The United States of Film: Michigan

20 films that map the Mitten, from the Sleeping Bear Dunes to the shores of Belle Isle

Movies Lists Michigan
The United States of Film: Michigan

The onus of explaining Michigan is always on the Michigander—and, too often, explaining Michigan is a conversation every Michigander will have when, as many Michiganders find, they do what many Michiganders do: They leave Michigan. Because being a Michigander and explaining Michigan seem to go hand-in-hand with no longer living in Michigan, itself a sort of hypocrisy that Michiganders have to earn in order to embrace. In other words, many people who grow up in Michigan can’t wait to escape, though the reasons for their desire to escape are only theirs—and all other Americans who purport to have an opinion about why Michigan is not a good place to live will be summarily shut down by the former-Michigander.

After all, the theme for many films which take place in Michigan is that of escape. Be it the weather; the overtly institutionalized (and stiflingly casual) racism; the ever-present, looming threat of a decay from which no soul could ever return; the political corruption deeply ingrained into every single level of government; the bitter sense of martyrdom in its beleaguered citizens, insisting that the rest of the world owes them—growing up a Michigander requires inculcating these existential dilemmas, or fleeing them as soon as you can. The state motto is more of a plea than a boast: “If you seek a pleasant peninsula, look about you.” It’s as if the state’s founders intuited years to come in which so many citizens would look elsewhere for their pleasant peninsulas. And who seeks pleasant peninsulas, anyway?

That Michigan is so much more than the mitten-shaped state which stole its Upper Peninsula from Wisconsin and is home to the murder capital of the U.S. can often come as a shock to those who have no conception of the state otherwise. It’s called the Great Lakes State for a reason: Michigan can be an unrelentingly lovely place, wild and isolated the farther one ventures into the middle of the state and north towards Canada. That proximity—the oppression of hyper-urban infrastructure encroaching upon unfettered nature—allows for so many filmmakers to investigate the boundaries between such different realities. Black and white; rich and poor; historical success and historic failure: To have a life in Michigan is to forever cross one line after another.

And so there is no 8 Mile on this list, because that film sets up a real road as a fictional barrier, dumbing down very real racial tension by making it about a very fake white kid overcoming his stage fright. There is no Gran Torino here either: Clint Eastwood famously insisted on shooting the script as it was originally written, changing only the location from Minneapolis to Detroit, thereby neutering all essential Michigan-ness. There is also no The Betsy if we’re going to start cutting deeper, because the campy take on the auto industry feels like a lifetime away from the economic matters that affected so many Michiganders, nor is Jeff Daniels’ Escanaba in da Moonlight making an appearance—because it kind of ends up functionally taunting Yoopers more than giving them individual voices, even though Daniels is a beloved Michigander in his own right.

Instead, the following 20 films are the best cinematic tours into the sometimes annoyingly exclusive world of Wolverine Country. Pop open a Faygo cola, prepare to hear the flattest, most nasal accents in the entire United States, and leave behind everything you thought you knew about Detroit (that you only learned in a Time photo spread showcasing distressingly dilapidated historic buildings). If you seek a pleasant peninsula, you could do a lot worse than this one.

20. American Pie
Year: 1999
Directors: Paul Weitz, Chris Weitz


Whether you take this raunchy bildungsroman as a stalwart—one that prepped the cinematic landscape for a more commercially acceptable brand of teen-sex comedy—or as a putrid footnote that, despite its many sequels and full-blown murder of Eugene Levy’s career, absolutely does not hold up, American Pie is a surprisingly quintessential Michigan movie. Its whole premise centers around the kind of white-people middle-class malaise that makes losing one’s virginity in high school a top priority—even though you’ll see all the same people in college in a few months when everyone in your graduating class capitalizes on that in-state tuition. In this contradictory imperative, American Pie nails that particularly Michigan Midwest-ian experience: As we join Jim (Jason Biggs) and his cohort as they navigate the hormonal pressures of young adulthood and, more explicitly, whether or not to stick one’s genitals into baked goods, we sense both the need to escape—to leave Michigan and parents behind, to forge one’s identity outside of the state—and the inevitability of knowing you’ll probably end up going to the University of Michigan, Michigan State, or Western Michigan with a bunch of your friends anyway.

19. Somewhere in Time
Year: 1980
Director: Jeannot Szwarc


Though it’s apparently set outside of Chicago somewhere, Somewhere in Time is all Michigan’s. Filmed on Mackinac Island, a teensy piece of idyllic land, only about four square miles, between Michigan’s Upper and Lower peninsulas, the film is a romantic testament to the kind of gorgeousness Michigan’s got tucked far away from its festering urban corners. Set within the opulence of Mackinac’s historic Grand Hotel, Somewhere in Time follows Richard Collier (Christopher Reeve), an impossibly handsome playwright who, upon falling in love with the photograph of a mysterious actress (Jane Seymour, also incomprehensibly attractive) who had a residency at the hotel in the early 1900s, travels through time to meet her. In case you’re wondering how Richard achieves the impossible: He hypnotizes himself so well that his mind believes he’s time-travelled, at which point he…actually time travels? Regardless, having made the trip 60 years into the past, Richard is able to win over the actress’s heart by basically following her around like a lobotomized creep until she agrees to go on a date with him. But the real pleasure of the film—besides the masochistic ending, which is basically like Interstellar but if Matthew McConaughey died in the inky depths of space instead of reuniting with his grandma daughter—is in its sumptuous shots of Mackinac, revealing much of Michigan as an endless coastline of possibility.

18. Action Jackson
Year: 1988
Director Craig R. Baxley


According to Carl Weathers, he gave conceptual birth to the character of Jericho “Action” Jackson while shooting Predator, inspired by a conversation he had with producer Joel Silver about their love for Blaxploitation films. In that sense, Action Jackson is sort of the essence of exploitation filmmaking infused with Hollywood pizazz, a feat that’s not so much an accomplishment as it is a curio. In it, Sergeant Jackson (Weathers), a pristinely-muscled hunk of beautiful, morally upright man meat, is two years post-demotion from Lieutenant in the Detroit Police Department, having gone a little too far with his idealistic vigilante justice, earning the distaste of billionaire car industry executive Peter Dellaplane (Craig T. Nelson—known to much of the world as Coach) in the process. Among a surprisingly huge coterie of characters, Sharon Stone shows up as Dellaplane’s believably frazzled wife, while excellent character actor Bill Duke plays Jackson’s superior, the Pynchon-ly named Captain Earl Armbruster, with a steely resignation.

As any exploitation film’s hero’s often wont to do, Jackson doesn’t let his pencil-pushing duties get in the way of a good hunch, and so—following the murder of a friend caught up in Dellaplane’s scheme to undermine the power of the City’s largest auto workers’ union—Jackson punches, wisecracks, dances, and even flying-somersaults his way through Detroit, aiming for one last battle with Craig T. Nelson. So, yes, this movie is worth watching if only for witnessing Craig T. Nelson perform some impressive high kicks (also: my god, man, your eyebrows are inimitably on fleek), but its odd hybridization of ’80s gloss and exploitation shamelessness offers a refreshing take on the Detroit popularized during the decade. Far from the hopeless desolation of Blue Collar or the plain-ole-dirty charm of Beverly Hills Cop, Craig Baxley’s Detroit is bustling—filled with vivacious characters and overcrowded commercial districts. None of it is clean per se, but it isn’t the post-apocalyptic desert so many other movies insist on making it to fuel their ruin porn fantasties. Plus, tune in for a subperbly cheesy soundtrack from an undoubtedly coked-out Herbie Hancock.

17. The Crow
Year: 1994
Director: Alex Proyas


Though Detroit is never mentioned once—at one point a dedicated freeze-framer could even catch a glimpse of the escutcheon on a police cruiser, which is not that of the DPD—The Crow begins on “Devil’s Night,” the night before Halloween, a term which primarily derives from over a decade’s worth of annual vandalism and arson on that evening in Detroit. Other clues lend Alex Proyas’s gothic cult classic a place within the Motor City, but the cityscape in which Brandon Lee’s Eric Dravin flits from rooftop to rooftop, makeup supernaturally intact—sidenote: though his apartment was totally destroyed by the same hoodlums who threw him through a window and left his girlfriend for dead, they never once touched his makeup table and selection of rock star ghost-foundation and black lipstick—is hilariously bleak, a sort of Hot-Topic-toned cousin to something from Hermann Warm’s wettest of dreams. That it also happens to be a phantasmagoric shadow of Detroit says so much about the city in even the most emo corners of our collective cultural consciousness: Here be monsters.

16. Blue Denim
Year: 1959
Director Philip Dunne


Still not widely available for most home consumption due to battling decades of Fundamentalism and supposed “controversy,” Blue Denim is a relatively sedate tale of two high school innocents in Dearborn, Michigan who, after indulging their carnal appetites, catch a glimpse of the grotesque world of illegal abortions. Originally a successful, if “shocking,” Broadway play by James Leo Herlihy, Blue Denim’s film version tempered the play’s bleaker ending and removed the word “abortion” altogether—but even then it met such indignation amongst religious groups and production codes alike that it wallowed in obscurity. Still, in director Philip Dunne’s hands, the film’s story nimbly portrays the Metro Detroit of the 1950s as a place where a nascent middle class—rife with auto industry money, building a suburban utopia apart from the grimy inner-city—did all they could to stay naïve of the darker side of any economically booming center. As our young couple, Arthur (Brandon deWilde) and Janet (Carol Lynley), try to seek help from their parents, only to find people unwilling to entertain the truth of what’s happening under their noses, the two come to the realization that the idealistic haven of their youth has been little more than an illusion.

15. Detropia
Year: 2012
Directors: Heidi Ewing, Rachel Grady


Detropia paints a modern likeness of the City of Detroit as the United States’ greatest failure, and perhaps its most representative example of the untenable nature of the so-called American Dream. But the film is rarely as big as it’d like to be. Though there’s something there to dissect about the dissolution of the middle class—how that doesn’t really mean much of anything anymore—directors Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady can’t seem to get past a melancholic tone and make a serious case about American exceptionalism dooming the rest of the country in the same way. As such, the documentary treads water miserably, offering no real institutional solutions—or even ideas—as part of its insider’s look at City government. And yet, basic facts are brutal: How in 1955, 1.86 million people lived in the city, but by the time the film was made, there were less than 800,000 people; how there are currently 40 square miles of vacant land within city limits. Detroit is simply too big, and the film struggles underneath that weight. Ewing is from Detroit suburb Farmington Hills, and as someone who also grew up in the area, I recognize sincerity and possessiveness in the way the film chronicles the city’s current plight. Which is maybe why, despite all of the despair and slow-burning nightmares and wreckage it portrays, Detropia ends on a hopeful beat, more of a lullaby than a soundless death throe. It’s quite beautiful.

14. Detroit 9000
Year: 1973
Director Arthur Marks


By all accounts the first exploitation film set in the undeniably exploitation-ready city of Detroit, Detroit 9000 (later renamed Police Call 9000 for no discernible reason) isn’t so much a well-plotted crime thriller as it is a circuitous tour of a major city bound to bust its seams. Billed as a violent cop drama set in “the murder capital of the world” (oof), the film—which went on to achieve cult status care of Quentin Tarantino’s boutique distribution imprint, Rolling Thunder—begins with a heist during a prominent black politician’s campaign fundraiser for Michigan governorship, a crime which eventually reveals layer upon layer of corruption in every facet of Detroit urban life. Two detectives, one white (Alex Rocco) and one black (Hari Rhodes), are paired to take on the high-profile case, their obvious racial tension only heightened by the fact that, with experience in such a police department, mistrust comes as second nature. As with any good piece of exploitation cinema, the duo navigates a panorama of crude and quirky characters alike—including the hooker with a heart of gold, the lascivious politician’s aid with more on his mind than winning, and the institutionalized omni-racist—but the film’s truest account of Detroit is one of malevolence, of corruption permeating every membrane, or dismembered bodies surfacing in the Detroit River. (Which, true story: my brother works for the Coast Guard in Detroit, and he’s seen the exact same tidings of unmitigated evil floating in the wake of his boat on the river.) Who knew that barely two years after he was born, a film would so easily predict how thoroughly a leader like Kwame Kilpatrick would exploit a broken political system in a broken city to dismantle both even further?

13. Zebrahead
Year: 1992
Director: Anthony Drazan


What you think will happen in Anthony Drazan’s Zebrahead is what does happen—but whatever does happen is done with so much subtle grace, so much warmth for its characters, so much care for what Detroit could be, that any predictability quickly and quietly gives way to a vital pulse, one stippling beneath the more obvious watercolor of Detroit’s dire racial divide. While Curtis Hanson set up 8 Mile as the irrefutable border (it’s not) between two races, two cultures and two ways of being, in the end giving credit to the white guy (Eminem) for breaking down those borders by proving that he’s just as good at rapping as black people, Zebrahead admits that there are miles and miles of gray between the black and the white. The story of a Jewish, tow-headed, “Bart-Simpson-looking-motherfucker” with a penchant for hip-hop production (a baby-faced Michael Rappaport) who falls for the cousin (N’Bushe Wright) of his best friend (Deshonn Castle), Zebrahead offers no answers and no saviors for the problem at the core of the young couple’s courtship: He is black and she is white. And when violence inevitably erupts because of their pairing, no one but the two of them step up to blame the tragedy on anything but the belief that they left their individual “tribes” for taboo. Nearly 25 years later, Detroit is arguably more divided than ever—and it’ll take so much more than a plucky white kid crossing a street to bridge that gap.

12. Beverly Hills Cop
Year: 1984
Director Martin Brest


Most of Beverly Hills Cop is spent so obviously far away from Detroit—duh—that it’s hard to believe that, in Martin Brest’s head, the city is anything more than a dank cesspool where the last remaining good guys—the police, mostly—have to operate so far out of the book that they’re an increasingly hopeless breed. And so, once Axel Foley’s (Eddie Murphy) low-life friend is murdered, setting the brisk plot into motion, the film flees with the Detroit cop to Beverly Hills—duh—where Foley meets up with a childhood friend, a fellow Michigan ex-pat (Lisa Eilbacher). As a person who ran away from the Detroit area at a young age, I recognize the weirdly escapist undercurrents in Axel’s pilgrimage. I saw it in many people I grew up with, people who felt like Michigan’s, and especially Detroit’s, ills were too big, too unwieldy, to be all that one life should know. And yet, Axel is a good cop because he’s a Detroit cop, his Michigan-ness making him special. So, he knows he has to return to Detroit once business is settled, even though he knows he’d have a much easier life in California. Those of us who’ve stayed gone, we still, every once in a while, feel the need to go back, wrestling with an obligation to see such an obligation through.

11. Grosse Pointe Blank
Year: 1997
Director George Armitage


In the role that probably set the foundation for High Fidelity’s Rob, John Cusack plays Martin Q. Blank as a vaguely charming, vaguely confident, vaguely organic hitman—the kind of guy one would never suspect is good at killing people for a living. Except: Blank is from the vaguely wealthy Detroit suburb of Grosse Pointe, which means that he’s one of many formless Michigander schlubs who go one to do things no one has ever expected of them. Before the 2008 Recession, Oakland County, one of Detroit’s surrounding counties, a very popular member of the Metro Detroit family, was among the absolute richest counties in the country. Like Orange County rich. And still no one seems to really remember that—back in even 1997, when the car companies were slaying, no one expected much from a Michigander. Grosse Pointe Blank epitomizes that befuddling state-wide middle child complex in John Cusack’s thoroughly, anxiously casual performance.

10. Hoffa
Year: 1992
Director Danny DeVito


To call Hoffa a biopic is maybe too on-the-nose, though the title might have most thinking otherwise. Instead, Danny DeVito uses the name to represent a massive social movement, an attitude, a conflagration: Very little is shown of Jimmy Hoffa’s (Jack Nicholson) family, or of his childhood, or even of his undoubtedly complicated internal life. Instead, David Mamet’s script shears all dramatic frills from the Teamster President’s rise to power, building his background as an act of myth-making, letting Nicholson’s frightening charm imbue the historic character with enough confidence and grit to make the fact that Hoffa came to be an inhuman figurehead a believable conclusion to a life’s work. With that, Hoffa is a masterclass in tone and narrative economy, translating an impossibly complex series of backroom dealings and class politics into the fairy tales that now inhabit the gray areas of Detroit legend. It almost doesn’t matter that Mamet frames his script with a Passion-esque prediction of what actually did happen to Jimmy Hoffa’s body—today Detroiters are still looking, long after everyone else stopped caring if he’d ever be found.

9. True Romance
Year: 1993
Director: Tony Scott


True Romance is, as one should expect from an early glimpse of Quentin Tarantino’s brilliance, a total mess, but in its flagrant frappe-ing of genre and tone, it attains possibly the most refreshing view of Detroit ever put on film. Like in practically every movie set there, brand-new lovers Clarence (Christian Slater) and Alabama (Patricia Arquette) ditch the Motor City halfway through—and Clarence definitely gives the typical “all I ever wanted to do was get out of Detroit” speech—leaving a few brutally murdered bodies in their wake.

But their departure feels less like an escape, and more like a rite of passage. Alabama opens the film in voice-over, speaking in near-iambic-pentameter—practically improvising a sonnet—about how she found a once-in-a-lifetime love in the last place she thought she ever would: the shit-stained corner of the mitten state. Couple this with Tony Scott’s loving aerials of Detroit, scored care of Hans Zimmer channeling Steve Reich at his most buoyant, and a film which begins with shots of a dark city wreathed in grime, dotted by the temporary encampments of the forever-cold homeless, somehow becomes a testament to the endless possibilities of those who open themselves up to what the city can offer. It’s such a deftly handled, surprising introduction to a city often robbed of any romantic tidings on film that one can sort of overlook how True Romance, like Tony Scott’s The Last Boyscout (1991), is pretty rife with the kind of gay panic that seemed OK to mainstream audiences in the early ’90s.

8. Only Lovers Left Alive
Year: 2013
Director: Jim Jarmusch


An hour into Only Lovers Left Alive, and vampire—though that word is never once uttered—Adam (Tom Hiddleston) is taking his wife, also-vampire Eve (Tilda Swinton), on a crepuscular tour of Detroit—showing her the hollowed-out Packard Plant, the once-achingly-opulent mansions now literally collapsing on themselves, the home where Jack White grew up. “Oh, I love Jack White!”, Eve responds, not a hint of hesitation or pretention in her voice; the house, a Victorian brownstone of which Detroit once boasted so many, sits alone, neck-high weeds taking up residence where finely-mown lawns used to be. The city in which these two undead monsters thrill in the history of a humanity which shuns them is itself a vampiric wasteland, a vast twilight of ambition and privilege and promise reduced to the stifling of animalistic urges—still beautiful, but struggling to be more than just an echo of something once so much more vital. That Jarmusch chose to have his lovely creatures inhabit the shadows of Detroit’s endless night is a stroke of genius: It’s inhabited best by those most disengaged from it—by those impervious to the deep corporeal pain it causes.

7. Roger & Me
Year: 1989
Director Michael Moore


Self-aggrandizing provocateur and proud Michigander Michael Moore made a name for himself with this doc, in which he tours his hometown of Flint in the wake of GM’s closure of local automobile factories. As the company outsources labor to Mexico, crippling Flint’s workforce, infrastructure and collective psyche, Moore totes his camera around in search of then CEO and president Roger B. Smith to get answers and, you know, be Michael doing Michael. He poses as a TV reporter to get the word on the (crime-ridden) streets, and then a shareholder to crash a GM convention. His lens encounters a who’s who of visiting conservative personalities (Pat Boone, televangelist Robert Schuller, Ronald Reagan), along with outraged blue collar citizens. It’s a pointed (if highly manipulative) commentary on class and capitalism—and gonzo demagogue Moore at his most tolerable. —Amanda Schurr

6. Out of Sight
Year: 1998
Director: Steven Soderbergh


As through Jim Jarmusch’s eyes in Only Lovers Left Alive, Detroit via Steven Soderbergh is a metropolis equal parts romance and history, both a place where people can escape their typical lives for a time and a place that people want to escape to leave behind the suffocating weight of centuries of human industry. Though he photographs the city in the cobalt blues of cold temperatures and the biting grays of colorless winter, Soderbergh seems to revel in the weird sprawl of Metro Detroit, fascinated by how the violence of boxing matches at the State Theater can so quickly—as if it were only a matter of changing a green screen—lapse into the wealthy compounds of Bloomfield Hills or the crystalline hotel rooms of the Renaissance Center, where you can eat a $25 burger listening to gun shots in the street below. Out of Sight is by far the best Elmore Leonard adaptation, the only one to truly embrace Leonard’s hometown as a place far more magical—far more dangerous and upsetting and beautiful and enchanting—than any director has ever admitted before.

5. Blue Collar
Year: 1978
Director Paul Schrader


Much like Detroit, Paul Schrader’s had a pretty rough past couple of years. The native Michigander can’t seem to get a good movie made to save his life anymore, still stinging from the weird debacle of The Canyons and getting the final cut of The Dying of the Light ripped from his hands—but back in 1978, Schrader was a wunderkind. Having written genre-defining scripts for Sydney Pollack, Brian DePalma and Martin Scorsese, he was given the chance to direct Blue Collar, which he wrote with his brother Leonard. A dour and pessimistic film about three friends (Yaphet Kotto, Harvey Keitel and Richard Pryor) who work the assembly line in a major Detroit auto plant, battling poverty as much as they tussle with corruption in both their management and auto workers’ union, Blue Collar is as notable for Pryor’s swaggeringly melancholic performance as it is for behind-the-scenes anecdotes. Filming in Kalamazoo and throughout the Detroit area—at the Checker plant; on the bridge to Belle Isle; at the Ford River Rouge plant—the three leads and director could barely stand each other, eventually leading, Schrader claimed, to a mental breakdown in the midst of principal photography. (It’s been said, too, that a drug-fueled, gun-toting Pryor threatened Schrader one day on set.) Though Schrader’s time filming with such volatile actors set the tenor for his career to come, Blue Collar is an often overlooked treasure of grit and tension, plying the racial and socio-economic issues of a waning late-’70s Detroit to figure out just how broken the City was. Thirty years later, and not much has been fixed.

4. It Follows
Year: 2015
Director David Robert Mitchell


The specter of Old Detroit haunts It Follows. In a dilapidating ice cream stand on 12 Mile, in the ’60s-style ranch homes of Ferndale or Berkley, in a game of Parcheesi played by pale teenagers with nasally, nothing accents—if you’ve never been, you’d never recognize the stale, gray nostalgia creeping into every corner of David Robert Mitchell’s terrifying film, but it’s there, and it feels like Metro Detroit.

In fact, only tangentially in It Follows is Detroit named; the closest our characters come to describing the urban sprawl of the Great Lakes State is in the ubiquitous claim of one teenager (Olivia Luccardi) that her parents never let her go past 8 Mile, lest she find her ruin amidst the detritus of urban decay. It’s a story every teenager who grew up in SE Michigan has told: how, in the late ’90s, the suburbs of Detroit (Oakland County in particular) contained some of the richest families in the country—rife with big car money—yet they lived only streets away from some of the poorest neighborhoods in the country. You want to see Rilo Kiley at the Shelter? You best lie to your parents about where you’re spending your evening and prepare for one of your friends to cower in the backseat of your Aerostar minivan, mumbling about the danger upon which you are all about to embark. Which isn’t necessarily unique to Michigan’s largest city, that kind of closeness of different economic situations. But it’s the starkness of its disparity that seems almost macabre—and so kind of perfect for Mitchell’s beautifully sad horror flick.

3. The Virgin Suicides
Year: 1999
Director Sofia Coppola


Set in the affluent Detroit suburb of Grosse Pointe (see #11), The Virgin Suicides is yet another Detroit-area, ’70s-era film obsessed with death. That its quintet of young protagonists—sisters played to unnervingly angelic perfection by Kirsten Dunst, A.J. Cook, Hanna Hall, Leslie Hayman and Chelse Swain—all commit suicide in the end is far from a surprise, of course: What is a surprise is that we never know why.

In fact, the film is almost an oneiric procedural, in which the neighborhood boys who become infatuated with the strange daughters pick apart, piece by piece, detail by detail, the befuddling lives behind the objects of their affection. As such, The Virgin Suicides gracefully attempts to remember what it’s like to be a suburban teenager, comfortable in Middle America but uncomfortable with one’s body. Yet, the brilliance of Sofia Coppola’s direction (on even her first film) is in the way she laces such a seemingly innocent story with malice and melancholy, fixating on details that don’t matter or moments that have no consequence. That the narrator (Giovanni Ribisi) refers throughout to the decaying of the auto industry in Detroit makes the film as much a ghost story about Southwest Michigan as it is a tale of unrequited love: Try as hard as we might, we’ll probably never be able to trace the tragedy of Detroit back to its source.

2. Anatomy of a Murder
Year: 1959
Director Otto Preminger


The rigor of Anatomy of a Murder is its most poignant strength, celebrated upon its release for its meticulous dramatization of a particularly difficult case, awash from beginning to end in sweat-stained, legal grayscale. But what drives the heart of the film—a measured masterpiece that, like so many features before its time, found insulting controversy over its “language”—is its setting, snug and warmly secluded in the non-descript middle of nowhere of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. There, lawyer Paul Biegler (James Stewart), well on his way to early retirement after losing his District Attorney re-election bid, takes the case of Lt. Frederick Manion (Ben Gazzara) on behalf of the lieutenant’s oddball, flirty wife Laura (Lee Remick). Lt. Manion admits to having killed a local innkeeper after finding out the proprietor raped his wife, looking for Biegler’s help in successfully entering a plea of temporary insanity. The case, what with all its complexity, draws the attention of a high-profile prosecutor from Lansing (Michigan’s comparatively “big city” capital), played with pristine uppity-ness by George C. Scott. Biegler effortlessly matches wits with his metropolitan peers, spinning a yarn as old as time about the price his opponents must pay for such class-based arrogance, but Anatomy of a Murder is surprisingly subversive in its depiction of such supposed UP yokels, offering a cast of deeply felt characters who act more compassionately to an alleged victim of sexual assault than most FOX News commenters would 60 years later.

1. Robocop
Year: 1987
Director Paul Verhoeven


As many of the films on this list will attest, throughout the late-’70s and indulgent 1980s, “industry” went pejorative and Corporate America bleached white all but the most functional of blue collars. Broadly speaking, of course: manufacturing was booming, but the homegrown “Big Three” automobile companies in Detroit—facing astronomical gas prices via the growth of OPEC, as well as increasing foreign competition and the decentralization of their labor force—resorted to drastic cost-cutting measures, investing in automation (which of course put thousands of people out of work, closing a number of plants) and moving facilities to “low-wage” countries (further decimating all hope for a secure assembly line job in the area). The impact of such a massive tectonic shift in the very foundation of the auto industry pushed aftershocks felt, of course, throughout the Rust Belt and the Midwest—but for Detroit, whose essence seemed composed almost wholly of exhaust fumes, the change left the city in an ever-present state of decay.

And so, though it was filmed in Pittsburgh and around Texas, Detroit is the only logical city for a Robocop to inhabit. A practically peerless, putrid, brash concoction of social consciousness, ultra-violence and existential curiosity, Paul Verhoeven’s first Hollywood feature made its tenor clear: A new industrial revolution must take place not within the ranks of the unions or inside board rooms, but within the self. By 1987, much of the city was already in complete disarray, the closing of Michigan Central Station—and the admission that Detroit was no longer a vital hub of commerce—barely a year away, but its role as poster child for the Downfall of Western Civilization had yet to gain any real traction. Verhoeven screamed this notion alive: He made Detroit’s decay tactile, visceral and immeasurably loud, limning it in ideas about the limits of human identity and the hilarity of consumer culture. As Verhoeven passed a Christ-like cyborg—a true melding of man and savior—through the crumbling post-apocalyptic fringes of a part of the world that once held so much prosperity and hope, he wasn’t pointing to the hellscape of future Detroit as the battlefield over which the working class will fight against the greedy 1%, but instead to Robocop, to Murphy, as the battlefield unto himself. How can any of us save a place like Detroit? In Robocop, it’s a deeply personal matter.

Dom Sinacola is Assistant Movies Editor at Paste and a Portland-based writer. Since he grew up in the Detroit area, it is required by law that his favorite movie is Robocop. You can follow him on Twitter.

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