This Independence Day, America confronts a host of serious challenges, and appears diminished on the world stage. There’s a vacuum of leadership for all the world to see.
I’m not sleeping easy just now, but I’m still an optimist. I believe America will rebound, and that our essential decency remains intact even if sometimes we lose our way.
I also have faith that the lessons we take from this tumultuous time will make us a better nation. Clearly we are overdue to address, and act on, some hard truths.
Below are ten timeless titles that evoke the (best) spirit and character of America. Happy Fourth, everyone.
Young Mr. Lincoln (1939)
John Ford’s flavorful biopic of Abe Lincoln’s early life charts his arrival as a young lawyer in Springfield, Illinois, his start in politics, and his courtship of Mary Todd. Augmented by a skilled make-up job, Henry Fonda is uncanny as the future sixteenth president, never once overdoing it or descending into caricature. Lamar Trotti’s screenplay was Oscar-nominated, and no wonder. One of the legendary Ford’s best films.
Full review here. | Rent now on Amazon Video. Also available on Apple iTunes, Google Play Movies, YouTube, Vudu, Microsoft Store, FandangoNOW, DIRECTV.
Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)
Frank Capra’s powerful morality tale features James Stewart as Jefferson Smith, a callow but idealistic man who gets appointed interim Senator by Majority Leader Joseph Paine (Claude Rains). Paine assumes Senator Smith can be manipulated, but is proven wrong. Meanwhile Clarissa Saunders (Jean Arthur), Smith’s handler, is just trying to keep up. Don’t miss the wind-up. Truly one for the ages.
Full review here. | Rent now on Amazon Video. Also available on Criterion Channel, Vudu, Redbox, Google Play Movies, YouTube, Microsoft Store, FandangoNOW, Apple iTunes, DIRECTV.
Sergeant York (1941)
On the eve of our entry into the Second World War, independent producer Sam Goldwyn released this rousing, patriotic biopic about farmer Alvin York (Gary Cooper), a conscientious objector who became the most decorated soldier in World War One. Under Howard Hawks’s expert direction, Cooper won a well-deserved Oscar for his folksy, winning portrayal of this bona fide hero. God Bless America!
Full review here. | Rent now on Amazon Video. Also available on Criterion Channel, Vudu, Google Play Movies, YouTube, DIRECTV, Redbox, Microsoft Store, FandangoNOW, Apple iTunes.
Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942)
Known mostly for gangster roles, James Cagney shows off his early song-and-dance training playing George M. Cohan, the legendary showman who started performing with his family in vaudeville and went on to produce a string of successful plays on Broadway. He also penned popular patriotic songs of the day, like “Over There”. Cagney is incredible here, and Walter Huston also scores as his father.
Full review here. | Rent now on Amazon Video. Also available on Apple iTunes, YouTube, Google Play Movies, Microsoft Store, Vudu, DIRECTV, FandangoNOW.
From Here to Eternity (1953)
Director Fred Zinnemann brings James Jones’s epic novel about soldiers at Pearl Harbor to vivid life, centering on the intertwined fates of two men: Private Robert E. Lee Prewitt (Montgomery Clift), a gifted pugilist who refuses to box for his unit, and his sergeant, Milt Warden (Burt Lancaster), who’s stifled and starts an affair with his commanding officer’s wife (Deborah Kerr). Then a surprise attack changes everything.
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Hal (William Holden), a former college football jock down on his luck, visits his wealthy former classmate Alan (Cliff Robertson) in Kansas, and promptly falls for Alan’s intended, voluptuous beauty queen Madge (Kim Novak, in her film debut). Rosalind Russell nearly steals the film as a spinster schoolteacher. Josh Logan adapted the William Inge play. Vintage Americana, with a beautiful score by George Duning.
Full review here. | Rent now on Amazon Video. Also available on Vudu, Google Play Movies, YouTube, Microsoft Store, FandangoNOW, Apple iTunes.
West Side Story (1961)
Robert Wise’s film, with dance scenes directed by Jerome Robbins, remains a thrilling experience, with a fabulous Leonard Bernstein/Stephen Sondheim score. Here the Romeo and Juliet story gets updated to Spanish Harlem, where forbidden love grows amidst a gang war between whites and Puerto Ricans. Natalie Wood brings a luminous beauty to Maria, but Rita Moreno steals it as the feisty Anita. Pounce if it’s been a while.
Full review here. | Stream now on Amazon Prime Video. Also available on Netflix, Criterion Channel, Hoopla, Hulu, Epix, Apple iTunes, Google Play Movies, YouTube, Microsoft Store, Vudu, AMC on Demand, DIRECTV, Redbox, FandangoNOW.
In Franklin Schaffner’s Oscar-winning film, George C. Scott delivers a towering performance as the storied general from World War Two. Eisenhower considered Patton one of his finest commanders, but his subordinate’s brash, outspoken style often got him in trouble. This epic war picture endures as both a superb character study and invaluable history lesson. Karl Malden lends sold support as General Omar Bradley.
Full review here. | Rent now on Amazon Video. Also available on Vudu, Google Play Movies, YouTube, Apple iTunes, DIRECTV, Microsoft Store, Redbox, FandangoNOW.
A League of Their Own (1992)
Penny Marshall’s warm, delightful comedy takes us back to the Second World War, when an all-female baseball league stepped up to carry on the national pastime. Tom Hanks is priceless as the team’s long-suffering, alcoholic manager (“There’s no crying in baseball!”) and the team line-up includes Geena Davis, Rosie O’Donnell and Madonna, who gives a refreshingly understated performance. Play ball!
Full review here. | Rent now on Amazon Video. Also available on Vudu, Google Play Movies, YouTube, Microsoft Store, Apple iTunes, AMC on Demand, DIRECTV, Redbox, FandangoNOW.
Steven Spielberg’s literate, inspiring biopic depicts President Abraham Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis) in the final months of his life, when he had to balance the imperative to end the Civil War with the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment abolishing slavery. Lincoln also had to manage his neurotic wife Mary (Sally Field), who feared that their eldest son Robert (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) would die on the battlefield.
Full review here. | Rent now on Amazon Video. Also available on Vudu, Google Play Movies, YouTube, Microsoft Store, Apple iTunes, AMC on Demand, DIRECTV, FandangoNOW.