What does it mean for a film to be about America? It’s not an easy question to answer.
This July 4th weekend, we’ve rounded up a group of movies we love that fit that bill (while trying to avoid the easy route of “patriotic” movies). Instead, it’s a group of films that address the question thematically.
This is by no means an exhaustive list, and we welcome any nominations (especially outside the box) in the comments! While you’re here, also be sure to check out our list of the best work movies to watch at home – many of which would be great here too.
French champion Agnès Varda made this 28-minute documentary relatively early in her career following protests by the Black Panther Party in Oakland following the arrest of Huey P. Newton. Combining Varda’s indelible style as a documentary filmmaker with a historical record of a moment and place often excluded from American textbooks, Black panthers is an unforgettable portrait of a remarkable group of people trying to make a broken country a better place. —peter people
Black panthers can be viewed on HBO Max, the Criterion Channel or for digital rental on Amazon.
David Byrne’s American Utopia
Spike Lee directed this performance of David Byrne’s electric Broadway musical, full of jubilant dance numbers and deep reflections on the state of our country and the world. It was one of Polygon’s favorite movies of 2020. —PV
From our review:
Even for those unfamiliar with Byrne’s work, the film feels haunted and upbeat as the cast jump and frolic about the stage, choreographed by Annie-B Parson. The songs aren’t narrative, at least not in the explicit way they would be in a traditional musical, but their themes form a form in Byrne’s hands that coalesces around the conflict that seems so pervasive in America today , and the need to be kind to one another and do the work to create a better future. The immense joy he can inspire gives way to a broader sense of empathy that transforms the instinct to dance and sing into the instinct to act.
David Byrne’s American Utopia can be viewed on HBO Max or rented or purchased digitally on Apple, Google Play and other VOD providers.
Watch out for the gap
Here at Polygon, we love Watch out for the gap, Bing Liu’s first documentary about his group of skateboard-obsessed friends in Illinois. A moving portrait of friendship, manhood, and the American heartland, it was featured by several Polygon contributors in our picks of the best films of the 2010s, as well as our list of the 50 masterpieces of the streaming era, our list of the best sports films, and our list of the best movies on Hulu. Watch out for the gap: It is great! —PV
Watch out for the gap can be viewed on Hulu.
Richard Kelly’s (Donnie Darko) insane 2006 sci-fi film is unsettlingly attuned to the entertainment industry, the military-industrial complex, and America’s surveillance state. The film wasn’t given a fair shake upon release and, frankly, was probably at least two decades ahead of its time. From today’s perspective, it feels like a prescient piece of dystopia that’s somehow clumsy and deadly focused in equal measure.
Last but not least, watch the hypnotic scene in which Justin Timberlake, who plays an Iraqi war veteran who is now a drug dealer, mimics The Killers’ “All These Things That I’ve Done” in a sequence that resembles a music video was filmed. —PV
southern tales can be streamed on Prime Video through Starz or rented or purchased digitally on Apple TV, Google Play and other VOD providers.
kill her gently
Set in Boston in the days leading up to the 2008 presidential election, Andrew Dominik’s 2012 neo-noir thriller stars Brad Pitt as Jackie Cogan, a mob enforcer and fixer hired to track down a trio of crooks who had the audacity ( see: stupidity) knocking over a mafia poker game. The film as a whole is excellent, a tightly wrapped crime drama with great cinematography, great (if all-too-brief) supporting performances from James Gandolfini and Ray Liotta, and a tense conversation between Cogan and his supervisor about the nature of America, simmering patriotic myth-making and egalitarian ideals inside a shockingly harsh and blunt truth. To paraphrase Cogan, we live in America, and in America you’re on your own. – Toussaint Egan
kill her gently can be streamed on Hulu and FUBO TV or free with ads on Pluto TV, Plex and Crackle.
never seldom sometimes always
The Supreme Court overturned last week Roe v. calf, the landmark decision of 1973 that for nearly half a century upheld a pregnant person’s right to bodily autonomy in making the decision to terminate a pregnancy. What is all too often lost in discussions about abortion rights are the individual stories of ordinary people whose lives have been shaped by it. Eliza Hittman’s 2020 movie never seldom sometimes always Unlocks the raw emotional core of this installment, portraying its characters and their struggles with devastating clarity and resounding empathy. It is a powerful, important and necessary film and story to be seen and reckoned with, a story made all the greater by a decision that now stands poised to radically reshape American life for years to come is. —TE
never seldom sometimes always can be streamed for free with advertising on Freevee or rented or purchased digitally on Apple, Google Play and other VOD providers.
pain & gain
A group of bodybuilding idiots kidnap one of their clients hoping to make it big. Plenty of fun ensues in this rip-off satirical comedy.
Michael Bay’s maximalism fits perfectly with the puffed-up leads of Dwayne Johnson (in one of his last roles playing a character other than Dwayne Johnson), Mark Wahlberg and Anthony Mackie. The result is Bay’s funniest film by far, and a surprisingly astute commentary on the unattainability of the American dream for most and the dangers the promise of its access can entail. —PV
pain & gain can be streamed on Prime Video and Paramount Plus.