What makes a movie "American"? Is it patriotic or critical? Is it about identity, individualism, team spirit or oppression? Is it set in the Wild West or a modern metropolis? Does it even have to be made by an American?
This is a big question and maybe even more subjective than whether a movie is simply "good." So what follows is a far-from-complete list of movies that to me are uniquely American or speak to an America that is, at turns, fearsome and fantastic. You know, something to enjoy as we celebrate our 241st.
War is maybe America's best known export, followed by the motion picture. I'm betting that a war film, not even a Western, popped into your head when you thought of an American movie.
Francois Truffaut said that there's no such thing as an anti-war film — that any time the camaraderie and thrill of war are put to celluloid, they inspire, rather than suppress, the bellicose spirit. That's also subjective — Steven Spielberg said precisely the opposite, that every war film is anti-war. I don't think either generalization is quite true but I lean toward Truffaut's observation.
Still, it's harder to find a pair of films that better illustrate our modern wars than Kathryn Bigelow's The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty. The controversies about those films' messages show that patriotism is subjective and highlight the moral complexities of the wars we engage in post-9/11.
If you're looking for something a little more fun, let me admit that I unashamedly love Top Gun. It's a fun, sweaty movie that hits all the beats of '80s jingoism. A friend of mine claims it was directly responsible for two of her cousins' enlistment in the Air Force and I don't doubt her. The allure of powerful fighter jets, the easy conflict of vague foreign enemies, the companionship (and thinly veiled romance) of military buddies, the good times of R&R — it's all wildly misleading but fun as hell. (Bonus: Listen to Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazelwood's You've Lost that Loving Feeling.)
No Fourth of July list would be complete without a pick containing the zany wonder of national treasure Nicolas Cage. National Treasure fits the bill with a Declaration of Independence heist at the center of the fun. But Con Air is always worth revisiting, and The Rock combines our love of fast cars, intercontinental ballistic missiles and prisons.
And, does it get more American than punching Nazis? There's never a bad time to watch Raiders of the Lost Ark and the only other two Indiana Jones movies ever made: The Temple of Doom and The Last Crusade.
(If you're wondering why we didn't review the new Transformers this week, given that it appears to fit firmly in the 'Merica genre, please accept this pair of excuses: I haven't seen the first four, so the intricate mythmaking of the Transformers universe would've been lost on me; also I think you know what you're getting into with a Transformers movie at this point you're gonna go see it whether I rant or rave. If you love it, more power to you.)
Feeling more contemplative? If you haven't seen Moonlight yet, do. It's a touching study of American character and our freedom to construct our own identities — for better or worse.
I've been thinking about the media lately — plenty of Americans have. I was somewhat disappointed by the recently released Netflix documentary Nobody Speak but it's worth watching for the sections on the Hulk Hogan v. Gawker lawsuit, and the ensuing precedents on free speech. For another stomach-churning exploration of media, fame and the all-consuming public, watch Ace in the Hole. All-American fella Kirk Douglas, directed by non-American (gasp!) Billy Wilder, is great. (Wilder's filmography could probably populate this list. Outside looking in, I guess.) It's black and white but it's eerily timely.
The Social Network is a surprisingly entertaining thriller but it's also a look at the psychology that drove the rise of the biggest media company in the world, Facebook. And I know current events have put it back on your queue, but what better weekend to finally (re-)watch All the President's Men?
Make some time in your schedule for Tropic Thunder, maybe the funniest movie ever to skewer Hollywood and American obsession with war. Plus you get more Tom Cruise.
I'm not sure there's been a better American comedy than Mel Brooks' and Richard Pryor's Blazing Saddles. Race, politics and the brutally unfair "winning" of the West gets their fair shake. Also remarkably timeless.
Looking for something a little darker? How American are chainsaws, Texas and massacres? Why not combine them all? Seriously, though, Tobe Hooper's 1974 jewel The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is grim, terrifying and every bit as powerful today. It's a sweltering masterpiece, reminiscent of the soaring temperatures we've been having in late June. It perverts the American family ideal and paved the way for four decades of imitators. It's also, if you can stomach it, a beautiful piece of filmmaking.
Super 8. The perfect Spielberg homage, with kids and monsters.
Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. Far out.
Do the Right Thing. A very hot, very good slice of city life.
Chinatown. More cutting commentary on corruption in the West from a f'reigner.
Team America. At least go watch the music video.
Roadhouse. Never start anything inside the bar unless it's absolutely necessary, and other Swayze life lessons.
In the Loop. Biting, quick witted political satire.
Snow White. For the kids! Also it's great.
The Sandlot. They're still selling shirts at Target that say "You're killing me, Smalls."
Wizard of Oz. Country girl makes it big in the city but returns to her rural roots. ... As apple pie.
— Grant Scott-Goforth
For showtimes, see the Journal's listings at www.northcoastjournal.com or call: Broadway Cinema 443-3456; Fortuna Theatre 725-2121; Mill Creek Cinema 839-3456; Minor Theatre 822-3456; Richards' Goat Miniplex 630-5000.
BABY DRIVER. A wheel man pressed into service by a gangster drives getaway for a team of criminals with a sketchy plan. Starring Ansel Elgort, Jon Hamm and Kevin Spacey. R. 113m. BROADWAY, FORTUNA, MILL CREEK, MINOR.
THE BAD BATCH. Director Ana Lily Amirpour's grim post-apocalyptic cannibalism drama stars Suki Waterhouse, Jason Momoa and Keanu Reeves. R. 118m. MINOR.
BEATRIZ AT DINNER. Salma Hayek and John Lithgow have an uncomfortable evening as an immigrant holistic healer and a blowhard one percenter. R. 142m. MINOR.
THE BEGUILED. Kirsten Dunst (hey, girl), Nicole Kidman and Elle Fanning star as Southern women who take in a wounded Union soldier (Colin Farrell) in this Sophia Coppola film where, once again, shit goes sideways in a house full of blondes. R. 94m. BROADWAY, MINOR.
DESPICABLE ME 3. An out of work Gru (Steve Carell) returns to a life of crime, meets his long-lost twin and battles a villain stuck in the '80s (Trey Parker). With Kristen Wiig. PG. 156m. BROADWAY, FORTUNA, MILL CREEK.
THE HOUSE. Broke parents (Amy Poehler and Will Ferrell) get in over their heads setting up an illegal casino to pay for college tuition. R. 128m. With Jason Mantzoukas. BROADWAY, FORTUNA, MILL CREEK.
LETTERS FROM BAGHDAD. Documentary about Gertrude Bell, a powerful British woman in post-World War I Iraq. Starring Ammar Haj Ahmad, Adam Astill and Tom Chadbon. NR. 95m. MINIPLEX.
JAWS (1975). A shark in the water and Steven Spielberg on a budget. Roy Scheider and Richard Dreyfuss are going to need a bigger boat. PG. 130m. BROADWAY.
47 METERS DOWN. Mandy Moore, Claire Holt and Matthew Modine star in a solid genre piece that wrings suspense from a bevy of fears: claustrophobia, suffocation, darkness, monsters, abandonment and a ticking clock. PG13. 89m. BROADWAY, MILL CREEK.
ALL EYEZ ON ME. Demetrius Shipp Jr. stars as iconic rap artist Tupac Shakur in this biopic directed by Benny Boom. With Danai Gurira and Kat Graham. R. 140m. BROADWAY, MILL CREEK.
BORN IN CHINA. Docu-Disney feature following panda, golden monkey and snow leopard families in the wild. Squee at will. G. 79m. MINOR.
CARS 3. Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) goes up against younger, faster cars in the race for the Piston Cup in this Pixar sequel. With Larry the Cable Guy and Cristela Alonzo. G. 109m. BROADWAY, FORTUNA, MILL CREEK.
GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY VOL. 2. This buoyant, funny follow-up to Marvel's trip to space with a motley crew of outlaws and misfits is surprisingly heartfelt — like a love-letter from writer-director James Gunn to the material and its fans. PG13. 136m. BROADWAY.
THE MUMMY. This action-horror Tom Cruise vehicle brings back some classic movie style and much-needed humor, but suffers from over-slickness, under-writing and not enough for the mummy (Sofia Boutella) to do. With Jake Johnson and Russell Crowe. PG13. 110m. BROADWAY.
PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: DEAD MEN TELL NO TALES. Johnny Depp returns to the waterlogged franchise with an excellent Javier Bardem as Captain Salazar, the cursed captain of the month and the only saving grace of the movie. PG13. 129m. BROADWAY, MILL CREEK.
TRANSFORMERS: THE LAST KNIGHT. I don't know, man. Maybe we should just let the robots take over and see how that goes. Give it a chance or whatever. PG13. 150m. BROADWAY, FORTUNA, MILL CREEK, MINOR.
WONDER WOMAN. Director Patty Jenkins and company handle the seriousness of justice and love overcoming prejudice and hate without turning pompous, and still entertain with outsized battle sequences in this fine DC adaptation. Starring Gal Gadot and Chris Pine. PG13. 141m. BROADWAY, FORTUNA, MILL CREEK.
— Jennifer Fumiko Cahill