In celebration of the United States’ 240th birthday, I have opted to once again utilize my love of film to comprise a list of the best movies that feature the name of my country in the title. This list is obviously representative of my own opinions and tastes, and is taken from films that I have seen, so if you don’t see your favorite “American” movie on here, then I probably have yet to watch it. The films are not ranked, but are listed in order of release. Enjoy!
An American in Paris (1951) – Gene Kelly is delightful as always as Jerry, the titular American in Paris. He is a GI who stuck around in the City of Light after WWII to paint scenes of the beautiful city. There he is the apple of the eye of Milo, an heiress who is more than happy to advance his art career in exchange for his affection, but he soon is smitten by a lovely French lady named Lise, played by Leslie Caron in her debut film role. Yet why stop at a love triangle? Lise is engaged to Henri, a singer, and another complication for Jerry’s pursuit of true love. This film won Best Picture and five other Oscars in 1952, thanks in large part to its climactic and bold 17 minute ballet that closes out the film without a word of dialogue. Ironically, the first film on our list never twirls its toes in America.
American Graffiti (1973) – Everyone knows George Lucas created the Star Wars universe and changed filmmaking forever with the beginnings of his space saga in 1977, but did you know that he grew up a hotrod aficionado and wanted to be a racecar driver and not a filmmaker? His interests in space and fantasy spectacle came after he was recovering in bed after nearly dying in a nasty car wreck as a teenager. While he is certainly better known now for his sweeping and swashbuckling adventure tales (not to mention for losing his touch at continuing to create these), Lucas’ love of racing and teenage perspective at impending adulthood are marvelously captured in his breakout success, American Graffiti. This film also featured breakout roles for Richard Dreyfuss and somewhat more grown up Ron Howard, as well a cameo appearance from legendary DJ Wolfman Jack and a critical bit role for Harrison Ford.
An American Werewolf in London (1981) – Another America movie that takes place entirely in a European nation. What gives? I’ll let it slide for John Landis, who was already an accomplished comedy director with the successes of Animal House and The Blues Brothers under his belt when he took on horror in his own unique way. Make no mistake, this movie is genuinely scary when it wants to be, especially thanks to esteemed make-up and monster artist Rick Baker whose work on the transformation scene continues to stand the test of time. Landis throws plenty of sardonic laughs in throughout to perfectly balance the film between horror and comedy. One fun and subtle way he does this is with the soundtrack, which features a selection of songs that all have the word “moon” in the title. Taking a bunch of something with one common word in the title? Now there’s an idea, John. I’m so grateful for it, I think I’ll feature another of your features.
Coming to America (1988) – This time Landis is back completely to comedy, and he has one of the best to work with in Eddie Murphy who plays an African prince of the fictional country of Zamunda named Akeem. His parents, played by James Earl Jones and Madge Sinclair (who would be king and queen again six years later as the voices of Mufasa and Sarabi in The Lion King) want him to marry a woman they have picked out for him, but he wants to marry someone he finds on his own and who can love him for more than being a prince. Thus, he and his friend Semmi, played by Arsenio Hall, set off to Queens, New York to search for a queen. Where else would you go? This coming of age tale is highlighted by the sweet search for true love and the yet unbroken innocence of Akeem.
American History X (1998) – This is a far different coming of age story. The Vinyards are a frustrated family filled with contempt toward people of color. Derek (Edward Norton) is a neo-Nazi who spends three years in prison and comes to realize the hypocrisy of his hatred. He returns on parole a changed man hoping to turn his younger brother Danny (Edward Furlong – the one true John Connor from Terminator 2) away from the same mistakes he has made. A brutally realistic look at the way of life among white supremacists that sadly still resonates today.
American Pie (1999) – Let’s get back to some more funny coming of age films, or in this case, cumming. The first of a trilogy plus one, American Pie was the late-90s signature teenagers-looking-to-lose-their-virginity movie. Sure, it’s overly raunchy at times, but it did make a lasting impression on cinema and slang (MILF!). What I particularly love is that each of the four guys who vow to lose their virginity by prom night reach the night of reckoning with a newfound perspective of why it is not important that they shed their sexual inexperience yet to grow. And as great as Sean William Scott’s Stifler is, Eugene Levy’s hilariously over-helpful yet caring portrayal as Jim’s dad is what kept these movies going.
American Beauty (1999) – A beauty of a film from a directorial and cinematographically standpoint, not to mention Kevin Spacey has a terrific turn as Lester Burnham who finally reaches his “enough of this shit” point in the midst of a midlife crisis set off and centered around his unhealthy admiration for his daughter’s friend played by Mena Suvari, who clearly kept busy as the apple of many eyes in 1999. In fact, she and John Cho, who was also in this and American Pie, are the only actors in two films with “American” in the title in the same year.
American Psycho (2000) – You like Huey Lewis and the News? Funny that the guy playing one of the most infamous film psychos as the new Joker is brutally murdered by Batman. Oh, and if you liked that, then try this on for size. Don’t mess with Huey Lewis.
Team America: World Police (2004) -Leave it to Trey Parker and Matt Stone to critique American over-patriotism with a musical starring marionettes and totally fucking nail it! Their break-through-the-bullshit humor is brilliantly represented in crude jokes and one of the wildest sex scenes ever filmed, and especially in the great songs that do everything from humanize Kim Jong-il to shit on Ben Affleck. The most well remembered tune is one you’ll hear a lot today.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014) & Captain America: Civil War (2016) – Respectively my second and third favorite movies in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) behind only The Avengers, these sequels far excel the fairly lackluster first Captain America movie by bringing the character and stories into the modern day to tackle real world issues of political corruption, the ethics and limits of surveillance and safety, and the accountability of destruction and death of innocents caused by well-intended actions.
Thanks for reading! Stay safe with your Fourth of July celebration, and be sure to return next week for more fun! As always, send questions, comments, or suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org.