09/10/2012 12:31 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

What Are the Best Movies to Recommend to a Foreigner Looking to Understand What American Culture Is Really Like?

This question originally appeared on Quora.
By Vicki Boykis, Number-cruncher. Writer

There are a couple of things that are really important in understanding "real" American culture today, and any movie that is going to project an understanding of America needs to have at least one of the following elements, and explore it in a way that really reflects how Americans feel about it.

This is by no means an all-inclusive list, but a couple of trends I've noticed over the past several decades.

  • Suburban culture. The suburbs have been an important part of American society since the 1950s and represent half of the American population. Early on, they were seen as a sign of promise. Now, as more people move back to the city, they are seen as a place of complacency, and for some, desperation. While people can be very comfortable there and live the "American dream," for younger people they represent a trap, loneliness, alienation, and a place to escape.
  • American family dynamics. American families have become increasingly nuclear, isolated, and closed over the past several decades. It's common for American children to move out at age eighteen, and for the parents to "convert the bedroom to an office or painting space." American parents don't rely on their children to care for them in their old age; at the same time, an increasing divorce rate and blended families, as well as the legalization of gay marriage in some states, combined with the influx of adopted children from Asian countries, have significantly altered the American family dynamic.
  • Integration of immigrants into American society. Immigrants are accepted into American society; they have been since the start of the country, and seeing someone from Romania or Uganda doesn't surprise most people, at least in urban areas. However, they are still different than Americans, and this clash of cultures, especially for children of immigrants, presents a conflicting dichotomy.
  • Corporate Culture. American corporate culture is made up of people who work hard and who want to reach the top, sometimes at any cost. It's also made up of people who sit in cubicles every day wondering if they're wasting their lives.
  • Use of medication. The increased use of medication for new diagnoses such as anxiety, depression, and ADD has seen increased attention in American society. Included in this bucket is plastic surgery. There are many people who debate its benefits, and just as many who wholeheartedly subscribe to the medicines.
  • American optimism and can-do attitude. Americans as individuals have a different philosophy than most other nationals in the world simply because of America's history of going at it alone and achieving alone. The individual is valued just as much as, or even more than the family at certain times, and success stories of individuals overcoming great odds are celebrated.
  • Ability to laugh at ourselves- Americans love humor and satire, and never pass up a chance at self-examination.

With those things in mind, here are the movies that represent at least one of these categories extremely well, in no particular order.

American Beauty - Perfectly explores the monotony of American suburbs and teenagers wasting away in them, the crises that people have in America as they get older as to their "wasted lives," and the dischord in families that look perfectly normal, as well as the desire for these families to save face in front of their neighbors.
Coming to America- Captures the dynamic between immigrants and Americans perfectly and with tongue-in-cheek humor. The archetypal American dream, as Kanye says, "This week he moppin' floors, next week it's the fries," is played out in full. Man comes to America a nobody, ostensibly, and becomes a somebody. Oh, and it parodies that most American of institutions, Mickey-D's.
Working Girl and Office Space - Ok, I cheated a little, but this one's a two-fer. Different time periods, but both embodying the zeitgeist of the workplace at that particular place in time: the 80s in Manhattan, and the late 90s somewhere in corporate America during the tech boom. Both, but especially Office Space, with its sharp satire of endless bureaucracy and penchant for weekend work, as well as the fear of layoffs, are classics.
My Big Fat Greek Wedding - the difference between European immigrants and WASP Americans is so well-outlined here. Despite the fact that both of the main characters were born in America and grew up in mainstream American culture, they couldn't be more different, and the movie celebrates that.
Little Miss Sunshine -The new American family; fractured, broken, strange, but in the end, coming together to get something done. Also beautifully explores that strangest of American rituals, the child beauty pageant.
Top Gun - American patriotism, can-do attitude, independence, and testosterone, all bottled up and released at you in a flurry of military insignia. Plus, the song. Nothing will help you understand America more than Highway to the Danger Zone.
The Good Girl - Jennifer Aniston is The All-American Girl actress, and this is probably her best movie. She works at a Wal-Mart lookalike. There is no movie that explores the desperation of some members of the so-called middle-lower class as well as this one.
The Breakfast Club - American teenage angst, independence, the struggle for self, the dynamics of high school social pecking order, all combined together.
Gettysburg - Over one hundred years later, the Civil War is still important in the national psyche and is probably one of the most important American historical events that is continuously referenced, both culturally and economically. This movie covers it all.
Wedding Crashers - Gets American wedding culture, the wedding industry, anxiety to get married, the "meeting the family," and politics, mixes it together in a blur of champagne bubbles and manages to laugh at itself. More questions on American Culture: