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Top Ten: Americana Films

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.” Since we’re coming up on the American Independence Day this week, I thought it would be a good time to look at some movies that celebrate American history and culture. My instant reaction on hearing the term Americana is to think of sentimental, somewhat simplistic and possibly jingoistic stories or art that glorify a past and a culture that doesn’t necessarily deserve it, so I was glad to see that I really do love the top ten films labeled Americana on my Flickchart.

Flickchart is a movie ranking website that pits two random films against each other and asks you to choose which one is better, meanwhile building a list of your favorite films. I rank according to what I like the best, prioritizing personal preferences and emotional connections, so my Flickchart is in no way meant to be objective.

10 – Meet Me in St. Louis (1944)

To me, Meet Me in St. Louis is practically the definition of Americana. It’s certainly got the nostalgia part of it down pat, with its look at turn-of-the-century St. Louis and the hosting of the World’s Fair. It’s chock-full of little details, like an ice wagon going on its rounds, difficult calls on an early model telephone, old-fashioned Halloween rituals, trolley rides, and reminders of simpler times where the biggest worry was that the boy next door won’t like you. To be fair, the main conflict of the possibility of having to move for the father’s job is still relevant. There’s a sentimentality to the film, for sure, but the more serious issues and the weirdness of some of Tootie’s subplots keep it from being totally schmaltzy.

9 – 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 I put off watching it for quite a while because of that (and because I feared it would be kind of boring), but I was pleasantly surprised by how watchable it is. It certainly has some gut-punching moments, but thanks to a crime subplot, moody cinematography from Gregg Toland, and charismatic performances, it remains engrossing and ultimately inspirational in the good way.

8 – Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954)

On the one hand, this movie is a rousing musical with some of the best and most athletic dancing ever put on film, and it’s just a ton of fun to watch. On the other hand, it’s about a bunch of guys who kidnap women, and the women basically get Stockholm Syndrome and choose to marry the guys at the end. So yeah. It has some problems, and misogyny is one of them. And yet, I still get the happies every time I watch it. On a pure entertainment level, it’s probably the most successful of the musical western genre, making great use of its backwoods/frontier town settings and the culture clash that occurs when the two collide.

7 – Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)

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.

6 – Nashville (1975)

Robert Altman’s sprawling ensemble film is a snapshot of America taken through the lens of Nashville’s country music scene, with some political commentary thrown in for good measure in the form of a political rally happening alongside a major music event. I’m not politically astute to get all the nuances of that side of the film, but neither that nor the fact that I don’t like country music mattered to me when watching it. This film manages the complexity of an intricately interwoven set of stories better than any film I’ve ever seen, and manages to capture the American dream, as expressed through musicians, at every stage from hopeful to established to declining. It’s a magnificent achievement.

5 – It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)

Overplayed at Christmas for years and often considered to embody the over-sentimental quality of Capra’s filmmaking, It’s a Wonderful Life actually has quite a dark side to it, and was never meant to be a holiday movie at all. George Bailey’s small-town life is never what he wanted, but circumstances kept him there, working for the corner drugstore, going to school dances, romancing the girl next door, running the town savings and loan, and raising a family – all the things nostalgic Americana would tell us are perfect. But George isn’t happy, and that unhappiness nearly leads to disaster not only for him, but for the entire town – Potterville is a nightmare indeed. Capra and writer Robert Riskin give us a happy ending affirming American small town values, but there’s a lot more here than saccharine and schmaltz.

4 – Oklahoma! (1955)

When I was younger, I had every bit of this movie memorized – songs, dialogue, the whole shebang. Well, I couldn’t perform the ballet in the middle, but that’s a physical limitation of not being a dancer. Anyway. The story is basically a late western, set in the time period when the open cattle ranges were being fenced up for farms and towns like Kansas City were becoming booming metopolises – and the film has songs about both of those phenomena, capturing a slice of American history that has always fascinated me.

3 – Fargo (1996)

The Coens 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. This is one of those movies that gets better every time I see it, and every time I read or write about it, I want to rewatch it immediately.

2 – 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.

1 – O Brother Where Art Thou (2000)

When I first turned on O Brother Where Art Thou and saw the deliberate washed out color scheme and the goofy escaped convicts at the center of the story, I knew I was going to love it, and I wasn’t wrong. The Coens take Homer’s Odyssey, set it in the Depression-era South, amp up thee absurdity to eleven, and end up with one of the most delightful films ever made, somehow managing to be true to Homer’s narrative throughline and the milieu of the American South at the same time.

# My List Flickchart’s Global List
1 O Brother Where Art Thou (10/3343) Back to the Future (9)
2 The Last Picture Show (34/3343) Forrest Gump (64)
3 Fargo (39/3343) Fargo (90)
4 Oklahoma! (54/3343) Badlands (99)
5 It’s a Wonderful Life (77/3343) It’s a Wonderful Life (104)
6 Nashville (80/3343) Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (111)
7 Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (127/3343) The Last Picture Show (222)
8 Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (182/3343) The Best Years of Our Lives (245)
9 The Grapes of Wrath (218/3343) O Brother Where Art Thou (265)
10 Meet Me in St. Louis (245/3343) The Grapes of Wrath (289)
  • Kathy G

    The best Americana movies are movies like “Mud” and “Skeleton Key” and “Donnie Brasco”

    • http://www.the-frame.com/blog Jandy

      I haven’t seen Mud or Donnie Brasco yet, so I couldn’t have included them. I can see what you’re saying with regards to Mud and Skeleton Key. They definitely fit right in with the first part of the Wikipedia definition above, relating to the “history, geography, folklore, and cultural heritage of the United States” – they have a very specifically rural and folkloric feel to them. At the same time, The Skeleton Key doesn’t seem to particularly embody nostalgia or patriotism in the way the second part of Wikipedia’s definition suggests, and I don’t know that Mud does either, just based on what I’ve heard about it. It seems like it’s more about withdrawing from society than about patriotic nostalgia for a simpler time, which is how I mentally define Americana.

      I think you’re on to something, though, in considering films like these to be considered alongside Americana.