Americans didn’t invent film. We may not even have perfected it. Many of the best films ever made aren’t American. What Americans invented, however, was movies. Making movies is what we’re really great at.
What’s the difference between film and the movies? Film is a pretty clearly definable art form with its own aesthetic criteria that can be studied, analyzed, and critiqued. The movies, however, are something you experience. You go to the movies on a Saturday night on a date. You watch a movie in the middle of the week after a bad day at work. Movies make you laugh or cry or yell or cheer or get bored or infuriate you. The validity of a movie isn’t so much the artistic value of it as the experience you take from it. In that way, a movie like Robinson Crusoe on Mars (1964) is as fully successful a movie as, say, Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal (1957), even though no one would ever conflate the two in a Film Studies class.
This year, as Netflix moves past its 20th anniversary, we have decided to celebrate our future by looking back at our favorite movies over the past century, one decade at a time. I’m going to look at my five personal favorite movies in each decade, and all of these movies are available for rental on DVD.com. Some may be films you have seen a dozen times but still merit another look and others may be ones you have never heard of (or have heard of but never actually watched). Regardless, every one of these movies is worth a rental.
The advantage of going decade by decade through this century of American film is that each decade seems to have its own spirit and stories. To kick us off, today we’ll look at what I think are the indelible images or scenes from the past ten decades of American movies—the moments we remember and the moments that make us love American movies.
The 1920s: The scene of the train going off the bridge in The General (1926)
This comic masterpiece by Buster Keaton features the most preposterous of ideas: two trains chasing each other. Think about it. How can trains really chase each other? I’m laughing already. Here, one of the trains collapses a bridge. The take of the general looking at this, completely flummoxed, is one of my favorite shots ever in movie history.
Although sound was a regular feature of film by the time Charlie Chaplin made this film, it’s a silent. In this scene, a once-blind flower girl realizes that the man who raised the money to pay for her sight-restoring surgery was the Little Tramp. While this is one of the funniest movies ever made, this scene never fails to bring me to tears.
1940s: “I’ll be there.” Tom Joad’s final speech in The Grapes of Wrath (1940)
John Huston’s wrenching portrait of the desperate lives of Okies during the Great Depression ends with Henry Fonda’s angelic face telling his mother he is leaving, but he’ll be there where it matters. It’s one of the greatest speeches in American movies. While we associate the 1940s with World War II, in the year 1940 the war was a distant and foreign entanglement that was not our business. The Great Depression was still the dominant story of the times when this film was made. Fonda’s speech resonated powerfully then, and powerfully still.
While everyone thinks of Gene Kelly’s signature number in this movie, for me, the astonishing athleticism of O’Connor is jaw-dropping and unforgettable. This is the kind of movie that comes from a culture that is vigorous, self-confident, and full of possibilities.
Well, here it is: George Lucas’s announcement that we were about to enter a distant universe that operated under his rules. He tells a story with a familiar Western structure to it: good guys, bad guys, a strange landscape, and heroic battles by nearly mythic characters. Buckle up, boys and girls, we’re going on a big, big ride. The 1970s was a great era for American filmmaking, a time when American film directors restated with verve and intelligence that the movies had something to say. While this opening title crawl may seem far from a serious statement about our culture, I would argue that it was instead a powerful reaffirmation of the imagination of the movies and their role in American life.
1990s: “Am I like a clown to you?” Joe Pesci’s psychopathic gangster in GoodFellas (1990)
This character crystallized what Martin Scorsese accomplished in this film—a portrayal of the Mafia as pissant, violent, dangerous, and supremely unlikeable characters. It’s brilliant and unforgettable. The gangster as a romantic figure in American life was dying out, hunted by a relentless new breed of prosecutors and a society grown tired of their anachronistic ways. In the 90s, the gangsters started to move from Brooklyn over to Wall Street.
2000s: The bank robbery scene in The Dark Knight (2008)
During this decade, director Christopher Nolan showed the high art potential of the comic book movie. At the center of this masterwork is a breathtaking performance by the late Heath Ledger. This apocalyptic vision of conflicted good and haunted evil came out just as the financial crisis hit the US. A bank robbery scene like this one is the perfect metaphor for those dark days.
2010s: the ocean swimming scene in Moonlight (2016)
Finally, American movies have started to look like America—diverse, complicated, and, in their own way, uplifting. This coming-of-age film about a young African American man in Miami hits every note perfectly. Moving, powerful, and unexpectedly joyful.
Now it’s your turn. Put that DVD into the player, turn down the lights, and enter the world of the movies—whichever decade you choose.
David Raether is a veteran TV writer and essayist. He worked for 12 years as a television sitcom writer/producer, including a 111-episode run on the ground-breaking ABC comedy “Roseanne.” His essays have been published by Salon.com, The Times of London, and Longforms.org, and have been lauded by The Atlantic Magazine and the BBC World Service. His memoir, Homeless: A Picaresque Memoir from Our Times, is awaiting publication.