I doubt I need to sell anyone on the merits of John Ford—at least I hope I don't need to—so let's just move on to my five favorite Ford films, after the jump.
5. The Grapes of Wrath (1940) John Steinbeck's great American novel, directed by the great American filmmaker. Fitting, no? It's one of Ford's most accessible films, but it's also deeply personal, displaying his interest in communities as well as his leftist politics. Visually, the film is rich with texture and variety, aided by Gregg Toland's ace cinematography and a curious mix of studio sets and location shooting.
4. Fort Apache (1948) A true turning point for Ford, whose attitude toward such subjects as leadership and Americanism were starting to shift following WW II. The film represents Ford's conspicuous deconstruction of the iconography associated with the western, and also reasserts the ways he depicted Native Americans on screen. It's a hugely important, transitional work for Ford, and, by extension, for American cinema.
3. The Quiet Man (1946) Aside from the excellent How Green Was My Valley?, Ford was never as sentimental or idealistic as in this romantic drama set in Ireland, a drastic departure from his desert-set westerns. The opening scene, in which John Wayne and Maureen O'Hara first lay eyes on each other, is one of the most beautiful and shamelessly poetic moments Ford ever filmed.
2. Gideon's Day (1958) One of Ford's most undervalued films, a police procedural that aspires to realism yet does so in a way that seems to undermine any sense of "real" at every turn. Set over the course of a single day, it tells the story of a Scotland Yard inspector whose neglect of his family plays into his obsessive pursuit of evildoers. Between its serious treatment of criminal behavior and curious flourishes of deadpan humor, the film is tonally skewed, but there's a precision in the characterization that's pure Ford.
1. Wagon Master (1950) In his review, Dave Kehr calls this film "a masterpiece beyond question," but makes a point of noting that it's "a masterpiece that never degenerates into pomposity or self-consciousness." Indeed, this is a modestly scoped but thematically ambitious work, detailing the ways communities form, function, prosper, and, in some cases, deteriorate. It presents nothing less than a microcosm of American life, yet doesn't lose its appeal as an easygoing, highly entertaining western. Only Ford could toe a line so slippery.
Honorable mentions: The rest of his films, more or less. Of those I've seen (which certainly isn't everything), I can't think of a single Ford film I don't actively enjoy, let alone dislike. But I find I most often return to The Searchers (1956), Young Mr. Lincoln (1939), Cheyenne Autumn (1964), and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949).