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Staff Picks- AFI's 100 Greatest Movies

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AFI’s 100 Greatest Movies 

In 2007, more than 1500 members of the American movie community were polled by the American Film Institute to name the greatest motion pictures of the previous 100 hundred years.  Most of these films are available through the Goleta Valley Library’s branches and streaming services.


1 CITIZEN KANE (1941)  Orson Welles was 27 when he directed, co-wrote, and starred in this thinly-veiled take on the life of newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst.  For several decades, CITIZEN KANE tops the all-time best roster.

2 THE GODFATHER  (1972) The opening chapter of the Corleone crime family saga begins with almost as many memorable lines as one would find in a Shakespeare play.

3 CASABLANCA  (1943) Bogart and Bergman.  Set in WWII Morocco, it doesn’t get any better than this in what is Hollywood’s greatest love story.

4 RAGING BULL (1980) Powerful rendition of Jake La Motta’s life story in and out of the ring with Robert De Niro  earning a Best Actor Oscar for the role.  Martin Scorsese directed using black-and-white photography to startling effect.

5 SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN   (1952) Hollywood’s greatest musical is set in the era when talking pictures were just arriving. Gene Kelly, Debbie Reynolds, Donald O’Connor and Jean Hagen are joys to watch.

6 GONE WITH THE WIND  (1939) Still a great Hollywood epic, even if its Civil War sensibilities seem dated today.   Scarlett and Rhett, Leigh and Gable are indistinguishable.

7 LAWRENCE OF ARABIA   (1962) The thinking person’s grand epic by David Lean with absolutely stunning cinematography and a mesmerizing debut performance by Peter O’Toole as the enigmatic WWI hero.

8 SCHINDLER’S LIST  (1993)  Steven Spielberg’s powerful Holocaust drama  shows how a corrupt individual played by Liam Neeson, can find the courage to do the right thing in the most horrific circumstances.

9 VERTIGO  (1958) James Stewart stars in this Alfred Hitchcock psychological drama as a man obsessed with finding/recreating his lost love.  San Francisco settings are used to great effect.  Its stature among critics has risen considerably in recent years.

10 THE WIZARD OF OZ   (1939) Follow the yellow brick road for what is many people’s favorite movie.  Over 70 years after its production, this film has so much to offer, including Judy Garland and “Over the Rainbow.”

11 CITY LIGHTS (1931) Chaplin’s Little Tramp character attempts to help a blind flower girl, encountering numerous struggles along the way. The ending is perfect, touching and absolutely fitting.  If one’s emotions aren’t engaged by this climax, serious therapy should be considered.

12 THE SEARCHERS (1956) John Wayne in his finest performance as an obsessed man on a years-long quest to retrieve his kidnapped niece from Comanche Indians.  John Ford concludes the movie with one of the most iconic shots in movie history.

13 STAR WARS  (1977)  The initial chapter in the most successful science-fiction franchise ever.  The special effects were jaw-dropping for its time.

14 PSYCHO  (1960) Alfred Hitchcock’s direction is underscored by perhaps the most famous five minutes in movie history  --- a sequence so well-known a whole movie was made about its creation.  Don’t overlook Anthony Perkins’ nuanced performance as Norman Bates.

15 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (1968) From the dawn of humankind to the outer reaches of Jupiter, Stanley Kubrick provides a feast for the eyes and the mind.  Best viewed on as large a screen as possible.

16 SUNSET BOULEVARD  (1950)  Billy Wilder’s tale of a has-been movie star from the silent era who becomes involved with a young screenwriter.  The novel narrative device: the story’s told by a dead man.

17 THE GRADUATE  (1967)   Speaking to a new generation of filmgoers, this motion picture made a star of Dustin Hoffman and boasted a soundtrack by Simon & Garfunkel.  Fun fact:  Doris Day was considered for the part of Mrs. Robinson, but she declined.

18 THE GENERAL (1927) Words aren’t needed to appreciate the comic genius of Buster Keaton.  Not only are the visuals intricately choreographed,but Keaton didn’t use stunt doubles for his sequences in the film.

19 ON THE WATERFRONT (1954) Seeing this film, shot on location on the New Jersey docks,  demonstrates why Marlon Brando was considered the finest actor of his generation.

20 IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE  (1946)  A perennial Christmas favorite, this James Stewart vehicle was a box-office disappointment upon its release but it’s warm-hearted appreciation of the impact of one good person rings true today.

21 CHINATOWN  (1974)  Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway in a story of corruption and murder in 1937 Los Angeles.  A brilliant musical score fits nicely with Robert Towne’s screenplay, often considered one of the best ever written. Joe Mantell delivers one of the all-time great closing lines.

22 SOME LIKE IT HOT  (1959)  The highest-rated comedy on the list with Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon posing as female musicians hiding out in an all-women band to elude gangsters.  Marilyn Monroe has a classic scene trying to seduce Curtis as he does his best Cary Grant imitation.

23 THE GRAPES OF WRATH  (1940)   John Ford’s sympathetic and stirring adaption of the John Steinbeck novel about  a Depression-era family struggling to relocate to California.  Henry Fonda and Jane Darwell are memorable as Tom and Ma Joad.

24 E.T THE EXTRA-TERRESTRIAL  (1982)  Trapped on earth and trying to get back to his home, E.T. strikes a chord for all humanity.  Steven Spielberg has made this movie so it’s just not for kids.

25 TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD (1962) Gregory Peck’s portrayal of Atticus Finch has probably inspired more would-be attorneys than any other film.  Its depiction of 1930s Alabama small-town life and the naturalness of its child actors are often overlooked.

26 MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON  (1939)  James Stewart is in top form as a naïve newly-elected US senator who confronts corruption and overwhelming opposition.  Frank Capra directs a superb cast in his most cherished film. Stewart’s filibuster sequence is a classic .

27 HIGH NOON  (1952)  A western that has modern-day applications in the ability of one individual to stand alone against evil when others will not help.  Superb editing, an effective use of music and Gary Cooper’s Oscar-winning performance all come together under Director Fred Zinnemann.

28 ALL ABOUT EVE  (1950)  Young ingénue schemes to take the place of an established Broadway star.  Crackling dialogue and a pitch-perfect cast helps this movie hold up over the decades.

29 DOUBLE INDEMNITY  (1944)  A femme fatale, a corruptible insurance agent/lover and a husband to be murdered for the life insurance payout.  This classic film noir from Director Billy Wilder set the standard for this genre.

30 APOCALYPSE NOW  (1979)  Francis Ford Coppola sets Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” in Viet-Nam to present a surreal picture of the cost of war. Beset by logistical problems in its production, creating the movie was almost as complex as the final film.

31 THE MALTESE FALCON  (1941)   The “black bird” is “the stuff that dreams are made of” in John Huston’s adaptation of Dashiell Hammett’s private eye story that made a full-blown star of Humphrey Bogart as Sam Spade.

32 THE GODFATHER, PART II  (1974)  The best sequel ever made, the second installment of the Corleone family goes back and forth in time while delivering more lines that have become part of the daily lexicon. 

33 ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST  (1975) Largely set in an Oregon mental institution, this movie hit the Oscar jackpot, winning awards for best picture, actor, actress, director and screenplay. Jack Nicholson in his prime as Randall McMurphy.

34 SNOW WHITE AND THE SEVEN DWARFS  (1937) Walt Disney made movie history with the first full-length animated movie.  While its gender-role depictions may make current audiences a bit uncomfortable, the beauty of its animation holds up surprisingly well.

35 ANNIE HALL  (1977) Woody Allen’s paean to romantic relationships features Diane Keaton in her Oscar-winning role while Allen was cited for his direction and screenplay.  Fun fact:  The shortest film to receive Best Picture recognition

36 THE BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI (1957) A David Lean spectacular with Alec Guiness in his Oscar-winning role as a rigid colonel leading captured troops in a WWII POW camp attempting to complete the construction of a bridge while British commandos plan on destroying it.

37 THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES (1946) William Wyler fashions a most thoughtful film about the adjustment problems confronting three WWII veterans. The homecoming scene between Frederic march and Myrna Loy is poignant regardless of the decade.

38 TREASURE OF THE SIERRA MADRE (1948)  Three prospectors search for gold in Mexico and find their inner character instead.  A very different role for Humphrey Bogart, while John Huston directed his father Walter to Oscars for the both of them.  The final scene is a textbook definition of “irony.”

39 DR STRANGELOVE: OR HOW I LEARNED TO STOP WORRYING AND LOVE THE BOMB  (1964) Stanley Kubrick’s wicked satire of nuclear warfare and geopolitics.  Peter Sellers plays three parts masterfully.

40 THE SOUND OF MUSIC  (1965)  The film adaptation of the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic still rings true with Julie Andrews bringing depth to the lead character of Maria.  Filled with songs that have become standards over the years.

41 KING KONG (1933) While dated in its special effects, this was a “monster” hit in its day.  The ending still evokes an emotional response since “twas beauty that killed the beast.”

42 BONNIE & CLYDE  (1967)  The ad campaign said: “They’re young.  They’re in love.  They kill people.”  Somewhat fictionalized, this film shook up Hollywood with its violence in telling the story of two Depression-era bank robbers and their gang.

43 MIDNIGHT COWBOY  (1969)   Dustin Hoffman and Jon Voight are paired as two unlikely hustlers in New York City.  Considered quite daring at the time, the 60s vibe has faded, but the performances are outstanding in showing how friendship can take many forms in unlikely circumstances.

44 THE PHILADELPHIA STORY  (1940) Sparkling dialogue and witty performances by Cary Grant, Katharine Hepburn and Oscar-winning James Stewart make for a magical formula in this romantic comedy set in high society.

45 SHANE  (1953) A classic western wherein a stranger comes to town to help struggling homesteaders battle a vicious cattle baron.  Alan Ladd, Van Heflin and Jean Arthur head an exceptional cast with Jack Palance particularly noteworthy as a menacing gunslinger.  The film ends with a great closing sequence and line.

46 IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT  (1934)  Another Frank Capra comedic gem which was the first film to capture the Big Five of the Oscars in its year: Picture, Actor, Actress, Director, and Screenplay.  Fun fact: Clark Gable appearing without an undershirt supposedly tanked the men’s undershirt market that year.

47 A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE  (1951) Another searing performance by Marlon Brando in Elia Kazan’s adaption of the Tennessee Williams stage success.  Ironically, three other cast members won Oscars (Vivien Leigh, Karl Malden and Kim Hunter) while Brando did not.

48 REAR WINDOW  (1954) Another Hitchcock thriller that generates considerable suspense as invalid James Stewart suspects a neighbor of committing murder.  While the plot has been replicated in different forms over the years, the original is still the best.

49 INTOLERANCE (1916)  D.W. Griffith’s epic actually contains four separate stories set in Babylon, Judea, royalist France, and modern-day California. Considered one of the seminal landmark films of the silent era.

50 THE LORD OF THE RINGS: THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING (2001) Peter Jackson’s three-part retelling of the JRR Tolkien fantasy masterwork is represented by this initial offering, but it was Part 3 that cleaned up at the Oscars, winning a record-tying 11 statuettes.

51 WEST SIDE STORY  (1961) While the gang warfare seems pretty mild today, the Bernstein/Sondheim score, the Jerome Robbins choreography, and the Romeo and Juliet love story are timeless.

52  TAXI DRIVER  (1976)  “You talkin’ to me?” Robert De Niro, Martin Scorsese, and Bernard Hermann’s musical score combine for a frightening picture of urban decay and individual paranoia in the form of Travis Bickle, the very definition of an anti-hero.

53 THE DEER HUNTER  (1978)  One of the first major films to address the impact of the Viet-Nam war, the movie shows how three Pennsylvania steel workers are affected by their time in combat.  Russian roulette is a metaphor used throughout the film, and a Russian Orthodox wedding is a major set piece.

54 M*A*S*H (1970) Robert Altman used the Korean War as a backdrop to comment on the Viet-Nam conflict using gallows humor to great effect in a “mobile army surgical hospital” setting.  It also served as the inspiration for the long-running TV series.  Altman introduced his signature overlapping dialogue here.

55 NORTH BY NORTHWEST  (1959)  The quintessential Alfred Hitchcock thriller with falsely-accused Cary Grant racing across the country eluding enemy spies and trying to prove his innocence.  Wonderful set pieces and the sliest possible closing shot are particular highlights.

56 JAWS  (1975)  Steven Spielberg hit it really big with the film that’s credited with starting the summer blockbuster phenomenon.  John Williams’ score has been referenced so often it’s almost a cliché, but you can’t imagine the film without it.  A particular highlight:  Robert Shaw telling his shipmates about the tragedy of the sinking of the USS Indianapolis.

57 ROCKY (1976) Winner of the Best Picture Oscar, Sylvester Stallone stars in his screenplay of an average boxer who winds up with a shot at the heavyweight title.  His one goal is to “go the distance.”  This led to a multi-film franchise that has spanned over 40 years.

58 THE GOLD RUSH  (1925)  An excellent introduction as to why Charles Chaplin was so enormously popular in the days of silent movies.  While it boasts classic comedy sequences (a starving Chaplin eating his shoelaces as a form of spaghetti is brilliant), the film also has a number of real emotional moments

59 NASHVILLE (1975) A brilliant kaleidoscope of interlocking stories and characters from Robert Altman, noting how politics and entertainment come together in the country music capital.

60 DUCK SOUP  (1933) Groucho, Harpo, and Chico Marx in a fine example of their laugh-a-minute zaniness that manages to make social commentary among all the puns and sight gags.  Pomposity is a frequent target of Groucho’s barbs.

61 SULLIVAN’S TRAVELS (1941)  Preston Sturges’ socially-conscious comedy follows a Hollywood director who assumes the guise of a hobo to learn “serious” themes only to realize that laughter definitely has its place in cinema.

62  AMERICAN GRAFFITI  (1973)  Pre-“Star Wars,” George Lucas directed a number of young talents (Richard Dreyfuss, Ron Howard, Harrison Ford, Suzanne Somers, et al) in a one-day, one-night depiction of teen life in a Central California town.  One of the first films to creatively use a wall-to-wall soundtrack of 50s and 60s rock and roll music.

63 CABARET (1972) A musical with weighty things on its mind, set in Germany during the rise of the Nazi regime. Liza Minnelli is an American expatriate singer involved in a love triangle that reflects the political issues swirling around the participants.  Fun fact: The film won the most Oscars (8) without being named Best Picture (THE GODFATHER).

64 NETWORK  (1976) Originally viewed as a savage satire of TV news,  Paddy Chayefsky’s prescient screenplay accurately foresaw the evolution of news as entertainment.  Peter Finch and Faye Dunaway won Oscars.  Fun fact:  Beatrice Straight was named Best Supporting Actress for the briefest screen time in Oscar history.

65 THE AFRICAN QUEEN (1951) Humphrey Bogart and Katherine Hepburn make an unlikely pairing in a WWI setting, but it works astonishingly well. Smart writing, Bogart’s Oscar-winning role, and Hepburn’s transformation are all highlights.

66 RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK  (1981)  Steven Spielberg’s glorious tribute to Saturday afternoon adventure serials with Harrison Ford as archeologist Indiana Jones.  Fun fact:  Spielberg originally wanted Tom Selleck to star in the film, but Selleck was obligated to his Magnum P.I. television series.

67 WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF? (1966) Ground-breaking in its day for its frank dialogue, this adaptation of the Edward Albee play was an acting tour de force foe Elizabeth Taylor (Best Actress Oscar), Richard Burton, Sandy Dennis (Best Supporting Actress Oscar) and George Segal.  Two marriages are laid bare by verbal tirades and hidden secrets that are gradually revealed.

68 UNFORGIVEN (1992) Clint Eastwood’s revisionist western shows the devastating impact of violence in this tale of revenge with Eastwood as a killer brought out of retirement to right wrongs in town controlled by Sheriff Gene Hackman.  Oscars to Eastwood as producer/director and Hackman as Supporting Actor.

69 TOOTSIE  (1982)  Dustin Hoffman becomes “a better man by becoming a woman” to land a part on a daytime soap.  The opening sequences accurately show the struggles aspiring actors face and the two scenes with Hoffman and Director Sidney Pollack are priceless.

70 A CLOCKWORK ORANGE  (1971) Stanley Kubrick’s dystopian tale has a lead who’s hard to root for, given his violent criminality, but when faced with the full force of the totalitarian state, allegiances tend to shift.  Malcolm McDowell’s breakthrough role.

71 SAVING PRIVATE RYAN (1998) Steven Spielberg’s tribute to the Greatest Generation tracks the efforts of an army platoon to find and extricate a GI whose three brothers have all been killed in combat. The film’s opening sequence re-creating the unit’s landing on D-Day’s Omaha Beach is gripping in its realism.

72 THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION (1994) This movie that has developed a loyal and ever-increasing following over the years. Based upon a Stephen King short story, this shaggy dog story is heightened by the superb interplay between its two leads, Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman.

73 BUTCH CASSIDY & THE SUNDANCE KID  (1969) Paul Newman and Robert Redford are ideally matched in this story of outlaws who flee to Bolivia as the Old West  closes in.  William Goldman’s screenplay has a number of humorous lines, and the closing shot is concluded at the perfect moment.

74 THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS  (!991)  Winner of the Big Five Oscar awards, this is an intellectual thriller that’s best remembered for the interplay between Anthony Hopkins and Jodie Foster, as well as a chilling final scene.

75 IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT (1967) A Best Picture Oscar-winner, the resolution of the film’s murder mystery is almost secondary to the dynamics between Mississippi sheriff Rod Steiger (Best Actor Oscar) and Northern police detective Sidney Poitier who’s been roped into assisting on the case.

76 FORREST GUMP  (1994) Tom Hanks’ Oscar-winning role as a developmentally-delayed man who brushes up against the key people and events of his time.  Hanks’ realization that his son will not inherit his handicap is particularly touching.

77 ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN (1976) Based upon the Woodward & Bernstein recounting of their efforts to unravel the Watergate scandal, Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman lead an exceptionally strong cast in making a complicated story understandable to a general audience.  The film manages to create a sense of dread and paranoia without shock effects.

78 MODERN TIMES  (1936) Chaplin’s last effort as the Little Tramp is essentially a silent film in the talking picture era with a few words of dialogue and a musical score.  In the middle of the Depression, Chaplin focuses on how technology is overwhelming the individual, perhaps with applications to society today.

79 THE WILD BUNCH  (1969)  Sam Peckinpah’s masterwork follows a group of outlaws as they run out of territory and time in 1915 Mexico.  The opening and  closing set pieces were considered ultra-violent at its release.  Critical reaction to the film was similarly heated, but its status has grown with time including a book written about its creation.

80 THE APARTMENT  (1960)  Jack Lemmon shows off his versatility for both comedy and drama in Billy Wilder’s story of a young executive who lets out his apartment for his superiors’ love trysts.  Shirley MacLaine sparkles as his romantic interest, herself involved with Lemmon’s boss.

81 SPARTACUS (1960) Stanley Kubrick directs this epic story of a slave rebellion against Imperial Rome. Star and producer Kirk Douglas helped to break the Hollywood blacklist by hiring and publicizing Dalton Trumbo as the screenwriter for the project.

82 SUNRISE (1927) Janet Gaynor won the first Best Actress Oscar for this story of a woman whose husband falls for another woman but eventually sees the errors of his ways and returns to the fold.  Considered one of the silent era’s strongest films.

83 TITANIC (1997) An Oscar and box-office blockbuster, Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet find love aboard the most famous doomed ship in history.  Fun fact: Gloria Stuart was the oldest performer to be nominated as Best Supporting Actress (86) for her role as the aging Rose.

84 EASY RIDER  (1969) A low-budget film that turned an enormous profit by appealing to a youth market that identified with its two hippie motorcyclist anti-heroes travelling across an America that was rapidly changing.  Jack Nicholson hit it big in his supporting role.

85 A NIGHT AT THE OPERA (1935) Marx Brothers enthusiasts may rate this laugh riot as the best of their films, although AFI has DUCK SOUP at number 60. Regardless, it has all of the classic crazy elements that make anarchy seem most appealing

86 PLATOON Oliver Stone used his own Viet-Nam war experiences to show the chaos of combat and how US troops tried to contend with confusing circumstances and approaches to authority.  A Best Picture Oscar winner.

87 12 ANGRY MEN (1957) The depiction of a lone holdout juror trying to convince others to re-examine their reasons for rushing to judgment has become almost a cliché over the years.  However, an absolutely brilliant cast, headed by Henry Fonda show why this film has sustained itself over the decades.  Sidney Lumet’s movie directorial debut.

88 BRINGING UP BABY  (1938)  It’s not a real spoiler to reveal that “baby” is actually a leopard in this quintessential  example  of the “screwball comedy” genre.  Rapid-fire dialogue is a key element here with Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn playing two seemingly mismatched leads who, of course, are right for each other.

89 THE SIXTH SENSE (1999) “I see dead people” turned out to have more than one meaning in this psychological thriller.  When you go back over the story line after viewing, you see that the plot line was more intricately constructed than at first appearances.

90 SWING TIME (1936) The slight plot doesn’t really matter much when it’s Fred and Ginger dancing into our hearts.  This is actually a great example of escapist fare that was popular during the Great Depression.  Astaire and Rogers were a team that almost saved RKO Pictures from ruin by themselves.

91 SOPHIE’S CHOICE (1982) Meryl Streep gives an Oscar-winning performance as a Holocaust victim for whom survival is filled with guilt for the horrific decision she was forced to make.  From the novel by William Styron.

92  GOODFELLAS  (1980)  A Martin Scorsese effort that many critics consider his finest film.  Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci, and Ray Liotta are underworld characters who ultimately pay for their miscreant deeds.  Scorsese’s long tracking shots and oldies soundtrack are used most effectively.

93 THE FRENCH CONNECTION  (1971) Gene Hackman as cop Popeye Doyle and a breakneck car chase through the streets of New York City are the keys to this film’s lasting power.  Loosely based on a true story, the pace of the film does not let up.

94 PULP FICTION  (1994) Three interlocking stories are imaginatively wound together by Quentin Tarantino in a manner that announced his arrival as a significant writer-director with broad appeal.  The film also injects humorous moments to offset the violence that Tarantino makes as a key element in his movies.

95 THE LAST PICTURE SHOW (1971) A dying small town in Texas is the setting for this emotionally affecting depiction of its residents trying to make human connections.  Peter Bogdanovich’s  spare monochrome photography fits the story line of this movie perfectly.

96 DO THE RIGHT THING (1989) A breakthrough film for director/actor Spike Lee, a sultry summer day in Brooklyn is fraught with the unknown as racial tensions boil over.  This movie was the jumping off point for a number of performers who went on to successful careers.

97 BLADE RUNNER (1982) This challenging film takes the science-fiction genre into new places, asking philosophical questions while still being completely riveting in its action sequences.  Based on a short story by Phillip K. Dick.

98 YANKEE DOODLE DANDY  (1942) Many people didn’t realize that “tough guy” James Cagney started out as a song-and-dance man.  He shows off these skills to great advantage in the biographical role of composer/entertainer George M. Cohan.  Cagney won an Oscar as Best Actor for the role.

99 TOY STORY (1955) Pixar Studios created a new standard for animation (which led to three sequels) with Tom Hanks and Tim Allen as the lead voiceovers as action figures with lives of their own in addition to the boy who treasures them.

100  BEN-HUR  (1959)  Charlton Heston stars in this William Wyler epic of two boyhood friends who become bitter enemies as adults and face off in a spectacular chariot race in an immense Roman amphitheater.  There is a strong religious underpinning with Heston momentarily encountering Jesus Christ.

FINAL THOUGHTS:  Lists are made to create controversy and disagreements, particularly one that focuses on the twentieth century.  There will always be arguments about which films were included and, equally important, which movies were omitted. 

Additionally, societal attitudes about race, gender, and language have changed dramatically over time.  In many respects, these films can be viewed as snapshots of their respective eras showing where the US was versus where it is now.   Nevertheless, these films offer hours of enjoyment and interest.