Top 250 American Movies: 151-200

Same rules as before for this stretch of the list. We’re limiting comments on each movie to literally two sentences in order to keep this train on schedule.

151 to 200 – 16 Days of Glory to Monterey Pop

200) Monterey Pop (1968), directed by D.A. Pennebaker

There’s an invisible line around this point which separates great movies which achieve that greatness alongside (or even despite) their endings, and great movies which are great in no small part because of their endings. Monterey Pop is here because of the Ravi Shankar set at the end, for the majesty of his music but also for the way that it is so clearly permeating the cells of the hopeful young people at the festival.

199) Loving (2016), directed by Jeff Nichols

Truly an understated film, not necessarily because Jeff Nichols is an understated director on his own, but because the Lovings were understated people. Just as quietly, the film whispers that if people as unassuming and gentle and normal as these two could make history for the better, then surely anyone could.

198) The Cincinnati Kid (1965), directed by Norman Jewison

America’s answer to Albert Finney or Alan Bates or Tom Courtenay turns out to have been, can you believe it, Steve McQueen? While angry young men were slogging at pints in the airless north, a cocky and directionless kid has to choose between Tuesday Weld and Ann-Margret and Edward G. Robinson in the midst of an atmosphere which is half sodden carnival and half peeling grotesque.

197) Giant (1956), directed by George Stevens

It’s a cornball message movie about racism and social change and fine whatever, but don’t tell that to the actors in the film. There’s nothing corny about Rock Hudson’s portrayal of unthinking chauvinism or James Dean’s nouveau riche foibles; don’t say that Elizabeth Taylor isn’t at her absolute best here, marrying the peak of her beauty with the peak of her whalebone insistence.

196) Young Frankenstein (1974), directed by Mel Brooks

Of all the Mel Brooks spoofs, this is the one which I think has the most love in its heart for the original material, from its tender, pleasingly cross-eyed recreations of scenes from Frankenstein films to the use of original props and sets from the ’30s. Marty Feldman’s supporting performance is one of the absolute best of the decade, somehow the most straight-faced member of the cast while also saying and doing the most ridiculous things in the film.

195) Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954), directed by Stanley Donen

To borrow from another movie’s tagline, “How did they ever make a movie of the Rape of the Sabine Women?” The answer is in the barn dance sequence, which is photographed perfectly to emphasize the smooth acrobatics, beautiful costumes, and the personalities of the characters.

194) The Diary of Anne Frank (1959), directed by George Stevens

A masterpiece of shooting on just a few sets, and over the course of three hours we know the Secret Annex and its cluttered rooms and low ceilings and single place for fresh air. This is a triumph of production design, and that honest triumph informs this film’s anti-exploitative approach to the Holocaust and its victims.

193) Five Easy Pieces (1970), directed by Bob Rafelson

One of the most difficult acting roles in movies is “black sheep child returns to the fold,” because the balance between “this black sheep deserves a second chance” and “this black sheep oughta be mutton” is practically impossible to work out. That shot where Jack Nicholson starts playing a piano in bumper to bumper traffic, way better than your average oilfield worker would, suddenly oblivious to the honking barking world around him, is how the world’s tiniest violin can be played.

192) Zodiac (2007), directed by David Fincher

A lot more of the back half of this movie is just the straightfaced version of “Anaconda Malt Liquor gives you Little Richard” than its partisans want to own up to. On the other hand, Zodiac is a marvelous portrait of confusion, of the stabs at faith that people want to believe in because otherwise they’d have to give up on believing anything at all.

191) Back to the Future (1985), directed by Robert Zemeckis

Back to the Future is reaching a point almost forty years later where death by nitpicking seems almost inevitable, but go look at your favorite stuffed animal and see if it’s threadbare with love. Crispin Glover and Lea Thompson, respectively, put the “weird” and “boner” into “weirdboner.”

190) Inglourious Basterds (2009), directed by Quentin Tarantino

I’m not a Tarantino guy, but this is a very Tarantino movie, and I think the best of him as a writer is really on display here. It’s mouthy, and mouthy in a bunch of different languages to boot, but they don’t all sound like they’re trying to nail a quote for the next AFI Top 100 Quotes list, and the film digresses enough to let us rediscover each character’s version of talkiness with fondness rather than fatigue.

189) The Hunt for Red October (1990), directed by John McTiernan

Second only to Das Boot among submarine movies, Red October is a popcorn movie that expects that you can chew the concessions and hear dialogue at the same time. Sneakily one of the great eclectic ensemble casts of the past three or four decades (“Tim Curry, Fred Thompson, and Stellan Skarsgard walk into a bar…”) and it’s a filmic commitment to detail not unlike Tom Clancy’s commitment to knowing how war engines worked.

188) All This, and Heaven Too (1940), directed by Anatole Litvak

Charles Boyer and Bette Davis have a sublimated thing for each other in this movie that’s so buried that it speeds right past “English” and burrows in somewhere between “Swedish” and “Lithuanian.” One of the most passionate movies ever, only slightly marred by a trial in the back half that I think would have gotten people in the door but isn’t likely to keep them compared to the weight of Davis’s sniffles.

187) Marty (1955), directed by Delbert Mann

The rare New York film to think there’s something more important than the Yankees in the Bronx, Marty has a chip on its shoulder but wears it without savagery. Ernest Borgnine’s “What am I doing with you people?” epiphany at the end of the film is a good reason to literally stand up and cheer.

186) The Letter (1940), directed by William Wyler

I like the Jeanne Eagels version of this film pretty well, but there’s not really a comparison between that and what Bette Davis and Wyler, by now perfectly acquainted, are able to put together here. Davis is totally unimpeachable as she plays up the squirrely and sexy for whichever man is in the room with her, but the less lauded James Stephenson, playing her lawyer and grappling with his conscience the whole time, is every bit as essential.

185) The Cameraman (1928), directed by Edward Sedgewick

You could put a picture of Buster Keaton losing his swimming trunks or destroying an office door into one of those Sarah McLachlan sad puppies montages, and I think people would call to adopt to the weird-looking dog with the doleful eyes. He’s so earnest, so incompetent, and still the gags are so delightful and the film surprisingly romantic.

184) Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991), directed by James Cameron

Say what you will about James Cameron, but this is not a director who would ever let his films get released to theaters with unfinished work in post only to have it go to Disney Plus in a slightly improved version. T2 looks absolutely great right this minute, and the film’s ferocity hasn’t wavered at all either.

183) Stagecoach (1939), directed by John Ford

It took one of the great directors of silent films (and the assistance of Yakima Canutt) to finally catch sound films up to the kinetic legacy of their forbears. When this movie wants to move, it absolutely goes, turning Monument Valley into the Bonneville Salt Flats.

182) The Big Heat (1953), directed by Fritz Lang

An unbelievably savage movie, and a perspicacious one as well. One of the noirs which understands something far more real than what a typical noir sells; women are far more often the recipients of violence than they are the reasons why it happens.

181) Apollo 13 (1995), directed by Ron Howard

Out-Hawks Hawks in its depiction of competent men getting the job done under pressure, though in fairness Howard never got much opportunity to send people to space. Ron Howard isn’t really this good, but he is getting career-best work from Tom Hanks and James Horner alike.

180) Evil Dead II (1987), directed by Sam Raimi

I’ll just say it directly: what the hell is this movie? Is it Sam Raimi’s Daisies, is Bruce Campbell giving the most committed physical comedy performance since Chaplin, or is it actually still a little scary in places?

179) Groundhog Day (1993), directed by Harold Ramis

It’s a message comedy, a picture which sees Bill Murray lingering in the stages of grief for himself and wants him to understand the best version of himself has made it through “Acceptance.” But above all else this is a dizzyingly funny movie, with one of the great stage punches ever delivered while “NED?!” rings pleasantly in our ears.

178) The Incredibles (2004), directed by Brad Bird

Still the best superhero movie ever made in this country, and it’s really not very close at all. You could watch them reboot Batman for a hundred years and it would still never be as willing to touch the Randian heart of the superhero construct, and it’d take another century of “new” Batmen before we got to one that chose to deconstruct that arrogance with so much grace.

177) Wattstax (1973), directed by Mel Stuart

Mel Stuart is not exactly the guy I would have expected to put together this documentary about a Black music festival—his most-seen film must be Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory—but then again he brings a humility to this essential movie about Black experience that’s totally refreshing. He knows that Rance Allen, the Bar-Kays, and Rufus Thomas are going to be the ones to bring us closer to God, not Mel Stuart.

176) Imitation of Life (1959), directed by Douglas Sirk

Ravishing, but probably not even a tip-top effort in terms of beauty from Sirk; lesser films like Magnificent Obsession or Written on the Wind are more visually pleasing than this one. On the other hand, there are few movies about motherhood which have the stamina to present not just one fraught mother-daughter relationship but two, let alone a one-sided love as tragic and random as what Juanita Moore keeps for Susan Kohner.

175) Attica (2021), directed by Stanley Nelson

Attica is the story of imprisoned men being strangled, though if it were literal strangulation it might have been kinder than what actually happened. Nelson, through interviews and news footage and (most searingly) still photography, casts the penumbra of strangulation for the viewer, giving us the barest sensation of what it must have felt like for the prisoners to have their tracheas bruised within inches of tearing.

174) The French Dispatch (2021), directed by Wes Anderson

It’s not so much a love letter to the New Yorker as it is a testament to the wonder of novelty. In Anderson’s latest, much too widely pooh-poohed as Anderson up to his stale tricks, he is providing three stories of something new, something unprecedented, and doing so in a way that is stylistically familiar and yet somehow ever so much more so than anything that’s come before.

173) Tootsie (1982), directed by Sydney Pollack

Dustin Hoffman’s giving one of the great metatextual performances ever, and that it happens to be a brilliant comic one is a happy accident. There are a lot of people who the movie could poke fun at, lots of people who got duped or acted foolishly or got in over their heads, but it’s a sign of incredible control from screenwriters Larry Gelbart and Murray Schisgal that the only people we’re ever meant to laugh at the expense of are the terrible men whose terribleness has allowed them to rise to prestige.

172) Jaws (1975), directed by Steven Spielberg

Above all else, one of the most phenomenally entertaining movies ever made. It takes some real fire in the belly to take the dolly zoom that had life breathed into it by Hitchcock in Vertigo and then apply it in one’s second studio feature; it’s incredible you can’t see Spielberg blowing smoke rings in the foreground when he uses that dolly zoom to capture Roy Scheider’s petrified face on the beach.

171) Fiddler on the Roof (1971), directed by Norman Jewison

A texturally lovely film if ever there was one, where the grain seeps into each cloud and shaft of hay and each stitch of cloth. Topol’s Renaissance performance as Tevye—he sings! dances! makes us laugh! makes us cry! helps us love him! forces us to hate him!—is singular, and thus unforgettable.

170) The Fugitive (1947), directed by John Ford

John Ford wanted to grow up to be F.W. Murnau, and he never got closer to Murnau than he did in a film that no one liked at the time and which remains disfavored. There is a real religious crisis in the Ford stock company here, between Henry Fonda in one of his most pathetic roles and Pedro Armendariz in a part that forces us to pay attention to his stern brow and sterner heart.

169) Phantom Thread (2017), directed by Paul Thomas Anderson

A very attractive movie, and not just in the costumes, but what is still Daniel Day-Lewis’s final film role is so offputting and sardonic that it brings the rest of the film into balance. The influence of The Passionate Friends, felt most keenly at the New Year’s party, still manages to hang odiously over the film, the story of two people who ought to belong to one another but it sure doesn’t seem to make anyone hear music.

168) Roger and Me (1989), directed by Michael Moore

From the name of the documentary to the constant narration to the fact that Moore is just in a bunch of it, this is such a personal film. All that subjectivity means that even more than the righteous anger or the understandable bitterness Moore projects, the primary feeling in Roger and Me is just plain hurt.

167) Day of the Dead (1985), directed by George A. Romero

As squirmingly gross a horror movie as you could hope for, but also shockingly rich in characterization. Dr. Logan is a marvelous example of a difficult character, a man who understands more than anyone else on the planet that zombies might just be people and have common ground, but who is still hellbent on cutting these almost-people into ribbons on the operating table.

166) The Lady Eve (1941), directed by Preston Sturges

Henry Fonda is an expert in snakes and Barbara Stanwyck is a master of one-eyed worms in The Lady Eve, a film which proves that lying is the most fun a girl can have regardless of how clad she is. It’s as packed with wit as any other Sturges, but it’s also got more spills than a birthday party at the ice skating rink.

165) Carnival of Souls (1962), directed by Herk Harvey

What did human connection ever do for you besides lead to the accident where your car careened into a brown river from an unsafe bridge? Difficult to say if Carnival of Souls is prefiguring Eraserhead or Wanda more, but in either case, Candace Hillegoss is giving one of the great lead performances in any horror film.

164) The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948), directed by John Huston

Treasure posits two different kinds of men: the men who cannot have enough and the men who can find satisfaction in security. What possesses Fred C. Dobbs is like a fever of 104 that comes with the chills, and in covering himself in blankets and quilts he’s more likely to die than sweat the fever out.

163) Paris Is Burning (1990), directed by Jennie Livingston

The footage at the balls is probably always going to be the best-remembered and best-loved element of this picture, but it’s the quiet talking heads that stick out to me. In those moments of stillness, despite so many assertions to the contrary, you can tell that the house mothers in particular understand the unbearable fragility of what they’re building.

162) Bringing Up Baby (1938), directed by Howard Hawks

The rich, they are a funny race; they fly off their feet and talk til they’re blue in the face. It’s a silly movie about silly people, and unless you’re one of those people who says “Aw!” whenever any animal pops up onscreen (guilty), there are absolutely no stakes in this story which is lighter than a feather.

161) Starman (1984), directed by John Carpenter

Probably John Carpenter’s best score, and there’s no better performance in one of his movies than what Karen Allen bestows upon us. Grief is so much more than love persevering in this movie; it’s love growing, understanding, adapting.

160) Stage Door (1937), directed by Gregory La Cava

It’s a film built largely on types you know (and heck, even if you don’t know them, they still cast Ginger Rogers and Katharine Hepburn and Adolphe Menjou and all in this joint), but it’s still delightfully surprising. Stage Door advertises itself as one of those pictures about a buncha broads in the same rooming house, but it turns out to be about a lineage that only actresses can belong to, and how lonely it can feel even to belong to a historical family.

159) The Empire Strikes Back (1980), directed by Irvin Kershner

Even by the standard set in the first movie, the dialogue in this is just absolute hokum, and the scenarios are not much better. As an action movie, especially one which understands how to integrate a tremendous musical score into the swooping movement, Empire is gobsmacking glory itself.

158) The Naked Kiss (1964), directed by Samuel Fuller

Sinclair Lewis’s perspective on small towns seeps into this film in glowing drops of radioactive waste, ultimately combusting in one of the great reveals in American movies. Constance Towers’ ex-sex worker, now pediatric nurse, gets a choice which pits her security against her self-worth.

157) Johnny Guitar (1954), directed by Nicholas Ray

Majestic hatred in something like a fairy tale setting out west, and the costumes are cheerfully loud as well. I don’t know that any director has found the whites of his star’s eyes quite as frightening or engaging as Ray finds Joan Crawford’s.

156) Down by Law (1986), directed by Jim Jarmusch

If I were to look for the right person to create common cause between framed cellmates John Lurie and Tom Waits, my first choice would not be Roberto Benigni making auctioneer noises with an Italian cellmate. Then again I’m not Jim Jarmusch at his most visionary, and while it lacks the unabashed strangeness of so much of his work, there’s just something so off about Benigni’s chatter amidst the glowering between Lurie and Waits.

155) The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), directed by Michael Curtiz

Razzle-dazzle sex and violence, the kind of movie that your grandparents love because they can be fooled into thinking that there is no sex or real violence to speak of. The tramping, stomping swordfights give the lie to the latter; radiant Olivia de Havilland ought to blunt the former all by herself, but the last line of the film is about how much Robin Hood’s going to enjoy aiming a different kind of shaft at a different kind of target.

154) The Quiet Man (1952), directed by John Ford

Nostalgia is an obnoxious feeling in virtually everyone’s hands, and that’s not something Ford was immune to either. Yet the nostalgia for a better, purer, lovelier homeland than Pittsburgh is inexorable in this film, not least because that homeland grows women with the beauty—and the commitment to kayfabe—of Mary Kate Danaher.

153) Let There Be Light (1946), directed by John Huston

World War II is proof enough of a cruel world, but the fact that this documentary about soldiers trying to recover from their PTSD wasn’t released until the early 1980s is a different kind of proof entirely. There is such shame in this film’s damaged veterans, and Huston, despite all the machismo in his persona and his myth, never once thinks the men with battle fatigue in this hospital have anything to be ashamed of.

152) The Awful Truth (1937), directed by Leo McCarey

You can practically hear Irene Dunne and Cary Grant yelling NEENER NEENER NEENER at one another through most of this film, and despite so much feisty bickersoning back and forth, two of America’s dearest actors never tire the audience. It’s a weirder movie than you remember; even without whatever the heck Ralph Bellamy is doing in this movie, there’s a slightly horrifying cuckoo clock that I think is a metaphor.

151) 16 Days of Glory (1986), directed by Bud Greenspan

Bud Greenspan would go on to become the pet documentarian for the Olympics (both Summer and Winter) for decades after the Los Angeles games, but despite a few near misses (Calgary, Lillehammer) he never really came close to replicating the spectacle and awesome pomp of what he does here. A little shy of five hours, the footage of feats breeze by, and the bittersweet closing ceremony is something of a letdown after so many simply told and powerfully delivered stories.

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