Anybody who reads my writing on any kind of semi-regular basis probably knows that “This is Spinal Tap” is my favorite movie of all-time. I’ve seen it so many times that I can quote virtually the entire film back to you at any given moment. It’s not just the funniest movie I’ve ever seen. Every moment of it rings of truth, and there are still new things to discover each time I watch it. Since I’ve written about that movie ad nauseam, here is a list of 10 other films that hold those same qualities for me. I just never get tired of watching them. What are yours?
10. Miller’s Crossing (1990)
What’s the rumpus? This overlooked early movie by Joel and Ethan Coen is full of so many great little details and so dense with questionable characters and double-crosses that it may take more than one viewing to digest it all. After a friend revealed to me that this was one of his favorite movies too, I marveled at its inclusion of gay gangsters. “What?” my friend said, “There are gay gangsters in it?” Set around the Irish mob during Prohibition, “Miller’s Crossing” features one of the greatest mysterious lead characters in film—a mob advisor played by Gabriel Byrne whose loyalties change more often than his underwear. Or do they? The dialogue is so fast and full of quick-witted lingo from the 1930s that it is hard to keep up. Watch it again and again and something new opens itself up every time.
Eddie Dane: How’d you get the fat lip?
Tom: Old war wound. Acts up around morons.
9. Rushmore (1998)
Often times a great comedy is something that you can revisit time and time again and this one is so far off base from every other comedy out there that I never get sick of it. Like “Miller’s Crossing,” “Rushmore” has an anachronistic lead character. Max Fischer (played by Jason Schwartzman) is a 15 year-old private school student who has more extra-curricular activities than he does good grades. His unusual relationship with a depressed but wealthy industrialist played by a deadpan Bill Murray forms the basis of this perfectly realized creation. “Rushmore” may have shades of J.D. Salinger’s writing and Hal Ashby’s movies, but director Wes Anderson pulls humor from the trickiest of situations (the only actual jokes in the movie are bad ones, and in context, they are really funny) and always manages to surprise. For all its absurdities, “Rushmore” is also a very humanist film. Your sympathies may lie with any number of different characters each time you watch it. Whatever happens, it will probably put a great big smile on your face like it does for me.
Herman Blume: You guys have it real easy. I never had it like this where I grew up. But I send my kids here because the fact is you go to one of the best schools in the country: Rushmore. Now, for some of you it doesn’t matter. You were born rich and your going to stay rich. But here’s my advice to the rest of you: Take dead aim on the rich boys. Get them in the crosshairs and take them down. Just remember, they can buy anything but they can’t buy backbone. Don’t let them forget it. Thank you.
8. Out of the Past (1947)
My favorite classic film noir stars Robert Mitchum as a man trying to make a clean break with his past who eventually gets sucked right back into it. Mitchum is at his laconic best, Jane Greer is seductively dangerous and terribly sexy, Kirk Douglas is menacing, and Jacques Tourneur ’s direction is flawless. For as old as it is, “Out of the Past” is full of modern storytelling techniques and remarkably realized characters. Trouble keeps piling up for poor Mitchum, obsessed and in love, as Tourneur flashes back and forward, deepening the story at every turn. The script, full of quotable treats and ice-cool Mitchum narration, was adapted by Daniel Mainwaring (under the pseudonym Geoffrey Homes) from his own novel. And, unlike many noirs, the mystery here is not a whodunit, but a what-is-going-to-happen-next in a bitter love triangle with high stakes. Knowing the ending never spoils the ride since there’s so many things to enjoy along the way, least of all Nicholas Musuraca ’s beautiful black-and-white cinematography.
Kathie Moffat: Oh, Jeff, I don’t want to die!
Jeff Bailey: Neither do I, baby, but if I have to I’m gonna die last.
7. The Graduate (1967)
Even though it was made in the 60s, “The Graduate” stills feels like today for me. For every person who ever felt alienated from anything (isn’t that everybody?), Dustin Hoffman is here to let us know we are not alone. I’m starting to see a trend as I write this list and I’m wondering if an iconic character Top 10 is not in my near future. Hoffman’s Benjamin Braddock is full of contradictions and as long as people remain confused about who they are or where they are going in their lives, this movie will have an audience. Director Mike Nichols tapped into something very powerful with “The Graduate.” Its stature as a classic is well-deserved, and what makes it so watchable is that he didn’t forget to fill Benjamin’s journey from aimlessness to uneasiness with lots of awkward humor—fans of “The Office,” take note. If you haven’t seen this yet, you are missing out. If you have, then you’re probably like me and you pull it out every year or so to remind yourself that life is by nature untidy and someone understands.
Benjamin: I’m just…
Mr. Braddock: Worried?
Mr. Braddock: About what?
Benjamin: I guess about my future.
Mr. Braddock: What about it?
Benjamin: I don’t know… I want it to be…
Mr. Braddock: To be what?
Benjamin: [looks at his father] … Different.
6. Goodfellas (1990)
Martin Scorsese’s epic examination of three decades in the mob is such an involving film that when I’m flipping channels and I see it rerun on TV, I always stop and watch it, even though I know it’s presented in pan-and-scan and half the movie is cut out. Then I have to find time to pop in a DVD and experience the whole movie widescreen and in its entire 145-minute running time. This movie crackles with energy and amazing stylistic touches—Scorsese uses long tracking shots, quick edits, freeze frames and an ongoing narration from Ray Liotta to immerse the audience into the gangster’s world. The frenetic style isn’t distracting, though—it’s essential to the storytelling. The viewer becomes an insider and is granted all access to a world few people can actually see. The fact that it is based on a true story only makes it all the more amazing. There is so much rich detail in “Goodfellas” that one viewing doesn’t do it justice.
Anthony: Tommy no, You got it all wrong.
Tommy: Oh, oh, Anthony. He’s a big boy, he knows what he said. What did ya say? Funny how? What?
Henry Hill: Just… ya know… you’re funny.
Tommy: You mean, let me understand this cause, ya know maybe it’s me, I’m a little fucked up maybe, but I’m funny how, I mean funny like I’m a clown, I amuse you? I make you laugh, I’m here to fuckin’ amuse you? What do you mean funny, funny how? How am I funny?
Henry Hill: Just… you know, how you tell the story, what?
Tommy: No, no, I don’t know, you said it. How do I know? You said I’m funny. How the fuck am I funny, what the fuck is so funny about me? Tell me, tell me what’s funny!
Henry Hill: [long pause] Get the fuck out of here, Tommy!
Tommy: [everyone laughs] Ya motherfucker! I almost had him, I almost had him. Ya stuttering prick ya. Frankie, was he shaking? I wonder about you sometimes, Henry. You may fold under questioning.
5. L.A. Confidential (1997)
I never tire of seeing this movie. Curtis Hanson’s masterful adaptation of James Ellroy’s sprawling novel follows three detectives in 1950s Hollywood to reveal the ugliness beneath the glitz. Hanson’s Oscar-winning screenplay trimmed Ellroy’s eight labyrinthine plotlines down to three, but retained all the spirit of the characters and rounded up a perfect cast. Kevin Spacey, Danny Devito, and Kim Basinger were big names at the time, but Russell Crowe and Guy Pearce were virtual unknowns in America yet. The jazzy soundtrack and atmospheric production design are absolutely top notch, and it is thrilling to see this era come to life in an era when movies don’t have to shy away from grittiness anymore. One of the best reasons to watch a film over and over again is a rich evocation of a time period or location, and “L.A. Confidential” does that to perfection, while juggling a massive cast and storyline.
Ed Exley: Take a walk, honey, before I haul your ass downtown.
Johnny Stompanato: You are making a large mistake.
Lana Turner: Get away from our table.
Ed Exley: Shut up. A hooker cut to look like Lana Turner is still a hooker. She just looks like Lana Turner.
Jack Vincennes: She is Lana Turner.
Ed Exley: What?
Jack Vincennes: She is Lana Turner. [Lana throws a drink in Ed's face]
4. Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964)
One of the greatest screen satires of all-time is this black-and-white Stanley Kubrick movie which, for all its dated references and Cold War-era black humor, still translates 100 percent today. This film never gets old for me. One commonality I’m also noticing in this list is the fact that all these films are eminently quotable, and this one is no exception. Peter Sellers’ comic dexterity is on display in three decidedly different roles, and George C. Scott and Sterling Hayden are also drop-dead funny in caricatures of trigger-happy military types. While you try to analyze Kubrick’s war-as-sex analogy, you can marvel at the absurdity of the situations and enjoy rapid-fire dialogue that just gets better and sharper each time you hear it. Hey, if you can’t laugh at an impending government-caused nuclear holocaust, what can you laugh at?
Miss Scott: It’s 3 o’clock in the morning!
General “Buck” Turgidson: Weh-heh-heh-ll, the Air Force never sleeps.
Miss Scott: Buck, honey, I’m not sleepy either…
General “Buck” Turgidson: I know how it is, baby. Tell you what you do: you just start your countdown, and old Bucky’ll be back here before you can say “Blast off!”
3. Almost Famous (2000)
The DVD extended cut of Cameron Crowe’s semi-autobiographical coming-of-age picture is retitled “Untitled” and runs a whopping 2 hours and 40 minutes, and it still leaves me wanting more. The heyday of 70s rock is chronicled through the eyes of a teenaged journalist who falls in love on the road. Nowhere else has the pure joy of rock n’ roll been illustrated so confidently. This movie makes me wish I would have been born a decade earlier so I could have grown up with rock music before it was taken over by big business. Every moment feels real, and the era is lovingly rendered with so much authenticity that it the fictional band at its core—a middle-of-the-road riff rock band called Stillwater—feels absolutely real. It also takes “inside baseball” issues that most rock bands are concerned with—like selling out—with the same sincerity it has for groupies (and why they don’t like being called groupies). Even if the rest of the movie was terrible, it would be worth it for the scene where Stillwater plays in Topeka that features the following exchange between rocker and a high schooler:
Russell Hammond: You, Aaron, are what it’s all about. You’re real. Your room is real. Your friends are real. Real, man, real. You know? Real. You’re more important than all the silly machinery. Silly machinery. And you know it! In eleven years its going to be 1984, man. Think about that!
Aaron: Wanna see me feed a mouse to my snake?
Russell Hammond: Yes.
2. Do the Right Thing (1989)
“1989 the number/another summer/sound of the funky drummer!” With that opening salvo, Chuck D announces that Public Enemy is in the house and Spike Lee’s incendiary day-in-the-life movie about a neighborhood in Brooklyn has begun. From its opening dance number to its sobering morning-after conclusion, “Do The Right Thing” is one of the funniest and most alive movies ever created. People remember this being an issue-related film, which is correct, but often times what is missing from their memory is how funny it really is. If every “serious issue” film was this much fun, they would do a lot better at the box office. “Do The Right Thing” didn’t do that well in the theaters, though, because it was way ahead of its time. Despite it being a snapshot of a certain time period (right down to its ghetto blasters and white Air Jordans), it feels absolutely timeless. The much-debated ending takes on resonance with each repeated viewing, and is always a great conversation-starter.
Da Mayor: Doctor…
Mookie: C’mon, what. What?
Da Mayor: Always do the right thing.
Mookie: That’s it?
Da Mayor: That’s it.
Mookie: I got it, I’m gone.
1. Fargo (1996)
The second appearance on this list from the Coen brothers is one of my favorite quotable movies ever, and a shining rebuttal to critic Pauline Kael’s opinion that you need not see a film more than once to get it. “Fargo” is a twisted black comedy with so much misfortune heaped upon the dim-witted lead characters that it actually gets funnier the more you see it. In a way, the movie can eventually de-sensitize you to the violence, allowing its absurdity to become front and center. A terrorized housewife with a blanket over her head tumbling down the stairs in an unconscious heap after being chased by kidnappers? Funny! A dead body in a woodchipper? Funny! Just thinking about pregnant police chief Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand) and the loving relationship she has with her artist husband makes me smile. Steve Buscemi’s foul-motor-mouthed criminal and William H. Macy’s emasculated car salesman are absolutely hilarious and heartbreaking—a far cry from the reserved tenderness that Marge shows her husband, even after a long day of fighting both crime and morning sickness. “Fargo” allows me to laugh at life’s desperate nature while simultaneously warming my heart every time. Each line in this movie is a treasure, and even the ones not necessarily meant to be funny seem to find their way into my daily conversation. All hail “Fargo”—a movie I can watch over and over again.
Marge Gunderson: So that was Mrs. Lundegaard on the floor in there. And I guess that was your accomplice in the wood chipper. And those three people in Brainerd. And for what? For a little bit of money. There’s more to life than a little money, you know. Don’t you know that? And here ya are, and it’s a beautiful day. Well, I just don’t understand it.