One of the advantages of being a newspaper reporter is that you aren’t chained to a desk. You need to be out there in the world, covering events, interviewing people, poking around, getting your hand on the news pulse. Being a dedicated reporter, that pulse would sometimes lead me onto the tennis courts or into the movie theaters, while I was purportedly out doing “research,” usually in the afternoon.
Weekday afternoons are great times to play tennis and watch movies. The tennis courts are empty, so you don’t have to worry about waiting. The theaters are also empty – and you get the cheap matinee prices.
Was I supposed to be playing tennis or watching movies on the job? Well, not exactly. And by “not exactly,” I mean “not at all.” Was I goofing off? Of course! But I was also a fast worker! A model of efficiency! Was it my fault that I had most of my work done early, leaving my afternoons “free,” while my bosses toiled away in blissful ignorance of my whereabouts?
Well, it was all a long time ago – pre-cell phone. You couldn’t get away with that today. But I’m a free-lancer now, so what do I care?
I can’t remember the last time I’ve been to a movie theater. Probably several years ago, when the whole family went to see a kids’ movie. My wife and daughters still do that – or did, pre-lockdown – but I tend to sit it out anymore. Movie theaters lost their charm for me a long time ago. The combination of high prices and too many people chattering away ruined the experience.
But, I still like movies. And while watching them in a dark living room on a wide-screen TV is not exactly the same as watching them in a theater, it’s close enough. Plus, you get the serenity of knowing you can enjoy them in peace, without some goofball behind you asking his girlfriend what they should do after the movie they’re supposed to be watching.
Being a movie and list fan, I often make lists in my head of different movie themes. Favorite movies. Scariest movies. Funniest movies. Movies that start out great and fizzle into nothing. Movies that start out poorly but pick up steam midway through.
Today’s list is 13 movies I can watch over and over again. This isn’t the same as your favorite movies. For example, the 1978 Vietnam War drama “The Deer Hunter” is probably in my all-time Top 20, but I couldn’t watch it over and over again because it’s too long and depressing.
To qualify as something I could watch over and over again, a movie needs one of the following qualities:
- It’s so brilliant that it pulls you in every time, and never fails to surprise you with something you didn’t notice before
- It has a certain look or sound that intoxicates you
- It’s entertaining, either through an endless stream of laughs or thrills
- It’s short enough that you know there won’t be a huge time commitment
- It strikes a personal chord in you
Anyway, with those ground rules in place, let’s move on to the list. Each of the movies listed below links to the trailer:
Taxi Driver, 1976: If someone were to press a gun against my head and demand to know my favorite all-time movie, this would be it. I don’t know how many times I’ve seen “Taxi Driver.” More than a dozen, easily. And it never gets old. Robert DeNiro’s performance as the tortured Travis Bickle has reached a kind of legendary status, and with good reason. He perfectly encapsulates the isolation and paranoia of that character, in that place and time. The supporting actors are also outstanding: Jodie Foster, Peter Boyle, Cybill Shepherd, Harvey Keitel, Albert Brooks. Then there’s the way director Martin Scorsese captures the New York of the 1970s, in all of its dark and dangerous glory. And I really, really dig the jazz noir soundtrack.
Office Space, 1999: This is about as far away from “Taxi Driver” as you can get: A comedy set in a suburban office park in Texas in the roaring, happy-go-lucky ‘90s. “Office Space” has become something of a cult classic over the last couple of decades, probably because anyone who has ever spent time in CubicleLand can relate. Gary Cole’s smarmy, passive-aggressive Bill Lumbergh has become the public face of smarmy, passive-aggressive office managers everywhere. But the reason I can watch the movie over and over is because I actually find comfort in suburban office parks with cubicles and bad coffee. Don’t ask me why.
Casablanca, 1943: Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world….I probably know every scene of this movie by heart. I can recite all the best lines from memory, and there are lots of them. I know that Humphrey Bogart never said “play it again, Sam,” and neither did Ingrid Bergman. Claude Rains, Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet were brilliant. It’s the most romantic movie ever made – not just because of the bittersweet love affair between Rick and Ilsa, but also because it was set in exotic Morocco during World War II, and the nightclubs were dazzling, and everyone looked and sounded fabulous. I recorded this movie over here in London and it will never be deleted while I’m here. The other movie I recorded that won’t be deleted? “Taxi Driver.”
Dr. Strangelove, 1964: This is an example of a movie I never tire of because it just cracks me up every time. It’s set during the height of the Cold War, when the U.S. and Soviet Union were in a bitter arms race. Peter Sellers plays three parts, all brilliantly. There may be no funnier scene in filmdom than when Sellers, playing the U.S. president, gets on the phone with the Soviet premiere to let him know, as gently as he can, that a deranged American general has gone rogue and ordered a nuclear strike on Russia. “Now Dmitri,” Sellers says, “(this general) went and did a silly thing.”
Meanwhile, Sterling Hayden, as the aforementioned deranged general, explains to one of his underlings that he wants to protect America’s “precious bodily fluids” from the Commie threat of chlorinated water. And George C. Scott, as another American general, wants to launch a preemptive attack on the Soviet Union before they have a chance to attack first. When told by the president that doing so could lead to untold death and destruction, he replies: “Mr. President, I’m not saying we wouldn’t get our hair mussed, but I do say no more than 10 to 20 million killed.”
The Natural, 1984:It’s a baseball movie set in the 1930s. Slugging outfielder Roy Hobbs (Robert Redford) literally knocks the cover off the ball. You get to see old ballparks and fedoras. You get Glenn Close and Wilford Brimley. ‘Nuff said.
Fargo, 1996: It amazes me that when you google “Fargo,” the first thing that comes up is the TV series instead of the original Coen Brothers’ movie. That probably says more about Google algorithms than anything else. The movie is a classic, performance-driven black comedy that never overstays its welcome. “Fargo” manages to be hilarious, poignant and disturbing all at the same time, even in individual scenes. You not only get terrific performances from Frances McDormand, William H. Macy and Steve Buscemi – you also get to hear “oh, you betcha” a lot.
Best in Show, 2000: Christopher Guest’s mockumentary about dog shows is hilarious without being condescending to the subject matter. The performances by the ensemble cast of Guest, Catherine O’Hara, Jane Lynch, Eugene Levy, Michael McKean, Jennifer Coolidge, Fred Willard and Parker Posey are spot on. Most Chris Guest fans would probably put “This Is Spinal Tap” here. Fine. Write your own blogs.
Apocalypse Now, 1979: Another war movie, this one set in darkest Vietnam. Francis Ford Coppola might be my favorite director, and this is my favorite movie of his. It’s visually stunning, brilliantly written, and epic in both scope and ambition. Tales of its production problems and cost overruns are legend. Martin Sheen suffered a heart attack and nervous breakdown while filming on location in the Philippines. Coppola might have gone slightly mad in his obsession with getting it finished. Memorable performances from Marlon Brando, Robert Duvall, Dennis Hopper and a very young Lawrence Fishburn. Harrison Ford also made a brief appearance. The soundtrack is tres magnifique.
La La Land, 2016: This is one of those popcorn movies that are just fun to watch. It’s a musical romantic comedy that got a lot of accolades – and backlash. Some people were upset about its treatment of jazz, the African American musical form that in this case is more or less “rescued” by a white character played by Ryan Gosling. Okay, I get the criticism. White man rescues black music. Give us a break. But as a jazz fan, I was just happy that it put the music in the spotlight for a while. The whole cultural appropriation argument has its time and place, and this blog is neither the time nor place. To me, “La La Land” is just easy entertainment, a magical movie set in magical L.A., built around my favorite music, with terrific performances by Gosling and Emma Stone. Also, I REALLY love the opening number, critics be damned.
Animal House, 1978: Knowledge is Good. That was the motto of Faber College, where this raunchy fraternity comedy was set. And it’s true! Knowledge is good. For those of us of a certain generation – basically, those who were in college when National Lampoon’s “Animal House” was released – this movie is a cultural touchstone, right up there with “Saturday Night Live” and the Philadelphia 76ers of Doctor J. That’s probably much of its allure for me, along with the chuckles to be had. “Animal House” is not for everybody, and I’m sure some of the humor doesn’t translate that well to modern, woke times. But for some of us, it’s like an old jacket that fits comfortably every time.
Jaws, 1975: Speaking of cultural touchstones….this was the movie that basically invented the summer blockbuster. Most people know the story: There’s a great white shark out there, and it’s hungry. But even though “Jaws” is best remembered for its action and frights, what keeps me coming back for more is the humanity behind it. Chief Brody (played by Roy Scheider), Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) and Quint (Robert Shaw) are all very flawed and complex characters, which makes “Jaws” as much of a human drama as a summer thriller.
Summer of Sam, 1999: A Spike Lee joint about the hellish summer of 1977 in New York City. The city was on edge because of the Son of Sam murders, a three-day blackout, a municipal bankruptcy, soaring crime rates, and an overall apocalyptic landscape that manifested itself in musical forms like punk and rap. I wrote about my fascination with the year and the cultural movement in an earlier blog. That fascination goes a long way toward explaining why “Summer of Sam” is on this list, along with Spike Lee’s usual genius for the visual, and some great performances from John Leguizamo, Mira Sorvino and Adrien Brody.
Woodstock, 1970: I love documentaries, but most of the ones I love are so disturbing that I can’t watch them more than a couple of times. So I chose this one. It’s very long, and some of the performances are not great (sorry, John Sebastian, but this was not your best day). But some of the performances are great – Sly and the Family Stone, the Who, Richie Havens, Santana, Jimi, Janis. And there are some really cool scenes, ranging from the Porta-John guy to Allen Ginsburg taking part in a yoga session.
Note: The decade most represented here is the 1970s, with four entries (Woodstock was released in 1970, but let’s face it, it’s a 1960s movie). That’s not surprising, considering that my cultural awareness was formed in the ‘70s, which is often cited as the greatest decade for cinema. But three were from the 1990s, and really, “Best In Show” was probably more of a ‘90s film than one from the 2000s. Not that my opinion counts for anything, but the ‘90s was also a golden age for movies.