6. American Pie (1999)
Is there anything more memorable than Jason Biggs initiating passionate copulation with his mother’s homemade apple pie? What image has been more prolifically seared into the minds of today’s generation? Director Paul Weitz’s American Pie was a phenomenon when it hit worldwide cinemas in 1999.
Originally deemed by Universal Pictures a waste of money, this sleeper hit found its audience and earned USD $235 million at the box office. While a few found it overly crass and unfunny, many critics were forgiving of its flaws, and some praised it for the ability to deliver crude jokes, and yet maintain empathy and respect for its characters.
Following four high school boys who enter into a pact to lose their virginity by prom night, American Pie travels through parties, sexual close-calls, bedroom mishaps (including an unforgettable premature ejaculation scene), and ethereal conversation regarding band camp. Full of memorable moments, this film will live on in the annals of popular culture for a long time yet.
Even if the reviews aren’t all glowing – scoring a 61% “Fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes and a 58 “mixed or average” rating on Metacritic – it can rest on its laurels, safe in the knowledge that it popularised the phrase ‘MILF’ and introduced the world to Seann William Scott as the lecherous legend Stifler.
Writer Adam Herz has explained the title as a reference to the famous homemade apple pie sequence, as well as the mantra of losing one’s virginity before prom being an intrinsic American tradition: as “American as apple pie.” Much like American Graffiti and other American high school movies, this film is a familiar, nostalgic and somewhat bittersweet look at American social tradition. American Pie is fond, but not forgiving.
7. American Psycho (2000)
Walking on Sunshine by Katrina & the Waves blasts through the headphones of Patrick Bateman as he struts into his office after a few cutaways through high rise buildings. This tawdry set up right after the opening sequence is an imitation of everything Mary Harron’s film takes aim at. The satirical film criticises the typical Hollywood fare, with flashy sets, lively direction, and a soundtrack that bleeds altruism through every chord progression.
This is also the film representing its lead character, Bateman, who performs every day as a friendly, average guy. The truth behind his flawless, inviting complexion is a mendacious, murderous psychopath. Bateman comments in the opening sequence that even when people are certain of a human connection, he “simply [is] not there”, as he removes a facial mask, symbolic of the mask of humanity he seldom ceases to wear.
Based on the novel by Bret Easton Ellis, the film received a lot of acclaim upon release. However, Ellis felt that the film was only “okay” and that the film adaptation was unnecessary. Most critics, while positive about the film, agreed that the film would have worked better as a “short subject” (Andrew Sarris), and that “after an hour […] the movie begins to repeat itself” (David Ansen). The consensus of Rotten Tomatoes states that the film “falls short of the deadly satire of Bret Easton Ellis’s novel”.
The film is a parody of American lifestyle and attitudes. Bale’s turn as Bateman hiding under the facade of normality is a comment on the artificial nature of societal behaviour, where aesthetics takes precedence over politics. American Psycho is about America’s ongoing dalliance with superficiality.
8. American Gangster (2007)
Starring Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe, American Gangster was a highly anticipated film. However, in an underwhelming decade insofar as director Ridley Scott is concerned, American Gangster seemed like a make-or-break deal, either reinvigorating his status as an excellent director, or relegating him to the scrapheap with the likes of Francis Ford Coppola and Rob Reiner.
Even 2000’s Gladiator saw ill reviews for crude and basic direction, which Roger Ebert gave two out of four stars. Scott would have been overjoyed to have seen Ebert give American Gangster the full four stars.
The film splits into two separate stories. The first is Washington’s character, Frank Lucas, rising through the echelons of a drug dealing empire, subtle in his manner and mannerisms, extreme in his actions. Lucas is underestimated at first, but he uses this as a tactic of surprise, becoming a kingpin overnight.
The second story is Crowe’s character, Richie Roberts, whose morals are impeding the advancement of his career as a police officer. “Cops kill cops they can’t trust,” warns Javier, his partner, in an early scene. Roberts can’t be trusted, because he’s honest. Roberts is even berated and labelled a “kike” by the U.S. Attorney. All the while his relationship with his soon-to-be ex-wife and son is deteriorating. Roberts decides to concentrate his energy into catching Lucas, conflicted about allowing his family to slip away.
While Lucas and Roberts are disparate people, they both share one strong similarity: neither of them ever feel quite ingratiated with their respective societies. Quentin B. Huff of PopMatters surmised that the ‘American dream‘ plays a large part in both of the characters‘ lives. Roberts is a loner in the police force, a rare “honest cop” who hasn’t succumbed to the rampant corruption surrounding him.
Roberts desires proficiency in his job, and a quaint family life, the everyman’s ‘American dream’. He cannot achieve the dream due to his moral integrity. Lucas, on the other hand, is extremely powerful; he has incredible wealth, respect from everyone he passes, a nice house and a beautiful wife. Still, he never fits in. Lucas has achieved the ‘American dream’, but his means – drug dealing and leading an empire – are unethical and incompatible with the dream.
American Gangster is an ironic title, suggesting the incongruous and unrealistic nature of this dream. Being American and being a gangster, according to the dream, are antithetical to the core.
9. American Hustle (2013)
David O. Russell’s follow up to Silver Linings Playbook exhibited yet another layer of his diversity, with an ensemble film following gangsters and undercover police in a myriad of intertwining plots and subplots. Having had The Fighter compared to Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull (a film which inspired The Fighter) by Sports Illustrated, it came as no surprise that American Hustle immediately garnered comparisons to Goodfellas.
Opening with a dangerously obese Christian Bale, here for the second time on this list, combing over a stray few strands of hair, with an attached ball of fuzz in the centre of his head, the audience is disarmed immediately. This is a film about criminals and a dark network of political corruption, but the opening sequence is so comical in tone, it’s almost shocking.
Receiving a 93% “Certified Fresh” rating from Rotten Tomatoes, with an Average Rating of 8.2/10, and a Metascore of 90/100 on Metacritic, the film received an almost unanimous appraisal of quality. Named “fabulous” and “one of the films of the year” by leading Australian critics Margaret Pomeranz and David Stratton from At the Movies, there were almost no major detractors.
Bale and his co-stars, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence, all received major praise for their roles. Bale’s physically transformative dedication to the role was admired by many, the actor gaining 43 pounds for the character.
This was also one of Bradley Cooper’s first forays into serious roles, and the second role to earn him an Academy Award nomination. However, not all critics were so pleased, including Sean O’Connell of CinemaBlend, who felt that the film bore too many similarities to Goodfellas, calling American Hustle, “Mediocre-fellas”.
Russell’s film is a lampoon of American crime films whilst being an American crime film. It is also about the “Abscam” operation, which was run by the FBI to corner and catch corrupt U.S. congressmen. The operation worked and cast several highly respected American figures into the maelstrom of historical infamy.
The title, American Hustle, is a sarcastic cry of the thin veneer of patriotism; the cold fact that the people who are supposed to set an example as decent, law-abiding citizens, can turn out the polar opposite.
10. American Sniper (2014)
Nominated for Best Picture at the 86th Annual Academy Awards, alongside five other nominations, Clint Eastwood’s jingoistic drama only hit its target in a single sound editing category. Nonetheless, it was an outstanding success both critically and commercially – admittedly, more so in the latter.
The film, starring Bradley Cooper – for the second time on this list – and Sienna Miller, would find itself laden with controversy after the initial buzz. As Seth Rogen put it, the film is reminiscent of “the movie that’s showing in the third act of Inglourious Basterds”, a movie that celebrates death and congratulates a Nazi sniper like a homecoming hero.
While Seth Rogen later retracted his comments, many agree that American Sniper tiptoes the line of racism, and glorifies armed combat. At the same time, the film has been commended for its confident direction, as well as for delivering “an excellent performance from a bulked-up Bradley Cooper,” according to Justin Chang of Variety.
Based on the true and highly-publicised story of Chris Kyle, “The Most Lethal Sniper in U.S. Military History” (part of the subtitle of the autobiographical source material), the film arrives in Texas, tracking rodeo star Kyle’s decision to enlist in the navy. He is soon recruited into the U.S. Navy SEALs as a sniper.
Kyle’s expertise is integral in his climbing the ranks to becoming “The Legend” among soldiers, a masterful shootist. The second act of the film deals with Kyle’s emotional turmoil in the face of his rising kill streak, his main regret being unable to kill even more Iraqis. As the final act unfurls, so does Eastwood’s lesson of veteran neglect.
Eastwood and Cooper both maintain that out of everything the film says, the most paramount message is that veterans deserve more attention and care to cope with the hardships of war.
Critics, like John Wight of Russia Today, who saw Kyle as a “racist killer”, still find difficulty in overlooking the dehumanisation of foreign soldiers in the film, Kyle even stating in the source material that everyone he shot “deserved to die”, launching invective and professing to “[hating] the damn savages.”
A fervent lover of God and his country, the title of Kyle’s autobiography, and the title of this film, American Sniper, is a patriotic war cry: a satisfied proclamation of being American and shooting those who are not. Nonetheless, the film was praised for bringing attention to forgotten veterans; forgotten American veterans.
Author Bio: Linus Tolliday is a freelance writer and student in Melbourne. He loves movies more than he loves his friends, family and life itself.