The American Experience: 100 Films About 50 States


I’m married to a Canadian, which recently led us both to ask the question: Which films, exactly, does a Canadian need to watch in order to understand America?

The answers added up to the greatest virtual road trip I have ever taken. It was like Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, if Bill and Ted were married, and from different countries. Furthermore, these films are probably still valid even if you’re not Canadian. After all, don’t know where you’re from. (This is untrue. WordPress tells me these things. You’re from Monaco. Wait…really? Monaco?)

We settled on a total of exactly 100 films. The American Film Institute always makes lists of 100 films, and we want to interfere with their Google rankings. Furthermore, one has to stop somewhere if this list is ever going to be a requirement for US citizenship.

(If we did have room for just one more film, we’d pick Boys Don’t Cry by Kimberly Peirce.)

What about television, you ask? Well, television is a conundrum. In a way, anything on television is highly “American” – Keeping Up With The Kardashians, Law & Order, The Oprah Winfrey Show, Ghost Hunters, How I Met Your Mother, and so on. There’s always a connection between popular TV shows and our nation’s dissonant, unmistakable mixture of guilty fantasy, workaholism, vaudeville, and moral zeal. However, not every show has something new to say. So I recommend that you save time and money and simply watch The Sopranos — in addition to being a television show, The Sopranos is also the finest structural analysis of the city of Baltimore you will ever see. Everything is filmed on-location in Albequerque, and you will learn first-hand how to cook meth, drink whiskey at noon, and “patch in” to a local biker gang.

Not every American region is equally represented here. What I mean is that nobody makes classic, archetypal movies about the Great Northwest. Oregon, Washington, Idaho, and their neighbors are like the opposite of New York: if a movie can be set here, it can be set anywhere. Nor is every period in American history really suitable for cinema. When Martin Scorsese tried to film The Gilded Age, he made The Age of Innocence. It was like the Sex Pistols trying to record a violin concerto. Similarly, neither World War has contributed much to the American film canon. This is because world wars are terrible for moral complexity. You can put a tin can next to a Nazi, and the tin can will seem heroic and self-sacrificing. You may think I’m wrong, but until you, too, have endured all 130 minutes of From Here To Eternity, you cannot begin to understand what I’ve been through. The title is incredibly accurate.

One final note: this list does not include Citizen Kane or Forrest Gump. I have omitted Forrest Gump because it epitomizes America’s worst attitudes towards its own history: “Yes, I was there, but it all happened so fast! I didn’t mean for nothing bad to happen to nobody!” The “aw, shucks” defense is incredibly American, incredibly stupid, and very irritating to the rest of the world. We don’t need it.

Nor do we need Citizen Kane, the only film that has gradually become a film about nothing except itself. The whole point of watching Citizen Kane is to have watched Citizen Kane. The film is so convinced of its own panoramic brilliance that it even condescends to be dull — deliberately, lest the viewer forget she is watching an epic critique of capitalism that’s three hours long. After I saw Citizen Kane, I thought all rich people were miserable shut-ins. Only later did I realize that (over a period of many decades) most people go out less frequently, become more sentimental, and are periodically accused of having changed. You don’t have to be rich.

A film called The Birth of a Nation is not included, either, since it is actually not about America. It is set on an imaginary planet in outer space where the evil schemes of dark-skinned villains are thwarted by heroic members of the Klu Klux Klan. Any resemblance to these United States is purely coincidental. Nonetheless, The Birth of a Nation has earned its place in history; it was produced in 1915, and was one of the first motion pictures ever to be fictional by accident. We can all be glad that in 1915 “talkies” had not yet been invented, so everything Griffith’s narrator says about the brave Klansmen is completely inaudible.


  1. The Social Network, David Fincher
  2. Nashville, Robert Altman
  3. Taxi Driver, Martin Scorsese
  4. The Godfather (Parts I and II only), Francis Ford Coppola
  5. The Big Sleep, Howard Hawks
  6. Slacker, Richard Linklater
  7. JFK, Oliver Stone
  8. Gone With The Wind, which had three directors for some reason
  9. A River Runs Through It, Robert Redford
  10. Dr. Strangelove, Or How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Bomb, a Stanley Kubrick joint
  11. Beasts of the Southern Wild, Benh Zeitlin
  12. 12 Angry Men, Sidney Lumet
  13. Fargo, Joel and Ethan Coen
  14. Argo, Ben Affleck (easy to remember, rhymes with Fargo)
  15. Dead Man, Jim Jarmusch
  16. Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas, Terry Gilliam
  17. Pulp Fiction, Quentin Tarantino
  18. Junebug, Phil Morrison
  19. The Last Picture Show, Peter Bogdanovich
  20. Wall Street, Oliver Stone
  21. Rumble Fish, Francis “Don’t Call Me Francis” Ford Coppola
  22. Frozen River, Courtney Hunt
  23. Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (Answer: Robert Zemeckis)
  24. Matewan, John Sayles
  25. The Big Lebowski, Ethan and Joel Coen
  26. The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters, Seth Gordon
  27. Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Howard Hawks
  28. Mystic River, Clint Eastwood
  29. A Christmas Story, Bob Clark
  30. Field of Dreams, Phil Alden Robinson Jr. III, Esq.
  31. No Country For Old Men, Joel “Lennon” Coen and Ethan “McCartney” Coen
  32. Casino, Martin Scorsese
  33. Thelma and Louise, Ridley Scott
  34. Best In Show, Christopher Guest
  35. All About Eve, Joseph L. Mankiewicz
  36. It’s A Wonderful Life, Frank Capra
  37. Wild At Heart, David Lynch (for more Lynch, see also: Mulholland Drive)
  38. Clerks, Kevin Smith
  39. A Star Is Born, William A. Wellman
  40. Midnight Cowboy, John Shlesinger
  41. Ray (Taylor Hackford) and Walk The Line (James Mangold)
    combined with Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story (James Kasdan)
  42. Kinsey, Bill Condon
  43. Cool Hand Luke, Stuart Rosenberg
  44. Unforgiven, Clint Eastwood
  45. Don’t Look Back, D. A. Pennebaker
  46. Lone Star, John Sayles
  47. The Devil Wears Prada, David Frankel
  48. Safe, Todd Velvet Goldmine Haynes
  49. Easy Rider, Dennis Hopper
  50. The Breakfast Club, John Hughes
  51. Rebel Without A Cause, Nicholas Ray
  52. Malcolm X, Spike Lee
  53. The Grapes of Wrath, John Ford
  54. Risky Business, Paul Brickman
  55. Good Will Hunting, Gus Van Sant
  56. Apocalypse Now, “Frankie” Coppola
  57. Sullivan’s Travels, Preston Sturges (probably not his real name)
  58. Mr. Smith Goes To Washington, Frank Capra
  59. Gates of Heaven, Errol “Flynn” Morris
  60. Everything produced by Jerry Bruckheimer, including Top Gun, Dangerous Minds, at least some of Bad Boys 2, and Enemy of the State
  61. Boyz n the Hood, John Singleton
  62. Anchorman, Adam McKay
  63. Almost Famous, Cameron Crowe
  64. American Beauty, Sam Mendes
    …see also American Psycho, American Splendor, American Graffiti, and American Movie. “Patriotic titles. Damn good films.”
  65. Wayne’s World, Penelope Spheeris
  66. Modern Times, Charlie Chaplin
  67. Deliverance, John Boorman
  68. The Philadelphia Story, George Cukor
  69. Team America: World Police, Trey Parker
  70. Requiem For A Dream, Darren Aronofsky
  71. Sunset Boulevard, Billy “Gone” Wilder
  72. Full Metal Jacket, Stanley Kubrick
  73. Kids, Larry Clark
  74. Bonnie and Clyde, Arthur Penn
  75. Shortbus, John Cameron Mitchell
  76. The French Connection, William Friedkin
  77. To Kill A Mockingbird, Robert Mulligan
  78. Brokeback Mountain, Ang Lee
  79. On The Waterfront, Elia Kazan
  80. The Insider, Michael Mann
  81. The Hustler, Robert Rossen
  82. Network, Sidney Lumet
  83. Scarface, Brian de Palma
  84. Yes, I was serious about Anchorman
  85. Grand Canyon, Lawrence Kasdan
  86. Sid and Nancy, Alex Cox
  87. One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, Milos Forman
  88. Miracle On 34th Street, George Seaton
  89. The Corporation, Mark Achbar and Jennifer Abbott
  90. Gods And Monsters, Bill Condon
  91. The 25th Hour, Spike Lee
  92. Magic Mike, Steven Soderbergh (alternate: The Girlfriend Experience)
  93. High Noon, Fred Zinnemann
  94. Pretty Woman, Garry [sic] Marshall
  95. Roger & Me, Michael Moore
  96. There Will Be Blood, Paul Thomas Magnolia Anderson
  97. Either Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai, or Coffee and Cigarettes, or both
    …but no other Jim Jarmusch films, I’m cutting you off
  98. The Night of the Hunter, Charles Laughton (feat. Robert Mitchum and Terry Sanders)
  99. Death Proof, Quentin Tarantino
  100. Sideways, Alexander “Max” Payne
  101. Fight Club, David Fincher

Honorable mentions (by director): Sofia “Francis” Coppola, Steven Spielberg, Lisa Cholodenko, Judd Apatow, Jerry Zucker, Frank Darabont, Mel Brooks, Laura Poitras, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, Wes Anderson, Amy Heckerling, and Adrian Lyne.

There were too many Martin Scorsese movies to possibly include them all, but let me just say, Martin, I couldn’t have understood this country without you, thank you…[cries]…thank you so much.

This list is dedicated to everyone who finds Trey Parker more relevant than Alfred Hitchcock.

If you want to see a film about Hawaii, that is sort of odd, but your best bets are Blue Crush and/or Forgetting Sarah Marshall. Avoid The Descendants, a movie that is best described as another Sideways, except without the latter film’s poetry and beauty.

…And who am I, you might ask, to include these particular films, and not others, such as ChinatownL. A. Confidential, The Two Jakes, or anything starring Bill Murray?

I’ll never tell.

XOXO, Kugelmass