The 10 Most Iconic American Movies of all Time
When I searched for a definition of iconic, several of the sources said something along the lines of “being an icon”. I generally think of an icon as a person. You don’t typically hear of a film being referred to as an icon, though we do frequently hear certain American movies described as iconic. The Cambridge Dictionary defines iconic as “relating to or characteristic of a famous person or thing that represents something of importance”. In the context of movies, I would say that an iconic film has a certain historical or cultural relevance or importance.
Iconic movies are not simply of their time, and their significance goes beyond the products themselves. They do more than say something about our culture at the time, — they may actually change our culture. The American Iconic movies come from a place where they are quotable, rewatchable, offer the most memorable characters, get parodied or downright ripped off, influence other elements of our culture, and infect our daily lives outside of the context of the actual film. This list includes ten American movies (or pairs or series of films in some cases) that I consider the most iconic (along with many “honorable mentions” at the end). Please don’t consider this list a ranking, even though the selections are numbered 1-10. In case you’ve been living under a rock your whole life, please beware of spoilers.
1. THE GODFATHER/THE GODFATHER, PART II (1972 and 1974)
“I’m gonna make him an offer he can’t refuse.”
I warned you that some entries on this list would be pairs or series, and no better place to start than with the classic and its arguably superior sequel (depending on who you ask). For starters, this marks the beginning of America’s fascination with the anti-hero. Would there be a Walter White if not for this saga of the Corleone family that preceded it? This film (and Mario Puzo’s novel) succeeded in portraying an Italian crime family not as dangerous monsters, but as a twisted example of American royalty. Francis Ford Coppola and his collaborators managed to make the Corleone family the good guys in very clever ways. Most obviously, by making other characters evil by comparison. Examples include the killing of Luca Brasi by rival gangsters and the treatment of the still innocent youngest son Michael by NYPD Captain McCluskey. Michael behaves in heroic fashion in that segment of the film, doing everything he can to protect his father.
The parallels between Michael Corleone and Walter White seem pretty clear. Both start out their stories as classically decent men driven to commit questionable deeds due to circumstances. Both of these characters subsequently morph into the most dangerous members of their respective communities. The fact that Al Pacino was able to effectively portray that transformation in less than three hours is fascinating. When he was done wiping out the leaders of the other families and giving brother-in-law Carlo the ending he quite frankly deserved, we all cheered. That doesn’t happen too often.
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Marlon Brando’s brilliant portrayal of Vito was perhaps more amazing. When we first see him, he is already a criminal mastermind, feared by most. Yet he spends much of the movie performing acts that could be considered noble. The favors he grants on his daughter’s wedding day are ones we would generally be happy to perform ourselves (though perhaps without the severed head of a beloved racehorse), and his declination to join in on an emerging narcotics business was particularly admirable. The sequel provides even greater nobility for this character. Think about who Vito killed in the sequel – a local mobster in the city who was heaping abuse on his fellow Italians (including Vito’s surrogate family) and the aging Sicilian boss who murdered Vito’s family when he was a young boy. We admired Vito Corleone, even more, thanks to Robert DeNiro’s Oscar-winning performance.
There were many other memorable characters in addition to the primary characters of Vito and Michael. Sonny is such a hothead that you can’t take your eyes off James Caan whenever he is on the screen. Robert Duvall’s Tom Hagen was often a voice of reason amidst all the questionable activities. Ancillary characters such as Mo Green, Tessio, and Clemenza were always entertaining, and I really thought the Corleone’s were meeting their match with Virgil Solozzo.
Certain lines have become iconic parts of the culture in their own right. Vito’s line to Johnny in the early part of the movie, “I’m gonna make him an offer he can’t refuse,” was voted #2 on AFI’s 100 Years…100 Movie Quotes. “Keep your friends close, but your enemies closer,” is #58 on that list. “Leave the gun. Take the cannoli,” seems to arise often during dessert amongst friends in any Italian restaurant.
Since the premiere of The Godfather in 1972, there have reportedly been over 300 films featuring Italian-Americans as mobsters, according to the Italic Institute of America. Martin Scorsese produced his own classic, Goodfellas, in 1990, not to mention the film that initially put him on the map, Mean Streets, in 1973. Cable television gave us the equally iconic The Sopranos, beginning in 1999. There were plenty of other less memorable mob portrayals along the way, including some favorites that cover other ethnic groups making compelling forays into the world of organized crime.
The Godfather is also frequently parodied. Marlon Brando did it himself in The Freshman, and Jim Abrahams (part of the Naked Gun brain trust) directed Jane Austen’s Mafia! There have also been humorous references in several Simpsons episodes, Modern Family, and John Belushi’s portrayal of Don Vito in group therapy on Saturday Night Live.
The Godfather films are shown regularly on cable networks such as AMC and BBC America, facilitating their status as two of the most rewatchable films in history. Its legacy is cemented by its many Oscar wins, including Best Picture for both films, and acting Oscars for Marlon Brando and Robert DeNiro. It was ranked #2 on the most recent American Film Institute (AFI) list of 100 greatest films. Nino Rota’s score is ranked #5 on AFI’s list of best film scores.
2. CASABLANCA (1942)
“Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”
Arguably the most romantic movie of all time, Casablanca is a timeless classic that captured much of our feelings of uncertainty during World War II and concern about the Nazi regime, even though it was made during the earlier days of American involvement. Victor Laszlo’s comment to Major Strasser that “even Nazis can’t kill that fast,” makes perfect sense in the 21st century, but for its time, was an amazing observation. It’s no wonder that Americans so readily got behind the war effort.
Like many of the movies on this list, I fear that the cultural significance of Casablanca may be lost on the millennial generation. This is based mostly on the shoulder shrugs I got from my kids when I first showed them this movie as middle schoolers. I feel an obligation to make them watch it again now that they are adults. This one doesn’t make it onto the cable as frequently as some of the others, so I rely on my two-disc 60th-anniversary special edition for an annual revisit to the exploits and twice whirlwind romance of Rick and Ilsa.
Casablanca is one of the most quotable films of all time. It is best known for the misquoted line, “Play it again, Sam,” which in its correct form reads: “Play it, Sam. Play ‘As Time Goes By.’” It has six lines on the 2005 AFI list of best movie quotes (the most by far):
“Here’s looking at you, kid.” (#5)
“Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.” (#20)
“Play it, Sam. Play ‘As Time Goes By.’” (#28)
“Round up the usual suspects.” (#32)
“We’ll always have Paris.” (#43)
“Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine.” (#67)
What makes this film unique is its resolution. While it was not a traditional happy ending, it was uplifting nonetheless, and I can’t imagine it ending any other way. It wound up being the most cordial love triangle ever shown on film. It also marked a departure (at the time) for Bogie, playing an actual good guy of high moral character.
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Woody Allen performed a well-known parody of Casablanca with his 1969 play Play It Again, Sam, and its subsequent film version, released in 1972 and directed by Herbert Ross. The plot involves a recently divorced film critic (played by Allen) receiving advice from the ghost of Humphrey Bogart (played by Jerry Lacy) as he returns to the dating scene. Casablanca also well honored by the Woody-esque When Harry Met Sally in two key scenes. During an overnight drive from Chicago to New York, the two protagonists argue over whether Ilsa wanted to stay with Rick in Casablanca, with Sally foolishly believing that Ilsa preferred to stay with Victor so she could become the first lady of Czechoslovakia. In a later scene (some 12 years later), the two watch Casablanca on late-night television while on the phone with each other from their respective apartments. Sally demonstrates some evolution, seemingly surprised at her previous opinion that women would prefer Victor over Rick.
Casablanca was ranked #3 on the AFI list of 100 greatest films. It remains a beloved film to people of a certain age (like me and my parents) but maybe losing some of its iconic shine with the millennial generation. The film runs several times a year on Turner Classic Movies (TCM), but rarely makes the rotation on its sister stations TBS or TNT, which has made rewatchable classics out of highly enjoyable but lesser fare like Ocean’s Eleven and Now You See Me. Perhaps a letter-writing campaign to the folks at Turner Broadcasting is in order!
3. STAR WARS (ORIGINAL TRILOGY) (1977/1980/1983)
“Luke, I am your father.”
I was 13 years old when the original Star Wars began a long run in theatres. This was before the days of 12-screen multiplexes, and sadly, none of my three reasonably local theatres in Westfield or Watchung, NJ ever showed the film. One needed to travel a bit to see it on the big screen, and my friends and I never made the big ask to our parents to make the seemingly long drive to Linden or Somerville, where the film played for many months. The closest I came to seeing it was during a two-week showing later in 1977 in Cranford, when my dad came home from work early to take me and my younger sister and brother. We never made it to the theatre. During a driving rainstorm, we got a flat tire, and when my dad jacked up the wagon in a furniture store parking lot, the car rolled forward, causing the jack to pierce a nice big hole in the back door. When we finally made it back home, I opened Friday’s paper and learned that the theatre had begun showing Hooper with Burt Reynolds, so all’s well that ends well.
This in part explains why I never actually saw Star Wars until I was in my thirties. Yet I still felt like I knew the film. Many of my classmates bragged of seeing it multiple times, and there was always some coverage of it somewhere in the media for me to absorb. It was amazing how quickly the film became part of our culture. It was a cultural phenomenon, unlike anything we had ever seen. Jaws came close in the short term, but the brilliance of George Lucas’ vision was that he seemingly foresaw the long term viability of this franchise before he even shot one frame of film.
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On its face, the original trilogy is obviously of the science fiction genre (with Flash Gordon being a primary influence), but what makes it superior to most of the films that preceded it (Kubrik’s 2001 may be more critically adored, though it would not stand a chance in a general election) is the way it paid homage to other genres. The film owes an acknowledged debt to Akira Kurosawa, particularly his 1958 film, The Hidden Fortress. The relationship between C-3PO and R2-D2 was derived from that film’s relationship between the two peasants Tahei and Matashichi. Additionally, the battle sequences were inspired by World War II movies, particularly 1955’s The Dam Busters. Finally, Star Wars bears much resemblance to both swashbucklers and American westerns, with flying machines taking the place of horses and lightsabers taking the place of swords. Darth Vader is the villain dressed in black, while Luke, Obi-Wan, et al, wear white, or at least a much paler color in contrast to Vader.
“May the force be with you,” is probably its most memorable quote, ranked #8 on the AFI list. Darth Vader ranked #3 on AFI’s list of 50 greatest villains. Shockingly, the aforementioned “I am your father” line (from Empire Strikes Back) did not make the AFI quote list. John Williams’ score is #1 on the AFI list of best film scores (no surprise). The original film, also known as Episode IV: A New Hope, is ranked #13 on the AFI movie list, though more fans seem to identify Empire Strikes Back as the best film in the franchise. Thus far, the Star Wars films have earned over $9 billion in the global box office. In fact, Disney has already recouped their $4 billion investment in Lucasfilms, just on the movies that have been released since the second trilogy.
Pop culture frequently pays homage to the original trilogy (while often poking fun at the second trilogy). The Big Bang Theory includes enough references to justify a 59-minute video that included over 50 references, including Howard using lightsabers for romantic mood lighting, Raj acquiring matching lightsaber belt buckles for himself and Howard (with which he suggests having sword fights, gag!), and my personal favorite episode, which parallels Sheldon and Amy’s first night of intimacy to the rest of the guys seeing Episode VII for the first time. The most memorable episode of Family Guy was their tribute to the original trilogy, while Mel Brooks created a cult behind his memorable parody, Spaceballs. For something unique, I recommend checking out Thumb Wars on YouTube.
4. THE WIZARD OF OZ (1939)
“Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.”
As a kid growing up in the early ’70s, well before the advent of home video or even cable TV, you generally had one opportunity per year to see Wizard of Oz. This made the movie an annual event, somewhat akin to the Super Bowl at that time. To a 6-year old in New Jersey, at least, this was appointment viewing. And yes, we owned the soundtrack, which was essentially an abridged audio version of the film, as opposed to just the songs. The movie was a water cooler topic at McGinn School the next day, and for me, solidified the film’s status as the #1 family film of all time (as it was recently described on CNN’s The Movies). The movie actually did not become a true classic until CBS made it an annual special in 1956, usually airing around Easter.
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Of course, the film at the time also scared the hell out of me at various points. In 1969, I ran out of the family room screaming when the Wizard’s big giant head appeared near the end of the film (perhaps an inspiration for the character on Third Rock From The Sun?). In March 2013 on nbcnews.com, Gael Fashingbauer Cooper identified five traumatizing moments from the film:
1. The flying monkeys
2. The Scarecrow’s arm on fire
3. The witch melting
4. Miss Gulch taking Toto away from Dorothy
5. And of course, The Wizard’s floating giant head
Margaret Hamilton, the actress who played both Miss Gulch and the Wicked Witch of the West, once made an effort to diffuse children’s fears when she appeared on Mister Rogers to talk about “make-believe”. She was not green on the show, which probably helped. Nevertheless, the Wicked Witch of the West was #4 on the AFI list of greatest villains.
The famous quote about not being in Kansas anymore is regularly quoted in real life as a way to illustrate the speaker being in an odd or unusual or scary place. The correct quote, “Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore,” is #4 on the AFI list of movie quotes. “There’s no place like home,” was #23, while “I’ll get you, my pretty, and your little dog too!” snuck onto the list at #99. Of course, “Over The Rainbow” might be the most famous and beloved movie song in history, ranking #1 on the AFI list of the top 100 movie songs. For the little ones, the viewing experience seems to benefit from the repetition of the music, specifically “We’re Off To See The Wizard” and “If I Only A Brain/Heart/Nerve”.
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The film has inspired a wide variety of homages, parodies, and parallel stories. The Frank L. Baum novel on which the film was based also inspired the popular Broadway musical The Wiz, which transported the story to an urban setting with an African American cast and a new collection of R&B-based tunes, including “Ease on Down The Road” in place of the original film’s “Follow The Yellow Brick Road”. Elton John produced one of his greatest albums and songs, “Goodbye, Yellow Brick Road”, based in part on inspiration from the film. Under The Rainbow, a parody of the making of the film was released in 1981 and starred Chevy Chase and Carrie Fisher. This film was heavily panned, in part due to the way the actors playing Munchkins were portrayed. David Lynch’s 1990 film, Wild at Heart, uses images from the film including the Yellow Brick Road, the ruby slippers, and Laura Dern clicking her heels to escape an unfortunate encounter with a sleazy character played by Willem Dafoe. The film deserves credit for the immense popularity of another Broadway show, Wicked, which portrays the relationship between two sisters, the Wicked Witch of the West and the Good Witch of the North.
There are many other pop culture items indebted to the film, but the most unusual has to be Pink Floyd’s classic 1973 album, Dark Side of the Moon, which, when synced with the film, seems to fit perfectly. Cue the CD right at the beginning of the first track, press pause, then play the movie. Once the MGM lion roars for the third time, press play on the CD. It is recommended that you set the CD to album repeat, as it will need to start over about halfway through the movie.
5. IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE (1946)
“A toast…to my big brother George. The richest man in town.”
Might not be the most famous quote from the movie, but it sure as hell captures the overriding theme of the film. Never has there been a more relatable character portrayed on film than George Bailey. Who among us has not, at some point, felt the self-doubt and uselessness that George experiences? His brother’s abovementioned toast at the end of the film serves as an important reminder that success is not measured by money or job title, but by how we have touched the lives of others. I only wish I could have touched lives half as well as he did.
The impression of It’s A Wonderful Life as an all-time great Christmas movie masks the darkness of the film, which is essentially an explanation of why an honest and decent man has chosen to take his own life. I can understand what has brought him to that point. A lifetime of professional disappointment and constant uphill battles has seemingly culminated in a professional and personal scandal that will result in prison time, with a family and hometown ruined. Thankfully, the film is also a tribute to faith in God. By treating the resolution as essentially a fantasy featuring a goofy guardian angel, Frank Capra sneaks a religious message past even the most cynical of viewers. George was ultimately saved by his own faith and the prayers of others. It’s ultimately an uplifting story despite the darkness.
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For many years, the film was seemingly everywhere, especially in December. This is because, in 1974, Republic Pictures, the owner of the copyright, neglected to file for renewal, which propelled the movie into the public domain. This enabled anyone, anywhere, to show or broadcast the film without having to pay a dime for the privilege. This oversaturation continued unabated until 1993 when a previous Supreme Court ruling created the precedent that enabled the Republic to recover its ownership of the film. Thankfully, the “damage” had already been done, turning It’s a Wonderful Life into the iconic holiday classic we view it as today.
For some reason, attempts at homage or parody have not joined the pop culture lexicon as well as other films. Two musical stage versions were created, but neither made it to Broadway (I saw one of them at the Kelsey Theatre in Princeton Junction, NJ, and was quite entertained). I also saw a tremendous one-man version in Cape May called This Wonderful Life by Steve Murray. Numerous radio play versions exist, including Merry Christmas, George Bailey, which aired on PBS in 1997, and starred Bill Pullman as George and Nathan Lane as Clarence. ABC imposed a made-for-TV gender-reversed remake, with Marlo Thomas in the lead role of Mary Bailey and Cloris Leachman as the angel Clara, along with none other than Orson Welles as Mr. Potter. Hallmark produced another version starring Nicollette Sheridan of Desperate Housewives fame. The Adam Sandler film, Click, also borrows heavily from the classic film.
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There are also memorable homages to the movie in various sitcoms. The Big Bang Theory had a recent holiday episode in which the gang (sans Sheldon, who was in Texas for the birth of his nephew) surmised what their lives would be like if they had never met Sheldon. Theoretically, couples would never have gotten together and Leonard and Raj would have gotten much larger due to too much cheesecake. An episode of Mork and Mindy from the late 70s showed Mork what Mindy’s life would have been like if Mork has not entered her life, including an unhappy marriage to a real schmuck. DC Follies showed Dan Quayle what the world would have been like if he had never been named Vice President. Four words – Richard Nixon, American Hero. Saturday Night Live had their way with this classic, displaying a lost final scene of George (Dana Carvey) beating the hell out of Mr. Potter.
No quotes from the movie made the AFI list, though most of us remember “Every time a bell rings, an angel gets its wings.” The film itself ranks #20 on the most recent AFI list of 100 greatest films, and George Bailey ranks #9 on the list of greatest movie heroes.