Cinema of North America

Explore the very best movies from North America, based on a selection of over 9,100 films.

Join us in shifting the world’s focus on American cinema back to the many other equally rich, yet underappreciated film industries around the world. In this article series, we highlight several hidden gems produced within a certain geographical region, one film per country, from the riches of Europe to the remote island nations of Polynesia.

As a bonus, we will make a donation to the welfare of wild cats, and the preservation of their habitats, for every film purchased through this site.

Table of Contents

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Canada MexicoUnited States of America

The History of North American Cinema

The output of the American film industry reaches almost every corner of the globe. While most film production companies started business in New York, close to the theatrical spectacles of Broadway, many movie makers moved west in the early 1910s. Director D. W. Griffith’s In Old California (1910) was the first film shot in Hollywood, then a small village north of Los Angeles. Financial benefits and the promise of excellent weather conditions year-round eventually led to the migration of the American film industry. Both Canadian and Mexican actors and filmmakers came to Hollywood to make their name, and back in their home countries, film production started to thrive as well.

With Spain and most of Latin America controlled by fascist governments, local film production struggled to take off during the first half of the 20th century. Meanwhile, the Mexican film industry flourished. The country had a wide network of distribution for its cinematic output and became a major player in the South American market.

North American Cinema (Casablanca)
(Credit: Casablanca, U.S.A.)

After World War II, American films flooded the European markets. Impoverished by the war, most of the European nations had no resources to restart local film productions and up until today, Hollywood dominates Western European cinemas. Down South, Mexico is still equally strong, producing films for the entire Latin American market. Canada, meanwhile, found a strong niche in producing high-quality local films, with an international appeal.

The Best Films from North America

Live the American dream through the cinematic output of the United States of America, bask in the beauty of the northern lights in Canada, and explore the uniqueness of French Quebec, before moving south towards Latin America, where Mexico once dominated the entire film industry.

United States of America: Plan 9 from Outer Space

Directed by: Edward D. Wood Jr., 1958.

World Cinema 085 - United States (Plan 9 from Outer Space)
(Credit: Plan 9 from Outer Space)

Which movie were you hoping to find? The Shawshank Redemption (1994)? The Godfather (1972)? Sorry, but no. For a country producing over 800 films a year, it’s not very realistic to single out one great movie to represent all of its cinematic output, and pretending to be able to do so would be laughable at best. The franchise-producing, local-industry-wrecking juggernaut known as Hollywood churns out more films than any other country in the world, offering more new films within a single week than most countries do in an entire decade.

Movie stars treading red carpets, cameras flashing… The glitter and glamour of Hollywood all began in the early 20th century, not long after the introduction of cinema. In the 1910s, America’s major film studios moved from New York to Los Angeles to be less dependent on weather conditions for shooting their film productions. This decision led to a wave of growth within the industry, turning the small, west American community of Hollywood into the birthplace of the world’s most dominant film industry.

Following the shift from silent films to talkies as brilliantly displayed in Singin’ in the Rain (1952), Hollywood films became an international phenomenon. Producing classics such as The Birth of a Nation (1915), Gone with the Wind (1939), and Citizen Kane (1941), the United States reached what is now known as “the Golden Age of cinema” around the 1940s. During World War II, import embargos prevented American films from entering Europe. Once the war ended and import embargos were lifted, Hollywood flooded the European markets with its stockpile of content. Due to its crippled economy, Europe was unable to (quickly) re-establish its own national film industries. Meanwhile, the United States continued to increase its cinematic input, and developed the industry through the introduction of sound, color, and widescreen film. Unable to compete with the big-budget American motion picture industry, many European nations started the production of small-scale art house films instead.

Back in the States, different decades saw different genres peak, with musical productions peaking in the 1930s and 1960s, and Westerns in the 1950s and 1960s. After a period of increasingly adult dramas, such as The Graduate (1967), family films spiked after the release of Star Wars (1977). During the 2000s and 2010s, superhero films became the driving force at the box office. All the way up until the Space Race of the 1960s, science fiction films were quite popular as well. Though many artistic gems were produced, the genre also perfectly lends itself for the production of cheap exploitation films. In 1958, when the genre was already considered as good as dead, director Ed Wood created his masterpiece Plan 9 from Outer Space (1958).

Plan 9 from Outer Space represents the cream of the long-expired crop. Though the term “worst movie ever made” is distributed left and right for titles ranging from The Room (2003) to Birdemic: Shock and Terror (2010), the master of bad form, slithering at the bottom of the barrel, will always be the illustrious Edward D. Wood Jr. Dead serious in his attempt at cinema, Wood failed in every way but one: his films are considered wildly amusing due to their inherent lack of quality, and have a strong cult following.

When it comes to American cinema, it really doesn’t get much worse than this. Wood’s entire repertoire gave Americans enough lessons in ‘what not to do’ for decades to come, making Plan 9 from Outer Space an essential piece of cinema to watch for anyone who thinks they know and love American films.

A tale of flying saucers, aliens, and zombies, Plan 9 from Outer Space tells the story of a group of aliens invading Earth by animating an army of zombies to do their bidding.

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Canada: My Life Without Me

Directed by: Isabel Coixet, 2003.

World Cinema 086A - Canada (My Life Without Me)
(Credit: My Life Without Me)

Several icons of world cinema traveled to Niagara Falls in 1897 to film the magnificent waterfalls on the nation’s southern border. Production companies Lumière, Edison, and Biograph each documented the spectacle of Niagara Falls, ushering in the era of cinema in Canada. The first true Canadian film was made in the same year, by local documentarist James Freer. The short adventure film Hiawatha, the Messiah of the Ojibway (1903) marked the start of fiction film production, and the drama Evangeline (1913) became the country’s first feature film.

In 1927, the British government set a strict quota for the number of British films that had to be shown in British cinemas. Like all other nations in the British Empire, the Canadian and Australian film industries benefitted greatly from the act, as it expanded their distribution market. The British Cinematograph Films Act, however, demanded that only films made by and shot in Great Britain would be accepted as being part of the quota. The Act greatly reduced the Canadian film industry, and over the next few decades, local studios had to come up with inventive ways to fund their new productions.

Neighboring the United States and sharing their language as well as many of its cultural aspects, both Canadian films and Canadian actors are often mistaken for American ones. Famous Canadian actors who found their fame in Hollywood are Ryan Reynolds, Jim Carrey, Pamela Anderson, Michael J. Fox, Michael Cera, and Leslie Nielsen.

American distribution became a large part of the Canadian film industry’s financial strategies. Due to competition from their southern neighbor’s studios, however, local cinema didn’t thrive as well as films in other British territories such as Australia. Canada became a country of small films, which would sometimes turn into great hits. The teen sex comedy Porky’s (1981), made on a budget of $4-5 million, became the most successful Canadian film of all time, earning back $136 million. Still, it wouldn’t qualify for this list as Porky’s was neither directed by a Canadian nor shot in Canada.

Other small films that hit it big were the screwball comedy Meatballs (1979) and the mysterious sci-fi film Cube (1997). Like many European countries, the Canadian film industry also turned towards the production of art-house films to find success. The bilingual Bon Cop, Bad Cop (2006), a police comedy covering a murder on the Ontario-Quebec border, and the romantic drama My Life Without Me (2003) were great examples of the country’s artistic output. More than any country, Canada has proven the value of quality over quantity.

Upon finding out she is terminally ill, a modest 23-year-old mother decides to keep her illness a secret and compiles a list of things to do before she dies.

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Canada (II): Incendies

Directed by: Denis Villeneuve, 2010.

World Cinema 086B - Canada (Incendies)
(Credit: Incendies)

To honor Quebec’s distinctive cinema, we’ve added an additional (French) Canadian film to our list: Incendies. Though the first film in Quebec was screened in 1896, it would take 60 years before the French-speaking region of Canada could properly establish its film industry. During the first half of the 20th century, the Catholic clergy heavily censored the French Canadian motion picture industry. Early commercial films such as Le père Chopin (1945) and Tit Coq (1953) were only moderately successful.

After the French branch of the National Film Board of Canada was established in 1959, production started to pick up. Quebec’s censorship bureau was replaced by a modern film rating system in 1967, and government subsidies allowed a wider release for locally produced films. Over the next decades, Quebec managed to produce several critically acclaimed international art house films, such as My Uncle Antoine (1971), The Decline of the American Empire (1986), and Jesus of Montreal (1989).

In 2006, the action-comedy Bon Cop, Bad Cop overtook the English Canadian film Porky’s as the most successful Canadian film at the Canadian box office. The film revolved around the concept of Canada’s mixed cultures and languages and explored the relationship between the French-speaking Quebec and the English speaking Ontario through the film’s main characters: two police officers – one Ontarian and one Québécois – who reluctantly join forces to solve a murder.

The 2010s marked many successes for Quebec cinema, as three of its films were nominated for Academy Awards. Denis Villeneuve’s compelling yet devastating family drama Incendies (2010) placed Quebec within the framework of the modern world, telling the story of an Arab immigrant family living in Canada.

After her mother passes away, Jeanne journey to the Middle East to find the biological father and brother of her and her twin, Simon.

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After her mother passes away, Jeanne journey to the Middle East to find the biological father and brother of her and her twin, Simon.

Mexico: Instructions Not Included

Directed by: Eugenio Derbez, 2013.

World Cinema 087 - Mexico (Instructions Not Included)
(Credit: Instructions Not Included / No Se Aceptan Devoluciones)

In 1895, Thomas Edison’s kinetoscope was used to show the first moving pictures in Mexico. The screening was soon followed by a show based on Auguste Lumière’s cinematograph projector in 1896. Though the Mexican film industry itself started off during the silent era of film, not many of the produced films have been preserved.

After the major American studios moved to Los Angeles in the 1920s, many Mexican movie stars moved to the United States to break through in Hollywood. In that time, Ramón Novarro and Dolores del Río were big names in the business; nowadays, Diego Luna, Salma Hayek, and Gael García Bernal are some of the most famous Mexican actors who found their place in the U.S. While some actors left Mexico, others stayed behind to work in the local industry, which at the time found success with the prostitution drama The Woman of the Port (1934) and the war film Let’s Go with Pancho Villa (1936).

In the 1940s, the Mexican film industry grew thrice its size; Mexican films dominated the film market in Latin America. Spanish-speaking countries that would later develop a strong film industry like Argentina and Spain were still controlled by fascist governments and posed no threat. Mexican films showcase all aspects of Mexican society, and in the 1960s, a Mexican film The Important Man (1961) was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film.

The dawn of other Spanish-language film industries diminished the success of the Mexican film industry, but through government incentives, a new period of Mexican cinema was entered in the 1990s. Director Robert Rodriguez entered the market with El Mariachi (1992), and Guillermo del Toro followed, directing Cronos (1993). The New Mexican Cinema explored Mexican culture through the lens of small-scale, underground dramas such as the harsh Love’s a Bitch (2000) and the coming-of-age road movie And Your Mother Too (2001).

Modern Mexican cinema widened the spectrum, with the dark fantasy film Pan’s Labyrinth (2006), comedy-drama Instructions Not Included (original title: No Se Aceptan Devoluciones, 2013), and the acclaimed drama Roma (2018). Our Mexican entry Instructions Not Included shares similarities with our Czech entry, Kolya: both film feature a man forced to take care of an unwanted child. Still, the style, execution, and plot of Instructions Not Included are different enough to create a unique, heartwarming family epic.

Playboy and womanizer Valentín is forced to create order in his dissolute life, when a former American fling leaves their love baby on his doorstep and takes off without a trace.

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Looking for something else? Check out our recommendation for the best films from Europe, films from Eastern Europe, films from Africa, films from South Asia, films from West and Central Asia, films from East and Southeast Asia, films from Oceania and the Pacific, films from Central America and the Caribbean and films from South America.

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