Via Lance comes this interesting question.
You have to explain America to someone from not here, but you can only use ten movies to do it. Which ten do you choose?
The idea is not to give them a history lesson, so you don’t have to start with The New World and end with Jarhead.
What you’re trying to do is give them a sense of who we are—your take on our dreams, our attitudes, our idioms, what we think we are, what we are afraid we are, what we really might be.
I’ve given this a little bit of thought, becuase I used to have some fun by imagining, at a given moment, that some Founder or other famous personage would find themselves transported to the present day, and would need some sort of explanation of America and the world. Cars in particular, I thought, would always be difficult. My favorite two visitors were Thomas Jefferson and Cicero; don’t ask me why, because I can’t explain. Anyway, thinking about this question through the medium of film is particularly interesting, because I also like to use movies as pedagogic devices. This is what I came up with, in no particular order:
1. Lone Star: Lone Star is really about everything, from a particularly American form of local corruption to the collision of race, class, and power on a small stage. Sayles has been trying to remake Lone Star for years (Sunshine State, Limbo) for years, but I don’t think that lightning strikes twice on this one.
2. Once Upon a Time in the West: The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance might have taken this spot, as they’re more or less about the same thing; the extension of the East into the West. I love them both, and whether you prefer the former or the latter depends in large part on the interpretation of the expansionary project. It’s odd, but not really surprising, that a pair of Italians (Leone, Bertolluci) could demonstrate such insight into America.
3. Do the Right Thing: Do the Right Thing has plenty of flaws, but it also has plenty of things going right for it. It deserves inclusion as a chronicle of racial tension and urban life in America.
4. Blazing Saddles: The end of the Western, at least as it had been conceived of in John Wayne’s era. Indeed, I think that the Western as a genre needs to be interpreted through the lense of Blazing Saddles, with its implicit discussion of rural and urban politics and its explicit message on race and the West.
5. GoodFellas: I’ve seen Taxi Driver included on lots of lists, and it is appropriate, but I think GoodFellas and Raging Bull fit better. Taxi Driver presents too grim a picture even for me. GoodFellas is, in large part, about the intersection of class and white ethnic identity. While I prefer Godfather as a film, GoodFellas paints a more accurate and compelling picture of America, largely because of the class component.
6. Night of the Living Dead: The Manchurian Candidate might also have occupied this slot, but I think Night of the Living Dead is a better, more important film. The terror and paranoia in NotLD is more immediate and practical than in The Manchurian Candidate. In the latter, our neighbors may be communists. In the former, they’re quite a bit worse. More importantly, we don’t get saved by Frank Sinatra, and our hero is undone in the end for the most mundane, casual, and meaningless of reasons.
7. Badlands: Again with the empty geographic space, but what I like best is the metaphorical empty space that Spacek and Sheen can only fill with a cobbled together dime store romance narrative. One of my favorite films.
8. The Searchers: I know that some prefer other Ford, including MWSLV and Stagecoach, but I cannot seriously entertain such arguments. Wayne’s Edwards is one of the most complex, difficult, troubled, and American characters ever to appear on celluloid.
9. Raging Bull: GoodFellas in a different context. Context matters.
10. Citizen Kane: Included both for its narrative and for its place in film history. Money, politics, and fame are tied together differently in American that anywhere else. CK also demonstrates the possibilities of the medium, a medium in which America is pre-eminent.
This list is a bit grim, possibly because I like grim movies. It’s also Western-heavy; Searchers, Once Upon a Time in the West, and Blazing Saddles are clearly Westerns, while Badlands and Lone Star are close. I don’t think that’s unfair, especially considering that The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance would probably come next. You don’t have to buy the Frederick Jackson Turner thesis to believe that space and the West are critical to the American experience, and in important ways set America apart from Europe and elsewhere. Race, another theme critical to America, is present in at least five of the films I selected, although usually in different ways. The presence or absence of the state also plays a large role in all but two of the films.
Honorable Mention: Office Space, Sunset Boulevard, Groundhog Day, High Noon, The Machurian Candidate, Chinatown, Scarface, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, The Fog of War, Days of Heaven, Touch of Evil, Once Upon a Time in America, Pulp Fiction