The Top Ten Movies…for America!
It’s time to celebrate our independence by blowing stuff up and grilling some preservative-riddled oblong meat tubes on the ashen remains of ancient plant life. Geeze, that sounded better in my head. Oh well, in between trips to the burn unit, we Americans can enjoy another great tradition: watching stuff being blown up for us…on the big screen! Check out Deluxe Video Online’s Top Ten Americaniest movies of all time. Ever. For Freedom.
10. The Toxic Avenger. (1984)
All American Hero, right there.Team Troma is as American as apple pie. An independent movie studio, Troma Entertainment has created over 1000 films, ranging from insane to incredibly insane. Starting out as a company that focused more on slap and tickle than coherent story telling, the studio had a revelation in the form of a mop-wielding vigilante mutant (sometimes these reviews just write themselves, people.) The Toxic Avenger put the studio on the map (albeit a very odd map) with its unique brand of ghoulish horror, over-the-top gore, and incisive skewering of 1950’s Americana. Telling the story of a hopeless nerd who is granted super strength and hideous deformity after leaping out of a window and landing in a well placed vat of toxic chemicals, The Toxic Avenger is everything that is weird and wonderful about the superhero genre of films, turned up to 11 and soaked in red food coloring. It is the kind of film that could only be made in America, and for that, we salute it.
9. Sands of Iwo Jima. (1949)
You knew John Wayne had to be on this list somewhere, and by God, here he is. An American institution in his own right, the Duke could easily fill out a top ten list celebrating America all by his lonesome. Footballer, cowboy, soldier, patriot…he’s done it all. Sands of Iwo Jima was the first film for which Wayne was given the nod by the Academy, and one of the few films to show the normally invincible hero die. Following a group of marines under the command of Sargent Stryker (the Duke) from enlistment and training, through to deployment in the pacific theater, Iwo Jima is actually a finely balanced and thorough look at a soldier’s life during the second World War. The structure of the movie became almost an archetype for how you tell a war movie, including the hard-assed Drill Sargent character that became a beloved staple of the genre. The film also includes a memorable re-enactment of the famous flag raising on Iwo Jima, which is about as patriotic a moment as you can find anywhere.
8. Coming to America. (1988)
The story of America is the story of the immigrant. That being said, few would argue that we have a great track record with how we “welcome” new arrivals to our shores. Race relations, poverty, and immigration are touchy issues, which comedian Eddie Murphy treats with tact and subtlety…yeah, no. In Coming to America, Eddie Murphy does what Eddie Murphy does best: charges in with his mouth blazing and blows the lid off of all that nasty, noxious brew that polite America is trying desperately to ignore. A young African prince (Murphy) has come of age and must choose a bride from amongst all the princesses of the land. Unsatisfied with a ready-made marriage, the regal and dashing young prince decides to find his own love, by heading to the land of opportunity: Queens, New York, good old U.S. of A. Dropped into a hot bed of racial segregation, urban blight, and strangling poverty, the young prince is confronted with every ugliness that America can summon…and thinks it’s the greatest vacation of his life! Murphy is aided by a very able Arsenio Hall, and the two are a riot playing off of each other in nearly a dozen different roles. Coming to America is one of Murphy’s finest comedies, and manages to get big laughs while tackling tough issues.
7. Team America: World Police. (2004)
Another subtle comedy which tenderly explores the less appealing side of American military policy…yeah, no, again. This farce by the team that brought you South Park and Orgazmo looks American hubris and warmongering in the face…and then has a puppet shit on that face. That seems like it should be a figurative statement, but I assure you it is not. What Murphy does with a scalpel, Parker and Stone accomplish with a buzz saw. A perfect culmination to the endless chicken-hawk war orgy that was the Bush Administration, Team America is overtly political, and yet transcendentally funny. Had Colin Powell given the “Dick, Pussy, Asshole” speech to the UN instead of the ludicrously bogus WMD speech, perhaps the world would still like us. As a bonus, this movie also features puppets, sex, and puppet sex. You have been warned.
6. Forrest Gump. (1994)
If you get TBS in your home, you’re already well acquainted with this slice of Americana. The film follows the adventures of one mentally handicapped man played by Tom Hanks as he personally interacts with every notable event, both high and low, in American history since 1950. The scenario is implausible, and the premise screams sentimentality, yet Hanks and an all-star cast (including Gary Sinise, Sally Fields, and Robin Wright as the worst girlfriend in the history of girls and friends) are engaging and sincere. This movie is so calculated to endear itself with Americans, I’m surprised that “Box of Chocolates” didn’t replace “Apple Pie” as our national dessert. It may have been a close vote.
5. Glory. (1989)
No appreciation of America would be complete without the dark chapter that is the Civil War. Glory traces the efforts of the first all African American unit (all African American except for the officers…yup, they were white, because even when fighting a war against slavery, America can’t manage to get it right with regards to race) and features an excellent cast with Morgan Freeman, Denzel Washington, and some wormy guy (OK, OK, Mathew Broderick is in it, and is quite good. Not “forgiven for Godzilla” good, but pretty good.) The unit is up against hardship from day one, and has to fight for equal pay, training, and equipment. They’re informed that Confederate policy is to ignore surrender and execute any blacks fighting for the North, including their white officers, yet none of the men take honorable discharges offered to them. After fighting for equality from their own army, the 54th regiment is ready for action…which translates into back-breaking labor without seeing combat. Shaw (Broderick) finally convinces command to allow the men to fight, going so far as to volunteer for a desperate mission to secure a heavily defended fort. The men show great valor, but losses are heavy, and in the end the fort remains untaken. Man, that is a bummer. They struggle for every inch of respect they gained, and it amounts to a heroic death in a lost cause. I see why the studio focused on the ground-breaking and equality enhancing aspect of the story, because objectively, those men got a completely raw deal. Eventually, though, the actions of the 54th went on to inspire other units, and to create greater equity in the armed forces during the Civil War. July 4th is an easy day to wave the flag, but Glory is a testament to the awful price many paid to vouchsafe freedom for generations of Americans.
4. An American Tail. (1986)
Don Bluth was the Bogey Man of animation. His style incorporated an unsettling amount of realism (warts, carbuncles, morbid obesity, cataracts…his characters were often just this side of hideous) mixed with frenetic, physics-defying motion, and a jaundiced sensibility. So it is a bit of a shock how captivating and lovable An American Tail was, both for youngsters and adults. The topic is certainly mature: A young mouse family from Russia is displaced by the revolutionary violence there, and travels to America for a new start. You don’t get a lot of references to Bolshevism in Disney, by comparison. Less than 10 minutes in, Fievel disobeys his father, is washed overboard, and is considered dead by his family. Ouch. He then proceeds to discover child labor, poverty, anti-foreign and anti-Jewish bigotry, and a whole host of other family-friendly topics. The charm of the movie comes from the wide-eyed wonder of the immigrant experience and the fantastic way in which Bluth weds old world fables to New World fantasy. In Fievel’s America, the streets aren’t paved in cheese, but nearly everything else is possible.
3. Born on the 4th of July. (1989)
Tom Cruise sheds the easy chest thumping machismo of Top Gun as a disillusioned and angry Vietnam veteran in Oliver Stone’s second Vietnam War film, Born on the 4th of July. Unlike Platoon, which ends with the soldiers still in Vietnam, Born on the 4th deals more directly with the aftermath of the conflict. Cruise plays real-life vet Ron Kovic, and follows him from impressionable youth, through a troubled stint in the war where he accidentally kills a fellow soldier and eventually is paralyzed by enemy fire, through a rehab characterized by boredom, anguish, drug addiction, and precious little “care”, and finally back to the United States, where Kovic has trouble adjusting to his family, his medical condition, and society itself. Candid without being voyeuristic, Stone is remarkably even-handed in his look at the horrors that surrounded veterans even after their tours of duty were behind them. While Stone obviously had an agenda with his Vietnam films, Born on the 4th of July is heartfelt and sincere without being maudlin or over-zealous. Tom Cruise is pretty good too, if you like that sort of thing…
2. Independence Day. (1996)
Explosions. Cigars. A handsome jet fighter pilot President. Will Smith. Explosions. This movie celebrated America’s bicentennial by blowing up the White House. I can’t say I argue with the sentiment, though I hope there was enough giant alien death beam left over for Congress. Political humor, ka-zing! I could go on and on about the absurdity of this pure adrenaline and jingoism cocktail (and a certain Mac-compatible alien battle station…) but I can’t manage a bad word about the movie’s action hero, all-American star: Jeff Goldblum.
1. Rocky IV. (1985)
The absurdity of the 80’s pro-America cinema (in which America was always the underdog, despite having 8 times the nuclear arsenal of our closest rival, and always managed to scrape by on guts and hard work…) reached its apogee in Sylvester Stallone‘s stars-and-stripes orgasm, Rocky IV. The movie starts with Carl Weathers, dressed head to toe in red white and blue, getting beaten to death by a barely sentient wall of muscle from Russia called Ivan Drago. The nation is beside itself with self-doubt and fear, and more importantly, Rocky is filled with complex emotions about the loss of his former rival and friend. Since neither Stallone nor Rocky come equipped with the necessary sapience valve to vent these emotions, it is decided that Rocky will solve his problems in the tried and true American way: he will travel to Russia and attempt to pound some sense out of Drago, on his home turf. Cue montage.
If the rest of this list were sparklers, Rocky IV would be an out of control fire at the Atlas Fireworks Factory by comparison. The American Flag does not enjoy America as much as this movie does. I’m surprised the department of immigrations and naturalization didn’t scrap its educational film series in favor of mandatory viewings of Rocky IV. Hell, Stallone hardly speaks English, so there’s very few words a new citizen would have trouble understanding. I can’t decide if this movie single-handedly won the Cold War, or prolonged it for another 5 years when Russia got furious that a ‘roided-up Italian midget handed them their fictional asses. Either way, the tenor of American/Soviet relations were forever changed. Perhaps in an alternate universe, Rocky IV never happened, and Vladimir Putin wears a shirt at all times, and works a day job of “not the de facto dictator of Russia.” One shudders to think of such a hellish world. Thank you, Rocky. Thank you.