On a battlefield, in outer space, on the frontier, at hearth and home, anywhere and everywhere, films have portrayed American self-determination and self-reliance, belief in God, religious freedom, democratic traditions, patriotism, strong families, and respect for forebears, personal bravery and loyalty, and justice and forgiveness.
questsin selected these films as the Top 50 Movies Celebrating American Values to show what’s good about our nation and our way of life.
1. "It's a Wonderful Life" (1946) — Directed by Frank Capra and starring Jimmy Stewart as the beleaguered but good-hearted George Bailey, who finds out what life would be like if he’d never been born. It has become one of America’s permanent Christmas movies. Movieguide calls it “an emotive revelation of man’s relationship to God, who answers our prayers.”
2. “High Noon” (1952) — Abandoned by his new bride (Grace Kelly) and the townspeople he swore to protect, a town marshal (Gary Cooper) musters the courage to stand alone against an outlaw and his gang hell-bent on revenge, arriving on the noon train. Cooper won a Best Acting Academy Award and was cemented in the pantheon of western heroes.
3. “Saving Private Ryan” (1998) — Following the Normandy landing, a group of American soldiers go behind enemy lines to retrieve a paratrooper whose brothers have been killed in action. It won Steven Spielberg his second Best Director Oscar, following 1993’s “Schindler's List.”
4. “Flags of Our Fathers” (2006), Directed by Clint Eastwood, this film shares the life stories of the six men who raised the flag at the Battle of Iwo Jima, a turning point in World War II, shot at the same time but released three months apart from Eastwood’s “Letters from Iwo Jima.”
5. “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” (1930) — In another Capra-Stewart collaboration, a naive man is appointed to fill a vacancy in the U.S. Senate and when his plans promptly collide with political corruption he doesn't back down. It was turned into a 1962 television series with Fess Parker – another of those rugged American individuals as Davy Crockett — and was loosely remade by Tom Laughlin as “Billy Jack Goes to Washington” 1977 for which Stewart declined the lead.
6. “To Kill a Mockingbird” (1962) — Based on Harper Lee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, Gregory Peck stars as a lawyer who defends a black field hand for a rape he did not commit and his own children against prejudice. After being nominated four times, Peck finally won the Oscar for Best Actor for his portrayal of Atticus Finch.
7. “12 Angry Men” (1957) — A jury holdout prevents a miscarriage of justice by forcing his colleagues to reconsider the evidence. The roster of jurors was a who’s who of great actors. Grittily effective in black and white, it was remade in color in 1997 with Jack Lemmon and George C. Scott.
8. “Patton” (1970) — Winner of seven Oscars and several Best Actor awards for George C. Scott in the title role, "Patton" is a glorious biopic of one of America's greatest generals during a three-year period of World War II, from 1942 to 1945. The film proved so popular that a TV sequel was made portraying Patton at the end of the war, with Scott reprising his role of Gen. George S. Patton. Scott's Patton was flamboyant, rebellious, dictatorial but well-respected by his soldiers who would got to hell and back for him. "Patton" delivered what is considered the gold standard of American soldiering for his bold, winning, take-no-prisoners approach.
9. “The Best Years of Our Lives” (1946) — During an era when Hollywood banked on epic war heroes, this piece of Golden Age cinema was the first film to turn the lens on the postwar lives of returning vets, which made it winner of seven Academy Awards and a special honorary Oscar to actor Harold Russell “for bringing hope and courage to his fellow veterans.”
10. “Field of Dreams” (1989) — An Iowa corn farmer hears voices telling him "If you build it, he will come,” which inspires him to build a baseball diamond in his fields, and with it come the 1919 Chicago White Sox and a feeling of connection with his deceased father. It was added to the National Film Registry in 2017.
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11. “The Patriot” (2000) — Starring Mel Gibson and Heath Ledger; a peaceful farmer is driven to lead the colonial militia during the American Revolution when a sadistic British officer murders his son. The movie’s tagline: “Before they were soldiers, they were family. Before they were legends, they were heroes. Before there was a nation, there was a fight for freedom.”
12. “Pride of the Yankees” (1942) — Directed by Sam Wood and starring Gary Cooper, Teresa Wright and Babe Ruth as Babe Ruth, “Pride of the Yankees” is the story of the life and career of famed baseball player Lou Gehrig. Here is the opening credits prologue: “This is the story of a hero of the peaceful paths of everyday life. It is the story of a gentle young man who, in the full flower of his great fame, was a lesson in simplicity and modesty to the youth of America. He faced death with that same valor and fortitude that has been displayed by thousands of young Americans on far-flung fields of battle. He left behind him a memory of courage and devotion that will ever be an inspiration to all men. This is the story of Lou Gehrig.”
13. “The Alamo” (1960) — Produced by and starring John Wayne, “The Alamo” is led by folklore heroes Davy Crockett and Jim Bowie and a cast of American characters steeped in virtue who surrender their lives, eyes heavenward, fighting impossible odds against invaders trying to seize their new republic of Texas. Nominated for eight Academy Awards, it is the story of ultimate patriotic sacrifice.
14. “American Sniper” (2014) — An inspirational, unflinching bio-drama of Navy SEAL Chris Kyle whose pinpoint accuracy saved countless lives on the battlefield, “American Sniper” was a crowning critical and commercial triumph for director Clint Eastwood and star Bradley Cooper, grossing a half-billion dollars and winning more than 40 awards.
15. “An American Tail” (1986) — Directed by Don Bluth and produced by Steven Spielberg, this animated musical tells the story of young Russian mouse émigré trying to survive in a new country with his family. The movie’s music and story connected with a national audience and showed that animated and fantasy motion pictures could be as powerful as any form of film.
16. “Apollo 13” (1995) — Based on the true story of the ill-fated 13th Apollo mission bound for the moon, NASA must devise a strategy to return the spacecraft to Earth safely after undergoing massive internal damage and putting the lives of the three astronauts on board in jeopardy. An all-star cast, the film was directed by Ron Howard and starred Tom Hanks, Bill Paxton, and Kevin Bacon as the three astronauts.
17. “Avalon” (1990) — A Jewish family comes to the United States to make themselves a better future in the promised land. Family entertainment Movieguide calls it “a powerful, pro-family saga … celebrating American traditions that are losing their meaning … and reflecting a time when news of a pregnancy was good news.”
18. “Cheaper by the Dozen” (1950) — Based on the real-life story of the Gilbreth family headed by renowned efficiency experts Frank and Lillian Gilbreth, this light comedy embraces the ups and downs of large families.
19. "Dances with Wolves" (1990) — An Army officer volunteers to a remote, western Civil War outpost who befriends wolves and Indians and finds himself in the American wilderness. The second Western ever to win a Best Picture Academy Award, it showed a dimension of the American spirit denied to Native Americans in most Western films and was a golden success for Kevin Costner as a director and as a director.
20. “Driving Miss Daisy” (1989) — An old Jewish woman and her African-American chauffeur in the 1950s Deep South have a relationship that grows from cantankerous to heartfelt and bridges the racial divide. It won Oscars for Best Picture, Best Actress, and Best Writing – Screenplay.
21. “Drums Along the Mohawk” (1939) — Newlyweds try to establish a farm in the upstate New York but are menaced by Tories and their Mohawk tribe allies as the Revolutionary War begins around them.
22. “Father of the Bride” (1950) — Starring Spencer Tracy, Elizabeth Taylor, and Joan Bennett, this comedy portrays a father of a young woman who deals with the emotional pain of her getting married, along with the financial and organizational trouble of arranging the wedding. Its enduring theme led to a 1991 remake with Steve Martin, Diane Keaton, and Martin Short.
23. “Forrest Gump” (1994) — Starring Tom Hanks, the presidencies of Kennedy and Johnson, Vietnam, Watergate, and other history moments unfold through the perspective of an Alabama man with an IQ of 75. It won six Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Director, and Best Writing – Screenplay.
24. “42” (2013) — This biopic portrays Jackie Robinson’s 1947 entry into Major League Baseball as the first African-American to break the sport’s color barrier when he was signed by the Brooklyn Dodgers while facing considerable racism in the process. It’s a American story of an indomitable overcoming fierce hardship.
25. “Gettysburg” (1993) — The movie’s tag line was “Same Land. Same God. Different Dreams,” which depicts the decisive 1863 battle of the American Civil War at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania between Union and Confederate forces.
26. "God's Not Dead" (2014) — Starring Kevin Sorbo, a college philosophy professor's curriculum is challenged by a new student who believes God exists, bringing the age-old debate out of the classroom and into the box office.
27. “Good Will Hunting” (1997) — Starring Robin Williams, Matt Damon, and Ben Affleck, the movie is about a janitor at MIT with a gift for mathematics but needs help from a psychologist to find direction in his life. It won Williams an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor and one for Best Writing – Screenplay for Damon and Affleck.
28. “Hacksaw Ridge” (2016) — Based on the life of WWII veteran Desmond T. Doss, actor Andrew Garfield portrays the Army medic who served during the Battle of Okinawa, refused to kill people, and became the first man in American history to receive the Medal of Honor without firing a shot.
29. “Hoosiers” (1986) — A coach with a checkered past and a local drunk train a small-town high school basketball team to become a top contender for the championship in this story about redemption and second chances.
30. “I Remember Mama” (1948) — Directed by George Stevens, “I Remember Mama” tells the story of the ups and downs of the Hansens, a Norwegian immigrant family in San Francisco, circa 1910. “Mama, Papa and the extended family are all strong influences as the Hansens face conflict, sickness, and hard times,” the Christian Spotlight on Movies said.
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31. “Jeremiah Johnson” (1972) — Robert Redford, a mountain man who wishes to live the peaceful life of a hermit, becomes the unwilling object of a long vendetta by Indians, then proves to be a match for their warriors in one-on-one combat on the early frontier. Johnson’s character reflected what was needed to perpetuate the American frontier way of life: courage, physical prowess, knowledge of the land and nature, and self-sufficiency.
32. Knute Rockne: All American (1940) — Directed by Lloyd Bacon and starring Pat O'Brien and Ronald Reagan in the story of legendary Notre Dame football player and coach Knute Rockne. It was filmed on the Notre Dame campus and is permanently associated with the Fighting Irish sports mystique. Reagan played the role of George Gipp, (The Gipper). As reviewers noted, he had only a short but great supporting role.
33. “Let There Be Light” (2017) — Kevin Sorbo stars as an atheist who has a near-death experience. Surprisingly, it ranked No. 2 in per-screen average nationwide in its debut week in movie theaters, beating out star-studded debuts by George Clooney, Tyler Perry, and Amy Schumer, per Box Office Mojo. Sean Hannity received an executive producer credit for the film.
34. “Lilies of the Field” (1963) — Sidney Poitier puts in an Oscar-winning performance as a traveling black handyman convinced by a group of German nuns transplanted to America to help them build a local church and who teaches the sisters the joys of Pentecostal Protestant worship. Poitier became the first African-American to win the Best Actor Oscar.
35. “Little Women” (1994) — Starring Susan Sarandon, Winona Ryder, and Kirsten Dunst; like the 1933 version with Katharine Hepburn and Joan Bennett, and the 1949 version with June Allyson, Peter Lawford, Margaret O'Brien, it chronicles the lives of a group of sisters growing up in post-Civil War America.
36. "Miracles from Heaven" (2016) — Based on the true story of a mother who discovers her 10-year-old daughter has a rare, incurable disease and becomes a fierce advocate for her healing that involved an extraordinary miracle that leaves medical specialists mystified, her family restored and their community inspired. It won the Movieguide best family movie award.
37. “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” (2002), Written by and starring Nia Vardalos, she plays a young Greek woman in Chicago who falls in love with a non-Greek and struggles to get her family to accept him while she comes to terms with her cultural identity. Movieguide calls it a celebration of one American woman’s ethnic heritage.
38. "Places in the Heart" (1984) — Sally Field, in an Oscar-winning performance, plays a widow with two small children who tries to run her small, 40-acre farm in central Texas in the 1930s with the help of two disparate people. The movie’s tag line was “The story of a woman fighting for her children, for her land, for the greatest dream there is — the future.”
39. “The Revenant” (2015) — A partly true story of trapper Hugh Glass beset by French-English-Indian violence and natural cruelty in the lush bounty of the upper Missouri River (which was also told in a 1966 episode of "Death Valley Days") won praise for adding dimension to the American spirit. It won Oscars for lead actor Leonardo DiCaprio and director Alejandro G. Iñárritu, and cinematography, and nominations in nine other categories, including Best Picture.
40. “Rudy” (1993) — Sean Astin plays the title role as Daniel E. “Rudy” Ruettiger in this somewhat true story of ultimate perseverance when an undersized football player dreams of nothing more that taking the field for the Notre Dame Fighting Irish.
41. “Sands of Iwo Jima” (1949) Starring John Wayne in a dramatization of the World War II Battle of Iwo Jima. In it, the famous flag-raising photo taken on Mount Suribachi on Feb. 23, 1945, is created using the actual flag raised just a few years before. The scene is depicted in two other films, “The Outsider” (1961) and “Flags of our Fathers” (2006).
42. "Sergeant York" (1941) — Based on the life of Alvin York, the movie finds a willful hillbilly sharpshooter transformed as the most decorated soldier in World War I and who, as Movieguide notes, comes to Jesus Christ and comes to terms with war.
43. “Shane” (1953) — A weary gunfighter attempts to settle down with a homesteading family, but a smoldering settler/rancher conflict forces him to act. Alan Ladd is the personification of the Western film hero as strong, silent enforcer of good versus bad, virtue versus evil, the essence of self-determination, standing alone in the face of conflict.
44. “Tucker: The Man and His Dream” (1988) — An underrated gem from Francis Ford Coppola, “Tucker” tells the story of Preston Tucker, a visionary automaker whose dreams came into conflict with others’ mediocrity, crony capitalists, and kleptocrats but whose legacy lives on in safety innovations he pioneered that changed the auto industry forever and for the better.
45. “Stagecoach” (1939) — John Wayne as Ringo Kid leads a group of people who find their stagecoach journey complicated by the threat of Geronimo and learn something about each other in the process. Though filmed in black and white, it was a visually stunning appreciation of America, as director John Ford always put his heroes in iconic landscapes and specialized in realistic imagery of the Old West.
46. “Stand and Deliver” (1988) Directed by Ramón Menéndez and starring Edward James Olmos and Lou Diamond Phillips, “Stand and Deliver” is the story of Jaime Escalante, an East L.A. high school teacher who successfully inspired his high-risk pupils to learn calculus. The tag line was, “At a tough school, someone had to take a stand — and someone did. Together, one teacher and one class proved to America they could — Stand and Deliver.” It was added to the National Film Registry in 2011.
47. "Tender Mercies" (1983) — Directed by Bruce Beresford and starring Robert Duvall in an Oscar-winning performance as a down-on-his-luck country music singer who remarries, reaches out to his long-lost daughter, and tries to put his troubled life back together.
48. “The Trip to Bountiful” (1985) — In 1940s, an elderly woman runs away to visit her childhood Texas home to see it before her health fails her. It won an Oscar for Best Actress for Geraldine Page and was remade as a TV movie in 2014 starring Cicely Tyson, Vanessa Williams, and Blair Underwood.
49. “True Grit” (1969) — After her father is killed in cold blood, a spunky 14-year-old Presbyterian farm girl Mattie Ross hires one-eyed U.S. Marshal Rooster Cogburn to track down the killer. Cogburn was genuine enough to earn John Wayne his second Oscar for Best Actor. It was remade in 2010 with Jeff Bridges as Cogburn.
50. “The Yearling” (1946) — A boy persuades his parents to allow him to adopt a young deer, but family conflict arises when the deer eats the struggling family’s crops. Those were simpler times and Peck’s Penny Baxter didn’t have all of today’s parenting advice, so he had to depend on his personal virtue and character to become what many consider the world’s best father.
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