When the fireworks have faded and the sunburn’s setting in, when the steaks and dogs have been scarfed and you’re feeling particularly patriotic, consider a quieter, cooler way to commemorate the most American day on the calendar this year: a fine sampling of perhaps our greatest national product — the movies.
America’s best exports have always been cultural — music, movies, literature, and the strange but undeniably delicious modifications we apply to traditional ethnic cuisine (croissanwich anyone?) — and any one of these fine films would make an appropriate choice to celebrate our country’s birthday. And remember the words of the great American film scholar Roger Ebert, words especially worth recalling in these turbulent, toxic political times.
“We live in a box of space and time,” Ebert said. “Movies are windows in its walls. They allow us to enter other minds, not simply in the sense of identifying with the characters, although that is an important part of it, but by seeing the world as another person sees it.”
Screen a little empathy this year.
Watch free or die, my fellow Americans.
1 ‘Easy Rider’ (1969)
An icon of American counterculture that arguable saved the film industry, most certainly sparked the New Hollywood era and definitely gave the world the living legend that is Jack Nicholson, “Easy Rider” is a true classic in every way.
Wyatt, aka Captain America (Peter Fonda), and Billy (Dennis Hopper) are freewheeling bikers who, after smuggling cocaine from Mexico to Los Angeles, sell the haul and get paid. With the money hidden inside the Stars & Stripes-painted fuel tank of Wyatt’s California-style chopper, they ride east to reach New Orleans, Louisiana, to attend Mardi Gras because … well, because … eh, who cares? It was the sixties, man.
Along the way, the duo encounter some casual free love at a commune, hitchhikers, LSD, and the charismatic alcoholic ACLU lawyer George Hanson (Jack Nicholson), who they share a cell with after being picked up by the The Man for, of all things, “parading without a permit.”
Directed by Hopper himself, and written by him and Fonda, the film, with “Bonnie and Clyde” and “The Graduate,” kick-started the so-called New Hollywood era during the early ‘70s, as the clunky old studios suddenly realized how much money could be made from low-budget films made by youthful, edgy directors.
It was a game changer.
It still kind of is.
2 ‘The Deer Hunter’ (1978)
For my money this is the greatest Vietnam movie (sorry, Coppola and Kubrick — no hard feelings). That is, this is the best movie about the worst chapter in the ongoing saga of modern America (so far), the shadow of which has darkened so much of what came after, to such a great extent, that we’re only just now beginning to truly realize it (see the Ken Burns series if you don’t believe me, or even if you do — it’s worth it).
Simply put, the movie’s about some Rust Belt steelworkers whose lives are changed forever after they fought in the Vietnam War. It stars Robert De Niro and Christopher Walken, and features many incredible supporting performances — especially from Meryl Streep and her real life romantic partner John Cazale, a would-have/should-have-been movie icon cut down too young, before this movie was even finished filming in fact.
You can just feel the trauma in every frame of this film — the legit horrors of war without any of the machismo and revisionist valor so often attached to combat. Even when De Niro’s character does manage some tough-guy, Rambo-esque moves, he only moves further from salvation. He cannot save the day, director Michael Cimino seems to say, because it was lost long before his boots touched the ground. And when, eventually, he becomes convinced his friend is alive and still “over there,” his quest to find and save Walken is just as much about understanding what has happened to himself, and coming to terms with the humanity he lost there, as it is about the promise he made before they left to bring his buddy home — no matter what.
3 ‘National Lampoon’s Vacation’ (1983)
For decidedly lighter, but no less American, fare, consider this comedy classic written by pop culture prophet John Hughes.
Well-meaning but hopelessly cursed family man Clark Griswold (Chevy Chase), wanting to spend more time with his wife (Beverly D’Angelo) and children (Dana Barron and certified Brat Packer Anthony Michael Hall), decides to lead the clan on a cross-country expedition from the Chicago suburbs to the southern California amusement park Walley World (definitely NOT Disney World, get it?).
It’s one thing after another for the Griswold pack. They have their hubcaps stolen, get lost, cantankerous Aunt Edna hitches along, the infamous Cousin Eddie (Randy Quaid) makes his debut — and Clark is again and again tempted by an enigmatic beauty (Christie Brinkley) in a red sports car.
Then, they actually get to Walley World — and things somehow get worse.
It’s a seminal American experience reimagined as an epic — Norman Rockwell’s version of Homer’s “Odyssey” — guaranteed to make you feel better about your family, and possibly make you rethink that summer road trip.
4 ‘American Gangster’ (2007)
Based on the fascinating true story of Frank Lucas, a gangster from La Grange, North Carolina who smuggled heroin into the United States on American service planes returning from the Vietnam War — a true manifest destiny-type of tale — this captivating crime story stars Denzel Washington as Lucas and Russell Crowe as real life cop-turned-lawyer Richie Roberts, who pursues his nefarious quarry even as his own life crumbles.
According to Wikipedia: “Many of the people portrayed, including Roberts and Lucas, have stated that the film took a lot of creative license with the story, and three former DEA agents sued Universal claiming the agency’s portrayal was demoralizing.”
Nevertheless, it was nominated for 21 awards — including two Academy Award nominations for Best Art Direction and Best Supporting Actress (Ruby Dee) — and won three, including a Screen Actors Guild Award for Outstanding Performance by a Female Actor in a Supporting Role (for Dee).
The tale of organized crime in American is an essential chapter in the country’s larger story, and the strange twin careers of Lucas and Roberts is a fascinating case study — even if the film edges far afield from fact at times.
Regardless, the words of Washington’s Lucas bear repeating in today’s shrieking culture: “The loudest one in the room is the weakest one in the room.”
5 ‘A League of Their Own’ (1992)
Nothing says America like baseball, and this is unquestionably one of the greatest — if not, in fact, the greatest — baseball movies ever made. It was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”
Not to mention just plain awesome.
The movies tells an albeit fictionalized account of the very real All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, which existed from 1943 to 1954. Ultimately, more than 600 women played in the league.
From Wikipedia: “With America’s entry into World War II, several major league baseball executives started a new professional league with women players in order to maintain baseball in the public eye while the majority of able men were away … They feared that Major League Baseball might even temporarily cease, due to the war because of the loss of talent.”
Turns out, they needn’t have worried their money-grubbing minds about it.
Featuring flawless performances by Geena Davis, Lori Petty, Rosie O’Donnell, Bill Pullman and, of course, Tom Hanks (and even a passable facsimile of acting by Madonna), the movie is touching and hilarious and captivating for all of it’s 128 minutes.
Hanks’ immortal outburst — “There’s no crying in baseball!” — was eventually chosen as #54 on the American Film Institute’s “100 Years … 100 Movie Quotes” list.
To this day, the lack of female players in major league baseball remains a recurring debate. And this movie (or, more accurately, the real life events it portrays) gives credence to the “Why not?” side of the discussion. If not now, when?
6 ‘American Graffiti’ (1973)
In all the fandom fervor — good and bad — surrounding the cult-like community of Star Wars, and its wider universe, which seems today more than ever to be ever-expanding, like the famished Blob, it can be hard to separate the man from the movies. Like it or not, George Lucas is the Star Wars guy, with all the good and evil such a title entails. His directorial filmography is paltry in terms of efforts set in a galaxy a bit closer to home, and “American Graffiti” gives film fans pause to consider the career that might have been.
Set in Modesto, California in 1962, the movie is a love letter to the cruising and rock-and-roll culture popular among the Baby Boomers — including Lucas himself (he was apparently something of a gear head in his younger days). Told in a series of vignettes, it follows a group of teens through their respective adventures during the last night of summer vacation.
Ron Howard and Richard Dreyfuss are set to leave in the morning to go start college far away from their hometown. Howard’s girlfriend — Dreyfuss’ little sister — is clearly not happy about that, and is pushing her beau to stick around just as he suggests they see other people. So, the night’s off to a great start right away.
Meanwhile, Charles Martin Smith is desperately trying to get someone to buy him booze, and moody fatalistic drag race champ Paul Le Mat spends his night circling a brash would-be opponent (Harrison Ford) while babysitting an annoying 12-year-old girl with a crush on him.
Add in a killer soundtrack and a truly epic guest appearance by Wolfman Jack (as himself, naturally), and you’ve got a genuinely unique and iconic film that more than holds up today and that should have heralded a varied, prolific career for young Lucas (he was just 29, people). Instead, it remains a beloved cinematic artifact of a world that never came to be, as instead he went off and dabbled in (an admittedly awesome bit of) sci-fi next and never looked back.