In 2007, the American Film Institute revised their previous 1998 list of the 100 best American films of all time. This weekly column will explore my thoughts on select films from this list, mostly following along with the Unspooled Podcast, which inspired my journey to complete the AFI Top 100. You can also follow my progress with my ranking and watchlist. This week’s film is Easy Rider (1969), #84 on the list.
Easy Rider serves both as a capsule of America going through a massive cultural shift in the late 60s and as a broader representation of America’s ever-present hypocrisy: we boast of the value of freedom, while simultaneously rejecting the versions that aren’t familiar to our narrow perspective. But Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda didn’t have such grandiose ambitions in mind when they set out to make this mostly improvised road drama, and that’s what makes Easy Rider really work. By taking a fast and loose approach to the writing and filmmaking, they craft an adventure unburdened narrative constraints—one that, much like 2001: A Space Odyssey from the year prior, plays like experimental film poetry, pushing the boundaries of what film can accomplish, albeit on a much smaller scale. Easy Rider shows the American landscape for what it is: beautiful and exciting, but simultaneously harsh and unforgiving.
Does It Belong on the List?
Though there are plenty of films from the 1960s on the list, the decade itself feels underrepresented, especially since most of the films are period pieces. The other two films on the list that feels steeped in that era are Midnight Cowboy, which I don’t care for at all, and The Graduate, which I love, but Easy Rider offers a more powerful commentary on American culture than either of those films. Strangely, its message feels just as relevant today as it did 50 years ago. It definitely belongs on the list.