Of the 600+ films in The Criterion Collection, almost 200 are listed as from the United States. While not all of these films are explicitly thematically based around life in the US, the American selections for the Collection do make up a mosaic of diverse perspectives on life in this country, proving that there is no sustainable solitary understanding of what it means to be an “American,” but there exists instead an array of possibilities for interpreting American identity.
What the American films do have in common, though, is provide proof that excellent films have been made in the US for quite some time.
So, after exhausting yourself with Independence Day Parades, firecracker-lighting, and Budweiser, settle down with a great American movie. Here are a dozen great titles from the Criterion Collection about “America” and “freedom” in the many senses of those terms.
#54 For All Mankind (Al Reinert, 1989)
There are few accomplishments worthy of the history books that rival the achievement of landing on the moon, and this documentary – which consists only of the footage available from the time of the NASA space program accompanied with aural recollections by the astronauts and others involved – perfectly captures both the ambition and the difficulty of being involved in the Apollo space program throughout the 1960s.
We, of course, have the privilege of history in looking back at Apollo’s early years, knowing full well that the space program would eventually accomplish JFK’s goal. But watching the teams of astronauts, scientists, and technicians attempt that uncertain goal piece by piece makes the unparalleled result feel even grander.
#97 Do the Right Thing (Spike Lee, 1989)
Spike Lee’s magnum opus focuses on the thing that made the United States a diverse and unique culture as well as place whose past has been paved in blood: the great American melting pot. America is an amalgam of identities and cultures, but it’s also a place where culture and territory has found great conflict.
Racial prejudice and race-based stereotypes are put under a magnifying glass in Lee’s knuckles-bare examination of American identity in the late-twentieth century, and Do the Right Thing remains one of American independent cinema’s most potent, layered, and confrontational representations of racial conflict.
#118 Sullivan’s Travels (Preston Sturges, 1942)
Preston Sturges’s story about a Hollywood writer looking for the great social American reality depicts utilizes one of the central institutions in American storytelling paradigms to great effect: the American road trip, where the protagonist learns from experience and chance encounters with other Americans. But Sullivan’s Travels is also an exploration of Hollywood and its potential responsibilities as an American institution, specifically whether or not studios have should depict the harsh realities of daily life or provide a relief from it. By opting for the latter, Sullivan’s Travels reveals Hollywood as the great factory of American myth.
#122 Salesman (Albert Maysles, David Maysles, Charlotte Zwerin)
This classic of the verite documentary style provides a fly-on-the-wall look at the now long-dead institution of the door-to-door salesman. Salesman follows a group of traveling Bible salesman as they struggle to make quotas and retain optimism. A film about resilience in the face of disappointment and the ruthlessness of competition, Salesman is a powerful reminder that the American Dream has never been easy to come by.
#175 Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (Terry Gilliam, 1998)
Here’s what the Duke himself has to say about the possibilities of America at the crest of the countercultural movement:
There was madness in any direction, at any hour. If not across the Bay, then up the Golden Gate or down 101 to Los Altos or La Honda… You could strike sparks anywhere. There was a fantastic universal sense that whatever we were doing was right, that we were winning…
And that, I think, was the handle—that sense of inevitable victory over the forces of Old and Evil. Not in any mean or military sense; we didn’t need that. Our energy would simply prevail. There was no point in fighting—on our side or theirs. We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave.
So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark—that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.
#265: Short Cuts (Robert Altman, 1993)
Short Cuts finds two American storytellers, short story writer Raymond Carver and film director Robert Altman, collaborating in this kaleidoscope of the lives of nearly two dozen characters in Los Angeles. In its three-hour-plus running time, Short Cuts paints an epic portrait of cops, doctors, waitresses, fishing buddies, neglected wives, realtors, and artists as they navigate through life’s disappointments, encounter inexplicable moments of happenstance, and long to see another day.
With an incredible cast including Tim Robbins, Robert Downey Jr., Julianne Moore, Lily Tomlin, Tom Waits, Frances McDormand, and the scene-stealing, brilliant Jack Lemmon, Altman proves himself in spades to be exactly what he had been in his twenty-plus years of filmmaking by this point: a master purveyor of Americana, with all of its quirks, dark secrets, and its idiosyncratic sense of humor.
#320 Young Mr. Lincoln (John Ford, 1939)
Long before he was a vampire hunter, Abraham Lincoln was a lawyer who occasionally struggled in his work. Young Mr. Lincoln depicts a legal battle that would prepare one of our greatest presidents for one of the most devastating conflicts Americans would ever engage in.
Young Mr. Lincoln is a meeting of 3 iconic American personalities: the legacy of the eponymous president, of course, the Classical Hollywood American director John Ford, who created what we know the cinematic West to be, and the film’s star, Henry Fonda, who embodied a particular American idealism of the 1930s and 1940s which meshed perfectly with Lincoln’s principles.
#336 Dazed & Confused (Richard Linklater, 1993)
Taking place 200 years after the Revolutionary War, Dazed & Confused follows an ensemble of teenagers taking part in the great American tradition of youthful debauchery, carelessness, and irresponsibility. In one tumultuous day followed by an endless night, the young men and women of Dazed & Confused fall in love, share conspiracy theories, buck the system, embrace anarchy, and effectively challenge authority, almost as if they’re on the verge of causing a new miniature revolution that’s all their own. L-I-V-I-N’
#545 Easy Rider (Dennis Hopper, 1969)
Really, the entire BBS set should be on this list, but Easy Rider is the seminal work of American counterculture made by a Hollywood studio. The son of a great American idealist, Peter Fonda plays “Captain America” traversing the New Old West with Billy his sidekick (Dennis Hopper) as they fend off hippie-haters and ride on the fumes of LSD. The film not only perfectly encapsulates an incredibly important cultural moment in 20th century American history, but it’s a necessary reminder of the earnestness of the countercultural movement’s search for a new kind of American freedom.
#557 The Times of Harvey Milk (Robert Epstein, 1984)
This is a nation that has often prided its nurturing of a citizenry who are encouraged to say what they believe to be right, whether or not it’s popular. Harvey Milk, the first openly gay official elected to significant office, is no doubt a truly American figure in the category of fearless outspokenness in the face of adversity.
A man who trusted in the power of community mobilization, democratic action, and organized activism, Milk was the type of force for change that characterizes many of our history’s prominent political and cultural icons, and this biographical documentary captures his spirit and his contributions beautifully.
#591 12 Angry Men (Sidney Lumet, 1957)
Here’s Henry Fonda again. In the wake of last week’s Supreme Court decision, 12 Angry Men proves a lasting reminder of the power of an individual dissent in the American justice system. 12 Angry Men is also a reminder that we need now more than ever about how our greatest decisions have often been, and should always be, made on deliberation and critical reason rather than groupthink. For a nation founded on dissent, 12 Angry Men remains a potent and transportable allegory.
Mr. Freedom (William Klein, 1969), from Eclipse Series 9: The Delirious Fictions of William Klein
After American photographer William Klein expatriated to France, he made several inventive and idiosyncratic feature films, one of which was this Vietnam-era satire about an imperialist functionary superhero named “Mr. Freedom” sent to France to defer a Communist invasion from baddies Moujik Man and Red China Man.
Mr. Freedom is a colorful and biting satire about American hubris-gone-awry, and a helpful reminder about how bastardized, politicized, and enslaving ideas like “freedom” can become.
What are your favorite American films in The Criterion Collection?