My best 25 US movies of substance

by JuguAbraham | created - 07 Apr 2013 | updated - 03 Jun 2020 | Public

Some are famous, some are not.

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1. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

G | 149 min | Adventure, Sci-Fi

84 Metascore

After discovering a mysterious artifact buried beneath the Lunar surface, mankind sets off on a quest to find its origins with help from intelligent supercomputer H.A.L. 9000.

Director: Stanley Kubrick | Stars: Keir Dullea, Gary Lockwood, William Sylvester, Daniel Richter

Votes: 629,390 | Gross: $56.95M

The finest work of Stanley Kubrick that has withstood the test of time. It is a fine example of cinema combining visuals and music to provide a profound message. The character of the inanimate HAL appears more real today than in 1968. It is total cinema.

2. The Tree of Life (2011)

PG-13 | 139 min | Drama, Fantasy

85 Metascore

The story of a family in Waco, Texas in 1956. The eldest son witnesses the loss of innocence and struggles with his parents' conflicting teachings.

Director: Terrence Malick | Stars: Brad Pitt, Sean Penn, Jessica Chastain, Hunter McCracken

Votes: 172,048 | Gross: $13.30M

Terrence Mallick has always made films that force the viewer to think rather than spoon-feed the audience. His grammar of cinema is different, where the voice-over provide verbal clues, nature and sublime forces of grace provide visual clues, and the soundtrack musical clues to unfold a tale that each viewer can identify with, on reflection. My review:

3. Citizen Kane (1941)

PG | 119 min | Drama, Mystery

100 Metascore

Following the death of publishing tycoon Charles Foster Kane, reporters scramble to uncover the meaning of his final utterance; 'Rosebud'.

Director: Orson Welles | Stars: Orson Welles, Joseph Cotten, Dorothy Comingore, Agnes Moorehead

Votes: 422,189 | Gross: $1.59M

Orson Welles proves that he was not just a brilliant director at age 25, but a good actor and screenplay-writer. Not many individuals have achieved this feat on both sides of the camera. Every bit of the film is well thought out and filmed.

4. The Thin Red Line (1998)

R | 170 min | Drama, History, War

78 Metascore

Adaptation of James Jones' autobiographical 1962 novel, focusing on the conflict at Guadalcanal during the second World War.

Director: Terrence Malick | Stars: Jim Caviezel, Sean Penn, Nick Nolte, Kirk Acevedo

Votes: 180,083 | Gross: $36.40M

It is not a movie about why there should be no wars. It is a film about the genesis of wars and why human beings get embroiled in wars. It is replete with quotations from the Bible, the Bhagvad Gita, the Illiad, and Steinbeck’s novel Grapes of Wrath and presents an argument that individuals are less in control of nature than they think they are. Philosophy and nature are important facets of any Malick film. Won the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film festival. My review:

5. Heat (1995)

R | 170 min | Crime, Drama, Thriller

76 Metascore

A group of professional bank robbers start to feel the heat from police when they unknowingly leave a clue at their latest heist.

Director: Michael Mann | Stars: Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, Val Kilmer, Jon Voight

Votes: 605,782 | Gross: $67.44M

A film that explores the mind and the feelings of a cop and criminal, in a cat and mouse game. Beyond the thriller is Michael Mann's ability to study several relationships of several sets of spouses and friendship among criminals. The film is also one of the finest examples of a director using and editing music with fascinating camerawork. Plus two great actors at the helm.

6. Runaway Train (1985)

R | 111 min | Action, Adventure, Drama

67 Metascore

Two escaped convicts and a female railway worker find themselves trapped on a train with no brakes and nobody driving.

Director: Andrey Konchalovskiy | Stars: Jon Voight, Eric Roberts, Rebecca De Mornay, Kyle T. Heffner

Votes: 28,123 | Gross: $7.94M

Japanese director Akira Kurosawa wrote the initial script but it was the Russian director Andrei Konchalovsky who ultimately made the film in USA. With two Oscar nominated performances, the movie transcends the prison breakout genre to provide a philosophical tale about man battling a hostile universe. Includes one of the finest end-sequences in cinema. My detailed review is at

7. The Conversation (1974)

PG | 113 min | Drama, Mystery, Thriller

85 Metascore

A paranoid, secretive surveillance expert has a crisis of conscience when he suspects that the couple he is spying on will be murdered.

Director: Francis Ford Coppola | Stars: Gene Hackman, John Cazale, Allen Garfield, Frederic Forrest

Votes: 105,669 | Gross: $4.42M

A crisis of conscience for a lonely surveillance expert who is a Catholic is the subject of Francis Ford Coppola's finest work on film with a superlative performance from Gene Hackman. With an evocative end-sequence. The film won Coppola the Golden Palm at Cannes.

8. Duel (1971 TV Movie)

PG | 90 min | Action, Thriller

A business commuter is pursued and terrorized by the malevolent driver of a massive tractor-trailer.

Director: Steven Spielberg | Stars: Dennis Weaver, Jacqueline Scott, Eddie Firestone, Lou Frizzell

Votes: 67,131

A Steven Spielberg film with hardly any spoken dialog that proves the power of good camerawork,editing, and direction and keeps the viewer transfixed to the end.

9. Once Upon a Time in America (1984)

R | 229 min | Crime, Drama

75 Metascore

A former Prohibition-era Jewish gangster returns to the Lower East Side of Manhattan over thirty years later, where he once again must confront the ghosts and regrets of his old life.

Director: Sergio Leone | Stars: Robert De Niro, James Woods, Elizabeth McGovern, Treat Williams

Votes: 328,445 | Gross: $5.32M

The finest work of Italian director Sergio Leone, the director who turned down the offer to direct 'Godfather'. The film is all about the importance of money in our lives and its ripple effect on values. A film built around robust performances, screenplay, music (Ennio Morricone), camerawork and superb direction. My review:

10. Days of Heaven (1978)

PG | 94 min | Drama, Romance

93 Metascore

A hot-tempered farm laborer convinces the woman he loves to marry their rich but dying boss so that they can have a claim to his fortune.

Director: Terrence Malick | Stars: Richard Gere, Brooke Adams, Sam Shepard, Linda Manz

Votes: 55,507

One of the most beautiful movies ever made! Director Terrence Malick won the best director award at Cannes film festival and the Cuban/Spanish cinematographer Nestor Almendros a well-deserved Oscar for the superlative photography. And the music was contributed by Ennio Morricone. My review:

11. Koyaanisqatsi (1982)

Not Rated | 86 min | Documentary, Music

72 Metascore

A collection of expertly photographed phenomena with no conventional plot. The footage focuses on nature, humanity and the relationship between them.

Director: Godfrey Reggio | Stars: Ed Asner, Pat Benatar, Jerry Brown, Johnny Carson

Votes: 36,916 | Gross: $1.72M

A documentary that spawned visual ideas to a generation of advertising personnel. Director Godfrey Reggio's work with an environmental consciousness may pale in comparison to cinematographer Ron Fricke's own films made much later but Reggio needs to be credited for starting the innovative trend of mixing amazing images with the music of Philip Glass.

12. Shy People (1987)

R | 118 min | Drama

New York journalist visits her distant cousin for the first time to write an article about her hard life in the bayous of Louisiana. Journalist's wild drug addicted daughter just adds to tensions between two families' cultures.

Director: Andrey Konchalovskiy | Stars: Jill Clayburgh, Barbara Hershey, Martha Plimpton, Merritt Butrick

Votes: 1,302 | Gross: $0.77M

An absorbing study of open-minded urban US values versus close-minded rural US values from the Russian director Andrei Konchalovsky. The film won the Best Actress award for Barbara Hershey at Cannes Film Festival. Konchalovsky was cleverly mirroring the changes in Russia from tyranny to freedom, using US examples. Chris Menges' photography, the miusic of Tangerine Dream and Jill Clayburgh's performance lent additional value. My detailed review is at

13. Greed (1924)

Not Rated | 140 min | Drama, Thriller, Western

The sudden fortune won from a lottery fans such destructive greed that it ruins the lives of the three people involved.

Director: Erich von Stroheim | Stars: Gibson Gowland, Zasu Pitts, Jean Hersholt, Dale Fuller

Votes: 9,563 | Gross: $0.16M

The story is not as important as the way the film is made. My favourite scene: the marriage scene in the apartment, while the camera captures a funeral procession on the street. That one brilliant sequence captures the entire film. There are many other less prominant sequences. Birds and cats are significant in the film.

14. Limbo (I) (1999)

R | 126 min | Adventure, Drama, Thriller

68 Metascore

In an economically devastated Alaskan town, a fisherman with a troublesome past dates a woman whose young daughter does not approve of him. When he witnesses the murder of his shady brother, he, the woman and the kid run to the wilderness.

Director: John Sayles | Stars: David Strathairn, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, Vanessa Martinez, Michael Laskin

Votes: 5,967 | Gross: $2.00M

This superb work from Sayles can be considered as 'The Ox-Bow Incident' reworked with more craft and subtlety. Sayles proved he could write an original story, edit the film imaginatively and direct a group of talented actors and provide an ending to a film incomparable in American cinema--with a little help from the talented cinematographer Haskell Wexler.

15. The Kid (1921)

Passed | 68 min | Comedy, Drama, Family

The Tramp cares for an abandoned child, but events put that relationship in jeopardy.

Director: Charles Chaplin | Stars: Charles Chaplin, Edna Purviance, Jackie Coogan, Carl Miller

Votes: 120,056 | Gross: $5.45M

The best Charlie Chaplin film where the actor Chaplin was overshadowed by child star Jackie Coogan. But the film was so charming because of the direction, the editing and the music (yes, music!) of Chaplin.

16. Castle Keep (1969)

R | 107 min | Action, Comedy, Drama

During the Battle of the Bulge, an anachronistic count shelters a ragtag squad of Americans in his remote 10th Century castle hoping a battle there against the advancing Germans will not lead to its destruction and all the heritage within.

Director: Sydney Pollack | Stars: Burt Lancaster, Patrick O'Neal, Jean-Pierre Aumont, Peter Falk

Votes: 3,017

A stylistic surreal and philosophical film on war and violence that was far ahead of its time, when released. The true "heroes" of the film were its director Sidney Pollack and cinematographer Henri Decae.

17. F for Fake (1973)

PG | 89 min | Documentary

87 Metascore

A documentary about fraud and fakery.

Directors: Orson Welles, Gary Graver, Oja Kodar, François Reichenbach | Stars: Orson Welles, Oja Kodar, François Reichenbach, Elmyr de Hory

Votes: 16,087

A documentary about fraud and fakes that makes the viewer wonder if the film took the viewer for a ride. A brilliant film from a clever director that makes one wonder how movies can trick your senses without your realizing that you have been had. My review:

18. Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966)

Not Rated | 131 min | Drama

75 Metascore

A bitter, aging couple, with the help of alcohol, use their young houseguests to fuel anguish and emotional pain towards each other over the course of a distressing night.

Director: Mike Nichols | Stars: Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, George Segal, Sandy Dennis

Votes: 72,726

Who is afraid of living life without false illusions? Great performances by the Burtons, a great play by Edward Albee, a great screenplay by Ernest Lehman, a great debut in direction by Mike Nichols and fascinating b&w camerawork by Haskell Wexler. My review:

19. Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here (1969)

PG | 98 min | Drama, Western

In 1909, when young Paiute Indian Willie Boy returns to his California reservation to be with Lola, whose father disapproves of him, a killing in self defense takes place, triggering a massive man hunt for Willie.

Director: Abraham Polonsky | Stars: Robert Redford, Katharine Ross, Robert Blake, Susan Clark

Votes: 2,886 | Gross: $6.00M

A revisionist Western from the talented and once ostracized scriptwriter-director Abraham Polonsky that portrays the native Indian with empathy, well ahead of its time--with stunning photography. Robert Redford and Robert Blake play the major roles.

20. The Petrified Forest (1936)

Passed | 82 min | Crime, Drama, Romance

A waitress, a hobo and a bank robber get mixed up at a lonely diner in the desert.

Director: Archie Mayo | Stars: Leslie Howard, Humphrey Bogart, Bette Davis, Genevieve Tobin

Votes: 13,331

A rare film that discussed inequality, power, wealth and nexus between government establishments and gangsters in USA. It even provides an astute study of the behavior of blacks in USA. It touches upon the exploitation of women, blacks and artists by people in power. Amazingly well made for its time, it is relevant even today.

21. The Night of the Iguana (1964)

Approved | 125 min | Drama

A defrocked Episcopal clergyman leads a bus-load of middle-aged Baptist women on a tour of the Mexican coast and comes to terms with the failure haunting his life.

Director: John Huston | Stars: Richard Burton, Ava Gardner, Deborah Kerr, Sue Lyon

Votes: 11,294

Director John Huston adapts Tennessee Williams's play with bravura. A fine cast (including Richard Burton, Deborah Kerr, and Ava Gardner) shows how a defrocked and ruined priest can find redemption in life. The way the tale is presented on screen (thanks to Huston's screenplay) makes the film superior to the fine work of the written play.

22. Hombre (1967)

Approved | 111 min | Western

80 Metascore

John Russell, disdained by his "respectable" fellow stagecoach passengers because he was raised by Native Americans, becomes their only hope for survival when they are set upon by outlaws.

Director: Martin Ritt | Stars: Paul Newman, Fredric March, Richard Boone, Diane Cilento

Votes: 11,949

The subject and the story are commendable. A revisionist Western. Racism against the native Indians is highlighted. So are the negative traits of the white men who made money out of the subjugation of the the native Indians. Even the attitudes towards Mexicans are well etched. The film is all about values and humanism and not about killing. The opening sequence of the black stallion leading wild horses is amazing.

23. The Barefoot Contessa (1954)

Not Rated | 128 min | Crime, Drama, Mystery

This is the life of a Hollywood movie star named Maria, as told by writer/director Harry et al, from being discovered in Madrid, Spain, until her funeral in Italy.

Director: Joseph L. Mankiewicz | Stars: Humphrey Bogart, Ava Gardner, Edmond O'Brien, Marius Goring

Votes: 10,483

Truffaut was dead right. This is a superb film--structurewise and contentwise. Way ahead of its time. And Ava Gardner is stunning.

24. The Swimmer (1968)

M/PG | 95 min | Drama

A man spends a summer day swimming as many pools as he can all over a quiet suburban town.

Directors: Frank Perry, Sydney Pollack | Stars: Burt Lancaster, Janet Landgard, Janice Rule, Tony Bickley

Votes: 10,827

Social satire on the typical WASP US male, an abstract morality tale, rewinding in time, presented with intelligence, rarely encountered in Hollywood cinema My detailed review is at

25. Night Moves (1975)

R | 100 min | Crime, Drama, Mystery

82 Metascore

Los Angeles private investigator Harry Moseby is hired by a client to find her runaway teenage daughter. Moseby tracks the daughter down, only to stumble upon something much more intriguing and sinister.

Director: Arthur Penn | Stars: Gene Hackman, Jennifer Warren, Edward Binns, Harris Yulin

Votes: 13,554

More than a thriller, it is an existential statement. The director states it visually in the last shot.

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