Edited by “Moriarty”
With Special Material from Harry, Moriarty, Hercules The Strong, Quint, Rav, Annette Kellerman, Capone, Vern, Neill Cumpston, John Robie, Dr. Hfhurrhurr, Cbabbitt, Tom Joad, Edgard, Elston Gunn and More!!
I thought I’d take this opportunity to congratulate everyone who has contributed to Ain’t It Cool News, from July 3, 1996 to today. And to thank you. And to thank Harry. Because it has been a genuine pleasure to share nine full years (in my case) of online conversation with all of you. Yes. Even the assholes. And you know who you are.
There is something incredible about being part of any creative enterprise that reaches a decade of continuous work. Ain’t It Cool is... whatever it is... and continues to simply work of its own accord no matter what any one person attempts to do with or to it. When people talk about Ain’t It Cool as a single thing or a single opinion or a single personality, they’re missing the point. It’s not. Ain’t It Cool News is not any one thing. When Harry started what he started, it wasn’t like anything else. Patrick Sauriol’s Coming Attractions was already online, and it worked a certain way, and Patrick had a great thing going. But Harry’s site had a whole different personality from day one.
Can I be honest with you? When I first read it, I was unimpressed. I knew Harry from newsgroups and chatrooms, and I thought he was a pretty sharp and opinionated cat. Pretty much just like most of us who were hanging out and chatting about movies online in 1994 and 1995. There are people I still see bouncing around online now who were online then. Some have gone on to use the Internet to carve out a space for themselves, and some just sort of bounce around, posting on other people’s sites and boards. And of course, a lot of faces have vanished since those days, and any number of new faces have come along as well. But back then, when this site first went live, I already had a fundamental disagreement with Harry. On a very important life or death topic.
Remember the old background? The INDEPENDENCE DAY wallpaper with the White House blowing up? The one that Harry put behind all the individual articles starting today? Well, Harry was totally gay for INDEPENDENCE DAY a full year before it came out. You know how he is now when he loves a movie. Like... oh... I don’t know... SUPERMAN, let’s say. There’s no arguing with a man in love. Harry goes giddy like a guy in a musical from the ‘40s. He’s like that with Yoko these days, which is how we all know it’s the real deal for him. When he falls, he falls. And when he was singing the praises of INDEPENDENCE DAY because he’d read the script, I would argue with him vehemently that it was going to be a piece of shit because I had also read the script. I told him that MARS ATTACKS! was going to be a far better film, that the script by Jonathan Gems and Alexander & Karaszewski was by far the better of the two scripts. And we argued everywhere we came into contact with each other. In those chat rooms. In those newsgroups. I totally rabidly disagreed with him, and he with I. And, as with most things, I was totally right.
Or he was. Depends how you look at it.
And that’s why I finally broke down. I had to argue with Harry on his own website. I sent him some letters correcting him on things and telling him new things, and he started running my letters. And once he gave me a spy name, it gave me a place to vent my thoughts about all the scripts that everyone in town was reading anyway. Let me repeat that. EVERYONE I knew had access to the same material I did. It wasn’t like anyone was dumpster diving or breaking and entering. I was working for several different film companies, writing various things, and everyone was always trading scripts, handing things around. And most of the time, when we talked, we talked about all those things, all the shared information. My early work on this site was very different than it is now. I don’t know many people who do what I do these days. Not really. But at the time, it was pretty much all of my friends. A lot of readers. People working for different agencies. If you wanted to read something, you could read it easily. And seeing stuff early? Well, you could go to two or three test screenings a week if you wanted to. We had friends who would give us passes, who knew we came to pretty much everything.
One of the reasons I don’t believe in the sanctity of the test screening process that some journalists would have you believe once existed is because it’s a lie. The system was rotten, and it didn’t work, and I would argue that it’s much less nakedly rotten now. By sticking our faces into it, we forced some major revisions in it, not the least of which was chasing Scumbag Supreme Joe Farrell out of the test-screening business altogether. I’ve always said that I believe a good filmmaker can use the process to make his film better, but the system is designed for the tests to give the studios ammunition against the filmmaker more than anything. More often than not, the test screenings were used as a way to bully a filmmaker, not to assist them. These days, I think that power has shifted back in the right direction, and I think that’s (in part) because we laid so much of the process bare.
I’m sure I could wax nostalgic for days, but we’ve got a very specific purpose here today. Since we’re celebrating our anniversary at the same time that people all over the country are celebrating the 4th of July. Now, I know we’ve got an international readership, and I love that. Getting letters from kids in Korea or from people in the UK or from New Zealand and Australia... that’s one of the genuine joys of working on a site like this one. When I travel out of the country and I meet our readership, it’s always a pleasure. But AICN is a primarily American invention, and as such, I thought I’d revisit an idea I had back in the summer of 2000 in this article, where I made a list of the ten films I thought best summed up America.
Big subject, I know. And no one’s list of ten is going to be the same as anyone else’s, which is one of the reasons this prospect entertained me. I wrote to a list of our past and present contributors and said, “Imagine you’re trying to explain America to someone. What ten films would you show them, and why?” The responses I got are fascinating and illuminating and, in some cases, hilarious, but I think they make for a great read. I want you guys, the talkbackers, to participate, too. Please... tell us what you like or don’t like about these lists. Share lists of your own with us. And also, tell me in talkback what your first memory of AICN is. What brought you here in the first place, and why do you keep coming back? And we may even add a few lists over the next few days if we get entries from old-time AICN’ers like Robogeek, Junior Mintz, Segue Zagnut, Elston Gunn, or Joe Hallenbeck. If you think you should have been part of this article, send your list to me, and we’ll keep posting them as the week continues.
Our first list is from Grande Rojo himself, the man whose face adorns the corner of your screen right now. He hates making lists, which is why I loved the idea of him doing one. He’ll have some additional comments to make at the end of the article, but for now... here’s Headgeek.
KING KONG (1933)
Exploitation. The entire country was built upon it.
Exploitation of the land, the resources, the indigenous peoples, the animals and the people you claimed to be exploiting it all for. To me – this film is a metaphor for the very thing that so often dooms us. Best intentions gone wrong. The dream of capturing something that nobody had ever dared to dream of, and unleashing the nightmare on the world. It’s the A-bomb, Capitalism, Showbiz and the poeticizing of it all. They trap the noble, the truly unique, the magic and the foreign with the promise of the All-American Woman. And then there’s the pomposity to believe that our military engineering and technological advantage will save our “All-American Women” – because we believe we’ll always endure, no matter the size of what we face. In the end, the All-American Woman is meant to be with the All-American Man… And no matter the weight of what we as a country have killed, exploited and destroyed the spirit of… We’ll always have our women and the manufactured heights that we believe we sit upon.
ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD (1938)
Charity. The ability to recognize and defeat a corrupt government. To give a brother a dime, to help the little guy out. To fight for what is “right” even if legally arbitrated against. I love the idea of Americans to believe they would actually be able to take action against an oppressive government, that we as a country could overthrow and seize our country back… to right the wrongs of oppression. Come to think of it… Robin Hood was fighting Prince John while the country was distracted by a war in the Middle East. Sigh.
ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN (1976)
This is why the media has to nail lying bastards in control of our country when they catch them doing the evils they do. Liberal Media? Shit – the whole goddamn point of the Media was that it was a separate and protected checks and balance that kept America’s public in on what the real story was. This was the last time the whole goddamn system that the founding fathers set up worked. Since nailing Nixon – the Republican party has brow beaten the media into a hands off – RECORD THE NEWS – don’t MAKE THE NEWS type of limp flaccid dick-tation of whatevery they say. It is the media’s job to hold the bastards accountable – Conservative or Liberal. The bastards must fall.
TREASURE OF SIERRE MADRE (1948)
Greed. The country’s pre-occupation with social climbing based upon financial well-being. There’s Gold out west, thus the Western Expansion. It isn’t so much gold anymore, as much as it is wartime profits by select greedy fucking corporations. How greed can change best friends into enemies. Neighbor against Neighbor. Our fear of foreigners – even when we’re the foreigners. The industrious American adventure in foreign lands seeking profit off that which isn’t his.
CITIZEN KANE (1941)
Why the really great men will never be able to change anything. This film shows how a man that had the best intentions, the financial independence to truly make a difference nationally – could be crushed by the dirty politics of political smear campaigns – and forced to pursue a life in Entertainment and self-indulgence – when he really wanted to help the common man. Citizen Kane is about how the American Dream of fighting for what is right is rewarded with scandal and being torn down if you ever threaten the real powers at be. The film is also about a ton of other brilliant themes – but I’m trying to be brief.
NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1968)
The rednecks will end up ruling us all.
DR STRANGELOVE or: HOW I LEARNED TO STOP WORRYING AND LOVE THE BOMB (1964)
If our country has to go out in a flash of light, I wish that Slim Pickens would ride it right till that moment of oblivion. I think, sadly, this is more factual than satiric today.
MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON (1939)
The hope that one man can make a difference. That a single senator could raise the red flag and talk sense into the world. That one honest man in Washington could really bring down the political machines, destroy the special interests and make our country free again.
A FACE IN THE CROWD (1957)
Rush Limbaugh, Anne Coulter, Talk Radio, Talk Shows, media as a distraction, a brainwashing tool – a machine of propaganda. Made nearly 50 years ago – this is the best Elia Kazan film every made. Hands down. This is and our next film… are our public reality. All just a series of entertaining diversions that are meant to keep your mind on what you need to purchase, who you need to vote for and what you should be thinking about – that “they” want you to be thinking about. Taken in tandem with…
NATURAL BORN KILLERS (1994)
This film – you see ludicrous media exploitation of criminals as entertainers, the titillation of homicide and death. Cult of personality, of becoming famous by any means necessary. A brilliant film about what journalism has begun to turn into. Of what we as country get preoccupied with. Let’s pay attention to Mickey & Mallory, but god forbid we talk about a decent fucking health plan. It’s hard to pick just one Oliver Stone film for this list – but more than his Vietnam films – or – his overt Political films – this movie nails so much that is wrong with modern society – it isn’t even funny.
Now, Capone got invited to the party a little late, as did a few other of the people in this article, but I blame that weird last-minute London trip last week. It’s my fault, though, and the fact that they actually turned their lists around as fast as they did only makes me love them more.
Hey, Drew. Capone in Chicago here. I’ve decided to turn your fuck-up into a challenge. Rather than take the better part of the day trying to overanalyze your request, I’ve given myself exactly one hour to pick the 10 films, which I am not allowed to change once I’ve settled on them. I’m sure tomorrow, I’ll think of 10 better ones, but I’ve often found that going with my first impulse results in some of my best work. In addition, I’m limited my choices to films released within my lifetime (with one notable exception). No matter how much I study U.S. history or how many Frank Capra movies I watch, it was the films I saw with the rest of America in the theatres when they were new that influenced me the most and that I have the best grasp of their “American” qualities. Please feel free to print this introduction (I’d like it if you did). Dissect them at your leisure, in no particular order, here are my choices on movies that define American in all its glory and shame:
NASHVILLE (1975), dir. Robert Altman—An epic offering that highlights everything American behavior and fascinations better than just about any film ever made. We love our country music, especially the songs that have no feeling behind them; we love to worship heroes blindly; and we adore talking over each other. The film is as cynical as it is celebratory. When I re-examine this film (which I do about once a year), I find new things to love and new levels to uncover. And no self-respecting list on this topic should overlook the works of Robert Altman, a man devoted to his craft, almost to a fault.
HUSTLE & FLOW (2005), dir. Craig Brewer—I’m sure when the inventor of the phrase “The American Dream” coined it long ago, he had no idea it would so perfectly apply to the tale of a pimp in his quest to rise out of the ghetto and become a successful rap artist, but here you are. This is a story that could only be set in this country. Home of the free? Not just yet.
SUPERSTAR: THE KAREN CARPENTER STORY (1987), dir: Todd Haynes—Before the internet gave rise to the underground film phenomenon, this illegally circulated masterpiece about singer Karen Carpenter’s struggle with eating disorders, become a cult classic thanks to independently owned video stores and a largely untapped network of film lovers who would not be denied a great movie just because of a silly think like music clearances. More to the topic, the film wonderfully frames Carpenter’s sad story of a celebrity at the top of her game who is the architect of her own destruction (with the help of body issues propagated by, among other things, Barbie dolls). A haunting work from a director who has proven that he’s the real deal with later works like FAR FROM HEAVEN.
FAIL-SAFE (1964), dir: Sidney Lumet—The flip side and more serious take on DR. STRANGELOVE (released the same year), both of which dealt with the accidental launching of nuclear weapons against the Soviet Union. When I wrote my review recently of UNITED 93, I mentioned that I used to have nuclear holocaust nightmares as a kid. This film is one of the reasons why. During part of the Reagan years, I was in junior high school one day when the school decided to give us “movie day.” Basically, it was a couple hours off for the students to watch what the school believed to be an inoffensive movie. I’m pretty sure this film triggered many a restless night’s sleep, and so it deserves a place on this list. But it also nails the nation’s fear about and attitude toward the USSR and nuclear buildup, which was just beginning to get out of hand in the mid-1960s. The U.S. president, played beautifully by Henry Fonda, comes up with a means to stop World War III that I know in my heart the current president would never have the brain or fortitude to come up with. Sends a chill to my gut every time I see it.
THE RIGHT STUFF (1983), dir: Philip Kaufman—What is more fucking American than the space program? And what film has told the story better than this straight-forward, no-frills epic, based on a book from one of America’s great writers, Tom Wolfe. What I love so much about the film is that it manages to make these astronauts-in-training seem more human without demystifying their accomplishments. This group of men served as a microcosm of American live. Scott Glenn’s reckless Chuck Yeager served as great a purpose in this small community as the by-the-book, almost puritanical John Glenn. Perhaps the first film I remember seeing that didn’t make me embarrassed to feel patriotic.
THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE (1974), dir. Tobe Hooper—Perhaps some of my Texas cohorts will put this on their lists as well, but my fascination with gore films started right here, which is funny because the film isn’t that gory. Still, I’m guessing I’m not the only one who feels this way about this movie. It wasn’t the first of its kind and it wasn’t the best, but how many times has the framework of this story been repeated in gruesome detail ever since this highly influential film was released. We have become a culture that wants to see it all. Without searching too hard, you can easily find on the internet dozens of beheading videos and people watch them because the level of violence we’ve been exposed to in our lifetime has made it possible to watch these things without being permanently scarred. I’m not even necessarily saying this is a bad thing, and God bless my parents for not giving a shit about the amounts of violence I watched in horror films as a kid (sex and swearing was an entirely different matter). But TEXAS CHAINSAW for many was a level of brutality and the celebration of such brutality that many had never seen before on film.
TAXI DRIVER (1976), dir. Martin Scorsese—The premiere statement on isolation, the loner lost in the country’s largest city, American paranoia, violence, pornography, politics, prostitution, you name it. The film seemed designed to make middle America afraid to go to New York, and it worked on me for years. This is a tribute to the dark corners throughout the country where people live with their own troubled thoughts.
WOODSTOCK (1970), dir. Michael Wadleigh—If the three-day Woodstock music festival was the final chapter of hippie culture or merely it most public event, this movie is so much more than a concert film. It captures great music, sure, but more importantly, it captures a time in our nation’s history when it seemed people voices were actually heard. This may be naÃ¯ve on my part, but even if that’s not entirely true, the job of capturing not just an event but a moment in history has rarely been carried out so completely as it is here.
BORN ON THE FOURTH OF JULY (1989), dir. Oliver Stone—My years of blindly cheering on war movies came to a screeching half when I saw Stone’s PLATOON, but my eyes have never been more opened to the post-war experience as they were with this film. Not only does it feature our country’s biggest movie star in his finest work as an actor, but there are things shown here I don’t think the non-military world was ever supposed to see. Ron Kovic’s shocking book presented a story that makes you look at Veterans’ Day parades in a whole new light, and Stone’s highly emotional and superbly realized work shows that a soldier’s battles are rarely left on the battlefield.
DAWN OF THE DEAD (1978), dir. George Romero—The best horror films are one’s heavily laced with social commentary, and few get to criticizing our society more than Romero’s classic zombie tale. My setting the bulk of the film in an enormous shopping mall (complete with a gun store!) and making his main characters black and white, military and civilian, Romero deftly comments on consumerism, race relations, and the military. He also provides a scary vision of post-apocalyptic America, where only the most violent people have survived. Sure, the film featured ground-breaking gore and a score from outer space, but those elements take a back seat to the timeless messages Romero is waving at us throughout.
Check out Capone’s wings and cigar on the 10th Anniversary graphic at the bottom of this article. Looking good, buddy boy. Our next contributor has only been writing for the site for the last year and a half or so, and he’s been inspired to start a site of his own (launching later this week) that’s not so much about news and scoops but is instead more about in-depth discussion of films past and present. As a result, I thought it would be nice to give him a send-off here in this article and to give him one last blast on AICN.
Cbabbitt, editor of THE ASPECT RATIO
No list is definitive, and these titles in no way represent what I feel are the very best American films ever made. My choices depict a multitude of themes that create a small picture of what American life means to me at this very moment - a picture that will surely develope and change with age. Or so I hope! Im extremely fond of all ten of these movies for several reasons, and the idea of exploring different aspects of our culture through them is what I find so fascinating about this article. I tried my best to prevent repetition with directors and actors, and to exclude as many obvious choices as possible. However, sometimes the most obvious choice just happens to be the most appropriate.
Hannah and Her Sisters (1986) - Woody Allen
Woody Allen is unquestionably one of the greatest American filmmakers of the last half century, and his influence seems more important to me each time I revisit one of his movies. He possesses an innate understanding of American relationships, hopes, dreams, and fears with a complex moral and philosophical depth that provides serious insight while simultaneously making you laugh. Its a natural talent as equally inspiring as it is humbling. Hannah and Her Sisters represents everything special about Allens ability to create poignant social commentary on every day American life, especially within the turbulent city he cherishes so greatly. The range of emotional material Allen explores is just as thick and layered and overwhelming as the chaotic city that symbolizes both his plight and joy, and together they weave a particularly intoxicating view of American ideals and experiences. Morality, meaning, and expression defines Hannah and Her Sisters, and the mixture couldnt be anymore appealing and entertaining. Michael Caines adventure with infidelity, Allens existential crises, Dianne Wiests search for identity, Barbara Hersheys romantic frustration, Mia Farrows compassion and values - all of these characters and themes so eloquently illustrated and instantly identifiable. Every American can immediately recognize a piece of themselves in Allens work, and that sense of reality and urgency is what makes Hannah and Her Sisters such a vital inclusion to his filmography, and American film.
Eyes Wide Shut (1999) - Stanley Kubrick
There was something devilishly cunning about Kubricks filmmaking that always seemed to quietly, yet profoundly, grow on its viewer. Hidden beneath the usual layers of professional cinematic storytelling was something more superior, more fascinating, more demanding, and more revelatory. On repeat viewing, many of his films reveal deeper levels of significance than one might initially gather. Like an endlessly stimulating puzzle, different aspects of his work become clearer and more provoking, as if purposely made by a creator interested in documenting how acutely his subjects (the audience) would react. Eyes Wide Shut is arguably the finest example of this talent. Not only one of the best films (American or International) of the 90s - Eyes Wide Shut represents precisely how sharp Kubricks ability to dramatize, satirize, and characterize a specific thematic arc truly was. He delves into the always overblown, exaggerated psyche of the sexually frustrated American, and glorifies it, devours it, and somehow makes you laugh at how trivial the entire concept of it actually is. We live in a society that both loves and fears sexuality, and he exploits that feeling from the very first frame to the very last. Kubrick examines how society views sex, from the exciting to the damaging, and both laughs and weeps at what it causes within the individual. Eyes Wide Shut is an odyssey, a thriller, a romance, and ultimately a very dark satire on the most taboo aspect of our culture. And yes, Eyes Wide Shut has a satirical side. Listen closely to the very last lines of dialogue. That being said, one of the great joys of this film is how open to interpretation it is. The many varying opinions on Eyes Wide Shut is exactly why I feel like this is a strong choice for a list about America. When someone presents such a piercing view of our culture, its always fascinating at how that culture reacts to it. This is a film of great importance.
Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) - Steven Spielberg
A strong, reoccurring theme throughout Spielbergs career has obviously been the importance and dynamic of the family unit, and how that unit shapes who we are and what we do. The focus on such a theme isnt out of the ordinary considering how vital the family spirit is in American culture. Part of the American spirit itself is derived from a love and loyalty inherent in honoring the family, and that spirit has been magnified several times in countless films. From Its a Wonderful Life to The Godfather, family values have acted as a powerful narrative base for many filmmakers working in many different genres. Spielberg has captured this base with grand emotional resonance from the beginning of his career, and its his darker, sympathetic, and more realistic portrait in Close Encounters that moves me most. And yes, the drama in this film is extremely real, no matter what fantastic concepts about aliens move the plot. Close Encounters is about the great unknown, and how uncertainty and discovery are intrinsically part of our search for meaning in a universe beyond our knowledge. All Dreyfuss wants in this film is to find that meaning, and he risks his life and family to greet it. Its a selfish act, but considering what effect his close encounter have on him, its the more responsible decision. He chooses to leave his family to find that missing piece of knowledge that will fix his anguish - an anguish that was more harmful to his wife and children than he ever wished. From a purely family oriented viewpoint, Dreyfuss is a horrible parent. But he does what he does not only for himself, but because he realizes that if he doesnt change, hell never have that family again. Its this sympathetic view Spielberg presents that makes a rousing sci-fi entertainment something greater and memorable. Close Encounters is a beautiful film where the great unknown is as fascinating and wondrous as our imaginations wish it to be. And its simply one of the best American movies of the last half century.
Seconds (1966) - John Frankenheimer
This was one of the movies that immediately came to mind when first approached with the idea of this article. Seconds is one of the most disturbing, challenging, and unforgettable accounts of crushed idealism, life pursuit, and complete, blissful freedom quashed by the nature of dishonesty and repression. Freedom and truth go hand-in-hand in establishing the quintessential American dream - a dream that sustains itself at all times no matter what the circumstances. That ideal defines the American spirit, regardless of how seriously you believe in it. And while that spirit is a pivotal aspect of our culture, it is undoubtedly flawed since so many inconsequential matters exist as serious problems in our society. And feeling lost within society reflects both the freedom to protest it and the pain of having to suffer its evil. Science-Fiction has always been an effective genre for social commentary, and Seconds utilizes a disturbing fictional concept (not completely impossible anymore) to comment on a wide range of fiery topics. The main narrative arc surrounds the consequences of betraying your true self both internally and externally for a hope of unrealistic self-satisfaction. And self-loathing and betrayal simply leads to a deeper layer of misery and repression that makes things even more chaotic and strenuous. The idea of the perfect life is something everyone wants to attain, and in a country with as much opportunity and freedom as America, it is understandable to dream of such affirming things. But absolute perfection isnt real, and finding your place in society can never be given to you, which is something Rock Hudsons character learns in this film. Accomplishment is gained through your own choices in life, as is honesty. And thats the American spirit. Seconds explores the dark side of paying prices for making mistakes in the name of freedom. Its an exceptional film - one of the best of the 60s. And what an ending!
McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971) - Robert Altman
This is perhaps the most interesting and enjoyable interpretation of independent business Ive seen on film. Independence is, of course, a particularly significant value in American culture, something we all identify with in one way or another. With McCabe and Mrs. Miller, Altman defies the conventions of the Western by replacing the usual trademarks of gunfighters, outlaws, and violent story-lines with businessmen and women pursuing the ultimate goal: Wealth. And how would this wealth be acquired? By the independence of a simple-minded card player (Beatty) and an exuberant whore (Christie), who smartly work together to make whatever profit they can manage, while trying to prevent the larger businesses from controlling them. Being as fond of independent business as I am, McCabe and Mrs. Miller feels particularly appealing. Holding your own against stronger competition and powerful conglomerates is something heroic, and Altman brilliantly explores the principles and temptations of facing greater forces. That independence is something special. Something American. Altman uses his usual cinematic sophistication to tell a very real and personal story set amidst a gritty landscape, and the result is nothing short of captivating. The showdown that concludes the film is breathtakingly beautiful - featuring the finest cinematography of Vilmos Zsigmonds career. This is arguably Robert Altmans best work.
The Swimmer (1968) - Frank Perry
Sometimes the darkest portraits of American life can be the most potent. The Swimmer is a devastating journey of self-discovery about a charismatic, but troubled middle-aged man who sadly tries to free his soul from the pain and agony of his downfall as a man. Ned Merrill (Burt Lancaster) experiences a vision from his old neighbors backyard. House by house, pool by pool, he can swim back to his home at the end of the county. He calls the vision the river of Lucinda, after his wife. His vision seems odd enough, but at the outset of the film we know nothing about him other than hes passionate and fit, with a great sense of humor and joy in his manner. Of course, thats only when we first meet him. Ned calls himself an explorer - an appropriate title for what ends up to be a tragically ruined man exploring the mistakes and pains of his past. Ned travels from one home to another, reminiscing with old friends and neighbors and explaining his so-called adventure home. It begins rather nicely, greeting friends and enjoying cocktails; then gets progressively worse as he gets closer to his house. What seems like a great, successful, and inspirational American ends up being a tortured soul who lost everything and everyone by amounting to nothing. The Swimmer uses its metaphor of water purifying the soul to create an engrossing tale of a nightmarish and bewildered consciousness coming to terms with absolute emptiness. The film is thick with meaning and symbolism, adding layer upon layer of thematic material, sequence for sequence. The Swimmer is a shocking work, a masterpiece of American film that deserves a larger embrace.
Superman II (1980) - Richard Lester
Eyes Wide Shut. Seconds. The Swimmer. Its time to lighten things up a bit. Its difficult to find a character and movie as purely American as Superman. He is the ultimate American icon that spreads good will in the name of his country, and not just for his fellow citizens, but for everyone in the world. He is the epitome of truth, justice, and the American way, a glorified version of the person we all wish we were. Hes an American God. The symbolism isnt exactly necessary to explain, since everyone understands what Superman represents. As classical entertainment, the first two Superman films are incredibly enjoyable fantasy adventures. Why the sequel over the original? I prefer the leaner structure and the more dramatic villains. It makes everything move along at a more appropriate pace, no matter how much I admire the epic scope its predecessor. Christopher Reeve and Margot Kidder are the perfect match of charm, wit, and sophistication needed for their respective roles, and their enthusiasm and energy create beautiful chemistry. Reeves heroic presence more than makes you believe a man could fly, but its his excellent comedic timing as Clark that truly wins you over. Margot Kidder seems to channeling Carole Lombard - maybe the highest compliment I can bestow on a performance like this. Superman II is a tremendous piece of escapist entertainment - one well worth revisiting again and again.
My Man Godfrey (1936) - Gregory La Cava
While Superman embodies the ultimate ideal of what we all wish we were, William Powells Godfrey Smith is a more aspiring example of what we can possibly be. Godfrey is a working man that takes pride in who he is and what he accomplishes, going from a forgotten man to a butler (of great patience) to a successful businessman of class and virtue. This is not the most realistic of films, but it does effectively presents its theme with the kind of charm and sophistication considerably lacking in contemporary film, while being a hilarious satire on the class struggle of its time. As a comedy, its absolutely flawless. William Powell and Carole Lombard are among the great icons of film history - the sort of glamorous movie stars that simply doesnt exist in any way, shape, or form in todays world. Carole Lombard is the greatest comedic actress in the history of American film, and this is arguably the finest example of her impeccable timing and radiant beauty. Powell and Lombard were cinematic gold when together on screen. They had an energy, innocence, wit, and genuine sense of joy, whether theyre romancing each other or intensely bickering. The family dynamic in this film is priceless. So many great moments, so many great lines. Actor Mischa Auer is outrageously entertaining as the sensitive Carlo. Nothing beats his sorrowful concert of Ochi Tchornya. Classic. Everything about My Man Godfrey is special. One of the great treasures of American film.
Mean Streets (1973) - Martin Scorsese
Heres another film that deals with the working man in America, but the mean streets of Martin Scorseses Little Italy are a very, very different America. Scorsese is obviously one of the great American filmmakers, and with this film he tells an essential story of friendship and love set in the dangerous world of organized crime. Mean Streets is a smaller and more personal story of societys more troubled individuals, and the result is a more moving and intimate picture opposed to the epic undertaking of something like Goodfellas. Scorsese subtly and effectively uses his signature themes, from religion to music to violence to love, and it creates a thrilling view of American life in the early 70s between misguided friends. Harvey Keital is excellent as Charlie, a reasonably well-meaning bar owner and dealer who tries to make a good life for himself and his friends. Unfortunately, his closest friend Johnny Boy (Robert DeNiro) is too wild and uncontrollable for Charlies family, and problems escalate. In the commentary for Mean Streets, Scorsese mentions how the film is really a statement on who he was at a certain point in his life, and that realism is what brings such a tangible sense of culture to the entire film. It makes the story important and interesting. Mean Streets is just so filled with life. The direction, the actors, the music, the style - its completely engrossing. This is a film of heart and soul, and one of the best of the 70s.
The Bad & The Beautiful (1952) - Vincente Minnelli
Lastly, I come to one of my favorite things about American culture, the thing responsible for my greatest interest in life: The Movies. As much as I adore Hollywood and the great films its released, theres no denying its an industry of many trials. Good Hollywood-insider movies are always fascinating to movie-lovers, and this one is the best. The Bad & The Beautiful is about the thrill, glamour, deception, genius, and beauty of becoming a visionary in the world of film. Like a great, old-fashioned, studio picture, it contains all the ingredients of a powerful drama. Its about friendship, love, expression, power, wealth, and dreams. The story chronicles the rise and fall of the brilliant, but power-wielding Jonathan Shields (Kirk Douglas), and his experiences with his friend and director Fred (Barry Sullivan), lover and star Georgia (Lana Turner), and writer James (Dick Powell). Director Vincente Minnelli looks at the behind-the-scenes of old Hollywood with compassion and love, using classical style to bring the core emotions front and center. Kirk Douglas and Lana Turner electrify the screen. The crisp black and white photography is some of the best of its era. Easily the most entertaining feature on the drama of creating film. Classic.
Our next comes from Elston Gunn, founder of the WEEKLY RECAP (where oh where have ye gone?) and constant contributor with interviews and feedback:
On the night of July 2 I received an email from Moriarty apologizing for not getting in touch with me a week ago about an AICN tenth anniversary celebration piece. However, if I indeed want to take part I need to send my contribution in by July 3. I remember reading right before Roy Orbison died he was asked how he would like to be remembered and he simply said "I just want to be remembered." Eleventh hour or not, I'm honored to be asked to contribute and thanks, Moriarty, for remembering. This week also marks my own anniversary with the site and thanks to all the other AICN'ers, readers, filmmakers and folks who have emailed me over the years.
The ten films that best describe America. Even if I had a week to think about it I'm quite sure I wouldn't have a definitive answer. My effort here is nearly a stream of consciousness. With hardly any time to pace the floor and brainstorm, nor to whittle down an enormous list based on a well thought-out criteria, I'm going to fly by the seat of my pants then hit the ground running here with twenty films. We Americans like choice, variety and buffets so I'm giving you twice the amount I was asked to give and you may mix and match them into your own top ten list.
PLATOON / M*A*S*H
The horrors and absurdities of war. The complexity of humans and Americans. Two American filmmakers who refuse to compromise and make it easy for us. I remember seeing PLATOON when I was ten and being blown away. World of a difference from G.I. Joe. Scary. People die. Even the good guys aren't always good but we press on and people do their job because that's what we do. And, if we're lucky, we'll find some humor in it as well. Many aspects of war seems absurd and our behavior does, too. This would be an interesting double feature. But which would you show first?
ON THE WATERFRONT / MATEWAN
From the docks of New Jersey to the coal mines of West Virginia. Regular joes, contenders, fighting for their lives for something. Real struggles and obstacles. Hard work. Putting a meal on your table without killing yourself. Beaten down by the man... or men... with guns or baseball bats. Someone will stand up sooner or later for the greater good. Hopefully, anyway. The filmographies of these two American filmmakers are to be looked into. Simple storytelling can yield complex results. Bullet-time is fun, but Marlon Brando or Chris Cooper are bullets in their own ways.
SUNSET BOULEVARD / NASHVILLE
Oh, that need to be famous, or to be wanted or loved. Poor Norma Desmond. Americans love to see stars fall, but more than that we love a good comeback. Norma couldn't come back, although she did in her own way. Maybe if the film were extended another hour we could see her leave jail and get her own talk show where she would earn an exponential number of more fans. How much more American can we get than country music? NASHVILLE. Power struggles, searching for love, getting your work heard, a cast of characters who weave in and out of each other's lives. So, what's it mean? Exactly. We might not find out until we get hit with a bullet as we sing our song, so sing it loud! Sadness and loneliness among characters in a large but polarized industry was done well in BOOGIE NIGHTS, too. Maybe I should've included SHORT CUTS instead. Just realized Altman gets two movies in this list. Not to mention the man is 81 years old and still out there getting it done. I saw in the news this week that the life expectancy of men has raised again. Hurrah.
NETWORK / THE KING OF COMEDY
Television as salvation? Television as the most powerful tool of persuasion, at least. It changed the game. Films got more melodramatic to compete with the little box. Why get dolled up for a Douglas Sirk flick when you can watch the fights at home? Fair enough. To reach that many people is a hell of a temptation. You could change the world or just make them laugh. What would you do to get on there? What would you do once you're given the opportunity? What do those answers say about us as a country or race? Give them an escape. Maybe soon it won't matter when the viewers become their own programmers. Then it's back to going door-to-door for knives and Bible salesmen.
THE OX-BOW INCIDENT / DO THE RIGHT THING
Mob mentality. I stumbled upon THE OX-BOW INCIDENT one lazy afternoon not knowing a thing about it. It grabbed me by the throat and held tight 'til the next day. I love it when that happens. Displaced agression, trigger-happy for some kind of justice. Quite relevant, if you ask me. You hear the Fairfield Four in O BROTHER, WHERE ART THOU? singing "you got to go to that lonesome valley" and it signals an ending of sorts and it's comical, but when you hear Leigh Whipper singing it in OX-BOW you're trying to chase your breath and it's chilling. "You got to go there by yourself." DO THE RIGHT THING slapped us up by the head, didn't it? The Civil War never ended, some say. Again, the complexities of humans and Americans. "We're all a work in progress" my grandmother says. Sometimes violence is necessary, though maybe not the best choice. Revolutionaries are still mulling over that one. Whatever works? If it were made today maybe they'd all band together and try to save the small pizza place from being torn down for a Wal-Mart.
CRIMES AND MISDEMEANORS / REAR WINDOW
Suspense. How's it going to end? Maybe differently than you think. The things humans create for themselves and our responsibility thereafter. It's fun to light a match and start walking toward the gas can if you think you can stop before it explodes. Maybe we shouldn't have affairs with unstable women. Maybe we shouldn't cure boredom with voyeurism but instead take a moment and look at our own selves. If you haven't seen these, you're in for a treat. If you have, watch them again. Woody Allen and Alfred Hitchcock at their best here.
BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI / HIGH NOON
Leadership. How about those movies where people stand up for what they believe in though we'll keep William Holden. Gary Cooper, too, for that matter. Sometimes if you want a job done you've got to do it yourself and maybe the crutch needs to be jerked out from under you anyway. Keep your chin up. Your true friends will make themselves known in the end. "Do not forsake me oh my darling." If Grace Kelly forsakes you, I see bottles of whiskey in your future.
CITIZEN KANE / SUPERMAN: THE MOTION PICTURE
Biogpraphies of lonely people and their potential. Aliens to everyone else. What would you do with all that power and money? Save the world or horde some art? Would you be your own worst enemy? Charles Foster Kane and Kal-El leave their homes for something else. Both spend their boyhoods in small towns. Both go into the newspaper business. Moral principles basically veer in different directions from there. Neither are perfect, however, and have their share of hardships. Sometimes you just want to slap them and say "Relax." But they've got jobs to do and lives to affect. I suppose lessons can be learned from both of them. Warren Buffet has decided to give a large sum of money to the Bill Gates Foundation. I'm just going to give blood this week.
TREASURE OF THE SIERRA MADRE / THE GRAPES OF WRATH
We can talk Kubrick, Hitchcock, Welles and Wilder 'til the break of dawn but why doesn't John Huston typically enter the conversation as well? Was it because he was able to make the studio system work for him? The film covered paranoia years before it was cool to be paranoid. Greed, adventure, backstabbing, death, finding happiness in unexpected ways. TREASURE had it all. Classic film noir without all the shadows, fog and cityscapes. "Can you help a fellow American down on his luck?" Sure, but do you have it worse than Tom Joad? Fresh out of jail, hungry, homeless, so many family members to look after. Poverty knows no political affiliation. I see my grandparents exhibiting behavior that's still a by-product of the depression. Whatever doesn't kill us, maybe? This too shall pass, perhaps? "We're the people that live. They can't wipe us out. They can't lick us. We'll go on forever, Pa, 'cause we're the people."
STROSZEK / THE MUPPET MOVIE
Let's end on a fun note. The road movie. The American dream. Frogs driving cars. Dancing chickens. Searching for something better. It's a long wacky ride and we're just trying to make sense of it all and have a few laughs along the way. Maybe we can't afford it. Maybe people want to cut us down. Maybe we'll get lost and the ending could go either way. Herzog and Henson. To be a neuron in their brains for a day. "Life's like a movie, write your own ending. Keep believing, keep pretending, we've done what we've set out to do. Thanks to the lovers, the dreamers and you."
Click to Mail
Next is Edgard... a European and co-founder of EURO-AICN (where have ye gone?) AICN is and will always be an international endeavor, based from Austin, Tx - I miss Edgard's voice on AICN --Harry
Not sure I can join the celebration – I used to be part of the AICN family a few years ago, I was then known as Edgard and was the editor, co-founder of EURO AICN… I believe it ran only from 1999 to 2001… Still I have read AICN since 1998 and, obviously, I am still reading it almost on a daily basis (as you know yourself, fatherhood makes days very short).
So if you want a EURO-vision on the 10 films that define America, here they are:
– let’s start with a bang, I know Michael Moore is a controversial figure and some will hate me for putting him in an “American Celebration” list… but let’s face it: the subject matter is 100% America (whether you think it is true or not) as is Michael Moore (don’t give me the unpatriotic bullshit here…). America is proud to be a democracy, so embrace the fact you can have people like Moore – again whether you agree with him or not does not matter. How many countries can proudly present documentaries questioning its actual government? THIS is America to me… at least this is the America I love.
Runners-up in the documentary section: Bowling for Columbine; Super Size Me; The Fog of War
– Two reasons to include this film here: this is pure pop-corn, fun entertainment – Hollywood at its best (or worst, depends where you stand)… Sorry to say but no other country can create pure pop-corn blockbuster like the US of A… but this is also one of the most overly patriotic movie ever made (the President fighting along his countrymen? Risking his life??.... mmmmh, unlikely today). America is patriotic. VERY patriotic… From an European point of view I see it under a positive light (I think it is important to be proud of your own country, and to respect your roots), but also as a very bad quality (being patriotic should not mean to believe that your country is better than anyone else or to think your way of life is the best and therefore should be spread to everyone… being patriotic should – in no circumstances – means “you are with us or against us”). ID4 or the perfect example of America’s jingoism – but still fun.
Runners-up in the pop-corn patriotic section: Armaggedon; Air Force One; Rambo 2/Rocky 4
THE LION KING
– I remember after seeing that film someone telling me how he hated it, how it was too “Coca Cola” for him – making reference to the Coke commercials from that period with a lots of people from all the races, genders, ages,… smiling and being happy, and enjoying a refreshing drink. Although I love Lion King, I understood his points. Disney has a very happy and PC view on the world. Lion King is probably one of the most obvious examples of the Disney Way of Life… and Disney is clearly an icon in the American landmark. Personally I love the Disney universe – even though I know it is 100% fake and way too PC, I love to immerse myself in that environment once in a while (as long as, as it happened to me once, you don’t get stuck in the “It’s a small world” ride at Disneyland – 45 min of that song and I could have killed someone).
Runners-up in the happy “PC” children section: Pocahontas; E.T. (2002 re-issue); Chronicles of Narnia
THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST
– I had to put that film here – in the western world, America is probably the most religious country. With everything (good or bad depending of your beliefs) that implies… This film is in this list not so much about the content, but for its tremendous success it got in the US. America cannot be defined today without talking about religion.
Runners-up in the religious section: Prince of Egypt; Dogma; We Were Soldiers
– Richard Donner said it himself: Superman is an American icon and his job with that film was to make sure Superman will “be” America…. I don’t have to convince anyone that Donner did a great job there. The superhero sub-genre is in my opinion a very specific American tradition. There is a troubling parallel between America (the country) and the superheroes it created – think about Spider-man, think about “with great powers come great responsibilities”… apply that quote to US politics. But beyond the political subtext, superheroes are typical of America: heroism, action, amazing powers, drama, doubt, secrets… You can probably learn as much about America in one (good) superhero film than in any documentary. Great stuff.
Runners-up in the superhero section: Spider-man; Batman Returns; Hulk
J F K
– Here again two good reasons to include that film in this list:
1. Although I was born in Europe in the early 70’s, I have always been fascinated by the 60’s in the US – when I think of America, I think the 60’s was the most influential decade ever. Not only for America itself, but also for the rest of the world. Historians and sociologists could disagree with me and prove me wrong, but I cannot split the 60’s from America and vice-versa. And JFK is all about the 60’s – again, it does not matter if you buy Oliver Stone’s theory or not, the importance here is how it shows the 60’s and the effect of JFK’s murder.
2. In direct link to my “documentaries” section, I think America has a great tradition of creating the most exciting political thrillers (France and Italy were good at it in the 70’s but nothing much since then). They work well not only on a cinematographic level, but also – and again – as a proof that freedom of speech is alive and kicking in America… Think about all the films that have blamed the government for the Vietnam fiasco… Think about releasing Jarhead just in the middle of the war in Iraq. If Hollywood is often too PC on certain issues, it can also deliver the goods by releasing a provoking movie… Like JFK was.
Runners-up in the golden 60’s section: Born on the Fourth of July; The Doors; Malcolm X
Runners-up in the un-PC political thriller section: Munich; Traffic; Syriana
DANCES WITH WOLVES
– You cannot make a list of films about America and not include a Western in it… Purists will probably hate me for using Dances with Wolves as THE Western example. But for me, Westerns have always been more about the so-called “wild west” than cow boys chasing Indians. Here the main character wishes to see the frontier “before it disappears”. There is a sort of nostalgia about the early years of America, when it had still to conquer itself or when it maybe should have conquered less… I love this film because it is about the end of a civilization and the beginning of another one. I love this film because you realize how vast America is (was?).
Runners-up in the Western section: Unforgiven; Open Range; The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (I know it is an Italian film, but still very much about America)
– I know this is a strange movie to put in a top 10 list, especially about America… let me explain. I saw Basic Instinct in 1992 when I was living in the US – I remember the buzz about how “pervert” it was, and I remember coming out of the film thinking “is that it?”. America has a strange attitude towards sex, easily offended by it – see the Janet Jackson breast scandal – while it is still one of the most natural thing in the world. As a European, I like very much that we are more open towards sex but more strict when it comes to violence… I think that more healthy than the other way around. This is for me one of the most surreal paradox in American culture: nudity is bad; but rape and murder is okay (on screen I precise). Basic Instinct is here because it linked sex to gore effects…
Runners-up in the American sex section: Boogie Nights; Kids; Pretty Woman
WHEN HARRY MET SALLY
– another good film with two reasons to be in this list… the dating film… The whole “dating” concept is very American also – maybe because I am now a married man I lost touch with the celibacy world in Europe, but I think that here you are with someone or you are not, there is no “trial period” like the date. This is why romantic comedies about dating seem very American to me – I felt that my list has been quite serious and dramatic so far, I had to add a light touch. When Harry met Sally is just perfect in this category… New York – well for many Europeans, New York is the most American city (sky crappers, yellow taxi’s, wall street, etc…) and the least American city (multi cultural, more liberal, etc.) at the same time. Any movie that is a love letter about New York is for me a movie about America.
Runners-up in the dating section: Sleepless in Seattle; The 40 Year Old Virgin; Rules of Attraction
Runners-up in the NY section: Manhattan; Die Hard with a Vengeance; 25th Hour
AMERICAN HISTORY X
Because you cannot have a list of movies defining America without including movies with America in their title… I mean what could be possibly more American than a movie claiming in its title it is about something American?? I selected American History X because it is of course a typical American topic (Ku Klux Klan and all); and yet it is not only American – we do not have the KKK here in Europe, but we have other assholes in the same leagues. American History X could take place in France, UK, Germany… America is also about the rest of the world.
Runners up in the America section: American Beauty, American Pie, American Splendor
Thanks Harry and co for 10 good years of movie news on AICN…
Beware of getting old and bitter like many movie critics or professional – keep your love for films fresh and simple.
I asked Hercules The Strong to contribute a list, and he replied quite succinctly:
I don't like America. I have no list.
Sweeeeeet. Anyway, now we’re up to the lovely Annette Kellerman, Austin’s femme fatale, and it’s awesome to have her be part of this. She was out of town all week working on a film, and when she sent me this, she was concerned she was too late to be part of the article. Nope. And aren’t we glad?
Oh man, do I hate these kinds of lists. Everyone seems to love compiling these, but I, on the other hand, agonize and deliberate until all the fun is sucked out of it. I never have a definitive list going in my head- my list revolves, and evolves. So, in an attempt at retaining my sanity (and fun), I compiled my list off the tippy top of my head and I'm keeping it short and sweet. While many on this list lack any patriotism whatsoever, to me the following films characterize this grand country of ours in their own subtle way.
Singin' In The Rain
This masterpiece not only embodies the American Dream, but also reminds us of the hard work and dedication it takes to get there. Plus, Gene Kelly melts my heart.
Ditto on the hard work and dedication with a sucker punch to remind us that even champs lose at first.
Breakin' 2 Electric Boogaloo
Yeah, I know this sounds like a joke, but break dancing was one of those cross-cultural phenomena that pervaded even MY early-80's, middle class, white bread life. We all wanted a cool rec center to hang out at and practice our moves.
This is not only the best adolescent adventure movie of all time, it introduced me to my first teen idol-give me some tongue Mouth.
The Wizard of Oz
Need I explain? Metaphors and urban legends aside, its hard to dispute this one belonging in ANY top ten list.
This was one of the first films to make me realize that most everyone is always on the make one way or another. It's truly the American way.
Don't even act like you didn't cry when Goose died the first time you watched this one. I think they played this soundtrack in lieu of the National Anthem at all public events in 1986.
This film is simply the epitome of great teenage comedy while hilariously dissecting all ages, cliques, and social groups along the way.
Bonnie and Clyde
One of my favorite examples of America's romanticism of its public enemy number one.
Well, that's it. Now that I'm warmed up I could go on and on and on... but you just want TEN titles, so there ya go.
It makes perfect sense to me to put Annette and our next writer back to back, since the first time I met them, they were joined at the hip, the bestest buddies. I’m sure they still are, but they live in totally different parts of the country now, so it’s nice to see a reunion, if only here on the site. Ladies and gents, the drifter with a dream...
Tom Joad here, weighing in with a list of my own. Right off the bat, I wanna apologize for the brevity of some of the arguments that I will make for some of the movies on my list. This article was brought to my attention in the bottom of the ninth inning, but I couldn’t pass up the chance to delve into what, from my perspective, are the top 10 movies that define American Film.
Last night, after hearing of this article, many movies sprang to mind, bringing my list of ten to more than twenty titles. If only ten films could exist from America? Holy shit, that’s a tough call. So I decided to pick roughly one picture per genre that defines American film. Guided by the fact that all lists are really a forum for conversation and debate, I add to the fray:
Obviously, “The American Dream” is a recurring theme in these films. What “The American Dream” means to different people and how each of them goes about achieving their vision of “The Dream” is a subject that is represented time and again in the films on this list.
The perception of “The American Dream” is many things to many people. The common denominator is that intangible something, that impalpable urge to achieve, the freedoms themselves that this country provides and protects in order to allow one to create a style of life that is both specific and desirable to them.
The reality of “The American Dream” is that very few people actually achieve their ultimate dreams, goals, or their lifestyle. The theory that “The Dream” is achievable and available to anyone who is brave, bold, and clever enough to obtain it can become the ultimate enigma to those who fail to meet their own expectations. Case in point:
Joe Buck believes he is meant for big things. Plucking himself from his down-home, Texas roots, Joe moves to New York City with little more than the money in his pocket and the cowboy clothes on his back. In his quest to become a successful, big-city, male hustler, Joe is the quintessential example of someone taking their destiny int