There’s no repressing the happy grins emerging from René Clair’s classic early talkie, an anti-industrialization parable (which years later would be largely ripped off by Charlie Chaplin in Modern Times) that follows two escaped convicts who confront modern factory life. Spring is the season for wishing for irresponsible alternatives to maturity and duty, and this sunny, flowery, goofy film is a wish come true.
The Marx Brothers do the horse track—which is to say that A Day at the Races has very little to do with racing at all. Unfortunately, it’s one of the brotherhood’s later films, for MGM, which despite hearty servings of Marxian wackiness are overrun with romantic subplots and unfunny musical numbers. Still, if you’re having juleps, this is your best bet.
What better company, if you’re without a man and frustrated, than Mae West, a woman’s woman who’s built like a battleship, is in complete control of her sexual identity, and is ready to use up men like tissues, with no more than a smirk and tossed bon mot? In I’m No Angel, West remains an invigorating, optimistic object lesson in how to be comfortable in your own skin, how to love sex for sex’s sake, and why you need never rely on a man.
Here was the late twentieth century’s generational anthem film, except no one seemed terribly interested in identifying with it. Writer/director Noah Baumbach’s debut, Kicking and Screaming is a rueful portrait of four preppy, Ivy League–ish friends. Living off campus, they’re suddenly left in the weird afterworld in which graduation has marked them as grown-ups, but the indulgent, trivia-obsessed allure of college life maintains its grip. Baumbach poured a hundred college careers’ worth of ironic humor into the script, and Chris Eigeman, Josh Hamilton, and Carlos Jacott are a dry riot. Eric Stoltz almost steals the movie in an improvised role as a philosophical bartender, but it’s hard not to fall for Olivia d’Abo as an impulsive creative-writing major who’s a tad self-conscious about her braces.
Nobody college grad Helen Childress penned Reality Bites, a magnifying-glass comedy about post-graduation aimlessness and slackdom, and with a great cast (including Winona Ryder, Ethan Hawke, Janeane Garofalo, Steve Zahn, and Ben Stiller) it lands on a facet of modern reality rarely seen on film: the way twentysomethings can talk in comic code to each other and to themselves, aggrandizing their nothingness and elevating childhood pop culture to the status of idolhood.
A narrow but rueful valentine to the college grads of the ’Nam era, this is the film that introduced Kevin Costner to the world. Here he plays the larky leader of a motley gang of sullen jerks, each of whom is engaged in either embracing the war, running from the draft, getting married, or merely remaining drunkenly unconscious. Costner’s energy keeps Fandango afloat. With Judd Nelson, Sam Robards, and Suzy Amis.
Real Genius is a supremely silly 1980s teen comedy about a private high school for scientific geniuses, featuring a fantastically zingy Val Kilmer as the senior class’s reigning brain, who has already decided that being smart will not prevent him from being a complete clown. As the new kid in town, Gabe Jarret is too convincingly awkward.
The Bank Dick is perhaps W. C. Fields’s masterwork, in which the unfocused, red-nosed layabout takes a job as a bank guard; the structural demands of employment only add to the Fields persona’s already looming mountain of agitations. Brutally hilarious, especially if you, too, are pickled (on the job?!). Fields was easily the most despicable comic figure in Hollywood history, making dour jokes about his own alcoholic ruin, but that doesn’t mean he didn’t know what was funny.
A hockey movie for people who play hockey as well as for those who just watch it. In this small Alaskan town, the greatest ambition and honor is to skate in the Saturday Game—a weekly event that entails skating out of a log-cabin locker room to the cheers of the town’s populace and playing on frozen ponds circled by towering firs and ice-capped mountains (this is a place where snowmobiles and ice skates are used for transportation, not recreation). Of course, plot-wise, the big-city types invade with a deal to play a show game with the New York Rangers. Mystery, Alaska is heartwarming underdog schmaltz without being smarmy, and true fans will appreciate such quirkiness as warming skates with hot potatoes and being forced to slide, bare-assed, across the ice as punishment for transgressions against teammates. Ranger fans will be put off, though: their team are depicted as overpaid, spoiled princes who can only play in heated rinks. With Russell Crowe, Hank Azaria, Mary McCormack, and Burt Reynolds.
Essentially The Bad News Bears on Ice, this formulaic story of a self-centered lawyer (Emilio Estevez) who finds redemption coaching a klutzy peewee hockey team garnered enough box office draw and wholeheartedly devoted fans to warrant two sequels, a TV series, and a video game. For the prepuberty leagues only, The Mighty Ducks certainly pounds home the importance of teamwork—and the potential amorality of rich lawyers.
The first and probably only genuine American satire about hockey, this black-eyed hoot in the Michael Ritchie style (think Smile, The Bad News Bears, and Semi-Tough) has Paul Newman playing an aging sub-league coach/captain determined to make his small-town’s scruffy franchise profitable, even if it means breaking every rule and premeditating assault. Written by veteran radical comedy ace Nancy Dowd, the unglamorous film was a modest success upon its release, but its fame and cult esteem have grown exponentially in the years since. If you can’t quote from Slap Shot, you’ve gotten yourself left behind.
This peculiar movie musical, derived from a Dennis PotterBBC series, brings the 1930s back in a unique way: with the original popular recordings of the day, straight off the old, scratchy records, lip-synched by Steve Martin, Bernadette Peters, and others as they live out a pathetic tale of economic destitution in a mythical studio-set city that, during the song sequences, frequently turns into a glitzy fantasy realm. And then back again: the undulation of sky-high oldies and dour “reality” in Pennies from Heaven is disarming and fascinating.
Peter Bogdanovich’s grim comedy about the Depression, in which Tatum O’Neal’s raw-mouthed orphan latches onto Ryan O’Neal’s fumbling, Bible-hawking con man (more out of hope for love, home, and a sense of belonging than for loot), has a formidable period thrust. The glowering black-and-white cinematography, the desolate midwestern towns, the exhausted faces of the poor, the empty Kansas skyline—every frame ofPaper Moon makes you feel like you landed in 1936 without a nickel in your pocket. It’s largely forgotten now, but it justly received acclaim back in 1973; the sorely missed Madeline Kahn practically steals the movie in a mere twenty minutes, but she lost the Best Supporting Actress Oscar to Tatum, who remains the youngest winner ever of an Academy Award.
The pivotal National Lampoon/Saturday Night Live–era comedy, co-written and directed by Harold Ramis, in which gophers run amok, Chevy Chase hits droll notes (this was back when he was funny), Bill Murray invents Carl the groundskeeper, Ted Knight bursts a blood vessel, and Rodney Dangerfield asks who, in fact, stepped on a duck. There’s more. Caddyshack is a bit of a mess, but golfers can’t go wrong with this film, especially if they’re loaded.
This vintage Charlie Chaplin two-reeler (amounting to about thirty minutes) is the first notable golf comedy: Chaplin’s Tramp infiltrates an aristocratic golf club and shows up the snobs. The brilliant pratfall gags in The Idle Class are so concise you’d think they were digitally timed.
A devilishly rich character comedy about how being a new parent compels one to explore one’s own roots, David O. Russell’s high-concept rip Flirting with Disaster is packed with unpredictable rhythms, dead-perfect line readings, and hilarious peripheral characters. New dad/adopted schlemiel Ben Stiller wants to find out who his biological parents are; a cross-country journey ensues, in which viewers are treated to frustrated wife Patricia Arquette, chain-smoking social worker Téa Leoni, gay cop couples, a raft of mistaken identities, inadvertent LSD consumption, armpit sex, and the meddlesome hell of Jewish parents Mary Tyler Moore and George Segal. The baby is somewhat secondary to the mind frames of the neurotic father, but the states of parenthood and familial belonging have never been so hilariously besieged. One viewing won’t cut it.
Joel and Ethan Coen’s second film, and a wild-eyed, Rube Goldberg riot, as Southern-fool marrieds Nicolas Cage and Holly Hunter, unable to have babies of their own (“Her insides were a rocky place,” Cage’s dopey felon bemoans in an unforgettable narration, “where my seed could find no purchase.”), kidnap one from a set of quintuplets. From there, Raising Arizona is a veritable Road Runner cartoon revolving around the infant’s essentially irresistible baby-ness, and there are enough character-rich hee-haws for ten movies. The urgent matter of getting your hands on some Huggies in the worst of circumstances was never made so thrilling.
Yet another disaffected-teen indie but one loaded to the brim with energetic personality, comic timing, bizarre non sequiturs and raw script wit. Two high school buddies with generational problems – motherless Joe (Nick Robinson) has commanding widower Nick Offerman dishing him sarcastic shit every day, while Patrick (Gabriel Basso) endures hilariously overripe helicopter parents (Megan Mullally and Marc Evan Jackson) – discover a patch of forgotten woods, and decide, with a third kid, the cryptic weirdo Biaggio (Moises Arias), to run away, build a makeshift house in the secret glade, and “live off the land,” more or less forever. The dissection of The Outsiders mythology is deft, and there’s no denying the film’s blast of nonstop drollery (even a running gag about the largest Chinese takeout dumplings on Earth keeps paying off) or verdant hang-out aura.
In this adaptation of Nick Hornby’s farcically self-pitying novel High Fidelity, John Cusack plays a going-nowhere record store owner and pop-music obsessive who, after his latest relationship collapses, takes the viewer on a tour of his past romances. With Jack Black and Catherine Zeta-Jones.
Ex–Monty Pythonite Terry Gilliam’s second solo feature is a nutty, sui generis fantasy-comedy crack-up about a rebel band of time-traveling dwarves bouncing through history (both documented and completely nonsensical). The rambunctious journey is made possible by a certain time-portal map desired by both the underworldly Evil Genius (David Warner) and the beneficent Supreme Being (Ralph Richardson). With tons of in-jokes, pratfalls, cameos, wondrous fantasy ideas, and Pythonesque surrealism, Time Bandits is quite lovable and inventive in ways that Gilliam’s subsequent films haven’t managed; kudos to John Cleese as a clueless Robin Hood, and David Rappaport as the leader of the pint-sized insurrectionists.
Rough-hewn but brilliantly funny and captivatingly spontaneous, these seminal Hal Roach Our Gang/ Little Rascals comedies will be a rapturous flashback for parents who remember seeing them rerun on local TV in the 1970s and early ’80s, but anyone, regardless of age, will find them irresistible. The year span noted here is not arbitrary—after 1938, Spanky McFarland got too close to puberty, and the 1940s shorts were just not in the same class.
Imagine if all your relations were complete eccentrics—and you had to mix them with your beloved’s stuffy clan, like combustible substances meeting over dinner. George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart’s supremely larky play You Can’t Take It with You won a Pulitzer, and Frank Capra’s film won a Best Picture Oscar, but something tells us you had to be there, in the 1930s, to appreciate this stagy, singsong fluff. Still, the cast is rich stuff, beginning with James Stewart and Jean Arthur as the kids in love; Lionel Barrymore, Spring Byington, Ann Miller, Mischa Auer, Dub Taylor, and Samuel S. Hinds fill out the tax-evading, semidelusional, near-anarchist Sycamore tribe.
One of the best and wittiest of the comedies made during the 1970s ”look back in fondness” craze, Mike Nichols’s The Fortune—about a pair of nitwits (Warren Beatty and Jack Nicholson) who attempt to murder ditzy heiress Stockard Channing—is so summer-before-the-Crash hazy that the cinematography itself seems light-headed with humidity. The 1920s atmosphere is all sun, white linen, old convertibles, improperly paved country roads, palm trees, and screwball, like a Gatsby scenario with its pants down.