1. Born on the 4th July
Ever so slightly obvious choice really, Born on the 4th July stars Tom Cruise as a young man that has been raised on the ideal of the American dream and its accompanying image of dogged strength, morality and persistence. It’s his loyalty to this dream that leads him to volunteer for the Vietnam War and become paralysed. He returns to an unrecognisable country where the values have changed and left him an outsider, or worse, an enemy. The Vietnam War, the American ideal and dream and the effect of war overall are lambasted in the drama that proves the acting skills of Cruise more than any other film. The film also heralds a turn in American idealism as the Vietnam War was the first war that left a legacy of suspicion and hostility towards the government when it came to war and their motives.
Based on Toni Morrison's novel of the same name, Beloved charts the painful history of slavery. Like only a Morrison story can, it voices the damage of the Passage (the period from Africa to America), the brutality of everyday life as a slave and the personal savagery inflicted upon one family through the entity- or non-entity more aptly- of a ghost. Phew. When former slave Sethe finds her house haunted by a ghost, and is visited shortly afterwards by a strange mute girl with whom she feels an inexplicable bond, both her past and her people's haunted past begins to surface. This is one of the most elegiac, dark expressions of the repression of American slavery and the blurring of good and bad. Sethe is not only an ex-slave, but a mother who committed infanticide. Some of the most outstanding features of the book are strikingly visually evoked thanks to the amount of rich imagery available in the original work, such as the tree that resembles a scar on Sethe's back. It not only represents her past in the literal sense of scarring, but is a reminder of her seething family tree flaring up. Thandie Newton and Oprah both excel.
3. The Road
This might be one to watch when not in a happy-dappy mood. It would be difficult to find an apocalyptic movie as rooted in place as the film adaptation of McCarthy's novel The Road. What makes the world of The Road so foreboding is the giant signs scattered throughout the film that this is a corpse of America. Inherently American products, such as Coca Cola, and landmarks plague most if not all scenes, now only a shell of their former selves. Sounds like a big old downer but it's a booming message about the dangers of a corporate world that tires itself out, leaving itself scorched and bereft with violence the only thing not in short supply.
4. Stand By Me
This coming of age Stephen King (a novella originally called The Body) story is a landmark film and a compulsory watch, especially for all teens. When you think of 1950s (when you didn't live through the era that is), it is mainly American imagery that floods your head; its music, films, slick style and idioms (square, swell, gee whiz). Stand By Me is not only infused with all of these, but adds to the rota file of Americana images. If you were to stick to the main premise of the story, it is about four young teens that set off on a quest to find the missing dead body of a boy their age. This is just a keyhole vision of the plot however, as the real story encompasses the issues of young friendship-its breakdowns and changes- as well as choosing your path in life. Confronting and dealing with death is just one of the major themes intertwined throughout the plot. Plus it has an excellent soundtrack.
Daniel Day Lewis' latest method role and Steven Spielberg's celebrated epic drama is the newest inclusion that deserves a place on this list. The eventful last three months of President Lincoln's life are the focus of the biopic that scored eleven Oscar nominations and two wins. The civil war, Lincoln's fight to ends slavery and the personal trials of the historical character are all covered in this compelling portrait of the most recognised president of all time (aside perhaps from Kennedy who might be on an even keel).
6. East Is Eden
James Dean is always remembered for A Rebel Without a Cause but his role in East is Eden is arguably far sturdier a plot and character portrayal. Based on Steinbeck's novel, the story captures the American fear at the time of their entrance into WWI, the change of the Western frontier and its evolving concept of masculinity. Cal's (James Dean) desire to unearth his family background is a microcosmic look at the unique American quandary of having many lost pasts and distant generations. If none of that interests you, Mr Dean is babe-tastic.
7. A Streetcar Named Desire
Tennessee Williams' work was given a concrete place in film history with Brando's cry ‘Stella!' A Streetcar Named Desire is not only a great family drama, but it captures the breakdown of the Southern gentility and restructuring of the entire class system. Brando has been listed as the best actor of all time countless times, and his role as the brutal Stanley Kowalski is one of his massive draws.
8. On The Waterfront
Another Marlon Brando film, On The Waterfront characterises a time without real trade unions in the supposedly free nation America proclaimed itself. The sensitivity and broodiness of such a physically imposing man like Brando's Terry Malloy disarms the audience throughout the film. The script exemplifies the power of having measured and contained conversations, so when Terry's bulwark of masculine, monosyllabic speech is broken, it is all the more explosive.
You didn't think Scorsese was going to be left out now did you? The Italian-American mafia makes up a good chunk American film material ever since the birth of cinema. It spawned the habitual use of gangster phrases more than any other of its kind, and brought the depiction of mafia/gangster life back down from the operatic levels of The Godfather to the more real, street level.
This Clint Eastwood picture, co-starring Morgan Freeman, refreshed the entire Western genre, and really could a Western be anything other than American (don't mention the words spaghetti western)? It is revenge drama at its best. If anyone brings up Eastwood talking to the chair, just remind them he once made this.
OBVIOUSLY this is a big fat compulsory. Before this, Will Smith was simply the Fresh Prince. Now he's the Fresh Prince and so much more. When an alien invasion threatens the security of the human race, military action is called for, which of course means Smith is involved. Need anything else be said?
The Patriot tells the story of the American revolution starring Mel Gibson and Heath Ledger. There's nothing Gibson loves more than fighting off the British, and if you don't count the fine acting in 10 Things I Hate About You, this is the breakthrough moment for Ledger.