Top 250 American Movies: Charts and Broad Insights

After completing a project that takes more than a couple weeks to put together, I like to create some visual data (in other words, what an idiot with a vague understanding of Google Sheets can put together). Another way to think about these charts is that they clarify my biases, and to some extent my prejudices, as a moviegoer. One of the most obvious biases I have is towards the sound era, which I am genuinely a little embarrassed about. The first chart I made is probably the most obvious one to make.

The green is for the number of top 250 movies in each decade. The red is for the number of those which are also top 100. The tails are pretty obvious places to start, with just one movie from the 1910s and only three from the 2020s thus far. Someone with more background than I have would certainly have a more even distribution at the front end, especially in the 1920s. (That more than half of my 1920s films on this list are also in the top 100 is a sign that I haven’t seen enough stuff from the 1920s.) There are three data points here which I find genuinely surprising. First, one of my truly held contestations about movie history is that the art form peaked in the 1950s. For my money, the absolute best films in history disproportionately come from that decade, but looking at this list I think it’s pretty clear that the reason I think so has much more to do with world cinema, not American cinema. The 1950s managed to sneak only one more movie into the top 100 than the 1960s, a decade which is quite possibly the shallowest in American cinema history as the old auteurs fell away and the new ones were still getting their tenderfeet in the door. The decade that dominated the top 100, and which contributed more films to the top 250 than any other, was the 1980s. I was flabbergasted when I did this chart, because I didn’t feel like I’d stacked the deck for the ’80s. Nor, if someone asked me before I did this list, would I have thought the ’80s would be the top scorer. I went back and checked the tape to see what was going on.

And here’s where it started to make sense to me. I knew already that I cape for 1980s independent and low-budget cinema far more than I do for indie movies from maybe any other decade. (Perhaps it’s because filmmakers of color and/or queer filmmakers and/or women filmmakers working in this period tend not to be infected with whatever virus they give people at Tisch.) That covers a huge swath of this grouping, especially once we get to the second and third screenshots: Desert Hearts, Superstar, My Brother’s Wedding, Personal Problems, El Norte, Down and Out in America, Losing Ground. Add in that a big chunk of the docs I pulled come from this decade (seven, more than a quarter of my total)…a number of these films, starting with The Thing or even Blade Runner, are patron saints among reexamined or rediscovered movies…there’s an honest to goodness explosion of outstanding genre films from romantic comedies to sci-fi to horror…the last years of the New Hollywood are represented by actors like Dustin Hoffman and directors like Michael Cimino. Put all of those elements together, and the sheer variety of what’s available starts to make those numbers make sense.

On the other hand, I tend to believe that decades are a pretty arbitrary way to judge history. It’s just ten years stuck together that happen to share three numbers, as if America from 1930 to 1939 was somehow more coherent than America from 1936 to 1945. And speaking of arbitrary, I tried to think of a better way to measure similar periods of movies in American history than decades. It resulted in naming nine periods of uneven length which cover the years represented on my list:

  • The Silent Era (1916-1928) / The difference in movies of the last 1910s and late 1920s is absolutely staggering, not just in technology and movement but in stars and auteurs as well. But the unity of silent pictures is a unity, albeit a minority, in the history of our cinema.
  • The Pre-Code Era (1929-1934) / Really short, which I don’t love, but the cool raunch of these few years is too distinctive to fold in somewhere else.
  • Pre-Paramount Decision (1934-1948) / You could also call this the height of the studio era, I guess, but why give them that much credit.
  • Transition to Color (1948-1960) / The last Best Picture winner in black-and-white while black-and-white cinematography was still a fairly typical choice for movies was The Apartment, released in 1960. The introduction of color is, at least in my movie-watching experiences with other people, the other thing besides the introduction of sound which makes people more likely to watch a picture.
  • Big Budgets and Big Declines (1961-1967) / Another really short era, which, again, is cut short by a hard turn in permissiveness. This one happened to go in the opposite direction.
  • New Hollywood (1967-1981) / A lengthier era, and based on my belief that Reds is probably the last movie we can say is truly of the New Hollywood.
  • The Spielberg Era (1982-1998) / The single longest era in my estimation, this tracks the period between E.T. and Saving Private Ryan when the prestige film and the blockbuster were not necessarily separated. (I worked really hard to make sure Titanic fit in this era, btw.) This is not noteworthy not because it hadn’t been true before, but because as of today it’s never been true since.
  • The Sundance Triumph Era (1998-2007) / Includes 1999, a banner year for Gen Xers raised on Spielberg but aching for something new, as well as 2007, when the two best films of the year in this country were recognized for their greatness by the mainstream press and the movie biz alike. That no one saw those movies in theaters feels especially important.
  • The MCU Era (2008-present) / Iron Man to now. If I did this list again in a few years and had more films to work from, there’s a strong likelihood I’d cut this era off somewhere after Endgame was released and start a new one which reflects the realities of covid-19.

Clearly, this chart is insufficient for any kind of deeper analysis, but it gives us a better sense of what we’re starting with. A more useful chart would track the average number of movies per year in each era, as this one does.

The shorter eras still get shafted by this formulation, but I think this at least gives a better sense of some of the hot zones in American movies. The ’80s, firmly represented by the Spielberg era, we’ve covered. (The irony is not lost on me that I included exactly one Spielberg movie from the era I’ve named after him.) The New Hollywood comes out better in this formulation, I think, and the time before the monopolies of movies were chipped at in the late ’30s and early ’40s is also represented well in this way. 1939-1942 contributed 17 movies to this list, which by my list’s estimation is better than like, 1972-1975.

Once you get past time periods, the next obvious thing to measure is genre. Before you look at this chart, just know that there is not actually a good way to say that a movie is more one thing than another. I went with one genre per movie even if you can argue (as I have in some cases!) that the film in question ought to belong to multiple genres. I have It’s a Wonderful Life as a contemporary drama and not fantasy, Evil Dead 2 as horror and not comedy, Fargo as thriller and not crime. You’re damn right I’ve got Nashville and Inside Llewyn Davis as musicals. Without any sarcasm, if you are led to try to replicate this chart and come up with different genres or different conclusions, I would be genuinely excited to see how you placed these movies.

Contemporary dramas make up a whopping 11% of all movies on this list; no other genre eclipses 10%. Documentaries come fairly close, although I’d be sympathetic to an argument that I should be splitting non-fiction hairs as well; are Wattstax and Stop Making Sense really that much like Grey Gardens, or are any of those that much like In Jackson Heights? This chart is definitely a result of me making this list. I tend to glom onto dramas more than comedies, and it’s not surprising to me that three of the top four genres represented here are [insert adjective] dramas. I am a little shocked, given my gender and my old soul, that war movies are not more powerfully represented. Then again, the war film is a genre that tended to lose out to others: The Hunt for Red October, A Hidden Life, and Fort Apache, just to name three movies, are all placed with other genres rather than being justifiably grouped under “War.” To be transparent, the category that has the most surprising number to me is “Satire.” I’m of the opinion that there aren’t actually that many good satires, and it’s possible that I’ve grouped most of the good ones here and maybe painted something like Sweet Smell of Success or Lost in America with a brush they may not necessarily deserve.

Film personnel posed a problem for me. Part of me really wanted to try to figure out editors or cinematographers who showed up the most, but that would have been an absolute nightmare given how often multiple people are credited as cutting or shooting a film. Actors we’ll get to. I considered film studios but decided I kind of…I mean, this sounds bad, but I kind of didn’t care all that much. Same with producers. In the end I decided to stick to actors and to directors by two metrics. The first was to find which directors had the most credits across the top 250. Then I wanted to see which directors had the most credits in the top 100. In both cases these charts are going to cut off so they’re actually readable, so I’m including directors with three or more in the top 250 and directors with two or more in the top 100. To what should be no one’s surprise, the charts are pretty similar.

By this measure, John Ford comes out best. (I wrote about this for The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, but a significant chunk of my logic for calling Ford America’s greatest director is that I could make an argument for twenty or more of his films to belong on this top 250, even if I ultimately limited it to eleven. There is not another director in American history who I am comfortable saying could have twenty movies in a list this tight.)

And by this one, it’s Martin Scorsese. (I could probably make the case for as many as ten Scorsese movies in the top 100 or top 150…like Ford, there are just not that many people who I can make a case like that for with a straight face.) In either case, the top tiers are pretty set: Ford, Scorsese, Malick, Hitchcock, the Coens, Haynes, Wilder, Lynch, Kubrick, Chaplin, and Paul Thomas Anderson make a very strong top 11. (This is not that far off from who I’d say the top 10 or 11 directors in American history are, which is kind of nice for me. Stay tuned for another list someday! I wish I knew if I were kidding!) Between the best of the rest in both charts, I’m not sure that I favor one group over the other. I know that I appreciate the recognition thinner oeuvres, whether by methodology or by lifespan, belonging to Barbara Kopple and F.W. Murnau. I also like seeing some of America’s more consistently great directors get their due, like Wyler and Lubitsch and Altman and Spielberg and Hawks. On the other hand, this is also a reminder of directors who esteem so, so highly who did not end up getting nearly as many movies on this list as I would have expected before making it: John Carpenter, Hal Ashby, Kelly Reichardt, Vincente Minnelli, Fritz Lang, Raoul Walsh, Lois Weber, Delmer Daves, Gregory La Cava, Sofia Coppola.

Last, and by my estimation least, I decided to go through each of fiction films on my top 100 list and name the three actors I consider the most essential to that film. (Before Sunset did not get a third person, because I don’t even know where I’d start for that.) Like the genre list, there were some judgment calls I had to make here and there. For example, I think Jeff Goldblum gets the third spot in Jurassic Park over Richard Attenborough, Isabella Rossellini gets the third spot in Blue Velvet over Laura Dern, and Ray Bolger and Margaret Hamilton ought to be considered before Frank Morgan, Jack Haley, or Bert Lahr in The Wizard of Oz. Even by my standards of like, not really giving actors a ton of credit for the overall quality of great films, I was a little amazed by the results.

Just to start, it does not shock me that this list is so male. The history of Hollywood does not easily lend itself to films about women, which as I’ve written many times before is part of the reason American movies as a whole can be a pretty disappointing bunch! What does kind of amaze me is that supporting actors are very much essential to this list once you get past the Ford/Scorsese hotbeds of Jimmy Stewart, Robert De Niro, Henry Fonda, Joe Pesci, and John Wayne. Albert Hall is here for Apocalypse Now and Malcolm X; I think there’s a good case he’s the third-most important actor in both movies. Vera Miles gets Psycho and The Searchers, Claude Rains and Michelle Williams and Sam Shepherd are in here over people like Bette Davis, Katharine Hepburn, and Cary Grant. I mean, what’s funny about this list once you get into the single digits is that Lillian Gish is as represented as Gunnar Hansen, and that Jack Nance and Humphrey Bogart have the same number of movies in the top 100. It’s a good reminder that even when the list in question is 100 films deep, it comes pretty far from telling a complete story about the history of a national cinema.

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