The following is part of an overview of the top 100 American narrative fiction feature films, from my perspective. For an introduction to the project, click here. For a list of more than 800 films which I considered for the top 450 and my eligibility qualifications, click here. And for a way to vote on what you think the top 100 American narrative fiction feature films are, click here. If I’ve written a full-length review of the film on this site, I link to it in the movie’s title. Enjoy!
100) The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), directed by William Wyler.
An advantage that The Best Years of Our Lives has over many relatively recent World War II movies, like Saving Private Ryan, is that it doesn’t have to exert much of its energy on the tired discussion of “These men were heroes!” The Best Years of Our Lives, leaning on nothing more than the profound collective memory of World War II and the way that it consumed the lives of Americans, has heft just as a fact of its placement in time. Occasionally someone will try to play up the angle of “war hero” in this film, and very frequently that rings noisily and meaninglessly in the ears of our characters; the point, of course, is that the war heroes are not trying to be war heroes anymore. Think of Fredric March’s boss at the bank, who promotes him to a vice-presidential position simply because it’ll ring up business with former doughboys. Al finds multiple opportunities, sober and drunk alike, to problematize that simplistic vulture mentality of the war. Fred (Dana Andrews), unlike Al, can’t monetize his war hero status. He tries to get a better job than soda jerk at the drugstore where he worked before the war, but he hasn’t been trained to do anything besides drop bombs on military and industrial targets. And Homer (Harold Russell, who won two Oscars for that role) is just trying to figure out how he’s going to manage living in a nice Midwestern city with hooks instead of hands.
Wyler, who filmed one of the great war movies of all time in the hour-long documentary Memphis Belle, could doubtless empathize with his three protagonists, each one crippled in a different way. He came home from the war almost entirely deaf, and on the set of this movie relied heavily on cinematographer Gregg Toland. The Best Years of Our Lives is a movie which, despite its massive popularity in its own time, seems like it would be doomed to failure in our own time. The kind of people who might be roused to see it because they love The Troops would be disappointed in how none of these men are Bradley Cooper or Mark Wahlberg on a killing streak. For many of the rest of us, who can’t sympathize with American troops fighting in colonialist wars across the world, it would be hard to feel for the men coming home. The Best Years of Our Lives can’t be remade, and it shouldn’t be. It has genuine feeling that can’t be transplanted or transported.
99) Back to the Future (1985), directed by Robert Zemeckis.
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Not every movie should be fun. There are some movies which I firmly believe should be less fun, should aim to become almost unbearable to watch; I watched Son of Saul recently and thought it should have been even more unflinching. But when a movie is fun, let it be fun like Back to the Future, which is always a blast. Michael J. Fox, who is as cool as a glass of lemonade and punches a little harder, is the literal little guy we can root for against bigger forces: Libyan terrorists, incest, time travel. And when he succeeds through dances and lightning strikes, it’s hard not to sit up and hope for him. Fox’s charisma is part of the magic of this film, but in a movie which famously almost ran with Eric Stoltz, casting is what makes this movie turn. Christopher Lloyd gave an all-timer of a kooky performance. Lea Thompson is hilarious and sexy and terrifying all at the same time, which is a little weird to write, and Crispin Glover actually makes us believe that he’s never heard of Darth Vader before.
A DeLorean with a flux capacitor and the ability to travel through time once it hits 88 miles per hour. It’s your cousin, Marvin – Marvin Berry! I am your density. And a killer joke that would have been even funnier twenty years earlier about Jack Benny being the Secretary of the Treasury. Back to the Future is one of the most endlessly quotable movies in the history of the world, and it’s hard to escape its cultural gravity even for people who haven’t seen it; I could have given a reasonably good blow-by-blow of the movie in high school, even though I didn’t see it until I was in college. Part of that is simply what happens when a movie blows up, but as everyone likes to note, that never happened to Avatar. Back to the Future is a delightful summer blockbuster, but it’s also just well-written. Part of that comes from the genius of the specificity of things like the DeLorean – this never would have worked if it had been a Mercedes, much less a Toyota – but part of it also comes just from avoiding mistakes in screenwriting. Despite a tricky topic like time travel, the movie doesn’t beat itself.
98) Sweet Smell of Success (1957), directed by Alexander Mackendrick
There’s some inherent risk in casting one’s leading actors in ways which reject audience expectations, especially when they rank among the top-billing stars on the planet. Neither Tony Curtis or Burt Lancaster were much known at the time for playing the heel (though both would do it later with aplomb); Curtis made hay through prettiness, and Lancaster via solidity. I don’t think of either part as being against type for the two men of Sweet Smell of Success; they are the illogical continuations of what we are used to seeing from the two of them. Tony Curtis never could shut up, so why not make him snivel and grovel and believe that he can walk out of any tough situation merely through talking? Burt Lancaster is handsome, loud, and powerful, so why not play up his intelligence (which always shone through anyway) and use the hulking body as a physical corollary for his hulking brain? Make the man who is powerful to get what he wants in any other film revel in it here. Sweet Smell of Success is electric, it knows it’s electric, and it plays as well as now as it did in ’57. It may even play better, really; the movie lost money when it debuted.
97) Imitation of Life (1959), directed by Douglas Sirk
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What really hits home about Imitation of Life is that from its white perspective, it recognizes that black people have thoughts about being black and have thoughts about the society which doesn’t seem to recognize that black people have those thoughts at all. The Civil Rights Movement as we know it in America had begun years before this film, a remake of an identically titled ’34 version starring Claudette Colbert, was released. With that background in mind, Sarah Jane (Susan Kohner) is a particularly delicate figure. The Booker T. Washington model for integration inevitably casts black people into the subservient position of hoping someone will notice that you’re a person and treat you better once you’re economically useful. Sarah Jane is not economically useful – she runs away from home and is a girl with legs for showbiz – but she’s decided that she’s not going to ask for people to treat her nicely. She has an advantage in that she can pass for white; she means to use it, even if it means rejecting her mother, Annie (Juanita Moore). When she returns to sob on her mother’s coffin, it’s not Sarah Jane we hate; it’s the America that forced her to choose between living a life outside some bourgeois white person’s kitchen and family.
96) Coming Home (1978), directed by Hal Ashby
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There’s an exchange between Bruce Dern and Jane Fonda which I think is deeply emblematic of Vietnam-era America. She asks him what it’s like over there. He says, “I don’t know what it’s like. I only know what it is.” Coming Home ends with the Jon Voight Vietnam vet giving a speech to kids about what it means to kill, what it means to be in the army, what it means to fight for country. It’s even less subtle than Dern’s terse response earlier in the film. And as much as I love subtlety in a movie, Coming Home doesn’t need it. Part of the film’s thesis is that if we were all a lot more honest about what we believed, about what our goals were, and what we were willing to do to get there, we might have saved some veterans from suicide and saved others from paralysis. We might have stayed out of Vietnam and saved a whole bunch of Vietnamese. There’s a choice to be made here, Voight says.
In hindsight, Ashby is probably no worse than the fourth-best American director of the 1970s, and depending on how you feel about New York, New York, maybe even third. Of course, compared to Coppola, who was the Golden State Warriors of ’70s American film, that’s sort of a sour consolation prize. And unlike Robert Altman (the San Antonio Spurs of this analogy), who got a second wind and made some of his best films in the ’90s, Ashby started to really lose control of his life not long after Coming Home was released and died ten years later from pancreatic cancer. As a result, despite having the evidence in front of us – Harold and Maude, Being There, Shampoo – in front of us, Ashby is still a terribly underrated director. If nothing else, he shows that we ought to recruit more film editors into the ranks of directors. Coming Home obviously shows touches of Ashby’s magic on that front. Coming Home, although it frequently flips from Fonda to Voight, is as balanced as a gymnast, never losing track of its plot or its opportunities to develop characters.