The Top Ten Americana Movies of All Time
Unlike those of other websites, our Top Ten lists are created from the empirical data of our global rankings.
Wikipedia defines “Americana” as “artifacts related to the history, geography, folklore, and cultural heritage of the United States,” with “patriotism and nostalgia playing a defining role in the subject.” With Independence Day upon us, it seems like a good time to look at some movies that explore American history and culture. In most cases, Americana celebrates that culture (whether it deserves celebration or not), which can make the genre often overly sentimental and nostalgic for a time and society that never really existed. It’s definitely a genre that tends towards rose-colored glasses. That said, this is a solid Top Ten – each of the films takes place in very specific times in American history and/or very specific and well-realized American locales, whether they uphold or question the American values they contain.
#1. Back to the Future (1985)
When Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) travels back in time, he has to not only help his parents hook up to ensure his own eventual birth; he also has to navigate the ins and outs of 1955. It’s not quite Norman Rockwell – there’s too much coarse language, antagonism and hanky panky for that – but the 1955 here still fits with the grander motif of how white suburban America likes to remember itself.
#2. Forrest Gump (1994)
Using then-nascent CGI technology, director Robert Zemeckis chronicled key events and eras of the latter 20th Century by inserting Tom Hanks as the titular Forrest Gump into archival footage. Forrest’s naivete reflects the innocence we’re told we had before it was lost somewhere amid the tumultuous Sixties and Seventies.
The Coen Brothers give center stage to their home state of Minnesota (and neighboring North Dakota), making local color a key feature of this very black comedy. Beleaguered car salesman Jerry Lundergard (William H. Macy) puts in motion a hare-brained scheme to make money, leading to a series of homicides. This brings in Detective Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand, who won a well-deserved Oscar), seven months pregnant, whose down-to-earth intelligence and no-nonsense empathy makes her one of the most effective characters ever written.
The first of Terrence Malick’s now six films, and one of the most narrative-based, follows young lovers Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek in their poetic and crime-filled idlewild through the Dakotas. The film is Bonnie and Clyde as reimagined by Emerson, and it makes great use of the small towns and wilderness the area affords.
#5. It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)
Many of Frank Capra’s films are derided for their “schmaltz” and idealism, but they have a surprising darkness, especially this one – an iconic post-War picture that both condemns the greed that precipitated the Great Depression and celebrates the old-fashioned values that weathered it. Sure, it ends up happy, but Potterville is a terrifying vision indeed.
So-called “Capra-corn” are exactly the kind of thing most people think of when they hear the term “Americana” – sentimental and idealistic, with a naive faith in traditional American values – so it’s not surprising to find two of Frank Capra’s films in this list. Jefferson Smith completely embodies naive idealism (and this film is a big part of James Stewart’s “aw-shucks” stereotype), brought to Washington by corrupt senators who think they can use him for easy votes. Instead he filibusters for the rights of the little guy, reminding us what America is supposed to be all about.
#7. The Last Picture Show (1971)
By the 1970s, the ‘50s looked like a quainter, simpler time (see Grease), but The Last Picture Show reminds us that it wasn’t all white picket fences and gingham dresses. Abilene, TX, is a dying small town, symbolized by the closing of its single movie theatre and the desire of the youth to move on. Peter Bogdanovich does nothing less here than encapsulate the end of an era, the loss of American naivete and the inevitable shift to a more modern world. It manages to be both nostalgic for the bygone era and cynical about it, which is quite a feat.
A ton of movies in the ‘40s depicted World War II from all sorts of perspectives (battles in every theatre, home front, etc.), but none captured the challenges returning soldiers faced after the war as well or realistically as this one. Far from being a jingoistic, idealist view of post-war America, the film lets the struggle of shellshock, loss of limbs, and the world simply moving on without them affect its characters deeply. Director William Wyler had spent most of the war as a major in the Army Air Force, flying on bombing missions getting footage for war documentaries, and the film bears the marks of his personal struggles returning to civilian life.
The 2000 film from The Coen Brothers retells the story of Homer’s The Odyssey by setting it in the rural American South of the 1930s. Several historical figures appear and various events are referenced, even if the Coens had to rewrite history to bring them all together. The “old timey” music of the soundtrack, overseen by producer T-Bone Burnett, sparked a revived interest in roots music, while George Clooney‘s goofy yet perfect performance proved the actor had more than “handsome leading man” in his repertoire.
#10. The Grapes of Wrath (1940)
From John Steinbeck’s classic Dust Bowl novel, John Ford’s film takes the story of Okies traveling west to seek a brighter future in California and makes it resonate on both the level of the individual family and the whole generation. This could be a very depressing film, and it certainly has some gut-punching moments, but thanks to a crime subplot, moody cinematography from Gregg Toland, and charismatic performances (especially from Henry Fonda and Oscar-winner Jane Darwell), it remains engrossing and ultimately inspirational that the human spirit can rise above even these hardships.