Top Gun (1986) and Thelma and Louise (1991)
Thelma and Louise is one of Ridley Scott’s best films; a masterpiece of Americana filmmaking. And whatever you think of Top Gun (I’ve never been a huge fan), its place in pop culture is secured as one of the most broo-ha-ha, America Fuck Yeah! films ever made.
The Apartment (1960)
Billy Wilder made several great movies about America. Double Indemnity, The Lost Weekend, Ace in the Hole, Some Like it Hot, and especially Sunset Boulevard, could all earn a place on this list, but there’s some inherently American about The Apartment. This movie is New York, in all its black and white glamour. The Apartment is one of the classic, American big city films; one that still very much holds up today.
Midnight Cowboy (1969)
The New York City in Midnight Cowboy is the antithesis of the New York City in The Apartment. Schlesinger’s New York is cold, gritty, and rat invested. Schlesinger was interested in the dregs of the city – the pimps, the johns, the creatures of the night. The result is one of America’s best, most purposefully upsetting classics. I still can’t believe a major studio (United Artists) made this movie in 1969, let alone pushed it to win the Best Picture Oscar.
Deliverance is the best backwoods ass American film ever made. Nothing in the genre can match its terrifyingly realistic dread. The film was written by James Dickey, a poet/war hero/Southern wild man, but directed by a cinematically radical Brit, John Boorman. Deliverance displays the worst of Deep South stereotypes with such an unflinching eye. Perhaps it took a foreigner to deliver such madness so effectively.
There are a lot of good movies about Los Angeles, and a lot of good movies set in the innocence of the 1930s, but I can’t think of any that are better than Chinatown. It’s stunning that such a naturally American movie was made by a foreign filmmaker. Every frame of Chinatown is the Los Angeles of the era. What an endlessly fascinating picture.
Once Upon a Time in America (1984)
Once Upon a Time in America is one of the great epics about America. It was Sergio Leone’s last (and arguably best) movie, one that he spent nearly a year shooting all over the world – from Venice to Rome, Paris to Quebec. Yet the film remains wholly indebted to New York City. Once Upon a Time in America captured New York in a way few films do, displaying the city’s unique, complex beauty to such iconic results.
Paris, Texas (1984)
Paris, Texas is pure, blue-blood American cinema. It was co-written by a masterful American playwright (Sam Shepard, rest in peace), and starred Harry Dean Stanton, whose entire presence exudes American working class. Yet the film was made by the great German filmmaker, Wim Wenders. What’s so interesting about the movie is it proves that visual poetry can transcend setting. Wenders knows how to tell a story with few words and vast landscapes, location be damned.
Mississippi Burning (1988)
Mississippi Burning is about the FBI investigation of the murder of three civil rights workers in Mississippi in the ‘60s. British filmmaker Alan Parker doesn’t hold back in his indictment of the FBI and the KKK, ultimately delivering one of the most unflinching films about the Civil Rights Movement. American filmmakers often end their civil rights films with moments of hope. Parker told it straight, and proved that in 1960s Mississippi, true justice was hard to come by.
The Ice Storm (1997)
Ang Lee has one of the keenest eyes for American life of any contemporary filmmaker, let alone a foreign one. He’s made movies about the Civil War, Woodstock, and the war in Iraq. Hell, he’s the only filmmaker listed twice on this list, and for good reason. The Ice Storm is a complete, American portrayal of suburban life in the 1970s. The sex, the drugs, the music, the booze. The film takes place over just a few days, but it captures the full essence of America at the time. Lee’s eye for detail in the film is incredible, especially considering that he didn’t even live in America during the time period depicted in the film.
American Beauty (1999)
American Beauty and The Ice Storm make a perfect double feature of American suburban hell. Mendes’ film was the more popular one, ultimately winning the Best Picture Oscar. And while I’m not sure it will hold up as well as Lee’s film, American Beauty is a film of its time. It’s a capsule portrayal of teenage angst, marital woes, and unorthodox self discovery, all under the still trees of an anonymous American town.
Though set in Colorado, Dogville was shot entirely on a massive sound stage in Sweden, purposefully decorated with crude props (i.e., chalk on the floor to signify a door), and shot with consumer-grade, hi-def cameras. Von Trier said Dogville is a movie about how evil can arise anywhere, including a tiny American town in which the seemingly quaint citizens slowly begin to prey upon a quiet stranger, played by Nicole Kidman. The film is considered by many to be a brutal, anti-American satire of our country at its worst. There’s just no way an American would make a film as sardonically critical of America as Dogville
In America (2003)
In America presents an outsider’s portrait of the American Dream. And it does so realistically, by showing how hard it is to actually attain that dream. What is The Dream, anyway? Stability? Independent wealth? Move here, work hard, make money, be free? People have different interpretations of this, but Sheridan’s is quiet, sweet and gently harrowing.
Brokeback Mountain (2005)
I’ve always wondered, what if Jack Twist and Ennis Del Mar packed up and headed to New York City after their first summer together? It was the ‘60s, they could’ve moved to the Village, hung with the Beats, openly been in love. But they didn’t, because they couldn’t. Ang Lee’s film is a devastating portrayal of American men stuck in a time and place, unable to break free and live their full lives.
United 93 (2006)
The events of 9/11 have been told and retold several times for narrative purposes. Yet without question, Paul Greengrass’ United 93 is the best, most important film made about that day. It is gripping, masterful cinema that will remembered and discussed for decades.
12 Years a Slave (2013)
It’s true, the best film ever made about slavery was not made by an American filmmaker. This was discussed a lot upon 12 Years a Slave’s release, that it took a foreigner to fully unveil a grotesque period of American history. Steve McQueen’s film is a brutal triumph; it shields us from nothing, while still managing to be wholly emotional.
American Honey (2016)
Andrea Arnold’s films depict regular-to-impoverished working class people in turbulent times, but American Honey was her first feature set in the U.S. Everything about this movie bleeds middle America – the rotten food, the second-hand clothes, the ceaseless smoking, the day binge drinking. It’s an epic film on a small scale, something only Arnold could pull off so effectively.
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