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You cannot discuss American films without discussing Westerns. They are our samurai films, our past written as myth, and our tribute to the pioneer spirit that carved our nation out of a massive landscape. They are also our way of confronting the tools that built the great American expansion like genocide, slavery, and violence. Watching these three films will give you three different ways that filmmakers have grappled with all of the contradictory ingredients that make up the Old West. "The Searchers" dirtied up John Wayne in a way that no other film ever managed, "How The West Was Won" pulls audiences into a trip through decades of Western history punctuated with a ton of movies stars, and "Unforgiven" takes one of the great cowboy icons, Clint Eastwood, and shows him grappling with the ghosts of all of his brutal gunslinging life. You could probably find a hundred other Westerns with equally interesting takes on the West, but these three give you a real sense of just how wide-open the range really was.
"Out Of The Past" (1947)
Film noir is just as much an American-defined genre as the Western, but they communicate very different takes on society as a whole. There is no optimism or reverence in film noir. Instead, noir rubs our noses in our own weakness and vices, and it punishes us for it. Jacques Tourneur's "Out Of The Past" tells the story of a private detective who is hired by a criminal to track down a woman who stole $40,000 from him. You can probably guess that things do not go well, but that's just the beginning of how things play out. Robert Mitchum is at his very best in this film, a sad-eyed cynic who knows how terrible everyone is simply by glancing at them. The film is built around a central flashback, and the story is about how we can never escape who we are, and how our appetites are the things destroying us.
And as a special added bonus, Jane Greer is all that is woman. Wow.
"The Man Who Fell To Earth" (1976)
"The Mosquito Coast" (1986)
America is a disease, and, to be more specific, it is a terminal one. Nicolas Roeg's amazing brain-bender starring David Bowie as an alien sent to bring water back to his planet. Trouble is, as soon as he gets his first hit of America, he is hooked, and before he knows it, he's mainlining America from the moment he wakes up to the moment he numbs himself to sleep, ruining vein after vein as he chases that first rush to no avail. In "The Mosquito Coast," Harrison Ford plays Allie Fox, a man who tries to go cold turkey on America, moving his family into the Central American jungle to try to save their souls. He never shakes it all, though, and he ends up becoming the worst version of himself because of the cancer that's deep down in him by that point.
"City Of Hope" (1991)
Cities are an exercise in agreed-upon insanity. We were never meant to live piled up on top of each other for miles and miles and miles in every direction. And even if we were, would that justify the insanity that it requires to keep a city running? John Sayles has made a number of amazing films over the years, and I'm not even sure I'd say this is his best one. But it is the movie that "Bonfire Of The Vanities" wanted to be, an x-ray of the forces that keep a gigantic city functioning, no matter how shabby and precarious it is. And that ending? The only logical response to living in a major American city.
Paddy Cheyefsky's greatest screenplay is one of those rare examples of a black comedy that gets more and more true every year, while Mike Judge's brash and vulgar barely-released comedy is a vision of the future that makes me laugh simply to keep from crying about how very, very right he is.
One is who we wish we are. One who is who we're afraid we are. The scary thing is, which one is which is not going to be the same for every American.
I could go on and on. I could list off films like "Born On The Fourth Of July," "Melvin & Howard," "Stranger Than Paradise," "Sullivan's Travels," "Days Of Heaven," "Breaking Away," "One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest," "Menace II Society," "Lost In America," "Dead Man," the almost-identically-titled "In America," "Glory," and dozens of others. But for now, hopefully some of these titles are not ones you'd already thought of, and hopefully you get some ideas from this list.
Thanks for asking, man. Greatly appreciated.