Top 250 American Movies: Intro and 201-250

A little more than five years ago, I finished the only list project on this site which tried to speak for a consensus as well as myself. That was the Better than AFI’s Top 100, which is still my favorite project I’ve ever done, but which I’ve been distancing myself from for five years. You can never know enough to actually write something like this, which I understood to some extent back then; otherwise I wouldn’t have tried to take so many other sources into consideration. If anything, I understand that more now, but that’s also intensified my desire to make a new list. I have enough conversations about this stuff that it’s past time to move on from “Five years ago, I thought…” to “I think…”

The qualifications here are fairly simple, although I think reading the list with my write-ups is probably going to yield a better explanation of my criteria than anything I could say up top. The shortest version is that I think these are the 250 best American movies. What does best mean? The best movie is the one with the highest level of craft and technique which can use those to deliver the most pure feeling. Who decides how craft and technique transform into emotion? Each of us does, which is why I could have a clone and I don’t think we’d come up with the same list. I can only call it as I see it, but that’s what this list is about. There are no Oscars, no Metacritic scores, no Letterboxd averages in here. There are no concessions made to the number of pictures by one director or studio or star, no concessions to time or genre. There are not even exceptions made for my favorites, or otherwise I’d have to explain how Minions and Mean Girls got in here. The one exception that I make is that anything that’s under about forty minutes is out for much the same reason that one does not frequently find a short story on the list of the best novels.

The top 100 will get more in-depth analysis, but because I want to finish this before I get old, I am limiting myself to two sentences for each of the movies from 101 to 250. (101 to 200 will go in a separate post, we can all only scroll so much.) Happy reading, and if you’re disappointed not to see a beloved movie on this list…trust me, I am too.

201 to 250 – LEAVE HER TO HEAVEN to SHOES

250) Shoes (1916), directed by Lois Weber

Shoes, the story of a young woman who is brought to ruin over the lack of titular necessities, is probably the finest extant morality play we have from Weber. The trouble that befalls the woman is mostly the fault of her nogoodnik father, and in centering the blame on him rather than the girl, Weber’s film is sympathetic rather than hectoring.

249) Losing Ground (1982), directed by Kathleen Collins

Or How Sara Got Her Groove Back. One of two American movies from 1982 which is built from the Journey to Italy toolkit, Losing Ground is a far better picture than Summer Lovers (and a great many other romances besides) because its sexiness is channeled sensually rather than splattering all over the audience in a horny load.

248) Sorcerer (1977), directed by William Friedkin

When the movie came out, everyone was right to point out that it was not the equal of Henri-Georges Clouzot’s The Wages of Fear, but they were wrong about basically everything else. The scene where the Sorcerer goes over that bridge in the blue rain is about as terrifying as it gets.

247) Down and Out in America (1986), directed by Lee Grant

Almost any of Grant’s wonderful hourlong documentaries, from Battered to The Willmar 8 to When Women Kill, could have been here, and if this went out to 300 I expect at least one of them would join Down and Out in America. In the intervening three-plus decades, while books and periodicals and podcasts have eviscerated the Reagan administration’s domestic policy, there may not be another film that does as much as this one to shine light on the cruelty of Reagan’s America.

246) Barton Fink (1991), directed by the Coen Brothers

There’s a straight line between Preston Sturges and the Coen Brothers, and nowhere, not even in their movie with the title taken from a line of Sturges dialogue, is that line darker or fuller than it is in Barton Fink. You can hear it in the way Barton is bodyslammed verbally by the working stiffs he’s trying to appreciate (“Jesus, ain’t that a load off!”), but the transition to the Coens is plainest in the mouth of Madman Mundt, backlit by flaming wallpaper: “I’LL SHOW YOU THE LIFE OF THE MIND!”

245) The Southerner (1945), directed by Jean Renoir

Talk about playing against type: Zachary Scott, the quintessential tuxedo-clad inamorato of ’40s pictures, plays a homespun Texan named “Sam Tucker.” Led by Scott, supported by the more predictable Betty Field, Beulah Bondi, and J. Carrol Naish, and directed beautifully by Renoir, this is one of the most unpretentious movies about the deserving poor ever made by Hollywood.

244) Run of the Arrow (1957), directed by Samuel Fuller

The most gold standard for unreconstructed Confederates has to be John Wayne’s Ethan Edwards, but just a year after The Searchers, Rod Steiger’s O’Meara might just play the nastiest of those cinematic Johnny Rebs. There’s an interesting preachiness in the idea underlining this film—one can only immigrate to a new society if one is willing to leave behind the prejudices of one’s old society—and without Fuller’s bracing approach, it would be a message movie and not a character study.

243) Hud (1963), directed by Martin Ritt

Paul Newman’s hottest role, Paul Newman’s best role, and Paul Newman’s bitchiest role. The star of this movie, and the biggest reason it’s here, is cinematographer James Wong Howe doing some of his best work.

242) El Norte (1983), directed by Gregory Nava

Maybe just a little bit syrupy, but it’s not because of its lead performers, Zaide Silvia Gutierrez and especially David Villalpando. Villalpando’s Enrique is less a saint than a naif, and the goodness in him is the reason that he and his sister are doomed from the moment his father is killed in their native Mexico.

241) Miller’s Crossing (1990), directed by the Coen Brothers

Gabriel Byrne in Miller’s Crossing. That’s the tweet.

240) Body Heat (1981), directed by Lawrence Kasdan

The last act of this movie lets it down a little bit (which is a problem that its ancestor, Double Indemnity, has too), but then again I’m not sure how the ending could have lived up to those early encounters between William Hurt and Kathleen Turner. There’s a lot about this movie I adore, from the sweat to Ted Danson, but the moment that took my breath away comes when Matty asks Ned, who’s supposed to get her a napkin for a spill on her blouse, if he doesn’t want to lick it off instead.

239) Marie Antoinette (2006), directed by Sofia Coppola

More power to Sofia Coppola for exploding the stalest genre of film produced in mainstream American cinema with this cartwheeling biopic. Really, more power to her to do more like this, because just about biopic about a woman in the past fifteen years has been a total slog!

238) Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982), directed by Nicholas Meyer

The Moby-Dick parallels are really loud in this, loud even for someone who loves Moby-Dick and loud even for a Star Trek movie; it’s fine. The performances are lunatic, the screenplay is punchy, the James Horner score is more than a little scary, and Spock’s sacrifice is, dare I say, moving?

237) Moonlight (2016), directed by Barry Jenkins

A little chunky for a movie which has its most powerful moments between two individuals, Chiron and Kevin, and which keeps bringing in other people to get in the way of that. A film that is about intimacy more than it is about romance, and that’s a rare, lovely thing.

236) Bringing Out the Dead (1999), directed by Martin Scorsese

It’s like Taxi Driver, obviously, but this has a much tighter structure than its…prequel, basically. Bringing Out the Dead is almost traditional in its approach to tragedy, with in medias res replaced by the predictability of the nights lived through by nocturnal Nicolas Cage.

235) Minari (2020), directed by Lee Isaac Chung

The best of the unambiguously American A24 films, Minari overcomes its pedigree (A24 + Sundance = precious bullshit) despite seeming at every turn like it’ll fall into easy traps. Chung, the writer and director, has the steadiest hands with a film that’s got some honest to goodness unaffected humanism within it.

234) Last Train from Gun Hill (1959), directed by John Sturges

Last Train from Gun Hill, which begins with a young mother raped and murdered while her tiny son rides away for his life, is surprising even after the opening sequence. It seems that it should take longer for Anthony Quinn to find out that his awful son is the culprit, or for widowered Kirk Douglas to find out the same, but that it happens so quickly allows us to really stew in the story of privilege defending its own against fellowship, justice, and decency.

233) Sorry to Bother You (2018), directed by Boots Riley

Boots Riley realizes that the circumstances Americans are living under are preceded only by events which live outside of living memory. To depict the horror of those conditions in the living future, Riley creates unprecedented images which would be kind of horrifying if they weren’t still so funny, or vice versa.

232) Shadow of a Doubt (1943), directed by Alfred Hitchcock

Whose idea was it to include Macdonald Carey in this movie? Surely it wasn’t Hitchcock’s, as he seems as bored as we are with Teresa Wright’s dullsnooze suitor interrupting Hume Cronyn’s galaxy-brain murder schemes and Joseph Cotten’s actual murder schemes.

231) Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr. (1999), directed by Errol Morris

You, a New York Times subscriber: Idiocracy, a satire about stupid people inheriting the earth (which accidentally promotes eugenics), helps us to understand America now.

Me, a blogger: Have you tried Mr. Death, a documentary which not only shows what it’s like when ignorant people start drawing their own conclusions about settled fact, but how our government actually made that person a success because it’s staffed with people as hungry for shortcuts as him?

230) Bambi (1942), supervising director David Hand

Counter to what everyone remembers, the movie doesn’t end when Bambi loses his mother to the cruel guns of Man, but persists into his adulthood. Pound for pound, there is as much symbolic and balletic action in the last stretch of Bambi, punctuated with hard cuts and stupendous color, as there is in Fantasia.

229) Killer of Sheep (1978), directed by Charles Burnett

A microbudget film that makes The Blair Witch Project (or even later Charles Burnett movies) look like a swords and sandals epic, Killer of Sheep uses that stripped aesthetic profoundly. This is not a neorealist picture, despite the reputation, but it’s hard to blame someone who’d describe it this way because we try not to use vérité for fiction very often.

228) The Last Picture Show (1971), directed by Peter Bogdanovich

It’s not a great film about Texas by any stretch—you’d do better to watch Friday Night Lights, or even the TV adaptation of same—but Bogdanovich, who did not know that the Larry McMurtry was not really about picture shows, wasn’t aiming to make a film about Texas. The Last Picture Show is about the bum ticker in the heartland, the inability to grow more Ben Johnsons even when Ben Johnsons are sorely needed.

227) Mary Poppins (1964), directed by Robert Stevenson

One of our great films about parenting and especially fatherhood, the way that men become obsessed with security at the expense of freely given love, how society rewards them for stiffening their upper lips and turning their hearts to stone. Julie Andrews is pretty good in this too.

226) Toy Story 2 (1999), directed by John Lasseter

One of our great films about the quest for immortality, a modern update on Gulliver’s Travels which casts Woody in the role of the becoming Struldbrugg, and which shows him choosing a death of unpredictable time above the rotted bitterness that immortality must bring. The “delicious hot schmos” line is pretty good too.

225) Ace in the Hole (1951), directed by Billy Wilder

Kevin Brownlow probably cries himself to sleep thinking of all the lost films we’ll never have the chance to love. Meanwhile the last ten minutes or so of Ace in the Hole have, tragically, not been lost in the fire that would make this one of the hundred best movies in American history.

224) Milk (2008), directed by Gus Van Sant

Where Marie Antoinette subverts the biopic, absolutely everything about Milk, from the hairpieces to the costumes to the makeup to the sets to the structure to the carefully coordinated release schedule to the Oscar win for its star, seems set up to cement the conventions of the genre. In a way, what Milk does is harder than what Marie Antoinette does, because to avoid the most generic staleness, all of those elements have to be perfect; they’re pretty darn close.

223) An American in Paris (1951), directed by Vincente Minnelli

From 1948 to 1958, Minnelli directed seventeen films, most of which are outstanding; few of his contemporary directors have a hit rate like his. Minnelli’s felicity with actors, taste in color, and eye for uninterrupted action reach their height in An American in Paris, which remains the nearest thing to an answer our country has for The Red Shoes.

222) History Is Made at Night (1937), directed by Frank Borzage

Yes, this basically ends with a Titanic scenario, and yes, this also includes a slightly strange murder subplot that does not play to the film’s strengths. On the other hand, this might well be peak Charles Boyer, and the man for whom the phrase “Gallic charm” must have been invented is more than capable of lifting such a film away from the purely ludicrous when he can call on Jean Arthur for help.

221) The Wind (1928), directed by Victor Sjostrom

A strange film, a wondrous film, one that does not much care to explain itself because the mystique of this film’s maddening zephyrs are far more potent than reason. The galloping horses, seemingly driven to madness themselves, stand in for the wind in some of the great metaphorical shots in cinema.

220) JFK (1991), directed by Oliver Stone

A movie which is basically three hours of galloping insane horses only vaguely leavened with the dry monotone of Kevin Costner’s attempt at a Louisiana accent. Or, to put it in a way that doesn’t reduce the film simply to meme energy, Joe Hutshing and Pietro Scalia bring the maximalist approach to editing which results in a shaken champagne bottle of paranoia by the close of the film.

219) Bride of Frankenstein (1935), directed by James Whale

This film, which is dominated in fact if not in frames by Ernest Thesiger’s fiendish and queer Dr. Pretorius, also contains two of the most moving sequences of the 1930s. First, of course, the blind hermit (played by O.P. Heggie) who befriends the Monster, but second, the ultimate choice the Monster makes when he says of him and his ersatz bride, “We belong dead.”

218) Beauty and the Beast (1991), directed by Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise

The best American movie musical with original songs since Nashville (and perhaps the best since its own release!), Beauty and the Beast uses that music, spread neatly among its ensemble, as our window into an emphatically non-human world. In its most kid-friendly moments, the animation can devolve into some cartoonishness, but there are too many great moments with wintry shadows or fluorescent pink or Watteau gold to treat this like just another movie for kiddos.

217) Dazed and Confused (1993), directed by Richard Linklater

It’s probably easier to replicate the feeling of Citizen Kane or Casablanca than it is to concoct the alchemist’s brew that makes Dazed and Confused so special. Maybe it’s the ensemble cast, and it’s definitely the soundtrack, but the attitude of this film is as delicious as those days where you can’t tell where the air stops and your skin starts.

216) Cabaret (1972), directed by Bob Fosse

There’s some muddiness in the last third of this movie that I just can’t shift through, but Fosse connects his signature choreography to a vibe that’s mostly absent from his two other movie musicals. The flip side of his herky-jerky dances is something inhumane, something sinister, and in Joel Grey particularly he finds the right avatar for the uncanny in his choreography.

215) Wendy and Lucy (2008), directed by Kelly Reichardt

Kelly Reichardt has been positively festooning her films by her standards in the past decade or so, but if First Cow is wearing some body glitter, then Wendy and Lucy is the marrow in her filmography. It took nearly a century for a film made in America to speak to what Shoes knew this elegantly: it costs a heck of a lot more to be poor than it does to be rich.

214) Rio Bravo (1959), directed by Howard Hawks

It’s probably a little more controversial to say that Angie Dickinson is the Macdonald Carey of Rio Bravo than it is to say that Macdonald Carey was the Macdonald Carey of Shadow of a Doubt. But look, we aren’t here for Feathers, we’re here for what has to be the apex of homosocial bros being dudes in Howard Hawks’ extremely homosocial-bro-dude oeuvre.

213) Salesman (1969), directed by the Maysles Brothers and Charlotte Zwerin

There’s a line in Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House where one of Cary Grant’s daughters critiques her father’s advertising career through the words of her teacher, who suggests that advertising makes people buy things they don’t need with money they don’t have. That’s the premise of Salesman, and it’s not played for laughs; the coyotes are hungry and they’ll eat Oliver if you don’t bring him inside at night.

212) The Insider (1999), directed by Michael Mann

The Insider is a movie with eyesore cinematography, and for Mann, whose boyish obsession with neons and sparks has inspired many fanboys, that’s a statement of intent. Big Tobacco, a target just as impregnable as Big Pharma or Big Assault Rifle appear to be at present, is going to drag dissenters and derogators into offices and courtrooms with nasty lighting.

211) The Long Gray Line (1955), directed by John Ford

There’s a lot more John Ford to come after this, just a heads up, a director who knew how to tap the eternal like a phlebotomist can tap a vein. Call The Long Gray Line minor if you like, but this mishmash of biopic and Ford’s personal obsessions (martial life, fidelity, being Irish) is far from minor when it comes to the symbolism, perhaps a slightly empty symbol compared to Marty’s loneliness, of the cadets at West Point lined up for him to review.

210) Lost in America (1985), directed by Albert Brooks

When you watch Albert Brooks put yuppies on a kebab, you realize you don’t need anyone else to do it. The movie reels a little bit once the nest egg (the nest egg) is lost in a night of hemorrhaging gambling, but the first act is scathingly, achingly hilarious.

209) The General (1926), directed by Clyde Bruckman and Buster Keaton

As a collection of stunts, I don’t know that I’d even call this Keaton’s most breathtaking work, but the perfection that comes from just making it all train-based is a brilliant method of streamlining a costly film. I love sending a whole train into a river as much as the next guy, but the stuff where he stands on the train’s cowcatcher and has to knock planks off the track makes my eyes bug out of my head.

208) In Jackson Heights (2015), directed by Frederick Wiseman

In my eyes, one of the most aspirational films anyone’s ever made about our country, precisely because it is looking towards what I can only hope is the national future; it’s an accident of history, or maybe it isn’t, that this takes place in Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s district. Organization and belonging are American values, a truth which Wiseman isn’t at all shy about professing here.

207) The Last Detail (1973), directed by Hal Ashby

There’s a nostalgia on this Eastern seaboard train journey for the three men who journey up the coast together, although what they might be nostalgic for in what looks like 600 miles of the Love Canal is hard to guess at. “It ain’t much, but it’s home” lingers over so much of what is either Jack Nicholson’s best or second-best performance, brought out by Randy Quaid in a porcine, embarrassed performance for the ages in its own right.

206) Bad Day at Black Rock (1955), directed by John Sturges

One of the great pleasures of moviegoing is in watching Robert Ryan play a scumbag, not just because he was an unparalleled screen degenerate but because doing so actually tends to make the movie better. In Reno Smith, Ryan finds as gristly a joint as he ever would and chews and chews and chews, leering and insinuating an anti-Asian attitude that was still virulent in the ’50s, returned in the ’80s, and of course has cropped up again in recent months.

205) Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife (1938), directed by Ernst Lubitsch

The historical irony of Gary Cooper is that he’s remembered best for his roles as a virtuous dunderhead rather than his roles as a slightly prurient dunderhead. After von Sternberg got his hands on him, the Lubitsch-Wilder-Brackett team took the leap in this film, which gives us a chance to see Cooper make all sorts of sartorial decisions about pajamas, straitjackets…

204) Grey Gardens (1975), directed by the Maysles Brothers, Ellen Hovde, and Muffie Meyer

If they hadn’t been related to Jackie Kennedy Onassis, then there never would have been a Grey Gardens; in that sense there’s certainly a rubbernecking component to this documentary. Yet as much as the Beales act strangely and live messily, it never feels (to me, at least) like the Maysles are trying to mock these women so much as they intend to more fully document these otherwise faceless tabloid broads.

203) 3:10 to Yuma (1957), directed by Delmer Daves

I guess most westerns were about HUAC in the 1950s, and the story of a mousy rancher standing up to a silver-tongued outlaw has to belong in that category. But more than High Noon and Rio Bravo, 3:10 to Yuma shines without that additional context; at heart, this is about the sly, unexpected, and nervous semi-comity between a never better Glenn Ford and an especially bleary Van Heflin.

202) Brother’s Keeper (1992), directed by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky

It is staggering how easily the refrain comes up again and again that the Wards, yokel as hayseeds get, don’t really act like people, and thus we can’t really judge Delbert for mercy-killing William, that’s just not right. Berlinger and Sinofsky deconstruct the urban response to the death of William Ward and the rural response with the deliberation, patience, and most of all effectiveness of a seasoned farmer shucking corn.

201) Leave Her to Heaven (1945), directed by John M. Stahl

Every red-blooded man in 1945 surely wet dreamed of a wife as beautiful as Gene Tierney, as brilliant as her Ellen, and as devoted as a blue tick. Cue the curling of the monkey’s paw, though, for to keep her the man must reject everything else but this otherwise perfect obliterating angel; Ellen is HAL, but with better eye makeup.

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