25 Films to Represent America

When U.K. Prime Minister Gordon Brown recently visited with President Barack Obama at the White House, the two dignitaries customarily exchanged gifts. Brown gave Obama a pen holder made from wood from the anti-slave ship HMS Gannet. Neat. Obama gave Brown a custom box set of 25 DVDs that best represent American cinema. Nice idea. But lest you think Obama picked the films out himself, you should know that he had the American Film Institute pick the films for him. And unsurprisingly, the 25 they came up with conspicuously mirrored the AFI’s top 25 films from their 2007 “best American films” list. Borrrring.

If I were to compile a box set of 25 films that say the most about America, my list would be very different (though not totally different). Actually, I think it’s an interesting project: to think of what 25 films are the most interesting and profound “American” films. That is: films made by American directors, about American things, ideas, mythologies, dreams, paradoxes, etc. Thus, I present my list. A great gift idea for anyone…

The Crowd (King Vidor, 1928)
The Grapes of Wrath (John Ford, 1940)
Citizen Kane (Orson Welles, 1941)
Double Indemnity (Billy Wilder, 1944)
Shane (George Stevens, 1953)
The Searchers (John Ford, 1956)
Shadows (John Cassavetes, 1959)
Easy Rider (Dennis Hopper, 1969)
The Godfather (Francis Ford Coppola, 1971)
Badlands (Terrence Malick, 1972)
Days of Heaven (Terrence Malick, 1978)
Down By Law (Jim Jarmusch, 1986)
Slacker (Richard Linklater, 1991)
A River Runs Through It (Robert Redford, 1992)
Unforgiven (Clint Eastwood, 1992)
Bottle Rocket (Wes Anderson, 1996)
The Big Lebowski (Joel and Ethan Coen, 1998)
Saving Private Ryan (Steven Spielberg, 1998)
The Thin Red Line (Terrence Malick, 1998)
American Beauty (Sam Mendes, 1999)
George Washington (David Gordon Green, 2000)
Gangs of New York (Martin Scorsese, 2002)
The New World (Terrence Malick, 2006)
I’m Not There (Todd Haynes, 2007)
There Will Be Blood (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2007)

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18 responses to “25 Films to Represent America

  1. Obama’s gift to the Brits seems especially clueless when you consider that his set of 25 “American” films includes Lawrence of Arabia — British subject, British director, British actors, etc.

  2. Brett, you don’t like Malick much, do you?

  3. Personally, I think Brown would have loved some “Pulp Fiction”…after all, it starts with a fellow Brit in Tim Roth.

  4. Every Brit I know thinks Brown totally had it coming.

  5. “a river runs through it” is an interesting choice. In addition how does “I’m not there” really represent America or American Cinema ? (excluding that the subject matter (Bob Dylan) was(is) important)

  6. I can’t believe the box set included Episode IV. That’s a cinematic insult. “Hello, close ally. Here is some JarJar Binks to cement our time-tested camraderie!” Wretched. Episode I or II, I can see, but IV?!?

  7. There’s no Jar-Jar in Episode IV. That’s the original one from 1977.

    I hope that makes you rest a little easier. :)

  8. (smack) You are absolutely right, Brad. IV is “The New Hope”. I’m a dolt.

    But seriously, that could’ve been an international event! Wars have been fought for less!

    Please disregard my appalling Star Wars gaffe.

  9. A list where you can find everything Terrence Malick has ever done, lots of Best Picture winners and classics… and Bottle Rocket?

  10. No prob, Luke.

    And you’re right in that exposing the UK to Jar-Jar would be an unforgivable foreign policy mistake!

  11. Cody-
    Re: “I’m Not There.” I think it is a thoroughly American film for a number of reasons, not least of which is its treatment of the “you can be whoever you want to be” perspective on identity. Take this line from Richard Gere’s version of Dylan:

    “People are always talking about freedom—freedom to live a certain way, without being kicked around. Of course, the more you live a certain way, the less it feels like freedom. Me? I could change in the course of a day. When I’m awake I’m one person and when I go to sleep I know for certain I’m someone else. I don’t know who I am most of the time.”

    This is a thoroughly American point of view. You see it time and time again in our literature, film, art, music… Who are we? Who am I? What is America?

    And as Todd Haynes says in the film’s commentary, Dylan is one of the most iconic American symbols of this “freedom from identity” idea: “Dylan is the ultimate American artist. He’s not reducible to a single identity, like our culture isn’t.”

  12. interesting. that is not a perspective i had approached the film from. thank you

  13. These lists are quite white, not a lot of multi-cultural actors in lead roles. It’s especially unfortunate how Native American filmmakers are left off the list considering they’re indigenous to our country. Smoke Signals should definitely make the list. I think I’ll do a blog post about this.

  14. Pingback: Best Documentaries to Represent America « The Search

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  16. what about forrest gump?

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