The 50 Best American Movies of All Time
See if your favorite film got left on the cutting room floor.
You might think it’s impossible to pinpoint, definitively, the best American movies of all time. After all, there are so many, and cinema is about as subjective and primed for debate as a topic can get. But, in 2007, the American Film Institute—experts in the matter, if there every were any—set out to define once and for all which American movies are truly a cut above the rest.
For a film to qualify, it has to meet two requirements. One: it must be in a narrative format, and no shorter than an hour long. Two: it must be an American film, or have heavy involvement from U.S. production or financing companies. (Because of the flexibility in the rule, some films, like Lord of the Rings and The Bridge On The River Kwai, made the cut but aren’t technically all-American productions.) Using five criteria (critical recognition, major awards won, popularity over time, historical significance, and cultural impact), the AFI polled hundreds of major players in the film industry about which American movies were the be-all-and-end-all best. Here are the results.
The Lord Of The Rings: The Fellowship Of The Ring
The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring—part one of Peter Jackson’s three-part adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkein’s seminal fantasy trilogy—came out at the turn of the millennia and blew both critics and fans away. It was nominated for 13 Oscars (and ultimately picked up four wins). To date, you can still visit the Hobbiton set in Matamata, New Zealand.
The 1916 film, Intolerance, picked up mixed reviews upon release, but it’s come to be regarded as one of the masterpieces of the silent era. At a mind-numbing 210 minutes long—spanning four distinct epochs over a 2,500-year history of humanity—this is the type of film you might want to plan on viewing with an intermission.
Widely regarded as one of Alfred Hitchcock’s best pictures, Rear Window stars James Stewart as a man confined to his apartment after he breaks his leg. (In 1954, those handy walking scooters hadn’t been invented yet.) After witnessing what he thinks is a murder, Stewart’s character decides to solve the crime. Of course, not all is as expected… And for more awesome cinematic trivia, check out the 50 Original Titles for Hit Movies We’re So Glad Didn’t Happen.
A Streetcar Named Desire
If you ever hear someone plaintively yelling “Stella! Stella!” you have 1951’s A Streetcar Named Desire to thank. Directed by Elia Kazan, the film was adapted from the 1947 Tennessee Williams play of the same name. It focuses on Blanche DuBois, a Southern belle who, after encountering a series of personal losses, leaves her aristocratic background and seeks refuge with her sister and brother-in-law in a dilapidated New Orleans tenement. The movie made Marlon Brando a star; before Streetcar, the Hollywood legend was a virtual unknown.
It Happened One Night
It Happened One Night is one of just three films in history to win all five major Academy Awards (Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress, and Best Screenplay).
Alan Ladd plays the titular character, an enigmatic gunslinger who rides into a small Wyoming town with hopes of quietly settling down as a farmhand. As you’ve already guessed, things don’t quite go to plan. Soon enough, Shane puts himself in betwixt the townsfolk and a ruthless cattle baron. Legendary New York Times film critic Bosley Crowther called the film a “rich and dramatic mobile painting of the American frontier scene.”
The Philadelphia Story
Katherine Hepburn plays Tracy Lord in 1940’s The Philadelphia Story. The George Cukor-directed romcom is about a socialite whose wedding plans are complicated when her ex-husband and a tabloid magazine journalist—played by Cary Grant and James Stewart—respectively show up unannounced.
In 1969’s Midnight Cowboy, Jon Voigt plays a Texas dishwasher who thinks that working as a sex worker in New York City would be moving on up. After a few failed attempts at selling his body, he is taken under the wing of a limping ne’er-do-well played by Dustin Hoffman and the two develop a business relationship. As legend has it, the film was one of President Jimmy Carter’s favorites, with him reportedly screening it several times in the White House movie theater.
Bonnie and Clyde
Starring Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty as the titular couple, 1967’s Bonnie and Clyde is a simplified version of the lives of Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow—a real-life Depression-era couple who, along with their gang, robbed and murdered their way across the United States of America. The Arthur Penn-directed movie is regarded as one of the first films of the New Hollywood era.
Proto creature feature King Kong tells the tale of a huge, ape-like creature who is driven by an urge to possess a beautiful young woman. The 1933 classic is especially noted for its stop-motion animation, by Willis O’Brien, and a groundbreaking musical score by Max Steiner. Not so much today, but, at the time, King Kong was terrifying.
The Sound of Music
There are lavish musicals, there are biopics, and there are films about Nazis. A movie that manages to combine all there is an exceedingly rare thing, but that’s what 1965’s The Sound of Music—starring Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer star as the heads of the Von Trapp family—does with aplomb. Yes, it’s based on a true story. In real life, The Von Trapp Family Singers were one of the world’s best-known concert groups in the 1930s. The film is adapted from the 1959 Rogers and Hammerstein stage musical of the same name. And for more films that are grounded in reality, check out these 18 Best Movies Ever Made Based on True Stories.
Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love The Bomb
Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love The Bomb is a 1964 political satire that focuses on the prospect of nuclear confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union. (For context, just two years prior the world had almost been obliterated as a result of the Cuban Missile Crisis. One could call it gallows humor for the nuclear age.) The film was directed, produced, and co-written by Stanley Kubrick and stars Peter Sellers, George C. Scott, and Slim Pickens.
The Treasure of the Sierra Madre
The Treasure of the Sierra Madre was one of the first Hollywood productions to be shot on-location outside the United States… though not that far! Filming took place in Mexico. Directed by John Huston, it stars Humphrey Bogart and Tim Holt as two drifters who team up with a grizzled prospector to find—yep, you guessed it—the treasure of the Sierra Madre.
The Best Years Of Our Lives
After reading an August 7, 1944, article in Time about the difficulties experienced by men returning home after the war, Samuel Goldwyn was inspired to produce a film about veterans. 1946’s The Best Years Of Our Lives features three veterans—each who have been affected by the war in different ways—as they return to their hometown of Boone City. Among films released before 1950, only seven titles have done more total business than this one.
The Bridge On The River Kwai
Before he was Obi-Wan Kenobi, Alec Guinness was arguably best known for his portrayal of Lieutenant Colonel Nicholson in 1957’s epic war film The Bridge On The River Kwai. The film’s about a group of British POWs in World War Two. Ordered by their Japanese captors to construct a bridge of strategic importance, the soldiers sabotage and delay the progress until their commanding officers order them to continue the work.
Aside from some nifty cinematic techniques, not much happens in 1977’s Annie Hall. A comedian played by Woody Allen (who also wrote and directed the movie) dissects his relationship with a fledgling nightclub singer named Annie Hall, played by Diane Keaton. Frankly, with writing this good, not much has to happen. The movie was named the funniest ever written by the Writers Guild of America in its list of the “101 Funniest Screenplays.”
Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs
Only one animated picture ranks among the best American movies, and it’s 1937’s Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs. Based on the German fairy tale by the Brothers Grimm, it’s the earliest animated Disney pictures. Snow White‘s success led to Disney moving ahead with more feature-film productions, and Walt then used the profits to finance a $4.5 million studio in Burbank—the location on which Walt Disney Studios is located to this day.
One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest
One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest is yet another film among the best American movies that won all five major Academy Awards. It stars Jack Nicholson as a criminal who decides to fake mental illness to get out of serving a prison sentence for statutory rape of a 15-year-old girl. There, he’s pitted against a tyrannical nurse who subtly intimidates her patients into doing her bidding. Christopher Lloyd and Danny DeVito play Nicolson’s fellow patients; six years later, both were cast members on the TV show Taxi.
The Godfather Part II
When you get into that conversation about sequels never being as good as the original, invariably someone will mention 1974’s The Godfather Part II as the exception that proves the rule. Case in point, it’s the only sequel among the best American movies. While its predecessor covered the events that beset the Corleone family in the late 1940s, the sequel jumps back and forth between the late 1950s travails of Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) and the story of his immigrant father Don Vito Corleone—played in this installment by Robert DeNiro, not Marlon Brando—at the beginning of the 20th Century. Upon its release, The Godfather Part II garnered mixed reviews from critics. Its reputation, however, has only improved.
The Maltese Falcon
In The Maltese Falcon, Bogart plays Sam Spade, a detective who takes a case brought to him by a beautiful but secretive woman played by Mary Astor. Sam’s partner gets murdered, and he quickly finds himself entangled in a dangerous web of crime and intrigue that centers around the bejeweled Maltese figurine alluded to in the title.
The 1970s were a good decade for director Francis Ford Coppola. It started out with the critically-acclaimed Patton, then the two Godfather movies in ‘71 and ‘74, before wrapping up the decade with 1979’s Apocalypse Now. Set during the Vietnam War, a young U.S. Army captain played by Martin Sheen is tasked with going into the wilds to find and take out Colonel Kurtz. Played by Marlon Brando, Kurtz is a once-promising officer who has been reported to have gone insane. “The horror!”
The term “double indemnity” refers to a clause in certain life insurance policies that doubles the payout in rare cases when death is caused accidentally, such as while riding a railway. The 1944 film noir crime drama of the same name stars Fred MacMurray as an insurance salesman, Barbara Stanwyck as a provocative housewife who wishes her husband were dead, and Edward G. Robinson as a claims adjuster whose job is to find phony claims. While reviews of the Billy Wilder-directed classic were mostly favorable, the ghoulish the content of the story made Double Indemnity uncomfortable viewing for many at the time.
All About Eve
Starring Bette Davis in what Roger Ebert called her greatest role, 1950’s All About Eve is about an aspiring actress—the titular Eve (Anne Baxter)—who arrives in the dressing room of Broadway mega-star Margo Channing. Channing, played by Davis, is taken in by her melancholy life story and folds the up and comer into her life, though it soon appears that Eve has ulterior motives.
High Noon follows two fraught hours in the life of a former marshal (Gary Cooper) and his new bride (Grace Kelly) as they prepare to leave the small town. The ex-lawman learns that local criminal Frank Miller has been set free and is coming to seek revenge on the marshal who turned him in.
Mr. Smith Goes To Washington
Mr. Smith Goes To Washington tells the story of a U.S. senator who fights against a corrupt political system. Frank Capra—who also helmed the aforementioned It Happened One Night—directed the movie, which ultimately won 11 Academy Awards.
To Kill a Mockingbird
In 1960, To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee’s landmark novel about race and justice in midcentury Alabama, hit shelves. It was immediately successful, and went on to win a Pulitzer. Just two years after publication, a film adaptation—starring Gregory Peck as moral lodestone Atticus Finch—hit screens.
E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial
E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial is a story about a benevolent alien who is discovered and befriended by a young boy and a miniature Drew Barrymore after being marooned on Earth. E.T. was an immediate blockbuster and surpassed Star Wars to become the highest-grossing film of all time—a record it held for eleven years until Jurassic Park, another film directed by Steven Spielberg, surpassed it in 1993.
The Grapes Of Wrath
Just months after the 1939 publication of John Steinbeck’s Depression-era novel, the movie version of The Grapes Of Wrath hit screens. The story tells of a family of tenant farmers driven from their Oklahoma home by drought, economic hardship, and agricultural industry changes and set out for the hope of a better life in California.
Some Like it Hot
Some Like it Hot from 1959 stars Marylin Monroe, Tony Curtis, and Jack Lemmon. After witnessing a murder, Curtis and Lemmon’s characters disguise themselves as women and join an-female jazz band fronted by Monroe. At the time, the subject matter prevented the flick from getting approval from the Motion Picture Production Code, because it played with the idea of homosexuality and featured cross-dressing. The success of Some Like It Hot was partly responsible with the code being done away with.
Directed by Roman Polanski, Chinatown is a 1974 American neo-noir mystery film that stars Jack Nicolson and Faye Dunaway. Chinatown was inspired by a series of disputes over southern California water at the beginning of the 20th century, which, based on how thrilling the film is, couldn’t have been as nearly dull as they sound. Rotten Tomatoes’ critical consensus reads, “As bruised and cynical as the decade that produced it, this classic noir benefits from Robert Towne’s brilliant screenplay, director Roman Polanski’s steady hand, and wonderful performances from Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway.”
It’s A Wonderful Life
James Stewart and Frank Capra star in a film that’s become become an inextricable part of the holiday season. Fun fact: Mr. Potter was played by Lionel Barrymore, a famous Ebenezer Scrooge in radio dramatizations of A Christmas Carol at the time.
On The Waterfront
In On The Waterfront, Marlon Brando plays Terry Malloy, a dockworker who testifies against a ruthless mob boss who controls the Hoboken Waterfront. The plot is based on a true story of whistle-blowing longshoreman Anthony DeVincenzo. In his July 29, 1954, review, New York Times critic A. H. Weiler called the film “an uncommonly powerful, exciting, and imaginative use of the screen by gifted professionals.”
The General, starring Buster Keaton, was not well received by critics and audiences, resulting in mediocre box office returns. The movie was made for $750,000—a fortune at the time—and its failure to turn a significant profit meant that Keaton lost his independence as a filmmaker. Despite this, The General has since been re-evaluated and is now often ranked among the best American movies ever made.
A directionless young man (Dustin Hoffman) has a tryst with his parents’ friend, Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft). Things go totally sideways, however, when he falls for Mrs. Robinson’s daughter, Elaine (Katharine Ross).
In 1950’s Sunset Boulevard, an aging silent film queen—played by actual silent movie star Gloria Swanson—can’t bring herself to accept that her stardom has ended, and enlists the help of a young screenwriter (William Holden) to help set up her movie comeback. The screenwriter thinks he can get the better of the faded star, but he underestimates her, which ultimately leads to a situation of violence and madness. Upon its release, The Hollywood Reporter wrote that future generations would “set themselves the task of analyzing the durability and greatness” of the film.
2001: A Space Odyssey
Before Alexa, there was HAL 9000, the antagonist of Stanley Kubrick’s seminal sci-fi film, 2001: A Space Odyssey. Like Alexa, Hal is a talking computer. Unlike Alexa, HAL is in charge of an interplanetary spaceship—and malicious to a fault. When it came out, in 1968, Penelope Gilliatt, writing in The New Yorker, described it as “hypnotically entertaining … funny without once being gaggy, but … also rather harrowing.”
Psycho, another film by Alfred Hitchcock, is about a polite yet rather high strung young man who has an interest in taxidermy and a relationship with his mother that, today, would be best described as “problematic.” Psycho broke taboos for the depiction of deviant behavior, sexuality, and gore in American cinema. Now, many consider it to be the earliest example of the slasher film genre.
Star Wars: A New Hope
You know the deal: A farm boy and a ragtag gang consisting of a wizard, a smuggler, a princess, two robots and a seven-foot-tall Irish setter set themselves the task of saving the galaxy from an evil empire. Written and directed by George Lucas, the original film’s success spawned the second-highest grossing film franchise of all time. Over 11 films—with an average cume of $840 million each—Star Wars has brought in $9.2 billion globally.
The Searchers is a 1956 Western starring John Wayne and Natalie Wood. Ethan Edwards (Wayne) returns home to Texas after the Civil War. When members of his brother’s family are killed or abducted by marauding Comanches, he vows to find them and bring them home—however long it takes. Critic Roger Ebert wrote that Ethan Edwards is, “one of the most compelling characters Ford and Wayne ever created.”
Though so-called “sound films” were becoming popular when Charlie Chaplin started developing the script for City Lights in 1928, he opted to continue working with silent productions. The story—written, produced, directed, scored, and edited by Chaplin—follows the misadventures of Chaplin’s Tramp character as he falls in love with a blind girl and develops a turbulent friendship with an alcoholic millionaire.
The Wizard Of Oz
The Wizard Of Oz is the only film among the best American movies to have been directed by five directors. Still, it was primarily helmed by Victor Fleming who left the set to take over the troubled production of Gone with the Wind.
Vertigo is a story about an ex-cop officer who suffers from an intense fear of heights. He’s hired to prevent an old friend’s wife from committing suicide, but all is not as it seems. Hitchcock’s haunting, compelling masterpiece is tells us a lot about the director’s hang-ups and predilections. Reviews were mixed, and, for what it cost, Vertigo didn’t do as well as Hitchcock’s previous movies. Frustrated with its reception, Hitchcock partly blamed star Jimmy Stewart’s aging appearance—who, at the time, was 50.
Schindler’s List tells the real-life story of Oskar Schindler, a German businessman who arranges to have his Jewish workers protected, to keep his factory going, and in so doing, saves their lives. Rotten Tomatoes’ critical consensus reads, “Schindler’s List blends the abject horror of the Holocaust with Steven Spielberg’s signature tender humanism to create the director’s dramatic masterpiece.”
Lawrence of Arabia
Lawrence of Arabia is based on the true story of British Lieutenant T.E. Lawrence. During World War One, Lawrence (Peter O’Toole) is sent to Arabia to enlist the assistance of the Arabs in the British fight against the Turks. Against the orders of his superior officer, Lawrence heads off on a camel journey across the desert to attack a Turkish port. Lawrence of Arabia received nominations for ten Oscars in 1963; it won a total of seven, including Best Picture and Best Director.
Gone With The Wind
Recall how Victor Fleming was pulled off of The Wizard of Oz so that he could get Gone With The Wind back on track? Well, it worked. The epic Civil War drama quickly became the highest-grossing film at that point, and held the record for a generation. When adjusted for inflation, it remains the most successful box-office hit in history.
Singing In the Rain
The 1952 classic is a light-hearted take on the massive transition in cinema from silent pictures to films with sound. Don (played by Gene Kelly) and Lina (Jean Hagen) have been cast repeatedly as a romantic couple, but when their latest film is remade into a musical, only Don has the voice for the new singing part and Kathy (played by Debbie Reynolds) is hired to record over Lina’s voice.
Shot in in gritty black-and-white, 1980’s Raging Bull is the true story of Jake LaMotta, a middleweight boxer who rises through ranks to earn his first shot at the middleweight crown, battling his own demons along the way. Though it received mixed initial reviews and criticism due to its violent content, it went on to earn a high critical reputation and is now often considered director Martin Scorsese’s magnum opus.
“Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine.” The immortal line is uttered Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart) in the movie Casablanca. Set and shot during World War II, it’s about an expatriate American running a nightclub in Casablanca, Morocco. Far exceeding expectations, Casablanca went on to win the Academy Award for Best Picture, while Michael Curtiz was selected as Best Director.
The Godfather focuses on the powerful Italian-American crime family of Don Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando) in the years after World War II. In particular, the narrative hones in on his youngest son, Michael (Al Pacino), being dragged into the family business. Based on Mario Puzo’s novel of the same name, The Godfather is widely regarded as one of the greatest films of all time. And for more iconic movies, check out The 40 Most Famous Movie Scenes of All Time.
It starts with an old man’s dying word: “Rosebud.” From that point on, 1941’s Citizen Kane is principally narrated through flashbacks and the research of a newsreel reporter seeking to figure out the significance of that one word. The quasi-biographical film, written, directed, and produced by Orson Welles examines the life and legacy of Charles Foster Kane—who is also played by Welles. And for more of the best, check out The 40 Greatest Teen Movies Ever—Ranked.
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