If in doubt when naming a film, locate its core theme/plot and stick ‘American’ in front of it.
It’s a fairly tried and tested formula, automatically giving the film an emphasis, in some cases a dash of irony, in others impenetrable patriotism, and often a sense that it sums up the zeitgeist of the period it depicts.
Before you say "what about..." - this isn’t an attempt to rank all of the ‘American ———‘ films, of which there are hundreds and would mean actually watching American Ninja 1 through 5, but gathers the best-known from worst to finest.
12. American Ultra
Not really the stoner comedy it was billed as, lacking in both stoners and comedy.
Starts off promisingly enough, but with a dearth of wit winds up a fairly standard blood splattery shoot-em-up.
Better films about American stoners: The Big Lebowski, Dazed and Confused, Fast Times at Ridgemont High
11. American Sniper
Only Americans could make a film about how sad it makes them invading another country. Not that it spends too much time worrying about the cost of human life, painting Iraqis with all the depth of henchmen in a video game.
Better films about American snipers: Enemy at the Gates, Saving Private Ryan, Phone Booth
10. American Pie
In retrospect a pretty formulaic teen comedy, but something about its chemistry reinvigorated the genre.
An unwitting period piece about pre-internet high school years, when porn was on VHS, landline phones were still a thing and everyone was blasting Blink 182.
Better films about American teens: Kids, Wet Hot American Summer
9. American Gangster
Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe star in Ridley Scott’s crime thriller about a gangster who smuggled heroin into the US on American service planes returning from the Vietnam War.
The critics were very kind to it, but it was instantly forgettable.
Better films about American gangsters: Chinatown, Goodfellas, The Departed
8. American Gigolo
A flashy, stylish, yet somehow hollow and sad 1980 movie by Paul Schrader in which Richard Gere plays a male escort in LA.
Better films about American gigolos: Midnight Cowboy, Pretty Woman
7. American Movie
Tells the story of Mark Borchardt, an independent filmmaker who is trying to make a short film, but through alocohism, a lack of planning and budget is forced to rely on his best friend and his mother to fill many roles in production including acting and camera operating.
A truly American movie about making an American movie and the American dream.
Other good films about making American films: Adaptation, Birdman (sort of)
6. American History X
A brutal, unflinching movie shot in black and white, appropriately, about racism tearing apart a family.
Divisive when it first came out but now a firm cult classic.
5. American Graffiti
One of the forefathers of the teen movie, Oscar-nominated and directed by George Lucas with Francis Ford Coppola producing.
There's drag racing, Inspiration Point, drive-ins and a killer soundtrack.
4. American Psycho
One of the rare adaptations for which you can't say 'the book was better than the movie'.
Mary Harron chopped Bret Easton Ellis' novel into a more concise and succinct exploration of masculinity, corporate culture and greed, and Christan Bale's performance is absolutely magnetic.
Other good films about American psychos: Psycho, A Clockwork Orange
3. American Hustle
On paper a pretty standard Scorsesian crime thriller, but David O'Russell adds a dose of claustrophobia and melodrama that really makes it fizz, and the star-studded cast are excellent.
Other good films about American hustles: The Usual Suspects, Reservoir Dogs, Ocean’s Eleven
2. American Splendor
Technically a comic book adaptation, but a million miles from the perfunctory CGI spectacles now dominating cinemas.
A sort of anti-biopic starring Paul Giamatti as Harvey Pekar, the eccentric author of the American Splendor series.
1. American Beauty
The ultimate satire of the American middle class, American Beauty is eminently rewatchable.
The casting is perfect, with Kevin Spacey showing a brilliant muted creepiness as he pursues his daughter's high school friend and Annette Bening having the kind of manic housewife breakdown you imagine must be hiding behind every impeccable white picket fence and uniformly pruned rose bush.
The score is fantastic, and so many moments from it remain referenced and imitated well over a decade on.
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