An American List of Films

by Derrick G. Jeter

“The clearest way to see through a culture is to attend to its tools for conversation.” [1] This simple and straightforward comment by the late Neil Postman communicates more than what first appears on the surface. Throughout history we have been able to determine with amazing accuracy the nature and form of various cultures based upon their language, literature, and art—or in Postman’s words, their “tools for conversation.”

Recently, I published an article (“An American List”) indexing 100 documents with which every American should be familiar. This set me to thinking about other “American” lists which might help us understand our history and our culture. Naturally, I thought of movies. In our culture no one can deny that film is an important tool of conversation, so I asked a film critic friend of mine to create a list for me. [2] I told him that I didn’t want a list of favorite American movies, nor a list of the top 100 films by industry standards. I wanted a list, whether the movie was well made or not and whether he agreed with the message of the movie or not, that communicated a realistic portrayal of America and Americans. This is his list. Obviously, the list is subjective—it’s his—but so are the portrayals that each film maker projects. Regardless, however, I think this list is comprehensive and could stir interesting conversations about who we really are as Americans.

  1. Birth of a Nation, Griffith, 1915
  2. The Immigrant, Chaplin, 1917
  3. Greed, von Stroheim, 1924
  4. The Gold Rush, Chaplin, 1925
  5. The Crowd, Vidor, 1927
  6. The General, Keaton, 1927
  7. I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang, LeRoy, 1932
  8. Steamboat Round the Bend, Ford, 1935
  9. Modern Times, Chaplin, 1936
  10. My Man Godfrey, La Cava, 1936
  11. Make Way For Tomorrow, McCarey, 1937
  12. Gone with the Wind, Fleming, 1939
  13. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Capra, 1939
  14. Young Mr. Lincoln, Ford, 1939
  15. Grapes of Wrath, Ford, 1940
  16. Sergeant York, Hawks, 1940
  17. Citizen Kane, Welles, 1941
  18. The Magnificent Ambersons, Welles, 1942
  19. The Ox-Bow Incident, Wellman, 1943
  20. Meet Me in St. Louis, Minnelli, 1944
  21. Mildred Pierce, Curtiz, 1945
  22. They Were Expendable, Ford, 1945
  23. The Best Years of Our Lives, Wyler, 1946
  24. It’s a Wonderful Life, Capra, 1946
  25. Paisan, Rossellini, 1946
  26. Red River, Hawks, 1948
  27. Ace in the Hole, Wilder, 1951
  28. High Noon, Zinnemann, 1952
  29. Shane, Stevens, 1953
  30. The Sun Shines Bright, Ford, 1953
  31. Night of the Hunter, Laughton, 1955
  32. Rebel Without a Cause, Ray, 1955
  33. On the Waterfront, Kazan, 1956
  34. The Searchers, Ford, 1956
  35. The Wrong Man, Hitchcock, 1956
  36. 12 Angry Men, Lumet, 1957
  37. The Incredible Shrinking Man, Arnold, 1957
  38. Sweet Smell of Success, Mackendrick, 1957
  39. West Side Story, Wise, 1961
  40. Manchurian Candidate, Frankenheimmer, 1962
  41. To Kill a Mockingbird, Mulligan, 1962
  42. Dr. Strangelove or: How I Stopped Worrying and Love the Bomb, Kubrick, 1964
  43. Bonnie and Clyde, Penn, 1967
  44. The Graduate, Nichols, 1967
  45. Salesman, Maysles, 1968
  46. Easy Rider, Hopper, 1969
  47. M*A*S*H, Altman, 1970
  48. Patton, Schaffner, 1970
  49. Dirty Harry, Siegel, 1971
  50. McCabe & Mrs. Miller, Altman, 1971
  51. The Godfather, Coppola, 1972
  52. American Graffiti, Lucas, 1973
  53. Blazing Saddles, Brooks, 1974
  54. The Conversation, Coppola, 1974
  55. The Godfather Part II, Coppola, 1974
  56. All the President’s Men, Pakula, 1976
  57. Harlan County U.S.A., Kopple, 1976
  58. Network, Lumet, 1976
  59. Taxi Driver, Scorcese, 1976
  60. Killer of Sheep, Burnett, 1977
  61. Apocalypse Now, Coppola, 1979
  62. Manhattan, Allen, 1979
  63. First Blood, Kotcheff, 1982
  64. The Right Stuff, Kaufman, 1983
  65. Scarface. DePalma, 1983
  66. Tender Mercies, Beresford, 1983
  67. The Natural, Levinson, 1984
  68. Places in the Heart, Benton, 1984
  69. Red Dawn, Milius, 1984
  70. Stand By Me, Reiner, 1986
  71. Wall Street, Stone, 1987
  72. Hoosiers, Anspaugh, 1988
  73. Platoon, Stone, 1988
  74. Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, Herek, 1989
  75. Christmas Vacation, Chechik, 1989
  76. Do the Right Thing, Lee, 1989
  77. Goodfellas, Scorcese, 1990
  78. Miller’s Crossing, Coen, 1990
  79. Boyz n the Hood, Singleton, 1991
  80. Dazed and Confused, Linklater, 1993
  81. Groundhog Day, Ramis, 1993
  82. Rudy, Anspaugh, 1993
  83. Safe, Haynes, 1995
  84. Dead Man Walking, Robbins, 1995
  85. L.A. Confidential, Hansen, 1997
  86. The Last Days of Disco, Stillman, 1998
  87. The Straight Story, Lynch, 1999
  88. George Washington, Green, 2000
  89. Zoolander, Stiller, 2001
  90. 25th Hour, Lee, 2002
  91. In America, Sheridan, 2002
  92. Spellbound, Blitz, 2002
  93. Take Out, Baker, 2004
  94. Good Night and Good Luck, Clooney, 2005
  95. Grizzly Man, Herzog, 2005
  96. The New World, Malick, 2005
  97. United 93, Greegrass, 2006
  98. When the Levees Broke, Lee, 2006
  99. Taxi to the Dark Side, Gibney, 2007
  100. Milk, Van Sant, 2008

[1] Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business (New York: Viking, 1985), 8.

[2] John Adair, “100 ‘American’ Movies.” To read John’s excellent and thoughtful film reviews—American and Foreign—pay a visit to his website: gladsomemorning.wordpress.com/.

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