Listing Movies: 101 American Movies

Fabrizio del Wrongo writes:

In July the BBC published a list purporting to represent the “greatest” examples of American filmmaking. I put the key word in quotes because I’m not sure what it means. The only clarification offered by the BBC: the movies on their list are great on an “emotional level.” I suppose that’s as good a definition of greatness as any.

It’s a good list. Not too egghead-y, not too populist, with most of the Big Kahunas of American film being represented. Still, there are some problems. For example, Billy Wilder claims five spots on the list. Wilder is a great filmmaker. But is he really responsible for more great movies than either John Ford or Howard Hawks? A friend suggests that Wilder’s cynicism and sharpie persona jibe with contemporary attitudes. I suspect he’s right; Wilder seems to be the go-to “classic” filmmaker for many folks under 50. But the surfeit of Wilder films is partly responsible for the absence of some real giants: King Vidor, Fritz Lang, Harold Lloyd, John Huston, Raoul Walsh, Frank Borzage, George Cukor, Douglas Fairbanks, and surely some others I’m overlooking at the moment are nowhere to be found on the BBC’s list. Still others are underrepresented. Ernst Lubitsch, who I think is one of the absolute greats, claims a measly one film, 50% of Spike Lee’s tally. Leo McCarey is present via “Duck Soup,” but I fear that’s the Marx Brothers entry before it’s the Leo McCarey one.

Anyway, since I’m a nerd and I need something to blog about, I decided to make my own list. “Hey,” I thought, “I’ll make a list that puts this BBC one to shame!”

That’s easier said than done, as I learned while toying with my choices. The numerical limit creates a problem of selection: It just isn’t possible to whittle the American cinema down to 100 titles and avoid leaving out a bunch of deserving stuff. My first cut was closer to 200, and by the time I got it down to around 120 I started feeling a sting with each strike of the proverbial blue pencil.

To compensate, I imposed rules, all of them fairly arbitrary. For instance, I decided to limit directors to three titles. Is that reasonable? I’m not sure. But without a limit, guys like Ford, Hawks, Lubitsch, and Hitchcock would dominate the list, and prevent it from being as eclectic as I initially envisioned. And variety is important, right? The list, it seems to me, should encompass all (or most) of what I see as being great about American movies. Otherwise, what’s the point?

I also decided that I wouldn’t include anything I didn’t like. In other words, I would make no selections based solely on factors like historical importance, reputation, and political correctness. Of course, this adds a degree of subjectivity to my list. But is objectivity even possible in such an undertaking? After all, there are no carved-in-stone criteria for greatness, or even okayness. So why bother feigning objectivity? It’s my list, and it reflects my tastes. How could it be otherwise?

Ultimately, any list of this kind ends up saying more about itself — about the process of compiling it — than its purported topic. I’m okay with that.

Intolerance (Griffith, 1916)
One A.M. (Chaplin, 1916)
True Heart Susie (Griffith, 1919)
Broken Blossoms (Griffith, 1919)
One Week (Cline, 1920)
Nanook of the North (Flaherty, 1922)
Why Worry? (Newmeyer/Taylor, 1923)
The Big Parade (Vidor, 1925)
Lady Windermere’s Fan (Lubitsch, 1925)
The Gold Rush (Chaplin, 1925)
Sunrise (Murnau, 1927)
The General (Bruckman, 1927)
The Wind (Sjostrom, 1928)
The Iron Mask (Dwan, 1929)
Morocco (Sternberg, 1930)
Love Me Tonight (Mamoulian, 1932)
The Old Dark House (Whale, 1932)
Trouble In Paradise (Lubitsch, 1932)
Red Dust (Fleming, 1932)
Me and My Gal (Walsh, 1932)
A Man’s Castle (Borzage, 1933)
Duck Soup (McCarey, 1933)
The Bitter Tea of General Yen (Capra, 1933)
It Happened One Night (Capra, 1934)
Top Hat (Sandrich, 1935)
Dodsworth (Wyler, 1936)
The Awful Truth (McCarey, 1937)
Holiday (Cukor, 1938)
Gunga Din (Stevens, 1939)
Stagecoach (Ford, 1939)
His Girl Friday (Hawks, 1940)
The Shop Around the Corner (Lubitsch, 1940)
Citizen Kane (Welles, 1941)
The Lady Eve (Sturges, 1941)
How Green Was My Valley (Ford, 1941)
Double Indemnity (Wilder, 1944)
Meet Me in St. Louis (Minnelli, 1944)
To Have and Have Not (Hawks, 1944)
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (Kazan, 1945)
Notorious (Hitchcock, 1946)
Out of the Past (Tourneur, 1947)
Daisy Kenyon (Preminger, 1947)
The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (Huston, 1948)
Unfaithfully Yours (Sturges, 1948)
The Reckless Moment (Ophuls, 1949)
Intruder In the Dust (Brown, 1949)
Wagon Master (Ford, 1950)
Winchester ’73 (Mann, 1950)
Singin’ in the Rain (Donen/Kelly, 1952)
The Big Heat (Lang, 1953)
The Band Wagon (Minnelli, 1953)
The Night of the Hunter (Laughton, 1955)
The Killing (Kubrick, 1956)
Seven Men from Now (Boetticher, 1956)
Men In War (Mann, 1957)
Touch of Evil (Welles, 1958)
Vertigo (Hitchcock, 1958)
Day of the Outlaw (De Toth, 1959)
Rio Bravo (Hawks, 1959)
The Sundowners (Zinneman, 1960)
Psycho (Hitchcock, 1960)
The Nutty Professor (Lewis, 1963)
Chimes at Midnight (Welles, 1967)
The Wild Bunch (Peckinpah, 1969)
Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice (Mazursky, 1969)
Putney Swope (Downey, 1969)
Hi, Mom! (De Palma, 1970)
Born to Win (Passer, 1971)
McCabe & Mrs. Miller (Altman, 1971)
Cabaret (Fosse, 1972)
The Godfather, Parts I & II (Coppola, 1972/1974)
Mean Streets (Scorsese, 1973)
Jaws (Spielberg, 1975)
Shampoo (Ashby, 1975)
Nashville (Altman, 1975)
Next Stop, Greenwich Village (Mazursky, 1976)
Citizens Band (Demme, 1977)
Always for Pleasure (Blank, 1978)
The Black Stallion (Ballard, 1979)
The Empire Strikes Back (Kershner, 1980)
Shoot the Moon (Parker, 1982)
The Right Stuff (Kaufman, 1983)
Heartbreakers (Roth, 1984)
To Live and Die in L.A. (Friedkin, 1985)
Blue Velvet (Lynch, 1986)
Let’s Get Lost (Weber, 1988)
Die Hard (McTiernan, 1988)
Near Death (Wiseman, 1989)
Where the Heart Is (Boorman, 1990)
Carlito’s Way (De Palma, 1993)
Six Degrees of Separation (Schepisi, 1993)
Vanya on 42nd Street (Malle, 1994)
Before Sunrise (Linklater, 1995)
The Matrix (Wachowski/Wachowski, 1999)
Three Kings (Russell, 1999)
Cast Away (Zemeckis, 2000)
Mulholland Dr. (Lynch, 2001)
Training Day (Fuqua, 2001)
Apocalypto (Gibson, 2006)
Crank: High Voltage (Neveldine/Taylor, 2009)
Margaret (Lonergan, 2011)

Some comments:

  • There are 101 movies rather than 100 because I wanted to include “Chimes at Midnight.” “Chimes” was made by an American yet is not a product of the American film industry — or of any country’s film industry. So it’s 100 American movies plus “Chimes.”
  • I think the greatest decades for American movies are the ’30s and the ’20s, followed by the ’40s and the ’70s. The BBC list included five movies made prior to 1930 — which is embarrassing. I tried to correct that. I have fewer entries from the ’90s and ’00s. That’s fine. I think movies are in decline, more or less.
  • Filmmakers with three titles: Griffith, Ford, Hawks, Welles, Hitchcock, Lubitsch. Seems about right to me. I had Altman with three films, but I sacrificed one in order to make room for another documentary.
  • Filmmakers with two titles: Keaton, Chaplin, McCarey, Capra, Sturges, Minnelli, Mann, Mazursky, De Palma, Altman, Coppola (if you count both Godfathers), Lynch. Again, seems about right. Some might quibble with Mann, Mazursky, and De Palma. I think they’re among the greats. I wish I had found room for a second Peckinpah.
  • Yes, I cheated by listing “The Godfather” and “The Godfather, Part II” as one movie. It’s good to be the guy who makes the rules.
  • Kubrick: A giant, no doubt, but I’m not a huge fan. I do love “The Killing.” If I were to pick a second title, it would be “Lolita” or “Dr. Strangelove.” Most of his later movies strike me as bizarre more than good.
  • De Palma: Is De Palma’s greatness still a matter of controversy? I suspect so, at least in some quarters. I have him with two titles and could have given him three. I don’t think the two I picked — “Hi, Mom!” and “Carlito’s Way” — are necessarily his best, but they do represent his range. And the list needed the variety offered by the grubby avant-gardism of “Hi, Mom!” and the meat-and-potatoes gloss of “Carlito’s Way.”
  • Scorsese: “Mean Streets” is my favorite Scorsese, and that’s the one I chose. I dislike “Raging Bull.” “Goodfellas” is hilarious, flashy, and memorable, but I see it as a dumdum joke taken way too far. (Yes, that’s part of the point, but do I have to watch all of it?) I love “Taxi Driver,” but I nixed it in favor of “Putney Swope.”
  • Fincher, Wes Anderson, P.T. Anderson: Talented guys, but I haven’t loved any of their movies, and I’ve been annoyed by several. I’ve been meaning to revisit “Fight Club.”
  • Tarantino: I suppose the list might have included “Pulp Fiction” or “Jackie Brown,” both of which I like. “Kill Bill” and “Basterds” are like diarrhea: just when you think they’re finished, here comes more. “Django” I disliked. Ultimately, I don’t regret QT’s absence.
  • Sirk: I’m hip to Douglas Sirk. Just not to the extent that your college professor is. I had a John Stahl movie on the list for a while, but I ended up cutting it. I like Stahl more than Sirk.
  • Coens: They’re among the most proficient and distinctive filmmakers of their generation, yet I’m just not that enthusiastic about movies like “Fargo” and “No Country for Old Men.” I tend to enjoy their wild comedies best. I suppose I might have included “Raising Arizona” or “The Big Lebowski.”
  • Woody Allen: I am somewhat bugged by the lack of Allen movies. I like a bunch of Allen, albeit in a reserved sort of way. Perhaps that reservedness is what prevented me from including him.
  • Malick: Maybe you can include him on your list?
  • Yeah, there are a lot of white guys. Look, I’ve enjoyed aspects of Spike Lee’s work, but he’s not my idea of a great filmmaker, or even a particularly good one. Charles Burnett is my idea of a bore. I’m happy to have Antoine Fuqua’s galvanizing “Training Day” on the list. On the other hand, I regret not finding room for Carl Franklin’s “Devil in a Blue Dress” and “One False Move.” (Why does no one talk about Franklin?)
  • As for women . . . Has there been a great female American filmmaker? I ask this in earnest, and I asked myself the same question while compiling the list. I think we can all appreciate the talents (and chutzpah) of Dorothy Arzner and Ida Lupino — and still admit they’re not among our greatest filmmakers. I suppose the best contemporary candidate is Kathryn Bigelow. I like her a lot, my favorite of hers being “Point Break.” It’s a terrific action movie, but “To Live and Die in L.A.” and “Die Hard” are, I think, better. Serious question: Does the Lana Wachowski who co-directed “The Matrix” count as a female filmmaker? UPDATE: I just realized I forgot Elaine May. I think she’s pretty great.
  • I get it: You think I’m nuts for including the “Crank” sequel and “Apocalypto.” I take “Crank: High Voltage” to be an avant-garde sketch comedy in the vein of “One Week,” “Putney Swope,” and “Hi, Mom!” It’s wild, fearless, and totally of its moment. As for “Apocalypto” . . . well, Mel Gibson might be crazy, but “Apocalypto” is, for me, a singular experience — immediate, fierce, rueful, and wise.
  • Many people probably haven’t seen (or even heard of ) “Born to Win,” “Heartbreakers,” “Shoot the Moon,” “Citizens Band,” “Where the Heart Is,” and some others. I think making “reach” selections like these is part of the fun of messing with a list of this type. Who wants a list comprised of “Casablanca”-style classics? Besides, I love all of these movies.
  • Some of the movies I regret not finding room for: “Taxi Driver,” “Something Wild,” “The Long Goodbye,” “California Split,” “The Maltese Falcon,” “The Unbearable Lightness of Being,” “High School,” “Bonnie and Clyde,” “Cabin in the Sky,” “The Bride of Frankenstein,” “Young Frankenstein,” “The Manchurian Candidate,” “Straw Dogs,” “Ride the High Country,” “The Magnificent Ambersons,” “The Merry Widow,” ” The Palm Beach Story,” “The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek,” “On Dangerous Ground,” “King Kong,” “Show Boat,” “Caught,” “Letter from an Unknown Woman,” “Gentleman Jim,” “Enemies: A Love Story,” “Ruggles of Red Gap,” “E.T: The Extraterrestrial,” “Star Wars,” “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” “Candy Man,” “Airplane!,” “The Navigator,” bunches of Ford, Hawks, Hitchcock, and De Palma, something from William Wellman, something starring Mary Pickford, something starring Greta Garbo, something starring Jimmy Cagney, something starring Bette Davis. (The absence of Cagney, Wellman, and Davis makes me realize — and regret — that the Warner Brothers films of the early ’30s are not represented. But fuck it, I’m not going back and making changes now.)

Well, wasn’t that obnoxiously self-involved?

About Fabrizio del Wrongo

Recovering liberal arts major. Unrepentant movie nut. Aspiring boozehound.
This entry was posted in Movies and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

23 Responses to Listing Movies: 101 American Movies

  1. FredR says:

    Spielberg got robbed. At least put AI on there!


  2. Fake Herzog says:

    This was a lot of fun. What it highlights for me is how woefully inadequate my knowledge of American movies pre-1950 is — I barely knew of any of those films much less saw any (I literally saw only “Citizen Kane” and have heard of maybe two or three others.)

    This is a great list for me to start catching up on everything I should watch to be considered an educated film snob 🙂

    After 1950 — I like some of your more distinctive choices but I would definitely include Woody Allen on my list (at least “Manhattan” and maybe “Crimes and Misdemeanors” as well) and I’d also include “Raging Bull” even though I love “Mean Streets” and have always thought “King of Comedy” is under-rated as one of his masterpieces (and one of Jerry Lewis’ great performances.)

    Some unique movies on my list would include Duvall’s “The Apostle”, a Spike Jones film (probably “Being John Malkovich”, but I just love all his stuff), and Zach Snyder’s “300” (mainly because he pioneered the CGI/comic-book visual style and he did it with class.)


  3. Fenster says:

    I enjoyed your selections from mid century on since I got them but like Fake Herzog my early cinema knowledge is way inadequate, which means I appreciated that part of the list even more than enjoyed it. Gives me a sense of the homework to be done. Really enjoyed the thoughtful/idiosyncratic approach.


  4. No Nolan, no MAD MAX: FURY ROAD, no THERE WILL BE BLOOD? This list is complete bullshit.


  5. Paul Harrington says:

    I could come close to my own 100 choosing from your list and your runners-up. I’m looking forward to seeing the few on your list that I haven’t seen.


  6. Faze says:

    Great list. Glad that you give the silents their due. “Sunrise” is a continual delight. Not familiar with the Chaplin. Griffith continually astonishes with his creativity and Dreiser-like realism. Agree with you about “Goodfellas” as a dum-dum joke. But, to me, Scorsese’s whole oeuvre is one big dum-dum joke — and he’s not in on it. To me, the sum of his work is that scene in “Raging Bull” where Jake LaMotta is in jail, beating his head against the wall, saying, “Stoopid, stooped, stoopid …”


  7. MD says:

    Just out of curiosity, why don’t you like Malick? I haven’t been into anything since Tree of Life, but there’re still Badlands (a compulsively watchable movie), Days of Heaven and The New World, all of which I think are great movies. He’s the closest thing we have to Tarkovsky. The Thin Red Line is a very good, albeit flawed movie. He has a writing credit on Dirty Harry, I might add.


  8. peterike2 says:

    Great list. Will be using it as guidance. Now, some random comments!
    I find it almost impossible to enjoy silent films. I don’t know why exactly, I just don’t. I don’t particularity like early talkies either.
    Now, I clearly like indie type films more than you do and my list would include things like “You Can Count on Me,” “Wendy and Lucy,” “About Schmidt,” and everything by Whit Stillman. And “Finding Neverland,” but I’m not sure that’s American. Stuff like that.

    Will we get a foreign film list? That would be even harder to whittle down I’d imagine.


  9. agnostic says:

    Movie lists should be separated into a visual list and a storytelling list. No other medium is such a mix of verbal and visual. Novels are only verbal, paintings are only visual. It places narrower limits around the criteria that we’re judging them on, allowing for clearer consensus.

    With movies, you don’t know how much the ranker is giving weight to the visual or narrative aspects. Your list, for example, gives greater weight to narrative. Someone else’s would include The Parallax View, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Blade Runner, etc., which are among the best visually but narratively are “only” good page-turners.

    The best overall movies would be those that appeared on both the verbal and visual lists, and whose number would not therefore be pre-determined.


  10. Fake Herzog says:

    A couple more comments:

    – yes to Whit Stillman!!! I have seen Metropolitan at least ten times and I still find it enjoyable.

    – another under-rated American genre is the modern noir. I’m talking about films like the Coens’ “Blood Simple”, the movie you mention “One False Move” (which I just love), and another great movie with Bill Paxton (such a classic American actor) called “A Simple Plan” — which people always forget is a Sam Raimi movie. I still maintain his first two Spider-Man films are classics (although I don’t think a single super-hero movie would make my top 100 list, even though I’m a comic book geek and love super-hero movies — most are just too lighthearted fun to be considered classics — maybe I might include “Dark Knight”, but I’m still mad Nolan cast sad turtle as Bruce Wayne’s love interest)

    – speaking of Nolan, I want to let “Interstellar” sink in for a few years, but I suspect it will make my list — I’m a sucker for heady sci-fi concepts and sentimental, emotional concepts (that’s why I love the movie “Contact” so much!!!)

    – other interesting directors with unique visions — Tim Burton (I might want “Ed Wood” on my list, Sidney Lumet (either “12 Angry Men” or “Dog Day Afternoon” might go on my list) and Michael Mann (“Thief” has a special place in my heart as it is a great Chicago movie — if you ever come visit I’ll take you to the Green Mill jazz club, the one James Caan blows up in the film!!!)


  11. Fake Herzog says:

    Just saw agnostic’s comment — excellent point. That’s why I mentioned the movie “300” earlier and why I would second “Blade Runner”, if it were an American film (I assume we are excluding British directors, even if they make movies in America.)

    “I’ve… seen things… you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion; I watched c-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate… All those… moments… will be lost, in time, like [chokes up] tears… in… rain. Time… to die.”


  12. agnostic says:

    To clarify about “visual” movies, I don’t mean just the cinematography and production design, costumes, visual effects, etc.

    It’s also the physical performances of the actors — how they move their whole body through space, how they use body language and gesture while relatively still, how they use facial expressions, and so on. (Call these “physical” movies if “visual” sounds too limited to cinematography.)

    This would go a long way toward giving greater weight to the actors’ performances, treating them more like stage plays, and away from the film crit pretension of treating movies more like closet dramas, radio plays, books on tape, and campfire tales.


  13. ricardo says:

    Don’t apologise for Apocalypto. It’s just about a perfect film and Gibson is some kind of lunatic genius.

    I like that “To Live And Die in L.A.” is on there.

    It’s a list that had me thinking “well if he likes _that_ movie/director then I wonder how close _this_ movie/director was to the list?”. Examples: Michael Mann (e.g. Manhunter), Walter Hill (The Driver, The Long Riders, Southern Comfort), Cronenberg, Ridley Scott. Point Blank and Deliverance (I haven’t seen your Boorman choice, thanks for that). John Carpenter (The Thing, Assault on Precinct 13, Halloween). Miller’s Crossing.

    And speaking of Halloween, no out-and-out horror movies? That’s a genre the US has been really great at. Watching Texas Chainsaw Massacre in a theatre was one of the most exhilarating cinematic experiences of my life.

    Liked by 1 person

    • peterike2 says:

      What’s with “Apocalypto”? Netflix doesn’t have it either on streaming or on DVD. Amazon has it for sale, but not for rent on streaming. Is this movie considered offensive or something? Yet it’s rated the 9th highest selling foreign film on Amazon.


      • ricardo says:

        Dunno. It has been on Netflix in the past.

        Just googled and it seems it was part of the Starz library that was pulled from Netflix in 2012. Starz doesn’t seem to have it now.

        Also learned from the wikipedia page that gave it a negative review, which is all the recommendation one needs.

        Liked by 2 people

      • Kevin O'Keeffe says:

        I can’t prove it, but I’m pretty damn sure that the powers-that-be, despise that film (“Apocalypto”), and thus its limited ready availability, is almost certainly not a coincidence.


  14. Kevin O'Keeffe says:

    If there were any movies I was going to say you were wrong to exclude, it’d be “Dr. Strangelove” and “The Manchurian Candidate.” Subjectively, I would also include (on my own list, that is) “The Four Feathers” (from 1939), and “Strangers on a Train.”


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