By Nick Maylor
We Canadians recently had our national holiday That means that today our neighbours below the 49th parallel are celebrating their Independence day. . Happy Fourth of July to our American friends and readers! I must admit that when I conceived the idea for this post, I had a much goofier list of films selected to recommend. Titles like the following:
- Team America: World Police (2004)
- American Hustle (2013)
- American Psycho (2000)
- American Pie (1999)
While the idea was cute and my commentary would have no doubt been charming, I paused and decided to celebrate America; not just with its legendary and iconic cinema, but the shining examples of those films that celebrate American cinema at its finest, while also exploring a wide variety of perspectives on American life, throughout the history of the nation itself, translated onto film, creating a separate American History, one that played out with lights moving pictures. American culture defined these movies. The films returned the favour and defined the culture that evolved afterwards.
I needed ten films to celebrate the United States in the most honest and interesting ways while also highlighting the diverse and complex nature of the country and its history.
These films are not being ranked against each other, hence no numbers.. Enjoy!
THE GODFATHER (1972) / THE GODFATHER PART II (1974)
How could these films not appear? Two of the greatest films ever made, they explore the American dream from the perspective of a Sicilian man who amasses a criminal empire in America, carrying over the traditions of his homeland. Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando/Robert De Niro) became a powerful and respected crime lord; one of the most powerful of all the five mafia families in New York. The true heart of the story is Vito’s youngest son, Michael (Al Pacino), an idealistic free thinker who loves and respects his father, but has no desire to become him. Michael enlists in the U.S. Marine Corps and fights in World War II. Despite the best of intentions Michael had, the course of his life veered off abruptly due to the several tragedies that befall people in Michael’s family. After an assassination attempts is made on Vito, Sonny (James Caan), the eldest son of the Godfather is gunned down in an increasingly tense situation among the families of New York. Michael’s descent into corruption is haunting to watch as we come to learn that stepping forward to run the family after his father, while done for moral and loving reasons, has started Michael on a path that will never bring him peace and from which there is no return. The even more impressive second installment details Michael’s world imploding around him due to his power;. He has become the thing he hates. His father always told him that family comes first. By the end of Part II, Michael has lost his wife, the respect of his children, both of his parents and both of his brothers. The final one to die was Fredo, (John Cazalle) the middle child. Because of stupidity and jealousy he went behind Michael’s back and putting on a facade that Michael had forgiven his brother, once their mother dies, Fredo follows, dying on the order of his brother, Michael Corleone.
Family comes first, indeed.
TRUE GRIT (2010)
American cinema has been responsible for creating two genres firmly planted in the American consciousness; the musical and the western. The western genre has become such a titan of American culture that the period encompassing Westerns in film now exceeds that of what we collectively refer to as the Old West or Wild West. These movies have existed longer than the time period they portray. From the films of John Ford, Howard Hawks, Anthony Mann, Sergio Leone and countless pioneers making the western a rich tradition on film,; to the fact that the “Old West” as we picture it, is painted in our mind’s eye with the landscape of Monument Valley, Utah, a favoured location where many of these legendary pictures were shot. The Coen Brothers masterpiece showed that even in 2010, the genre was a powerful character in the array of cinematic genres that still thrilled and chilled audiences, while attracting the most recognizable and talented people in the industry.
When people think of Americana and its stories, Rocky (1976) is a film that constantly stands out as a truly American story. Here, I won’t dare say otherwise. However, the surprisingly great 2015 film from Ryan Coogler about the next generation of fighter in Rocky Balboa’s world not only worked as a successful follow up to the franchise, it became one on its own. Creed II (2018) is in post-production and if it retains even some of the greatness of its predecessor, we might have another franchise about Adonis Creed (Michael B. Jordan). Coogler’s film is brilliant and should have won Syvester Stallone and Academy Award. Father’s and sons, broken families, fighting in more ways that pugilism; Creed (2015) is here not because it features stars and stripes boxing shorts; but because celebrates the American spirit as well as the American dream.
“We choose to go to the Moon! We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard; because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one we intend to win, and the others, too.” – President John F. Kennedy (September 12, 1962,). If we wish to look at American exceptionalism, we need look no further that those words uttered by Kennedy; and the resulting space exploration program that America developed with the advent of The National Aeronautics and Space Administration and Apollo space program. As curious voyagers traversed the gravitational pull and atmosphere of our home, they traveled to the moon. More fitting of the American spirit, is the story of Apollo 13, a disastrous lunar visit that became a rescue mission to return the astronauts home safely after severe damage to their vessel. In true American spirit, failure of any kind was simply “not an option.”
GANGS OF NEW YORK (2002)
Who built New York City? Americans did. Americans who were in a melting post of immigrants to the new world. Scorsese’s bloody history lesson was filmed in Italy using Italian extras. Most of the cast (aside from Branden Gleeson) played against their nationality and accent. Leonardo DiCaprio, Cameron Diaz, John C. Reilly, Henry Thomas (all Americans) played Irish characters. English actors Jim Broadbent and Daniel Day-Lewis played the Americans. Bill the Butcher (Day-Lewis) was leader of the American “natives” gang who violently opposed the swarms of immigrants flooding into the country via New York City. The Butcher had a particular hatred of the Irish. This is somewhat ironic considering that Day-Lewis has Irish citizenship. The final scenes show time-lapsed views of the Manhattan skyline over the years. The rise of the twin towers remained in the “present-day” skyline. Despite the fall of the World Trade Center months prior to the film’s release, the buildings remain intact for the final shot of the film and Scorsese did this because he saw the film as a story of those who built New York and no attention need be paid towards those who tried to destroy it.
CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER (2011) / CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER (2014) / CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR (2016)
What is America? Power? Technology? Patriotism? History? Peace? War? Family? Explosions? Money?
What about a Star Spangled Man (with a plan?) A far cry from a piece of propaganda, Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) overcame insurmountable odds to become the greatest American Soldier in history. Sporting the red, white and blue into battle, Rogers earned his moniker as Captain America by helping defeat the Nazi Science Division HYDRA. This act is a huge reason for why the Allies won World War II and defeated the Nazi’s (In the fictional world of the MCU which is analogous to ours, not messing with history in big ways). Captain America became lost and his legend inspired the very comic books we recognize as the source material. Discovery of Cap after 70 years of suspended animation resulted in his successful revival. Living in the modern world, he lived up to his famous name ten fold with the heroics he took part in.
After being recruited by Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), Cap enlisted as part of the Avengers initiative. Together with Tony Stark, Bruce Banner, Natasha Romanoff, Clint Barton and the Asgardian Thor Odinson, the newly formed “Avengers” saved the world from an alien invasion of cataclysmic proportions.
After his mission with the Avengers, Steve Rogers destroyed the seed of HYDRA that survived to infiltrate the governments of the world and stopped a massive takeover that would have resulted in tens of millions of deaths. With the help of Black Widow and the Falcon, Cap had exceeding his legendary WWII reputation to become a true hero of America and the world!
Happy Independence Day, folks.
Nick is an actor/writer/comedian/musician from Hamilton, ON Canada. Having been a film nut since the early days of his life, Nick has had an obsession with cinema and popular entertainment. Nick has written for thecinemaholic.com and is the current Foote & Friends “expert” on all things geek/superhero/comic-book related. Nick is the host/producer of the official Foote & Friends On Film podcast. Nick met John when studying acting at the Toronto Film School, for which John H. Foote was director and Film History professor. The two have been arguing ever since.
Follow Nick on Twitter @NickMaylor