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The best 4th of July movies to watch on Independence Day

Even political cynics will be stirred by these patriotic movies and paeans to American virtue. (USA! USA! USA!)

Joshua Rothkopf
Written by
Joshua Rothkopf
&
Matthew Singer
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In the United States, the Fourth of July is a day for eating barbecue, playing a game of baseball and, of course, blowing up small chunks of this great country with the finest fireworks money can buy. But when the sun goes down and your stash of M-80s has run out, it’s time to collapse on the couch with a light domestic lager and end the day with a movie. 

The question is, what qualifies as an ideal Fourth of July movie? Does it need to be expressly patriotic? Must it actually take place on the holiday in question? Can it express more complicated feelings about this place 329 million of us call home? In truth, all apply. To give you a better idea of what to watch this Independence Day, here are ten of the best to consider throwing on this July 4. 

Recommended:

🪖 The 50 best World War II movies
🇺🇸 The best Memorial Day movies
👨‍🍼 The 15 best Father’s Day movies to watch with your dad

Most patriotic movies ever

Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942)
  • Film
  • Drama

The country was still reeling from Pearl Harbor when this look at the life of George M. Cohan—arguably the most patriotic songwriter ever—provided the Stars and Stripes salve our nation needed. (That Michael Curtiz’s rah-rah film premiered less than a week after Memorial Day was far from coincidental.) It’s an aggressive, toe-tapping ode to the red, white and blue that has everything: James Cagney in full-blown hoofer mode, pro-USA sentiment as thick as hasty pudding, and musical numbers less subtle than a ticker-tape parade led by Uncle Sam. Only baseball and apple pie can be considered more American than this.

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Independence Day (1996)
  • Film
  • Science fiction

Technically, it’s about mankind declaring its independence from the aliens that have come to subjugate us, but it’s the Americans that lead the way. Bill Pullman gives a more inspirational speech than basically any real president has managed since. And if Will Smith punching an alien right in its ugly mug doesn’t make your heart swell with pride, go ahead and deport yourself to Mars now. 

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Jaws (1975)
  • Film

Sure, its main comment on America is that capitalism will kill you, but c’mon – it’s Jaws, y’all. It’s a movie about a big ass shark eating visitors to a coastal tourist town on the Fourth of July weekend. If you don’t watch it around this time every year, do you even count as a citizen?

Sergeant York (1941)
  • Film
  • Drama

A beautifully complex film about why we fight, Howard Hawks’s WWI heart-stirrer comes from the diary of Alvin York, a poor Tennessean and religious pacifist who nonetheless took up a rifle and became an ace marksman. The real-life York refused to let his life story be turned into a movie unless Gary Cooper agreed to play him; call it an uncanny bit of chutzpah. The actor was never more sensitive to the stuff of heroism than he is here.

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  • Film
  • Drama

Watergate can’t have been this exciting. But give director Alan J. Pakula credit for realizing he was making a movie, not filing a report. Check out his unkempt Woodward and Bernstein (Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman) and tight cutting, worthy of the shrewdest red-pen editor. The movie celebrates the freedom of the press, a virtue as patriotic as it gets.

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Lincoln (2012)
  • Film

He wasn’t a Founding Father, but the GOAT president doesn’t need any singing or rapping to convince folks to sit down and watch a two and a half hour movie about him - especially when he’s played by the GOAT actor (Daniel Day-Lewis), with the GOAT director at the helm (Steven Spielberg) and a screenplay from maybe the GOAT modern playwright (Tony Kushner).

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  • Film
  • Comedy

Sort of like how Stranger Things has successfully made zoomers nostalgic for the ‘80s, this cult favorite comedy about a group of baseball-obsessed preteens in the 1960s made ‘90s kids pine for an era they never actually experienced. The scene where the gang play a night game on July 4, illuminated by neighborhood fireworks, is some of the purest Americana ever caught on film.  

The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)
  • Film
  • Drama

Some films, like Saving Private Ryan, salute our troops’ sacrifice in WWII; this classic reminds us of exactly what they were fighting for. William Wyler’s Oscar-winning drama deals with psychic wounds and physical trauma, but it gives equal emphasis to what these veterans came home to: family, community, the everyday Midwestern life that others died to defend. That the movie favors domesticity and healing over battlefield victories only makes this look at the postwar American Dream that much more stirring.

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  • Film
  • Animation

Yeah, yeah, yeah, it’s a puppet-based send-up of Bush-era imperialism, and all its flag-waving, mortar-exploding, projectile-vomiting patriotism is delivered with heavy amounts of sarcasm. But after slamming a case of White Claws and enough ribs to tranquilise a giant sloth, you won’t know the difference.  

Young Mr. Lincoln (1939)
  • Film
  • Action and adventure

One of John Ford’s greatest achievements, this quiet, dignified portrait stars Henry Fonda as a shrewd Illinois lawyer hoping to make a name for himself. When Steven Spielberg made his own Lincoln, we were knocked out by Daniel Day-Lewis, but this older drama actually says more about character, integrity and ethics.

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Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)
  • Film
  • Comedy

As the years go on, Frank Capra’s dramedy about a decent man elected to the US Senate trying to do good by his constituents seems more and more like a fantasy from a bygone era. But if you want to stoke the dying embers of your belief in a functioning government where politicians stand up to corruption, there’s no better film.

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Apollo 13 (1995)
  • Film
  • Drama

Ron Howard’s most entertaining movie, about the heroic 1970 rescue of the troubled lunar mission, succeeds despite an overindulged Tom Hanks. The subtext is American ingenuity: When the proceedings focus on ground-based techies desperately spinning innovations out of nothing, it’s inspiring.

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  • Film
  • Drama

Granted, while the title alone makes it a no-brainer, this Oliver Stone-directed antiwar flick is like ‘Born in the USA’ - it’s only ‘patriotic’ if you disregard literally everything else about it. In fact, it tells a similar story to the Springsteen song: a soldier (Tom Cruise) returns home from Vietnam, now paralyzed and disillusioned by his country and the war he was sent to fight. But hey, dissent is as American as apple pie and cheap fireworks. At least, it used to be.

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  • Film

Nicholas Cage is going to steal the Declaration of Independence. OK, so the first in this sub-Indiana Jones adventure series - about a historian seeking a hidden stash of gold that once belonged to the Founding Fathers - only really uses American history as a MacGuffin. But Cage is the acting equivalent of a Roman candle, and watching him go off will have you saluting your flat screen. 

  • Film
  • Action and adventure

It’s been a long while since Americans could feel truly proud of our Commander-in-Chief, and it’s really no wonder, given that, back in the late ’90s, President Harrison Ford single-handedly beat the shit out of a bunch of terrorists who attempted to hijack his airplane. How could anyone possibly hope to live up to those standards? 

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