What does it mean for a movie to be about America? It’s not an easy question to answer.
This July Fourth weekend, we’ve pulled together a group of movies we love that fits that bill (while trying to avoid the easy path of “patriotic” movies). Instead, this is a group of movies that thematically get at the question.
This is by no means an exhaustive list, and we welcome any nominations (especially outside-the-box ones) in the comments! While you’re here, you should also check out our list of the best labor movies you can watch at home — many of those would also be excellent fits here.
The French master Agnès Varda made this 28-minute documentary relatively early in her career, following protests by the Black Panther Party in Oakland after the arrest of Huey P. Newton. Matching Varda’s indelible style as a documentarian with a historical document of a moment and a place that is often excluded from American textbooks, Black Panthers is a unforgettable portrait of a remarkable group of people trying to make a broken country a better place. —Pete Volk
Black Panthers is available to watch 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, filled with jubilant dance numbers and deep reflection on the state of our country and 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 urgent and joyous, as the performers, following Annie-B Parson’s choreography, caper and cavort across the stage. The songs aren’t narrative, at least not in the explicit way they would be in a traditional musical, but their themes form a shape in Byrne’s hands, coalescing around the conflict that seems so prevalent in present-day America, and the necessity to be kind to each other, and to do the work to create a better tomorrow. The prodigious delight he can conjure up gives way to a broader feeling of empathy that turns the instinct to dance and sing into the instinct to act.
David Byrne’s American Utopia is available to watch on HBO Max, or for digital rental or purchase on Apple, Google Play, and other VOD vendors.
Minding the Gap
Here at Polygon, we love Minding the Gap, Bing Liu’s debut documentary feature about his group of skateboarding-obsessed friends in Illinois. A moving portrait of friendship, masculinity, and the American heartland, it was mentioned by multiple Polygon staffers in our picks for the best movies of the 2010s, as well as in our list of 50 masterpieces of the streaming era, our list of the best sports movies, and our list of the best movies on Hulu. Minding the Gap: It’s great! —PV
Minding the Gap is available to watch on Hulu.
Richard Kelly’s (Donnie Darko) delirious 2006 science fiction movie is unnervingly attuned to the entertainment industry, the military-industrial complex, and the American surveillance state. The movie was not given a fair shake on release, and frankly was probably at least two decades ahead of its time. Viewed now, it comes across as a prescient piece of dystopia that is somehow equally scatterbrained and deadly focused.
If nothing else, watch the hypnotic scene where Justin Timberlake, playing an Iraq War veteran who now deals drugs, mimes The Killers’ “All These Things That I’ve Done” in a sequence filmed like a music video. —PV
Southland Tales is available to stream through Starz on Prime Video, or for rent or purchase digitally on Apple TV, Google Play, and other VOD vendors.
Killing Them Softly
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) to knock over a Mafia poker game. The film on a whole is excellent, a tightly-wound crime drama with great cinematography, terrific (albeit all too brief) supporting performances by James Gandolfini and Ray Liotta, and a tense climactic conversation between Cogan and his handler regarding the nature of America that boils patriotic mythmaking and egalitarian ideals into a chillingly harsh and blunt truth. To paraphrase Cogan: We’re living in America, and in America, you’re on your own. —Toussaint Egan
Killing Them Softly is available to stream on Hulu and FUBO TV, or for free with ads on Pluto TV, Plex, and Crackle.
Never Rarely Sometimes Always
Last week, the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 decision that for nearly half a century upheld a pregnant person’s right to bodily autonomy in the choice to terminate a pregnancy. What’s too often lost in the discussions over abortion rights are the individual stories of ordinary people whose lives have been shaped by it. Eliza Hittman’s 2020 film Never Rarely Sometimes Always taps into the raw emotional core of this issue, rendering its characters and their struggles with devastating clarity and resounding empathy. It is a powerful, important, and necessary film, and a story to be witnessed and reckoned with, one made all the more so by a decision now poised to radically reshape American life for years to come. —TE
Never Rarely Sometimes Always is available to stream for free with ads on Freevee, or for digital rental or purchase on Apple, Google Play, and other VOD vendors.
Pain & Gain
A group of bodybuilding idiots kidnaps one of their clients in the hopes of making it big. Many hijinks ensue in this ripped-from-the-headlines satirical comedy.
Michael Bay’s maximalism is a perfect match for the bulked-up lead actors of Dwayne Johnson (in one of his last roles where he was playing a character other than Dwayne Johnson), Mark Wahlberg, and Anthony Mackie. The result is Bay’s funniest movie, by far, and a surprisingly astute commentary on the unattainability of the American Dream for most and the dangers that the promise of its access can cause. —PV
Pain & Gain is available to stream on Prime Video and Paramount Plus.