50 Essential American Films

One of my two classes this fall semester is American Film History, which will be my third film class in my brief but illustrious collegiate career and first as a graduate student. In anticipation of the course, our professor posted a listing of the 50 Essential American Films. Note that it’s not a list of the 50 “best” films, but most influential. Included in the list was a paragraph description of why it was included, but I won’t publish that here (if you want it, let me know, and I’ll email it to you).

Unfortunately (and embarrassingly) I’ve only seen 16 of these all the way through, and I’ve seen parts of about 30. That’s with counting the Lord of the Rings trilogy as one entity. My wife and I are going to use this as a rough blueprint for future movies we watch (for free from the library!). Upon looking at the syllabus, I’m a bit disappointed that we are only watching one of these top 50 in class (Sunset Boulevard).

Let me know how many you’ve seen, or if you think anything should be added, and why. These are listed in chronological order. Asterisks mean I’ve seen the whole film, and carrots mean I’ve seen only part.

The Great Train Robbery (1903)*
The Birth of a Nation (1915)*
Nanook of the North (1922)
Greed (1924)
The General (1927)*
Sunrise (1927)
All Quiet on the Western Front (1930)
Public Enemy (1930)
City Lights (1931)^
Duck Soup (1933)
42nd Street (1933)
King Kong (1933)^
It Happened One Night (1934)
Gunga Din (1939)
The Wizard of Oz (1939)*
Gone With The Wind (1939)^
Fantasia (1940)*
The Grapes of Wrath (1940)^
Citizen Kane (1941)*
Casablanca (1942)^
The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)
Out of the Past (1947)
The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948)
Sunset Boulevard (1950)
Singin’ in the Rain (1952)^
On the Waterfront (1954)^
The Searchers (1956)
Vertigo (1958)*
Some Like It Hot (1959)
Psycho (1960)*
West Side Story (1961)
Lawrence of Arabia (1962)
Bonnie and Clyde (1967)
The Graduate (1967)*
Easy Rider (1969)
2001: A Space Odyssey^
The Wild Bunch (1969)
M*A*S*H (1970)
The Godfather (1972)*
Chinatown (1974)
Annie Hall (1977)
The Empire Strikes Back (1980)*
Raging Bull (1980)^
Batman (1989)*
Do the Right Thing (1989)^
Schindler’s List (1993)^
Pulp Fiction (1994)*
Fargo (1996)*
Lost In Translation (2003)*
The Lord of the Rings trilogy (2001-2004)*


4 thoughts on “50 Essential American Films

  1. Becca and I added approximately 20 movies to our Netflix queue (less than $10 a month, no gas used in a trip to the library…are you really saving money by going to the library?) from your list.I would post some of the interesting lists from the classes that I took in college, but ‘interesting’ is not a word generally associated with classes like Urban Hydrology, Fluid Mechanics, Differential Equestions, Solid Mechanics, or Reinforced Concrete Design.

  2. I’ve seen exactly half, unless the trilogy only counts as one film (although it was three films).Ironic that Star Wars wasn’t on there, only “Empire.” Also missing: “Dr Strangelove or how I learned to stop worrying and love the bomb.” Big oversight.

  3. Sorry, Ken, the trilogy is only listed as one on the list. Not sure why they didn’t list the Star Wars trilogy, too, but here’s the reasoning behind Empire Strikes Back:”Yes, Star Wars is the one that should be listed here, but Empireis a much better film and demonstrates the positive value ofHollywood’s franchising and branding. The characters return,but the film is unrelenting in its forward movement, squeezingas much story as possible in between the action sequences–sometimes, during the action sequences. Almost 30 years later,Hollywood still follows the model set by Lucas and the Star Warsfilms and few, even Lucas, can match the original.”


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