With the presumed update to the American Film Institute’s 100 Best American-Made Movies just around the corner, and the unique cross-roads of history and culture that we now find ourselves smack dab in the middle of, it has never been more imperative that we closely examine the kinds of art that we, as Americans, are putting forth to represent our values and perspective to the rest of the world.
Stories matter – deeply, innately – and inform the kind of people that we are evolving into. As such, the stories that we value are more than just the vaguely interesting, time-killing and sometimes self-congratulating presentations that they are so often depicted as. The list is 100 individual statements about what it means to be American, and these are five more arguments for a better and more fitting depiction of the same.
The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)
One of the advantages of a list like this is that the latest entries can offer some insight to what themes, concepts and forces drive the present age. And in the case of this new list, for this new age, two forces rise above all the others for the ceaseless impact that they hold over the present: the landscape of social media (as evidenced in The Social Network) and the bitter, omnipresent failings of the economy (as evidenced here). It was tempting to pick The Big Short here instead of this film, because of how it directly and succinctly explains what happened in the turn-of-the-century Subprime Mortgage Crisis (an calamity whose aftershocks we are still contending with), but I can’t help but feel that this is the better candidate to carry this particular torch on the list. It’s another feather in director Martin Scorsese’s cap, something that I’m always happy to see, and a phenomenal tour-de-force for all of the talented men and women working on this project in every one of their multitudinous capacities. It’s infectiously fun and provides enough distance about its lurid subject matter so as not to be directly incensed by it (unlike say, The Big Short, although it is certainly not without justifiable reasons for being so).
Writer-director Richard Linklater is one of the unsung masters of the medium, and one that the AFI should quite frankly be ashamed of not honoring before this. Basically the only name in American-made slice-of-life dramas, he’s singlehandedly responsible for the Before trilogy, Dazed and Confused, Everybody Wants Some!! and this sprawling Texan epic of a young boy’s growth into a young man. Not only does each chapter in its narrative perfectly capture the moment in time in which its set, but each was shot years apart from one another so as to allow the actors to age into their older selves in real-time. It is an immensely ambitious and breathtaking work that has been hailed as a modern masterpiece the world over.
Inside Out (2015)
These AFI lists have always had a weird but understandable quirk in that they often choose single movies to represent a director’s, or indeed an entire studio’s, prolific body of work. That is why, for instance, that the only animated Disney film until now has been Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) and the only Pixar film has been Toy Story (1995): both the first works produced by their respective studios. That is sad on a number of different levels, both in terms of the incredible works that it omits by design, but also because those original works – no matter how influential – do not, in fact cannot, adequately represent the superior state of the medium as it exists today. Toy Story may be a seminal work, but it’s not even the best movie in its own franchise, and Inside Out is easily Pixar’s best and most affecting narrative to date.
Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)
Leading up to its release, Fury Road was pretty much always guaranteed to be popular. If nothing else, it was a visionary action film made with some of the most talented actors working today told in-camera as much as possible (and for chase films like this, where the point is to do as many crazy in-person stunts and explode as many pieces of machinery as possible, that’s pretty much the only way to go). What nobody figured, though, was exactly how good – and how critically beloved – the movie was going to be: just how well-directed, well-written, well-acted and shockingly well-timed everything about this movie was. It was even one of the highest ranked overall movies on the BBC’s 21st century list, coming in at #19 overall (and the 10th highest-ranked American feature on the list), which speaks well to its chances on the upcoming AFI list.
Sometimes everything about a move works on such an innately fundamental level that the resulting feature is nothing less than a transcendent experience: the sum total of its specific time and place. Moonlight is one of those films: easily the best from the year it came out and representing an experience that American filmmaking rarely takes on – the unique cross-section between the Black and LGBT communities. It is an arresting yet understated drama with real-feeling, lived-in characters among the best realized in the medium’s history.