This is my take on the most important American films ever made. What does it take to make it on my list? The film needs to be the first to do something so influential it drove new practices in cinema that most viewers now take for granted. It needs to be noted that the following movies are not necessarily the best films ever made. That is a different breed. A film can be stupendous and magnificent without bringing anything new to the table. Gone with the Wind is a perfect example of one of the best films ever made. But you won't see it on my list since it didn't do anything to redefine cinema. A classic to be sure.
This list is also only the most important American films. Many foreign films deserve to be on a Most Important list. Heck without the contributions of the French and Germans, we wouldn't have cinema today as we know it. So this list focuses on American films. Foreign films deserve their own list.
So here they are in chronological order, the most important American movies:
The Birth of a Nation (1915)
D.W. Griffith worked the rest of his life to be forgiven for this film. His next film, Intolerance, was an apology of sorts. The reason for this was that The Birth of a Nation was terribly racist. In a classic scenes, a white family is held captive by sexually predatory black freed slaves. Who should come along for the rescue? The Klu Klux Klan! It is scenes like this that made BoaN controversial from the start. But looking past that, BoaN is a masterpiece of filmmaking. It was the first film to intercut action scenes. It was the first to have multiple lines of narrative happening at once, displayed through precise intercutting. The Battle scenes of the civil war were huge and expansive. Cinema up until that time had merely been a method of recording the action that unfolded. BoaN was the first time that audiences were actually thrust into the story. For the first time, the camera was used as a narrative device. BoaN was a masterpiece of filmmaking that took the wrong side of evil.
The Jazz Singer (1927)
No, not the 1970's version starring Neil Diamond. This is the famous film starring Al Jolson that first brought sound to audiences. At least that's the credit it gets. The sound portions of the film are quite small, so much that this film is really a silent film with a few moments of singing and dialogue. But that was enough. While the Silent Film era didn't die there completely, it definitely signaled a death knell. In a few years all films would be in sound and many silent film actors' careers would be over. This is one of those films that is important, but not particularly good. It is the story of the son of a Jewish Cantor who dreams of life as a jazz singer. To do so would devastate his father and therein lies the conflict. The acting is overblown and story mediocre. But the effect it had on cinema is one of the most important.
The General (1927)
Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin are 2 of the most notable names in silent comedy. While Chaplin had a certain charm to his silliness, Buster Keaton brought an amazing physical presence to his comedy. In the General, he plays a southern guy who enlists in the Southern Army during the Civil War. This is not for patriotic or racist reasons, he simply wants to impress a girl. The army rejects him because he is not physically fit so he continues his civilian job as a railroad engineer. When his beloved engine, The General, is stolen by the northern army, he single-handedly rescues it and brings it back through enemy lines. The story is charming but incidental. This is a chance for Keaton to show of his amazing physical comedy. From running over a hill to intercept the train, to a narrow miss from a cannon, Keaton is pure genius. Any physical comedian of today including Jacky Chan, John Ritter (RIP), and Jim Carrey owe a huge debt of gratitude to Buster Keaton.
City Lights (1931)
Charlie Chaplin is one of the most iconic and recognizable faces in American cinema. His Little Tramp character mad him gobs of money and during his heyday, he was the highest paid actor ever. He was the first superstar of cinema. and for good reason. City Lights came out several years after sound made it's introduction. Many thought that audiences would not see a silent film and that Chaplin's film would fail. But it didn't. City Lights was an unqualified hit and proved that technology wasn't what defined success. It was the story. I'm choosing City Lights to represent all of Chaplin's silent films. He was a master comic both physically and in terms of story. While Keaton was the superior physical comedian, Chaplin gave his character a certain charm and lovability that had not been seen before. His films are filled with relentless sight gags, physical comedy, hilarious plots, and stunning pathos. The story of City Lights is about our intrepid hero, the Little Tramp who has fallen in love with the blind girl who sells flowers. Through a series of mishaps, the blind girl thinks that the Little Tramp is a rich man. When he overhears her talking about an expensive surgery that could cure her of her blindness, our hero decides he's going to earn that money and give her her sight back. Hi-jinks ensue as he befriends a wealthy man who only remembers him when he's drunk. The ending of the film is a truly heart-wrenching and a perfect example of the genius and importance that was Chaplin.
It Happened One Night (1934)
This one almost didn't make my list. Not because it isn't important, but because it is one of my favorite movies and I didn't want that to taint my impression of it's importance. But IHON is an important film. it was the first successful screwball romantic comedy: a formula that would be followed by Tracy and Hepburn and even Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan. IHON was also the first film to sweep the Oscars the year it came out. Claudette Colbert stars as a spoiled rich girl who wants to escape her family and Clark Gable is a reporter who needs one good scoop. Together they bicker, fight, and eventually fall in love in their journey on the road. This film was also the first true Road film. Many won't recognize that as a genre, but it is. Look at Plane, Trains & Automobiles, Thelma and Louise, Easy Rider. These are all road movies and IHON was the first and still one of the best.
Snow White and Seven Dwarfs (1937)
This film is the first full length Disney Animated movie. The repercussions of this film cannot be denied as today, animated films are not only hugely profitable, they are considered a true art form and a respected medium. Pixar would not have The Incredibles if the original Nine Old Men of Disney hadn't taken a chance and made this masterpiece of a film. Not only was it the first full length animated feature, it still stands up as one of the best. The story is unoriginal (it had been told in fairy tale format for hundreds of years), but the animation is fantastic, fluid, and dramatic. And today's audiences get to witness the next generations of that genius.
Citizen Kane (1941)
If I were to list these films in order of importance, this one would be at the absolute top. What can be said about the most important film ever made? Virtually everything you see in modern cinema has it's roots in Citizen Kane. Many of today's audiences view the film and then scratch their head in wonder. The film is not a fantastic story. It is a very good one, but not the best. The story follows the life of Charles Foster Kane as he progresses from childhood through death, getting rich along the way from his newspaper business and slowly falling into reclusivity as he longs for the one thing in life he never had. "Rosebud". Again the story is not so much what's important, but the tools and methods Orson Welles used to tell the story. College film classes spend an entire semester discussing Citizen Kane's contributions so I won't be able to lay it all out here. But some of the notable achievements include telling a story in 3 planes (something happening closeup, something else in the foreground, and something far away), non-linear storytelling (the beginning is really the end), Dutch and obtuse angles, one actor playing multiple ages in a single film, and many many more. Most people take this for granted and give a resounding "so what?" Because every single film director today will acknowledge Orson Welles as being on of their top inspirations.
Alfred Hitchcock is considered one of the best and most influential directors in cinema. While he wasn't an American, Psycho was an American film, so it makes the list. As most everyone knows, the film is about young Norman Bates who runs a motel where people die. This is really all the story that is necessary, because the importance of the film is not the story as the telling of the story. Most will say that Hitchcock made a lot of horror films. But this is simply not true. He made a lot of suspense films, but Psycho was his first true horror film by today's definition. There is gore, murder, dead bodies, and fright. Without Psycho we wouldn't have modern day slasher flicks or stylized horror films. While horror films may not be your cup of tea, they are an important and profitable genre of American Cinema. And the age of the modern horror film began when Hitchcock made Psycho.
Star Wars: A New Hope (1977)
Here's another film that makes the top ten most important list without actually being very good. I know I'm going to get flamed by the fanboys, but Star Wars is really a crappy film. The acting is horrible, the story is totally unoriginal, it has plot holes big enough to drive a truck through, and the dialogue is beyond silly. So why is it so important? Because it ushered in many many things. Most know that Industrial Light and Magic was formed to do the special effects for Star Wars. The result was pure movie magic and Star Wars ushered in the age of the special effect driven movie, the popcorn film if you will. The special effects were mind-blowing at the time, and so was the marketing. George Lucas may be a hack director, but he is a master of marketing. Star Wars was the first film to successfully create a line of merchandise and toys. And they sold like gangbusters, even though the first action figures were an empty box with an IOU inside! So Star Wars was a little film that redefined the science fiction genre and made the characters in the film true icons of pop culture.
Blade Runner (1982)
Blade Runner is the quintessential science fiction movie. It has a great story, mystery, fine acting, good effects, and haunting music, but it is more than that. It is the first example of post modern cinema. What the heck is Post modernism? In terms of cinema, it's hard to define, but it has certain notable elements: the blurring of known genres, a penchant for introspection, more subjective narrative, and few others. OK, to keep you from falling asleep, Blade runner mixes genres by combining science fiction with Film Noir. Harrison Ford plays a Blade Runner, a guy who has to track down replicants, basically robots that have turned too human and killed people. This is a major oversimplification of the story so don't flame me in the comments. Again, the point is not the story so much as the method of storytelling, but his character is as hard-boiled as any noir film from the 50s. The cinematography has a noirish feel with dutch angles, and Chiaroscuro lighting. Full of religious and political symbolism, the story is not what it seems and the motivations and identity of the main hero are ambiguous. This is one of those films whose importance is talked about ad nauseum in film school.
Double Indemnity(1944): The first noir film featuring a fantastic femme fatale. So good, it was remade as Body Heat with Kathleen Turner
The Godfather (1972): The return of the American epic. not since Gone with the Wind had a film been so sweeping as The Godfather saga.
Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981): Recapturing the magic of pulp heroes of yesteryear, Raiders made America fall for a hero who had flaws, someone we could all relate to.
Pulp Fiction (1993): This was the film that made it cool to watch independent films and made it accessible to the masses.
So that's my list. Agree or disagree in the comments. But make sure you can back up why your film should be included on this list other than " Dood, I loved Booty Call, it should totally be there!"