It’s Tim, here to wish all of the U.S. readers of the Film Experience a Happy Independence Day, and to everyone else, "Happy Thursday!"
This particular holiday isn’t one commemorated in movies as much as many others – the odd scene here or there, but rarely an entire film dedicated to the themes and meanings behind the day. In order to save everyone from watching the classic but overfamiliar Yankee Doodle Dandy or 1776 – or the Roland Emmerich / Dean Devlin explode-o-rama Independence Day, if that’s the way you roll – or the miserable direct-to-video slasher movie Uncle Sam, if that’s how you roll, and for that you have my sympathy – I thought I’d put together a little list of a few films about America, in its many different forms, that might make for somewhat more novel viewing than seeing James Cagney speak-singing George M. Cohan songs for the 20th time.
(Though if you haven’t seen the film, for God’s sake do it, he’s a dancing genius!) Four great movies about America below the jump...
Park Row (1952)
A passion project for Samuel Fuller that nearly bankrupted the maverick filmmaker and ended his career, this no-holds-barred celebration of a vital, crusading American press is fascinated about the technical minutiae and rhythms of 19th Century journalism as only an old newspaperman would have thought to depict it. But historicity is the least of the film’s exemplary merits: convinced to his soul that the News (you can just tell that the director capitalized it like that, in his heart) was the single gatekeeper that could best keep American democracy functioning and responsible, Fuller’s movie is both a literal love letter to the papers of his day and a tribute to all the men who fought and died to make them that way, and to consecrate his paean to the Fourth Estate, he invokes no less an icon of Americana than Benjamin Franklin, whose statue beams down approvingly as the hero beats a quisling journalist’s head against the Founding Father’s very feet. Overheated melodrama and masterpiece-level filmmaking.
Hester Street (1975)
The best film about the immigrant experience in pre-WWI New York that you’ve probably never seen. A Russian Jew named Yankel has Americanized to the point where he’s calling himself Jake, falling in love with a fellow assimilated immigrant, and pays only the most limited attention to the traditions of his home country. It’s this situation where he’s found out by his wife, Gitl, and in wonderfully muted, personal fashion, their lives are fundamentally altered. Proudly independent, this very small and old-fashioned production makes up for its budgetary limitations with an incomparable level of observation about how the daily life of an immigrant in 1896 functioned, capturing not just the looks and sounds but also the emotional register of every experience of someone for whom “America” is both a concept of freedom and a reality of frequently terrifying change and unpredictability. If that’s not all enough, it also features Carol Kane in one of the all-time most oddball Best Actress Oscar nominations, during that category’s single weirdest year.
Lost in America (1985)
Okay, so it’s an obvious, easy choice: “America” is right there in the title! Still, director Albert Brooks’s third feature (and the third one that could easily fit on this list; I actually did pick it because “America” was right there in the title) has a great many trenchant observations about American lives in the Reagan years in the form of its willfully self-deluded yuppies played by Julie Hagerty and Brooks himself, but the myths it demolishes about following one’s heart and all that cuts much deeper into the national psyche than satirizing just one decade. Constantly hilarious in a characteristically deadpan, mordant way, Lost in America is easily the most cynical title on this list, cynical enough that a less gifted comic mind might not have been able to balance out the humor with the acid, but there’s no rule that a national holiday can’t be used as a time for frank self-reflection and an acknowledgement of the nation’s character flaws.
The New World (2005)
Clearly, a film set in a period before the United States of America existed has to work extra-hard to justify its inclusion as a great movie about America, not that Terrence Malick probably ever thought about his impressionistic retelling of the Pocahontas legend in those terms. But even if it’s not “about” the American character in any straightforward way, it’s about something at least as important: the land by which that character was formed. If there’s a better film for celebrating the awesome feeling of open land and wide frontiers, not as the site for adventure and pioneering, but simply as beautiful, important things in their own right, I haven’t seen it. As America’s open land decreases every year, it surely can’t be a bad thing to look back and remember that what shaped this country from the moment it was settled was the promise of freedom and expansiveness that only a huge swath of unspoiled earth can provide. Bonus points for implicitly, without a message-movie harangue, indicating what a tragedy both to nature and human life it was when that unspoiled earth started to become tamed.
Anybody else have any 4th of July movie traditions they'd like to share?
Tell us in the comments!