10. To Kill A Mockingbird
Harper Lee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel came to the big screen in 1962 at a time when seismic events roiled the landscape of the Deep South. Desegregation came to the University of Alabama and the University of Mississippi in 1963, and the Civil Rights Act was signed into law a year later. The film depicts racial prejudice in a small Southern town using what has in the years since become a clichéd plot device: a minority man threatened with lynching goes on trial accused of raping a white woman. Gregory Peck took home the Academy Award for best actor for his role as Atticus Finch.
9. Dr. Strangelove
Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb was based in part on the novel Red Alert. This dark comedy from director Stanley Kubrick satirized the overarching fear gripping the American public’s consciousness in the 1950s and 1960s. Two years after the Cuban Missile Crisis, this 1964 film about an accidental nuclear attack on Russia extracted humor from the grimmest of circumstances: Kubrick lampooned the Nazis, the military, scientists and assorted prevailing political sentiments of the era. The movie was such a diametrical departure from the book the studio insisted comic actor Peter Sellers play not one, but several roles. Kubrick peopled his script with Dickensian delight: names included such spot-on monikers as Turgidson, Bat Guano and Jack D. Ripper. George C. Scott, James Earl Jones and Slim Pickens co-starred.
8. Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner
Set in San Francisco, arguably the most liberal of American cities, this 1967 drama peels away the intellectual veneer of progressive values to examine how a not-so-typical upper-class family copes when they’re asked to confront the topic of interracial marriage. Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracey starred as parents of a young woman intent on marrying an African-American doctor, played by Sidney Poitier. Hepburn won the Oscar for best actress. It’s worth noting that when the film was made, 17 states still outlawed interracial marriage, laws struck down by the United States Supreme Court in June 1967. Production wrapped slightly more than two weeks prior to Tracy’s death. The film marked the actor’s ninth pairing opposite longtime companion Hepburn.
7. The Graduate
Surely no one in 1967 could have foreseen more than $100 million in ticket sales for The Graduate, a movie starring unknown actor Dustin Hoffman. News of the day cited body counts, assassinations, race riots and campus shootings, burned draft cards and demonstrations of free love. Disillusioned young people everywhere lined up for the cinematic version of the 1963 novel of the same name. Hoffman was cast as a recent college graduate confused by his life of privilege. Complications included being seduced by the wife of his father’s business partner only to become obsessed with the partner’s daughter. Others in the cast included Anne Bancroft and Katherine Ross as Mrs. Robinson and her daughter. Here’s an interesting bit of trivia: Burt Ward, who played Robin to Adam West’s Batman in the TV series at the time, was reportedly the first choice to play Benjamin Braddock, but the network wouldn’t let him out of his series to take the role.
6. Easy Rider
Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper co-starred and helped write the script about two young counterculture enthusiasts who take a cross-country road trip from Los Angeles to New Orleans in search of adventure. Fonda produced and Hopper directed the 1969 feature that served in some ways as a cinematic microcosm representing the extreme edges of American society existing on either side of the uneasy divide created by the Vietnam conflict. Not unlike Huckleberry Finn’s raft trip down the Mississippi with Jim at his side, Easy Rider’s motorcyclists played by Fonda and Hopper encounter their own share of quirky characters at different points along the southwestern landscape as the duo heads to New Orleans. Unlike Twain’s quintessential coming-of-age tale, this slice of Americana does not end well for its protagonists, who wind up as nothing more than road kill – a senseless ending that spoke to the mood of the times: protagonists sharing an already uncertain future cut short suddenly by unexpected calamity. The film picked up Oscar nominations for its screenwriters and for supporting actor Jack Nicholson.
5. All the President’s Men
Based on the 1974 nonfiction book by Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, this screen adaptation chronicled the events leading up to and following a bungled break-in that brought down the Nixon White House in the Watergate scandal. All the President’s Men was produced by Robert Redford and starred Redford opposite Dustin Hoffman as reporters Woodward and Bernstein. The movie represents the intersecting trajectories of two separate cultural forces: distaste for unjust wars and growing unease with all aspects of government. The Alan J. Pakula-directed feature won four Oscars, including one for best supporting actor Jason Robards.
4. Apocalypse Now
The 1970s were a peculiar decade in terms of style and substance. American involvement in Vietnam came to an agonizingly slow finish and a scandal known as Watergate took down a president. A Southerner named “Jimmy” came out of nowhere to win the White House and soon thereafter pardoned a generation of young men who’d fled the country to avoid the draft. Toward decade’s end, Hollywood turned its cameras, finally and in some instances, fitfully, on Vietnam. In many ways, then, the 1970s became a decade of healing and transition, and in a two-year period, audiences took in three films dealing with that confounding conflagration in Southeast Asia. Released in February 1978, Coming Home told the story of a wounded Vietnam vet who returned to find his wife involved with another man. The movie won Oscars for stars Jon Voight and Jane Fonda, the actress who had become the most polarizing figure of the anti-war movement. In December of that year, an ensemble drama, The Deer Hunter, featured characters grappling with post-traumatic stress and individual notions of duty, honor and patriotism. The film won five Oscars, including best picture. Still, historians and critics would likely agree that a film released only months before the decade ended stands apart as embodying what Vietnam meant to a nation weary of an unpopular war. In December 1979, moviegoers flocked to theaters to see Apocalypse Now, perhaps lured by such lines as “I love the smell of napalm in the morning.” The film won two Oscars and earned more than $87 million during its initial release. Some critics consider this operatic offering superior to The Godfather and more fully representative of the cinematic talents of Francis Ford Coppola. Based in part on Joseph Conrad’s novella, Heart of Darkness, the film was beset with problems on the set, not the least of which was actor Martin Sheen’s heart attack on-location — fitting, perhaps, considering the often troubled times the picture depicts.
3. Wall Street
Long before liberal filmmaker Michael Moore first used documentaries to tweak the sensibilities of the monied and the powerful, director Oliver Stone turned his cameras on the same sort of folks in films that dealt variously with conspiracy, collusion and corruption. Many of Stone’s films were informed by his own direct experience — the Vietnam drama Platoon, for instance, is based on Stone’s own military service. One of Stone’s jobs prior to his entry into filmmaking was working for a firm on Wall Street. Six years into the Reagan administration, Stone’s film titled Wall Street depicted the relationship between a neophyte broker and an old pro whose credo “Greed is good” seemed an apt summation for the mindset characterizing the 1980s. The decade gave rise to junk bonds, insider trading scandals, the conviction of financier Michael Milken, and the savings and loan crisis, among other financial imbroglios. Among other plot points, Wall Street examines the inner workings of a high-flying firm engaging in insider trading. Michael Douglas won the best actor Oscar for his role as Gordon Gekko, the broker who spoke so glowingly of greed. Charlie Sheen played his protégé.
This 1993 film directed by Jonathan Demme became one of the first major studio projects to tackle the subject of homosexuality and AIDS after more than a decade had passed in which the disease claimed the lives of thousands of Americans, the majority of which were gay. In the early days, health officials initially labeled it as a gay cancer until heterosexuals became infected in significant numbers from, among other modes of transmission, tainted blood supplies following transfusions. Philadelphia as a title carried added meaning in that the word means “city of brotherly love.” The film was based on actual events: attorney Andrew Beckett was fired from his law firm after his superiors there learned that, not only was he gay, he had AIDS. Beckett hired an attorney, played by Denzel Washington, to take his case and sued for wrongful termination. After a protracted trial and as Beckett’s health declined rapidly, the jury found in Beckett’s favor and awarded millions of dollars in damages. Philadelphia highlighted not only the lack of government resources dedicated to the AIDS crisis but also the continued practice of discrimination against gays in the workplace, in housing and in the armed forces. Philadelphia received five Academy Award nominations and won two Oscars, best actor for Tom Hanks and best original song (The Streets of Philadelphia) for Bruce Springsteen.
1. The Social Network
Based on the nonfiction book of the same name by Ben Mezrich, this film adapted by Aaron Sorkin and helmed by director David Fincher was the odds-on favorite to win best picture when it arrived in theaters in 2010. Every major critics group lavished praise on this feature about the birth and sudden rise of the social networking site Facebook. Jesse Eisenberg portrayed iconoclastic Internet whiz Mark Zuckerberg; Justin Timberlake played Napster creator and Facebook collaborator Sean Parker. While history will not record The Social Network as the Oscar-winning picture of 2011, the fact remains historians will remember the period for the power of the Internet and social networking in changing our culture as did inventions such as the light bulb and the steam engine in previous eras. Just as flight changed the concept of time and distance separating people, the social networking phenomenon has achieved a similar result in the manner by which we communicate with each other.