Weekly Top Five: Dream on—the American dream on film

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California Dreamin
  • California Dreamin'
For this week's long review, Ben Sachs wrote about the new Michael Bay film, Pain & Gain, noting the way it "argues that the American dream of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness has been perverted to justify literally anything that will help you accrue privilege and material wealth and lord them over everyone else." I've yet to see the film myself, but Bay's cynical view of the American dream strikes me as curious. After all, Bay is a director whose films are direct products of the "free market" that drives the so-called American dream—talk about biting the hand that feeds.

Anyway, Sachs's review got me thinking about cinema's exploration of the American dream. It's a truly amorphous term, though I'm sure most people would categorize it as "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." Even still, one's definition of such terms as life, liberty, and happiness almost certainly differs from person to person. So I've collected the five films I think are most representative of the American dream, in all its grandeur, allusiveness, and impenetrability. Check them out after the jump.

5. El Norte (1983, dir. Gregory Nava) This ambitious drama, a key entry in American independent cinema, tells the story of an impoverished brother and sister, manual laborers who receive woefully inadequate compensation for their work. The plot kick-starts after they hightail it to California, narrowly escaping death at the hands of the Guatemalan army, who are scorching any Mayan-speaking village they encounter. Initially, their long trek north proves fruitful, but the film's subversive message illustrates the myriad forms exploitation takes, which Nava depicts most vividly in the devastating final 30 minutes.

4. Thieves' Highway (1949, dir. Jules Dassin) Another immigrant tale, this time taking the form of film noir. The film is a sympathetic account of the migrant working class, who, in the wake of WWII, saw the opportunities enjoyed by their parents dwindle considerably. In Dassin's film, a life of crime seemed almost unavoidable, a notion bolstered by the noir genre's sense of fatalism.

3. Stroszek (1977, dir. Werner Herzog) My recent list of my favorite Herzog films drove me finally watch this film, which struck me as a glaring blind spot. Having finally seen it, I don't think it will lead me to revise my list, but it seems entirely appropriate to include here. Because foreign directors posses a kind of objectivity when it comes to the United States, some of the best films about America come from other countries. Some viewers may see the film as some sort of spoof on American culture, but Herzog's inquisitive mind and thoughtful characterization keep the mood playful.

2. California Dreamin' (Endless) (2007, dir. Cristian Nemescu) Another foreign entry, this ambitious drama from the Romanian New Wave details the way Americanism often invades and assimilates other cultures. Nemescu's film is about the wealth of expectations that seemed to await Romanians (particularly young Romanians) in the wake of communism—expectations firmly rooted in the allusive fantasies and excesses of the Western lifestyle. California dreaming, indeed.

1. Hoop Dreams (1994, dir. Steve James, Frederick Marx, and Peter Gilbert) A contemporary epic, part sociocultural survey, part coming-of-age drama, and altogether essential. In no film is the hard line between success and failure more prevalent than in this masterful documentary. Jonathan Rosenbaum said it best in his review when he called the film "a heady dose of the American dream and the American nightmare combined—a numbing investigation of how one point on an exam or one basket or turnover in a game can make all the difference in a family's fortunes."

Drew Hunt writes film-related top five lists every Sunday.

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