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10 best movies to watch this 4th of July weekend

A group of soldiers stand in rubble in Saving Private Ryan.

The July 4th weekend is a time not just to celebrate the height of summer but to consider and appreciate what it is that makes our country distinctive, what comprises our natural character.

In no particular order and without excluding other great Independence Day films, here are 10 relevant films to watch this celebratory weekend that you can use to address this question, and to drown out the sound of the leftover fireworks that are still terrifying your dog.

Lincoln (2012)

Daniel Day-Lewis in Lincoln.
DreamWorks Pictures

When Steven Spielberg took on a stretch of world history as vital as the passage of the 13th Amendment, banning slavery, in 1863, with a team like screenwriter Tony Kushner and star Daniel Day-Lewis, the feeling upon its release in 2012 was that seeing the film was not just a must but a civic obligation. But the movie is far from an after-school special.

Day-Lewis’ Lincoln, an enigmatic philosopher-king, and Tommy Lee Jones’ Congressman Thaddeus Stevens, the Radical Republican whose tireless advocacy helped to secure the Amendment’s passage, are larger than life but also fundamentally human, and they speak Kushner’s gorgeous words with the weight of men burdened by their cruel and unenlightened times.

Rent or purchase on Amazon Prime.

Nashville (1975)

Karen Black in Nashville.

Set in the year leading up to America’s bicentennial, Robert Altman’s ensemble film is one of the great magic tricks in cinema history. The story of a doomed brush between the country music industry and an independent presidential campaign, its veritable army of characters drift in and out of the narrative like motes of dust in a beam of light.

It’s a pointillist story, myth-making by accumulation of details, and in its focus on grassroots music and grassroots politics, it’s as American a tale as they come. The finale is one for the ages, as everything beautiful and horrible about America is revealed in all of its ugly glory.

Nashville can be rented on Fandango.

1776 (1972)

William Daniels and Howard Da Silva in 1776.

The film adaptation of 1969’s Tony winner for Best Musical, Peter H. Hunt’s magisterial musical dramedy about the signing of the Declaration of Independence features not only a sparkling operetta-inspired score by Elvis Presley collaborator Sherman Edwards but also one of the most articulate screenplays ever written, compiled from meticulously researched real-life letters and documents from the period by Peter Stone (who also wrote the masterpiece The Taking of Pelham 123).

The movie has a vital lesson to impart about our founders’ fallibility and humanity. As Howard Da Silva’s Ben Franklin observes: “Who will posterity think we are — demigods? We’re men — no more, no less — trying to get a nation started against greater odds than a more generous God would have allowed.” More importantly, it’s an exceptional musical, with catchy tunes like Cool, Cool, Considerate Men and Sit Down, John.

Rent or purchase on Amazon Prime.

Moonrise Kingdom (2012)

Kara Hayward and Jared Gilman in Moonrise Kingdom.
Focus Features

When Wes Anderson dedicates himself to the iconography of a culture, nobody synthesizes better. So it stands to reason that his most studied crack at Americana, the 1960s summer camp romance Moonrise Kingdom, is an indelible visual portfolio of uniformed America — the Boy Scouts, the police, the clergy, and petty bureaucrats all feature in this story of two 12-year-olds who run away together on an island off New England.

Rent or purchase on Amazon Prime.

The Music Man (1962)

Shirley Jones and Robert Preston in The Music Man.
Warner Bros

There are many great American composers, but the most American would have to be John Philip Sousa, known as the March King for his patriotic compositions for marching bands like The Stars and Stripes Forever.  Taking Sousa’s influence as a starting point, Meredith Willson’s 1957 stage musical The Music Man interrogates the mythos of march music as a synthesis of the American experience, with a little classic American con artistry sprinkled in.

Reprising his Tony-winning role from the stage show, Robert Preston stars as a grifter traveling salesman who sells band instruments in a small town in Iowa without ever intending to deliver them. Fireworks, village greens, and barbershop quartets — Morton DaCosta’s film is Midwestern nostalgia supercharged to the point of euphoria.

The Music Man is streaming on Tubi.

American Graffiti (1973)

American Graffiti (1973) - Must Be Your Mama's Car Scene | Movieclips

George Lucas’ second feature, based on his coming-of-age in Modesto, California, in the early ’60s, features what is for my money the most gorgeous opening shot in cinema — a summertime tableau of a neon-soaked greasy spoon, Mel’s Drive-In, at sunset, in which the gilt-edged fluorescent light appears to bleed into the celluloid.

It’s the fleet but mellow story of the last summer before the class of 1962 departs for college, and its youthful cast is stacked — Richard Dreyfuss, Ron Howard, Harrison Ford, and Suzanne Somers, just to name a few. It’s the perfect movie to watch on July Fourth or any day of the summer.

American Graffiti is streaming on Netflix.

Do the Right Thing (1989)

Spike Lee and Danny Aiello in Do The Right Thing.

If the Fourth of July is hot where you are, turn on Spike Lee’s undisputed masterpiece, set on a roasting summer day on a block in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, and crank the A/C. The schadenfreude will be only one of the many pleasures in store in this gonzo examination of racial tensions in 1980s New York, which Lee wrote, directed, starred in, and produced.

The movie asks uncomfortable questions and refuses to provide easy answers, providing a necessary diagram of real, gritty American life to undergird our grand national claims to equality.

Rent or purchase on Amazon Prime.

Saving Private Ryan (1998)

Tom Hanks (center right) and the ensemble of Saving Private Ryan.

In the muggy, rain-soaked European summer of 1944, American soldiers swept across the continent in their ultimately successful mission to rid the world of German fascism. Steven Spielberg’s 1998 drama covering the exploits of one small group of those soldiers, Saving Private Ryan is arguably the most immediate and jarring ground-level war movie ever made.

The opening sequence alone, set during the Omaha Beach landings and shot over the course of four weeks with 1,500 extras, brings home the extraordinary sacrifices necessary to preserve the freedoms we celebrate on Independence Day, and reminds us that the cost of appeasing totalitarians is too high to think of ever paying again.

Saving Private Ryan is streaming on Paramount+.

You Can’t Take It with You (1938)

Lionel Barrymore in You Can't Take It With You.

In Frank Capra’s film of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Kaufman and Hart play, the highly unconventional Sycamore family of New York is, among other things, in the firework-manufacturing business. But that’s only one of the uniquely American pursuits in which the Sycamores indulge — candy-making, amateur ballet, and, vitally, income tax evasion.

A worldwide phenomenon on both stage and screen, You Can’t Take It with You is a charming tale in the classic eccentrics-versus-status-quo mold, starring James Stewart, Jean Arthur, Lionel Barrymore, Ann Miller, and the cream of Columbia Pictures’ stable. It’s a film of its time that has nonetheless aged excellently.

Rent or buy on Amazon Prime.

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)

James Stewart and Jean Arthur in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.

Ask a politician of any ideological stripe what movie it was that most inspired them to get into politics, and they’ll likely tell you it was Frank Capra’s 1939 tale of a small-town newspaper publisher (James Stewart) appointed to a vacant Senate seat, who goes to battle with the corrupt Washington establishment to allocate federal funds for a boys camp.

Directed by arch-conservative Capra and written by leftist and future member of the Hollywood blacklist Sidney Buchman, the movie rouses because — and in this case it’s not a backhanded compliment — it can truly be all things to all people.

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is streaming on Amazon Prime.

James Feinberg
James Feinberg is a writer and journalist who has written for the Broadway Journal and NBC's The Blacklist.
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