From visionary director D.W. Griffith's kind-of-creepy-but-nonetheless-impressive Confederate love letter, Birth of A Nation, to Matt Stone and Trey Parker's exuberant puppet sing-along, Team America: World Police, film and United States identity have always been intimately linked.
We know you have many patriotic choices to make this Independence Day (painting grandma's colostomy bag red, white, and blue: too much?) but choosing the right cinematic entertainment is a decision that cannot be outsourced.
We're here to help you cross that metaphorical Delaware, eaglehearts! Here, in chronological order of the events that inspired them, are the 10 most kickass movies about 236 years of American history that you can watch this holiday:
1. Most Kickass movie about the American Revolution
The Patriot (2000)
Before he was famous for shouting racial epithets at uniformed police officers, Mel Gibson was famous for shouting "FREEDOM!" at uniformed English infantrymen. His role as militiaman Benjamin Martin in The Patriot isn't an official reprise of his role as Scottish skirmisher William Wallace in Braveheart, but it may as well be. Through cunning, determination, and a whole lot of barking encouragement to Hold the Line, Mel delivers an underdog tribe from taxation and tyranny, and paints a lot of red coats redder in the process.
(Note: If you're watching this movie with your British friends you might want to follow it up with some Monty Python to prove you're not rubbing it anyone's faces.)
2-3. Most Kickass movie about the early Civil War and Antebellum era
Tie: Gangs of New York (2002) and Cold Mountain (2003)
Part viking blood feud, part snapshot of the early immigrant experience, Gangs is a latter days Scorsese epic that offers cinema at its cinematic height: The characters have Comicbook-big personalities (esp. Daniel Day-Lewis as anti-vegan antagonist, Bill The Butcher,) the sets and costumes burst beautifully, and the nearly three-hour story arc opens room for love, war, crooked Tammany Hall politics, racial tension, draft riots, and renegade circus elephants.
Cold Mountain, meanwhile, is great because you can watch it on a date without either of you getting bored. This East-coast epic about Nicole Kidman and Jude Law as war-torn lovers in the 1860s has enough battle and romance to keep everyone entranced—plus, Jack White as a Carolina minstrel! We promise: Everyone will be happy at the end of this star-studded tear-jerker (unlike, you know, the actual Civil War).
4. Most kickass movie about the sinister fallout of the Industrial Revolution
There Will Be Blood (2007)
Citizen Kane knows it's an American treasure. Complimenting it again here would be like giving Adele another Grammy for "Most Grammys held at once, even though you're not American." There's just no point.
Instead lets honor Kane's much younger and lesser-lauded descendent, There Will Be Blood, a film just as gorgeously shot and sequenced, but even more explicit in its ideology of devastating greed spurred by the American industrial revolution. Daniel Day-Lewis (again) invokes a scary power as destructive as an exploding oil derrick, and Paul Dano's ingratiating preacher punk shrivels in his shadow as one of the most hopeless antagonists of the decade. Add a slithering score by Radiohead's Jonny Greenwood and we've got a modern masterpiece—not to mention one of the most unexpected meme generators of '07.
5. Most Kickass movie about the rise of organized crime
The Public Enemy (1931)
The Godfather is great, but who has the time? We just spent six hours on the Civil War—let's lighten up the American gangster category with 83 minutes of psycho-comedic antics from dancing badass James Cagney.
The Public Enemy follows the rise and fall of fictional Prohibition-era gangster Tom Powers (a composite of the Capone gang's Chicago exploits). Because the film was released before the Hays Production Code took effect in 1934, it got away with graphic depictions of violent crime that shocked contemporary audiences. The legendary grapefruit scene, a triviality by today's Call of Duty standards, was an unprecedented onscreen action of domestic abuse that helped solidify Cagney's reputation as one of the first A-list performers adept at expressing explosive anger. At once a reaction to and expansion of American violence, PE is a firework that never fades.
6. Most Kickass movie about post-slavery, pre-McCarthyism paranoia
To Kill A Mockingbird (1962)
Discrimination, persecution, and blah blah blah. Boo Radley, Tom Robinson, and blah blah blah. Walk a mile in another man's shoes and don't kill animals unless they're rabid, etc. etc.
You've read the book. You get the idea. But this pitch-perfect adaptation of Harper Lee's timeless statement against racism and petty fear of difference is totally worth a watch, if only for Gregory Peck's manly courtroom intensity. You'll do your English teachers proud.
7-8. Most Kickass Movie about World War II
Tie: Saving Private Ryan (1998) and Inglourious Basterds (2010)
When Private Ryan debuted, it was hailed as one of the most intense, realistic renditions of WWII to date. When Inglourious Basterds debuted a decade later, it was hailed as a "lowbrow, eye-popping spectacle of extreme violence."
If it's American triumph you're after, you won't go wrong with either of these film geek blitzkriegs. Spielberg's Private kicks off with a history-making setpiece on the limb-littered shores of Normandy, and progresses just as heavily from there (and well into the Hanks/Spielberg dreamteam's excellent Band of Brothers miniseries—also worth your time if you've got 11 hours to kill).
Basterds takes a century of global cinema conventions and funnels them through Quentin Tarantino's hyper-stylized lawnmower mind, turning the fight for Europe into a Western headhunting party/film history lesson, worth it just for Hitler's pissy fits. Still. Best to save it for after grandpa goes to sleep.
9-10. Most Kickass Movie about Journalistic Integrity during the Cold War
Tie: All The President's Men (1976) and Anchorman (2004)
Seriously though, Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford's intrepid buddy reporter chemistry far outpaces the Channel 4 Newsteam's narcissistic riffing in terms of pure emotion. But if you're on your fourth bowl of Freedom Chili and just need to zone, there are few diversions more mindlessly satisfying than the Battle of Five Anchor Armies. In Burgundy's California, the press—and the laughs—are free.
God Bless The Movies, and God Bless The United States of America. What'll you be watching this 4th of July?