Welcome to America, according to the movies — a melting-pot mix of triumph and tragedy, endless opportunities and bone-deep prejudices, age-old traditions and amber waves of grain and all the things that money can or can’t buy. These united states have been the subject of those flickering pictures on a screen almost since the birth of the medium, though the past half-century in particular has seen a lot of diverse, singular and often complicated movies taking on the checkered past and occasionally rocky present of our nation. The movies have reminded us what’s so wonderful about this ongoing experiment taking place from sea to shining sea. They have also shed light on what’s woefully in need of improvement, questioned the foundational imperfections that sometimes threaten to become chasms, and cast some cold, hard glances at nearly 250 years of American living.
So, in the spirit of celebrating our annual Independence Day, we’re picking what we believe to be the 50 best movies over the past 50 years that look at America, directly or otherwise, and show us something about ourselves. We’re limiting this list just to films that have been released since 1972 — which, not coincidentally, happens to be the year that a certain movie about an American family with a penchant for making offers we couldn’t refuse first hit theaters. That film is indeed on this list. So are a host of other movies, big and small, that take the notion of being an American and examine it from all sides. You’ll likely disagree with some of the choices on here and applaud others. And really, what’s more American than that?