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A Glimpse of American Culture Through Film
A Glimpse of American Culture Through Film

A Glimpse of American Culture Through Film

November 2, 2011

4 -min read

Film can be an interesting (and fun!) way to learn about the U.S.  The following 10 movies provide insight into some aspects of U.S. culture.  Some illustrate typical American life while others depict significant historical events.

Wall Street (1987)

Wall Street is an American drama about the ruthless reality of financial trading on Wall Street in New York City.  The main character is a young stockbroker, determined to succeed in this cutthroat industry.  This film is seen as an example of the capitalist culture and excess of the 1980s and features Michael Douglas in the role for which he won the Best Actor Academy Award.  Today’s current “Occupy Wall Street” movement certainly touches on many of the themes explored in this movie.

Forrest Gump (1994)

This phenomenal film won Best Picture, Best Actor and Best Director at the Academy Awards in 1995.  Based on a 1986 novel, the story chronicles the life of a man from a small town in Alabama, who witnesses major events in the United States during the later part of the 20th century.  Some of these include: the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, desegregation and the Civil Rights Movement, The Watergate Scandal, The Vietnam War and the Anti-War Movement, and the outbreak of AIDS.  Interestingly enough, lead actor Tom Hanks said he would only make the film if all of the events that took place were true to historical reality.

Crash (2004)

This film explores race relations and social tensions in Los Angeles, California and is considered by movie critic Roger Ebert to be the best film of 2004, calling it “a movie of intense fascination.”  Crash follows several characters as their paths cross and become intertwined over a period of two days.  This controversial and thought-provoking film won Best Picture at the Academy Awards and gives a glimpse into many cultural aspects of not only L.A., but the rest of the U.S. as well.

Coming to America (1988)

This movie is a hilarious and heartfelt romantic comedy about an African prince who journeys to America in search of a wife.  Coming to America shows an outsider’s perspective of coming to New York for the first time and what life was like there in the 1980s.

The Social Network (2010)

The story behind the founding of social-networking website, Facebook.  The film follows the founder’s early days at Harvard University, to the company’s headquarters in Palo Alto, California.  Through flashbacks and various points of view, we see how the immensely popular website came to be and the people who were a part of it.  This film shows the consequences of a profitable and culture-changing idea in the age of the Internet in the U.S.

The Breakfast Club (1985)

An 80s teen classic, this coming-of-age movie depicts a day in the life of five teenagers as they spend Saturday detention together and get to know each other.  It also provides a humorous yet insightful look at how typical U.S. high school students are portrayed and stereotyped.  The movie was ranked #1 on Entertainment Weekly’s list of the 50 Best High School Movies.

Office Space (1999)

A classic 90s comedy about office employees who are fed up with their jobs and terrible boss and decide to do something about it.  The film satirizes the mundane corporate culture of the characters’ jobs at a U.S. software company in a hilarious way.

Citizen Kane (1941)

This cinematic classic details the life of newspaper tycoon Charles Foster Kane.  His life is shown to viewers through flashbacks, where we see how he amassed his incredible fortune and powerful position in America and what it ultimately meant to him.  The working title was actually “American,” which was later changed to “Citizen Kane” by producer George Schaefer.  Many critics, including Roger Ebert, consider Citizen Kane to be the best film ever made.

Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986)

This story depicts a day in the life of high school senior, Ferris Bueller, who skips school to have fun with his girlfriend and best friend in Chicago.  Ferris is a very likeable troublemaker and the audience can’t help but root for him in his hilarious showdown with the Dean of Students.  Ferris Bueller’s Day Off exhibits many of the classic themes of typical high school and suburban life in America.  The film features many Chicago landmarks as the director wanted to capture “not only the architecture and landscape”, but “the spirit” of Chicago.

It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)

This Christmastime favorite is about a struggling American businessman who gets the opportunity to see what his life would have been like if he never existed.  The film depicts a typical American family and the struggling father as the head of the household.  It is considered to be one of the most inspirational films of all time, but surprisingly, It’s a Wonderful Life, was a failure when it was first released and only became a popular Holiday movie many years later.

Back to the Future (1985)

This movie tells the story of Marty McFly, a typical 1980s teenager from an unhappy family who travels back to the 1950s with the help of his scientist friend. There, he sees America as it was during the dawn of rock ‘n’ roll, but also accidentally changes his parents’ lives before they even meet.  All of the films in the Back to the Future series provide examples of what the U.S. was like for an American teenager in the 1980s and what it would be like to interact with past eras.

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