to confront our country's shaky past. In his review of the film for Slant Magazine, Ed Gonzalez writes, "Von Trier understands that the root of American aggression may very well be our arrogant elite's oppression of the culturally underprivileged, which has bred ignorant and isolationist attitudes throughout the ages. Contempt breeds more contempt, so to speak. "It's got to be universal," says a confused Tom at one point, widening the director's political perspective. In the end, Dogville is less anti-American than it is, quite simply, anti-oppression."
TIE10. Bowling for Columbine - 2002 - Michael Moore
For my money, Michael Moore's Bowling for Columbine, is the greatest documentary film ever made about our society, and a tragic examination of the Columbine Massacre. It represents just how entertaining, informative, and insightful documentary films can be. Moore's tactics might not be subtle, and his filming methods have come under question, but no other documentary has left me equally as thrilled and thought provoked. Michael Moore is a patriot who simply thinks that as a country we could be doing better. Isn't that what every American should want?
Honorable Mention: Born on the Fourth of July - 1989 - Oliver Stone
I just couldn't sleep with not including this film. Oliver Stone's amazing biopic on a great American patriot Ron Kovic should be required viewing on the Fourth of July. Tom Cruise, in a brilliant performance, always is interesting, and the changes Kovic goes through in the film we feel. It's almost too hard to watch at times, but as a portrait of one man's life it's astonishing.
Do the Right Thing - 1989 - Spike Lee
It brought up and occurred to me that I did not include any films about African American experiences on my list. It was a mistake to not include Do the Right Thing but not just because it's a film dealing with African Americans, it's also one of the greatest slices of life anyone has ever captured on film. Roger Ebert said that this film "comes closer to reflecting the current state of race relations in America than any other movie of our time."
This was a tough list to make and I'm sure I have left some essential films out of my list. Comment below on what films you think I should have included.