Can You Define Hollywood History with Only 10 Films?

By  · Published on August 6th, 2014


If you could only pick ten movies to represent the entire history of American cinema, which would you choose?

This was the challenge undertaken by The Guardian’s chief film critic Robbie Collin, who may have made the first list to feature both Batman and Gene Kelly tap dancing through Paris. Indiewire’s Max O’Connell created his own list in response, and a few of us here at FSR wanted to play along, too.

The goal was to create a list of ten movies that summed up over a century of American film and then explain only one of our choices (which means it’s up to you to ask Adam Charles why he picked Face/Off).

Leave your own list in the comments section so we can endlessly debate and appreciate. The impossibility is part of the fun.

Harold Lloyd’s Stunts to Michael Bay’s Explosions

  1. Safety Last! (1923)
  2. His Girl Friday (1940)
  3. The Ox-Bow Incident (1943)
  4. The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)
  5. Rebel Without a Cause (1955)
  6. Spatacus (1960)
  7. Taxi Driver (1976)
  8. Ghostbusters (1984)
  9. Face/Off (1997)
  10. Transformers (2007)

Adam Charles: Coming out of the experimental, angry and re-energized age of post-Vietnam New Hollywood the next decade(s) of American cinema would be defined by the advent of three major creations. Two of which were pictures of the later 1970s (Jaws and Star Wars) which spawned the modern Hollywood blockbuster, and in the case of Star Wars bringing with it a new source of major profitability in “moichandising!”; itself a factor that would play an ironic role in the 2000s.

The other creation was the undeniable sensation that is Saturday Night Live, which would become the equivalent of a Hollywood feeder system for up-and-coming comic talent. This talent would become the cornerstone of screen comedy for more than one generation. Ivan Reitman’s Ghostbusters combines both ends of the 1980s Hollywood cash cow spectrum (the big budget, effects-heavy blockbuster with a cast of sketch comedy alums) that could appeal to the young demographic and capitalize on the additional revenue from action figures and plastic proton packs.

Buster Keaton to Neo

  1. Sherlock Jr. (1924)
  2. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937)
  3. The Maltese Falcon (1941)
  4. The Searchers (1956)
  5. Psycho (1960)
  6. Cleopatra (1963)
  7. Jaws (1975)
  8. Taxi Driver (1976)
  9. Clerks (1994)
  10. The Matrix (1999)

Adam Bellotto: Hollywood spending habits move like a sine wave; lots of peaks and valleys (right now, we’re riding high on a small Everest of bills). The late 50s/early 60s was another such time, when Hollywood was spending its weight in fine gold and jewels to produce masterworks like Ben-Hur or Spartacus.

1963’s Cleopatra was the first (though not necessarily the last) death omen for the great Golden Age of Hollywood. Adjusted for inflation, it cost a backbreaking $240M, a number bloated by the constant bungling of talent, production and the need to have a solid script before you start filming. Those millions paid off: Cleopatra made box office bank and critics marveled at how pretty a movie can look when every set and prop has been paper-mached out of hundred dollar bills. But it wasn’t enough. The film cost so much money that even with a massive payday, Fox practically shut its doors over its Egyptian Queen.

Another year or two of that, and the aptly named Golden Age would be kaput.

Destructive Money to the Hero We Deserve

  1. Greed (1924)
  2. The Jazz Singer (1927)
  3. Modern Times (1939)
  4. Singin’ in the Rain (1952)
  5. In the Heat of the Night (1967)
  6. Jaws (1975)
  7. Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
  8. sex, lies and videotape (1989)
  9. The Matrix (1999)
  10. The Dark Knight (2008)

Rob Hunter: Norman Jewison’s Oscar-winning In the Heat of the Night was revolutionary in many ways, but chief among them is that it put being a movie ahead of being a so-called “message movie.”

Of course the film has important things to say about race in America in the late 60s – it came just three years after the passage of the Civil Rights Act and features the now legendary scene of a black man slapping a white man back – but while it allows that struggle to weave between the forefront and background, it at all times stays focused on the story, mystery and characters. Its agenda never usurps the narrative, and the characters are allowed to be characters instead of social commentary pawns. It may seem minor, but too many “important” films forget to do the same. In the Heat of the Night is important and memorable for shifting racial expectations in film but also for being a damn fine movie.

Hollywood on Hollywood

  1. The Circus (1928)
  2. King Kong (1933)
  3. A Star is Born (1937)
  4. Sunset Blvd. (1950)
  5. Singin’ in the Rain (1952)
  6. Symbiopsychotaxiplasm (1968)
  7. The Last Picture Show (1971)
  8. Barton Fink (1991)
  9. Swimming with Sharks (1994)
  10. Adaptation (2002)

Scott Beggs: With the safety net of other writers creating solid, thorough, varied lists, I decided to test out a version of cinematic history that focused on entertainment-centric entertainment. Hollywood has always been fascinated with Hollywood, so creating a timeline featuring films about filmmakers, screenwriting, movie theaters and acting fame (see: Charlie Chaplin stumbling into stardom in The Circus) seemed like a good way to see how American cinema defines itself.

On that front, The Last Picture Show is an important outsider addition (because the symbolic importance of Hollywood can be defined from beyond Hollywood), but William Greaves’ Symbiopsychotaxiplasm probably demands the most explanation.

Far from the Hollywood mill, the reality bending documentary kaleidoscope sees Greaves acting as the director for a film while filming the filming of the film and filming the filming of the filming of the film (as well as offering all of it in split-screen for extra confusion). It is movie creation as rabbit chasing its tail. The way I see it, that’s not a bad definition for American cinema.

What’s on your list?

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