What’s your “drop everything” movie?
You know the moment; you’re flipping through your channel guide, not looking for anything in particular, and you run across that film: It doesn’t matter that you’ve seen it 13 times already, nor does it matter what point in the movie it’s at: You immediately stop flipping to watch ’til the end, even if it’s 4 a.m. and you have to be up early the next morning. Recently for me it’s been Superbad. ( I’ve already caught like five different showings on Starz this month.) In past years, it’s been the rockumentary Dig! and the football tearjerker Rudy. Which movies stand up to your unlimited viewing pleasure? —Jemal Duran (“sasquatch” on the message boards)
You and I are on the same wavelength, Jemal. When faced with the task of compiling my top 10 (or 20 or 30 or 144) movies of all time, I use “drop everything” as one of my key criteria. I ask myself “If I flipped into this movie while channel-surfing—opening credits, middle, or end—would I be compelled to sit and watch the whole thing?” The movies that pass that test are likely to top my favorites list, which has the interesting effect of making my favorites list a smorgasbord of ridiculously entertaining movies like RoboCop and Singin’ In The Rain. And I’ve tested that theory any number of times; recently, while my husband and kids were out of town, I spent an unexpected afternoon watching Defending Your Life (a top-five perennial) after coming across it on one of the Encore movie channels at the point where Albert Brooks is about to meet Rip Torn for the first time. Probably the least instantly gratifying title in my personal canon is Terence Malick’s Days Of Heaven, but who in their right mind could hit the clicker after even the most fleeting glimpse of those beautiful frames? Come to think of it, maybe “arresting visual sense” is the other characteristic shared by the movies that crowd near the top of my all-time list. I can’t imagine tearing myself away from Lawrence Of Arabia’s singular palette and scale, no matter whether I happened to drop into the British army headquarters, the endless desert dunes, or the conquest of Aqaba.
First of all, I should point out that director Paul Thomas Anderson answered this question for us in our new book Inventory—he inexplicably listed The Shining and The Birdcage. (This is why Anderson is awesome.) My answer, if I’m being totally honest, is that I really never do this. What I will do, however, is stop and watch about 30 minutes of a movie I’ve already seen a bunch of times, particularly if it happens to be at a point that I particularly enjoy. I’ve watched clumps of the Bourne movies probably a dozen times (since they’re always on), and the behemoth that is Con Air can often grab me for a while, as long as it’s not too close to the end. But the movie I’m most likely to sit and watch for the longest time is probably The Jerk, which makes no sense, because not only do I own it on DVD anyway, but I also probably have the whole thing memorized. Maybe someday I’ll do that one-man show I’ve been planning, called Navin R. Johnson: Sounds Like A Typical Asshole.
TV on DVD has changed the way I structure my free time—it’s been a long time since I’ve flipped through channels instead of just popping in the next disc of whatever show I’m catching up lately—but in the past, I’ve had two of these, and they’re both weird anomalies in my usual movie-watching pattern. In college, it was New Jack City. The boyfriend and I would tune into it whenever we saw it in the cable listings, always thinking we’d just re-watch that amazing opening helicopter shot. Ninety minutes later, we’d sort of shake ourselves and say “Wait, did we just watch that whole film again?” Post-college, the same thing happened to us several times with Mel Brooks’ first comedy, The Producers. Often on Friday nights, we’d go to the boyfriends’ parents’ place, where his dad would screen 16 and 35mm movies from his vast collection for whoever showed up. Whenever people were threatening to leave after the first feature, he’d just quickly start up The Producers, knowing we’d all instantly be hypnotized by Zero Mostel’s antics. I’m not really of a fan of Mel Brooks’ other movies, or of rise-and-fall crime dramas and Wesley Snipes, so I couldn’t tell you why these two movies are so effective at snagging me. New Jack City just has such a consistent flow from one scene to the next that it’s hard to pull away, and The Producers has so many memorable high points that it’s far too easy to get roped into just waiting for the next one.
For me, this question has only one answer. Well, technically, two: The Godfather and/or The Godfather Part II. No matter when, how, or where I encounter it, I’m down for the duration. Whether it’s a late-night TV viewing, with the accompanying heavy-handed edit, or a cable marathon, or even a rare showing of the “Saga” version that’s in chronological order, I’d be hard pressed to think of anything I’d have going that’s better than watching Coppola’s masterpiece. (The epic length of the movies works to my benefit, too, since I can usually put off any amount of important work I have to do in the time it takes to watch the six and a half hours of both combined.) Back when I lived in Chicago, friends of mine would even host Godfather-watching parties once a year—both films, punctuated by a big Italian meal between them—knowing that they were the only two movies guaranteed to hold a crowd’s attention for that long. And, best of all, once you’re done and it’s time for everyone to leave—or for you to get back to work—there’s always The Godfather Part III.
One of these three movies is often on when I need something to watch while I put things in my food-hole, and they tend to remain on long after the food-items are gone:
- Forgetting Sarah Marshall. There’s always something new in it that tickles me, like the way the camera doesn’t cut to Mila Kunis’ character when she’s gently hectoring Peter from her table at the bar, or the way he says ”’Scuse me” when she’s trying to give him a pep talk. Plus, there are worse ways to spend your time than gazing at gorgeous Hawaiian scenery.
- Ghostbusters. Especially if I catch it during the first half, which I think I’ve watched less than the second, so it’s “new” to me. (“New” in that I’ve only seen it 20 times, as opposed to 50.)
- Steel Magnolias. It’s the one chick flick that’s close to my heart, especially because of Dolly Parton, Shirley MacLaine, and Olympia Dukakis. You get a room of girls going, and I bet before too long, we can quote the entire film. Maybe that’s part of the reason why I like it—knowing that there are probably at least a couple of my friends out there catching it at the same time I am.
I agree with Claire on this one. If Steel Magnolias is on, I will watch it, even though I’ve seen the movie so many times, I don’t even know if it actually counts as watching anymore. It’s more like remembering along with the movie. And I don’t even really like Steel Magnolias. I don’t know how this happened to me. I blame my two sisters. And Louisiana. But I take comfort in the fact that if I am ever kidnapped and held in solitary confinement for months at a time, I will be able to stave off insanity by replaying the entirety of Steel Magnolias in my mind—including dialogue, music cues, sound effects, etc.—over and over. Of course, this will probably cause a different kind of insanity, specifically the kind where you mutter things like, “Drum loves pork ’n’ beans. Eats ’em with everything.” “That explains a lot,” under your breath, but it’s better than non-Dolly-Parton-related insanity. Probably.
(Warning: girliest film trifecta ever incoming.)
I’m going to have to hop on the Steel Magnolias bandwagon too, I’m afraid. I’ve internalized that movie to the degree that its dialogue makes its way into everyday conversation almost as much as Simpsons quotes—”Drink your juice, Shelby,” (translation: “Calm the fuck down”), “I love you like my luggage,” and “My colors are blush and bashful,” get aired out on a regular basis—and hearing them in their original context gives me way more pleasure than it should. But there is one other frequently rerun movie that usurps Magnolias in that regard, and that is Clueless. Not only is it eminently quotable—”As if” and “Whatever” aside, there are few rejoinders better than “You’re a virgin who can’t drive,” and “I was surfing the crimson wave, I had to haul ass to the ladies’”—but for a 15-year-old movie featuring marabou-feather-topped pens and dialogue about a Cranberries CD, it still feels timeless to me (an advantage it has over Steel Magnolias). And finally, a newer entrant into my drop-everything canon is the 2005 remake of Pride And Prejudice, simply because it is so damn pretty. This was the first movie I watched (on Lifetime, duh) after I upgraded to hi-def TV, and I think I rewound and rewatched the sunrise kiss between Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy about five times. I don’t usually get super-smushy about romantic movies, but something about the aesthetic of P&P draws me in completely, and I can’t turn it off until I get to that scene.
I’m not much of a channel-surfer; I tend to limit my television consumption to a handful of favorites, many of which I cover for The A.V. Club. But I feel strangely qualified to answer this question, since twice in the past month, I’ve found myself watching the second half of Coming To America on television with friends, hypnotized by its awesome, iconic ’80s-osity. It’s an eminently rewatchable reminder of a time when Eddie Murphy was still charming, was still funny, and cared; Arsenio Hall was a loveable scene-stealer with a bright future ahead of him; and John Landis wasn’t yet box-office poison. I saw Coming To America originally at a drive-in as a 12-year-old geeked to see an R-rated movie with dialogue like “the royal penis is clean,” and I’m always happy to revisit Landis’ Capra-esque fairy-tale New York.
Someone already said RoboCop, right? Because I’ll watch RoboCop now if someone wants to. (Seriously, does anyone want to watch RoboCop? Is it on? Because if it’s on, I’d totally watch it.)
I’ll watch RoboCop with you, Keith—I’ll even put on my OCP T-shirt while we do—but then I’ll make you watch RoboCop 2, because I think in many ways, it’s a superior film, and because I never get tired of that montage of failed cyborgs freaking out and pulling off their own heads. Then maybe when it’s over, we can watch Casino for the thousandth time. In fact, I think in all fairness, I should explain to you exactly what it is that I do. For instance, tomorrow morning I’ll get up nice and early, take a walk over to my television and turn it on, and watch fucking Casino all over again, right in front of everyone. And just about the time that Casino is ending, hopefully it’ll be coming on again on some other station. And guess what? I’ll watch fucking Casino again. ’Cause I’m fucking stupid. I don’t give a fuck about what else is on. That’s my business. That’s what I do.
It’s funny that Sean should mention Casino, seeing as how Goodfellas is the film I can never pass up when I surf across it on cable. Honestly, I think I’ve seen the whole thing straight through in a single sitting maybe twice; beyond that, I’ve watched random 20-minute chunks of it dozens of times each, to the point where I’m not sure if I really know the true chronology of the film anymore. When I’m not inadvertently remixing Scorsese in my head, I almost always get roped into reruns of ’80s movies—in particular, it’s impossible for me to skip past Red Dawn, The Lost Boys, or The Goonies, despite the fact that no human being should devote so much time and mnemonic energy to such things. Not that I’m really doing anything better with my life or mind.
I’ll agree with Heller: Goodfellas is pretty high up there. The only problem is, I’ve got it on Blu-ray now (and it is soooo sweet), which means I can watch it on my own without all that distracting dubbing of “fucks” into “friends.” Which reminds me—my favorite all-time cable dubbing is “This is what happens when you find a stranger in the Alps!” from The Big Lebowski, which further reminds me that if I ever see a Coen brothers movie on TV, I have to watch the whole thing. I don’t channel-surf as hardcore as I used to, but the few times I’ve stumbled across Lebowski or Fargo or Miller’s Crossing on air, despite owning them all on DVD, I’ve got to stop everything and watch the rest. It’s like the “Shave and a haircut—” gag from Who Framed Roger Rabbit; part of it’s the pleasure of seeing movies I love, but part of it is the need to close a circuit in my mind. I’m just grateful I’ve never found Comedy Central airing The Ladykillers, because that would probably ruin me.
My favorite filmmakers tend to make movies that have a rhythm and flow that’s almost musical, which means when I’m flipping through channels and I come across something they directed, I stick around and watch it in the same way I’d stop on a favorite song if I were punching through stations on the radio. I get sidetracked most often by any Brian De Palma movie. If I see a split-screen, a split-diopter shot, or a scene of one ordinary person anxiously spying on another, I clear my schedule for the next hour or so. And it doesn’t matter much which De Palma film it is. I wish I could say that I only brake for Sisters or Blow Out or Carlito’s Way, but the fact is that I’ve watched Mission To Mars more times than I care to admit. (That movie is so, so underrated.)
It's not a great movie, but if The Rock is ever on, I'll probably settle in for the long haul. It's just such a ridiculous premise (the elaborate disarming of the nerve-gas bomb is so indulgent, it hurts), and everything is shot hilariously over-the-top—not to mention the movie's quotes made their way around the summer camp I went to as a kid one year. It transports me back to a time when Ed Harris was a badass, and Sean Connery was still chuggin' along. But the real reason I like watching it is for the made-to-be-daytime-TV-safe dialogue. It's a filthy film, and while my favorite line isn't Doug Benson-caliber good (from Kill Bill: "My name is Buck… and I like to PARTY"), it still always makes me chuckle. Sean Connery to Nicholas Cage, trying to get him to "man up": "Losers always whine about their best. Winners go home and DATE!!! the prom queen." Cage: "Carla was the prom queen."
Although it isn’t a “good” movie in the traditional sense, I will watch the shit out of Twister every time it’s on. I love that movie, purely because I love what I call “weather carnage.” Footage from hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, mudslides, and severe storms enthralls me, especially when it includes destruction. This developed in college, where my roommate—TV’s Keith Monday!—was a meteorology major. He had videos with titles like Tornado: Nature’s Wrath that we’d watch over and over again, so needless to say, we were psyched about Twister when it came out our sophomore year. What makes Twister great is that it’s practically wall-to-wall destruction—with some breaks for awkward emotionalism—but because it’s a movie, I don’t have lingering guilt and concern about people and their property. I can just watch the big, scary tornadoes (which growl for some goddamn reason) rip through everything. Never mind the plot holes, erroneous science, and rampant Pepsi product placement—those tractors dropping out of the sky was badass!