Today marks the 240th birthday of our fair nation of the US of A, a country that despite its myriad problems, remains a pretty swell place to live. And in the current presidential election cycle that has many wondering if we’ll even be around to see another Independence Day, today seems as good a time as any to try to remember a few of the things that make this place so unique. To give you a little hope on our annual day of celebration, or to give you something to drown out the noise of all the damn fireworks, here are five movies that embody America.
Team America: World Police (2004)
This raunchy cult-classic deserves to be on any list of America-related cinema for its theme song alone, one that with each passing year seems a more valid candidate for our national anthem. And though it eviscerates the hypocrisies of American foreign policy with our blind need “to save the motherfucking day, yeah,” the film also serves as a living document to one of our nation’s most important characteristics: freedom.
For instance, where else in the world can a successful TV-comedy duo create a mainstream film that depicts everything from documentarian Michael Moore suicide bombing Mt. Rushmore to a couple engaging in consensual sex involving bowel movements with little to no opposition? Surely the fact that it was filmed with puppets helps, but the very concepts Team America: World Police so viciously criticizes are the very reason it exists. It’s American ideals at their most meta (and filthy).
Do the Right Thing (1989)
After the past few years have proven that race-related crimes most certainly do not get the justice they deserve, 1989’s Do the Right Thing becomes more important (and eerily prescient) with each passing year. Spike Lee’s masterpiece depicts the Brooklyn neighborhood of Bed-Stuy on the hottest day of the summer, where the racial tensions between each community rise closer and closer to boiling point with the passing of each sweltering hour.
An Italian-owned pizzeria becomes the stage for a violent clash of cultures, and each member of the community must reckon with the day’s consequences. As Abraham Lincoln once said, “a house divided against itself cannot stand,” and films like these demonstrate just how important it is for Americans to unite, not divide, in times of turmoil.
The bad guys win a lot in this world, but an essential part of America’s cultural fabric is that in the end, crime doesn’t pay…that the little guy can triumph over the forces of evil with a little luck. This trope has rarely been played out with as much heart in a setting as iconically Americana as it is in Fargo, the iconic classic from the Coen Brothers. Trouble does indeed lurk beneath the surface of idyllic small-towns, as we learn when “Minnesota-nice” car salesman Jerry Lundegaard hires men to fake-kidnap his wife in an attempt to earn some cash from his father-in-law’s ransom money.
Naturally, things do not go according to plan, and the unlikeliest of heroes—the eight-months pregnant, comically charming police chief Marge Gunderson—is the only one capable of bringing the gang of criminals to justice. Frances McDormand deservedly won an Oscar for portraying Gunderson, a performance that embodies the kind of sweetness, cleverness, and unstoppable determination present in the small-town-folk that keep this country afloat.
The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)
Perhaps we should amend the above statement to “in America, crime doesn’t pay…unless you work on Wall Street, in which case carry on with your rich playboy lifestyle punishment-free.” Martin Scorsese’s epic tale of corporate greed gone to its absurdist extreme is as amusing as it is depressing in its depiction of Jordan Belfort, the smarmy Long Island stockbroker with a talent for laundering money.
Brought to vivid life in a colossal performance from Leonardo DiCaprio, Belfort so thoroughly entertains us with his million-dollar shenanigans that we find ourselves rooting for him, even as men just like him continue to thrive in the corrupt world of American finance. It’s a testament to the fact that America is indeed a rich man’s world, one where the elite can crash a convertible while high on quaaludes and go free while the common people are incarcerated every day. Life isn’t fair, but the depravity of this cruel world has rarely looked as appealing as it does here.
Hoop Dreams (1994)
The backbone of the American Dream is the concept that enough hard work gives you the ability to achieve your wants and desires, no matter the odds. Rarely has this idea been as scrutinized and challenged as it is in Hoop Dreams, a landmark documentary that follows the lives of William Gates and Arthur Agee, two African-American boys from inner-city Chicago given a shot at a better life. Both are scouted by an elite (and mostly white) high school for their basketball talents, and both fully intend on making it to the NBA.
It challenges the way that Americans raise their children to shoot for their highest potential while ignoring some of the rigid structures holding them back, and heartbreakingly shows the results of such neglect. Nevertheless, this film is one full of hope, and serves as an excellent reminder that even the most insurmountable of odds can be overcome with good ol’ American determination.
In other film news, check out the intense trailer for Miles Teller’s upcoming boxing flick.