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The 10 Best American Movies - ever

by Stanley Fish

It's Top Ten time again, and like everyone else I have a list, in my case a list of the 10 best American movies ever. Here it is, with brief descriptions and no justifications. Only the first two films are in order. The others are all tied for third.


The Best Years of Our Lives
(1946), directed by William Wyler. Regarded as producer Sam Goldwyn's masterpiece, this deeply felt study of soldiers coming home after World War II boasts career-best performances by Fredric March (who won an Oscar), Myrna Loy, Teresa Wright, Dana Andrews, Virginia Mayo, Cathy O'Donnell, Hoagy Carmichael and the amazing Harold Russell (two Oscars), a double amputee and first- and last-time (non)actor who played a double amputee.

The movie is filled with thrilling and affecting scenes - the moment when Milly Stephenson (Loy) realizes that the person at the door is her husband, Al (March), who has come back a day before he was supposed to; the moment when Homer Parrish (Russell) waves goodbye to his two new friends and his parents see the hooks that are now his hands for the first time; the moment when Fred Derry (Andrews) hoists himself into a military plane like the one he flew in so many times and hears in his mind the engines of the other dead planes surrounding him in rows. The three intertwined stories are resolved with a measure of optimism, but with more than a residue of disappointment and bitterness. Al Stephenson is still a drunk. Fred Derry is still poor and without skills. Homer Parrish still has no hands.

Sunset Blvd. (1950), directed by Billy Wilder. Notable for Gloria Swanson's triumphant comeback performance in a movie that denies her character a comeback, the film also has William Holden doing his "morally-flawed-person-in-an-attractive-package" act to perfection, not to mention the ancillary pleasures of a young, boyish and humorous (world you believe it?) Jack Webb, a self-parodying turn as a director/husband-turned-factotum by Erich von Stroheim, a silent appearance by silent star Buster Keaton and a cameo performance by Cecil B. DeMille playing himself.

The voice-over narration of the story by a dead man floating in a swimming pool seems not bizarre but exactly right; Joe Gillis (Holden) was morally dead before he hit the water. When the movie begins, Gillis comes across as a nice guy, somewhat down on his luck, and Norma Desmond (Swanson) comes across as an egomaniacal monster who pressures him into becoming her boy-toy. But even before the final incredible scene of Desmond descending a staircase while the camera, empty of film, rolls, she has earned the sympathy we extend to the terribly needy, and he has revealed himself to be the true monster, a betrayer of Desmond, of the young girl (Nancy Olson) who sees more in him than there is, and of himself.

Double Indemnity (1944), also directed by Billy Wilder. This time Wilder's anti-hero - played by Fred MacMurray, who could do tall but weak with the best of them (see "The Apartment," "The Caine Mutiny" and "Pushover") - is not dead but dying as he narrates the story into a tape-recorder destined for the ears of his boss, Barton Keyes (the incomparably great Edward G. Robinson).

You know what's going to happen the moment Barbara Stanwyck - you see just her legs - slinks down the staircase of her house, and Walter Neff (MacMurray) probably knows it, too; but he, like us, is compelled to see the plot through the inevitable downward spiral to its ending. Phyllis (Stanwyck) predicts it all when she says, "It's straight down the line for both of us." Keyes, the indefatigable unlocker of puzzles, is even more precise: "They're stuck with each other. They've got to ride all the way to the end of the line. And it's a one-way trip; and the last stop is the cemetery." Just before that stop, the true love story of the film announces itself when, in response to Keyes's acknowledgment of the depth of his feelings for his protege, Neff says "I love you, too," and dies.

Shane (1953), directed by George Stevens. In this beautifully photographed western, a laconic, stoic stranger rides in out of nowhere and rides out again ( perhaps mortally wounded) in the same direction, as Joey Starrett ( Brandon De Wilde) implores him to "come back, Shane." In between, Shane (Alan Ladd, in the performance of his life), a man at once steely and sentimental, hard-edged and effeminate, becomes the love object of almost everyone in the movie. Joey loves Shane; his father (a tree-like Van Heflin) loves Shane; his mother (Jean Arthur, luminous in a role she disliked) loves Shane; the cowhand played by Ben Johnson learns to love Shane; and even Wilson, the gunman portrayed so memorably by Jack Palance in a breakthrough role, loves Shane in the way one can love one's mirror image.

The movie is at once cliched - the settlers vs. the cowmen; the lone, rugged individualist vs. the community - and elegiac. Like the pastoral, the western caresses a landscape it knows to be already lost and alive only in the imagination; and in "Shane" the caress is lingering, loving and sad.

Red River (1948), directed by Howard Hawks, is not elegiac but looks forward to the days when western beef will supply eastern tables. But before that can happen, there has to be the first cattle drive, and its adventures and obstacles provide the plot for this film. The real center, however, is once again the love and hate relationships among the key characters.

There are two triangles and one dyad. The first triangle is made up of cattleman Tom Dunson (John Wayne in the role he should have won an Oscar for), Dunson's adopted son Matthew Garth (Montgomery Clift, matching Wayne's screen power despite the disparity in their physical presences) and family retainer Groot Nadine (Walter Brennan playing the irascible, principled old coot to perfection). Garth and Groot love Dunson; Dunson loves Garth and Groot; Groot loves Dunson and Garth.

None gives his love unconditionally. Groot tells Dunson at a crucial moment, "You was wrong, Mr. Dunson." Garth leads a mutiny against his father. Dunson vows vengeance against his son and promises to kill him. He is prevented from doing so (although it is unlikely that he would have ever really gone that far) by Tess Millay (Joanne Dru), who makes up a third of another triangle with Dunson and Garth. Garth, in turn, forms a dyad with Cherry Valance (John Ireland, in his best role except for his bravura turn in "All the King’s Men"), a fast gun who competes with him but is devoted to him, and risks his life to protect him. Brooding over all these characters is the cattle drive itself, a force both of nature and history. And a generator of excitement and purpose all on its own.

Raging Bull (1980), directed by Martin Scorsese. Tom Dunson, in "Red River," almost brings everything he has fought for and loved down on his head, but is redeemed at the last moment. Nothing redeems Jake La Motta (Robert De Niro, in an Oscar-winning performance), who can find the worm in any apparently happy situation and who systematically drives away everyone who cares for him with the same relentless brutality he displays in the ring. Anything can set him off, even a steak that may or may not be overdone; and if there is nothing in view, he can make it the provocation up, as he does when he accuses his brother (Joe Pesci) of betraying him with his wife (Cathy Moriarty). For La Motta, rage is the default condition, the ordinary, everyday emotion; anything else is an anomaly he cannot abide and he soon removes it.

Most boxing movies trace the classic pattern of rise, fall and redemption ("Somebody Up There Likes Me," "The Cinderella Man"), or tell a moral tale about the corruption of the sport ("The Harder They Fall," "The Set-Up"), or detail the corruption of the protagonist ("Champion," "Body and Soul"). "Raging Bull" offers no triumph, and no moral. It just exhibits the self-destructiveness of its central figure again and again; even the depiction of La Motta's later career as a nightclub entertainer extends rather than ends the pain. The wonder is that Scorsese was able to make something lyrical out of a polluting self-destructiveness, but that is what he did.

Vertigo (1958), directed by Alfred Hitchcock. Here again is a love that destroys, not in the form of rage, but in the form of obsession and control. Hitchcock was one of two directors (the other was Anthony Mann in, for example, "The Man from Laramie") who saw that Jimmy Stewart's nice guy persona could have a dark side.

This is a movie about manipulation and the fabrication of reality. Scottie (Stewart) is manipulated by his friend Gavin, who also manipulates the woman (Kim Novak, brilliant in a dual role) who in turn manipulates Scottie. When the deception is complete and Scottie believes that the woman he loves has died, he is lost until he sees a girl who resembles her. (She is her, but not her, at the same time.) He then does to her what had been done to him - he manipulates her, denies her her own identity and makes her over until she is the simulacrum of a woman who never was. When he discovers how he had been fooled by a theatrical illusion, he hisses, "Did he train you? Did he rehearse you? Did he tell you what to do and what to say?" - apparently not realizing that he is furious and indignant about the very behavior he has been exhibiting.

There is an abstract geometrical quality to the relationships in this film and they work themselves out in the space of a strangely abstract San Francisco, empty, dreamy and in brilliantly enameled Technicolor. There's no getting to the bottom of this movie; it's vertiginous.

Groundhog Day (1993), directed by Harold Ramis. Another Pygmalion story, but this time the material the sculptor works on is himself. Phil Connors (Bill Murray) is a jaded, dyspeptic, arrogant, cynical and obnoxious TV newsreader who on Feb. 2 finds himself covering the emergence of the groundhog in Puxatawney, Pa. When he wakes up the next morning, he finds that it is not the next morning, but Groundhog Day all over again and all over again and all over again. (His own spring will be late.)

His responses to being trapped eternally in the same day include disbelief, despair, excess and hedonism before he settles down to make the best of the situation, which, it turns out, means making the best of himself — a self-help project that takes forever, but forever is what he has. (It is as if he were at once the ghosts of Christmas past, present and future and the object of their tutelary attention.). By bits and pieces, fits and starts, he makes himself into the most popular fellow in town and wins the love of his producer, the beautiful Rita (a perfectly cast Andie MacDowell). The miracle is that as the movie becomes more serious, it becomes funnier. The comedy and the philosophy (how shall one live?) do not sit side by side, but inhabit each other in a unity that is incredibly satisfying. This is a "feel-good" movie in at least two senses of the word "good."

Meet Me in St. Louis (1944), directed by Vincente Minnelli. When the calendar finally turns a page in "Groundhog Day" and Phil and Rita walk out of the bed and breakfast to start their new life together, Phil says, "Let's live here," which means let's live in small-town America, where everyone knows everyone else and everyone takes care everyone else. In "Meet Me in St. Louis," the characters already live there (yes, St. Louis is a city, but in this movie it's a neighborhood), and the plot centers on the question (not exactly burning) of whether or not they will be able to stay.

The real center of the film is the loving depiction of a loving family, four sisters, a son, a mother and a father, a grandfather and a cook (the redoubtable Marjorie Main). To be sure, there are tensions, but they are the innocent tensions found in every family - between teenage sisters, between husband and wife - and as viewers we know that they will be dispelled. A film in which the inability of a young man to find a tuxedo for an important party counts as a crisis isn't ever going to disturb your equanimity. It is only when Esther (a glorious Judy Garland) sings the achingly sad "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" to her sister Tootie (a scene-stealing Margaret O'Brien) that a sense of the pains life often brings intrudes; but not long after, their father (Leon Ames) renounces his plan to move to New York (the only real villain of the story), and everything is once again well.

This is a woman's movie. Only the grandfather (Harry Davenport) is a fully drawn male character. The strength belongs to the sisters, to the cook and to the mother, excellently played by Mary Astor. And of course there is the music, with Garland at the top of her form, especially in the "Trolley Song" sequence, perhaps the three most exhilarating musical minutes in film history. Despite the lavishly beautiful production, this is not a big movie - no grand ideas, no moral dilemmas, no transformations of character, no deep insights. All it is is perfect.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1945), directed by Elia Kazan. Another happy family, but this one maintains its closeness despite the obstacles of poverty and a father given to drink who has trouble keeping his job as a singing waiter. In his first directorial effort, Kazan draws incredible performances from Dorothy McGuire as the wife and mother who is so beaten down by life's hardships that she cannot afford the luxury of emotions; from James Dunn (who won an Oscar) as the dreamer who has nothing to give but love; from Peggy Ann Garner (special Oscar) as the daughter for whom his love is enough; from Joan Blondell as the slightly disreputable but warm hearted Aunt Sissie.

What is said of many movies is true of this one: it will break your heart, not once but many times - when you witness Francie's beautiful faith in her father despite the evidence of his failures ("faith is the evidence of things not seen"); when her mother is unable to sustain her feelings for a husband who cannot be a provider; when mother and daughter reach an understanding as they wait for the birth of a child who will never know its father. But the heart it breaks - in the film and in the audience - is made whole again by the strength of the family that refuses to bend in the face of a world that offers it little. A tearjerker, to be sure, but so what?

So there they are, 10 movies marked by sentiment and cynicism in equal doses, but with sentiment winning out more often than not. There were of course others I would like to have included, and I list a Second Ten here, without comment and in no particular order: "Quiz Show," "The Wild Bunch," "Nashville," "My Darling Clementine," "How Green Was My Valley," "The Night of the Hunter," "Lonely Are the Brave," "Detective Story," "All About Eve" and "Ace in the Hole."

Of course, expanding the list to 20 rather than warding off criticism affords it even more scope. Let the disagreements begin.


I heartily congratulate Prof. Fish for selecting worthy films. However, it is beyond me how he could have left out "Roman Holiday" with Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck and "From Here to Eternity" with Montgomery Clift, Burt Lancaster, Deborah Kerr, Donna Reed and Frank Sinatra. These two could easily replace "Groundhog Day" and "Vertigo". And what about "Judgement at Nuremberg": Spencer Tracy, Judy Garland, Maximilian Schell (Oscar-best actor) Burt Lancaster, Richard Widmark, Montgomery Clift, Marlene Dietrich? [Ed.]

Stanley Fish is the Davidson-Kahn Distinguished University Professor and a professor of law at Florida International University, in Miami, and dean emeritus of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He has also taught at the University of California at Berkeley, Johns Hopkins and Duke University. He is the author of 10 books. His new book on higher education, "Save the World On Your Own Time," has just been published.

Copyright 2008 The New York Times Company


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