Wet Hot American Summer (2001, dir. David Wain)
In honor of turning 40 years of age, I am presenting a list of my 40 Favorite Films in order. The long list was over 200 items so this has been pared down and mulled over considerably . The films that make up the bottom part of a list like this are often the “just made its.” They had some unique element, in some cases utterly indescribable, that qualified them for a spot over something else. We begin with Wet Hot American Summer, a film I saw in 2001 while a college student. I had become tangentially aware of The State through one of my friends Keith, the same friend who introduced me to Mr. Show and for whom I am incredibly thankful. These shows ultimately helped shape my personal taste in comedy in a significant way.
Wet Hot American Summer or WHAS was critically panned, with many of them not getting the style of jokes. I certainly think people my age understood it better and got that the humor came from the same vein as someone like Steve Martin. This was silliness for silliness’ sake. There are no grand themes or lessons learned. This is part parody of summer camp movies but also just a celebration of dumb comedy. Performer Michael Showalter is our protagonist, but it’s Paul Rudd who steals the show. I also think Janeane Garafalo and David Hyde Pierce are the secret best parts of this movie with its utterly insane Skylab subplot. It appeared that people of my age did love this film as seventeen years later, Netflix had released a prequel series and a sequel series. I don’t think they are quite as good as the feature film that started it all but are still enjoyable.
Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (1988, dir. Frank Oz)
My full review
I debated whether I should put this film or What About Bob? on the list. They are both movies from my childhood that served to shape my proclivity for dark humor, real dark comedy, not the “edgy” stuff dudebros proclaim to love online. Frank Oz, who got his start as a Muppeteer, has a great understanding of how to make movies about deeply unlikable protagonists and, by the end, have us loving them to some extent. In Scoundrels, he gives us the pitch-perfect pairing of Steve Martin and Michael Caine as very different con men pitted against each other in the French Riviera. Each actor plays into their type as perceived by audiences, giving very different, contrasting, and satisfying performances. I also think the late Glenne Headley does a fantastic job as the “United States Soap Queen” Janet Colgate, who becomes the target of both men in a contest to claim territory. During pre-production, David Bowie & Mick Jagger were considered for the leads, and I can’t even imagine what a different and likely not as good film we would have gotten. Steve Martin read the role of Freddy Benson by accident after thinking he was auditioning for what would be Caine’s role as Jamieson. Oz was so impressed with Martin he rethought the whole casting situation, and thus we got the still hilarious film we have today.
Superman: The Movie (1978, dir. Richard Donner)
The impact of Superman the Movie on my life is a hard one, to sum up. It’s one of my earliest film memories, and I can even recall the teaser before it aired as the Sunday Night Movie on ABC. This was sometime during the early 1980s, and I can remember being in my grandparents’ living room watching it. Now our memories are not the most reliable, so what I have in my head may be a mish-mash of recollections from throughout my childhood. My future love of comic books would come out of what an impression this film made on me, with Superman comics being some of my earliest purchases with allowance and birthday money. I think the most compelling aspect of the film is still Christopher Reeve in that title role. There simply has been no one else thus far who has played both Superman & Clark Kent with such perfection and sensitivity. Reeve’s Superman truly cared about every person he met. He didn’t exude the fatherly energy of previous iterations of the Man of Steel; rather, this was a perfect Superman to have come out of the tumult of the 1960 & the 70s. He reassured the audience that things would be okay and lived by a code of doing good in a time where the public had begun to sour on the idea of leaders being good. As Zod would state in Superman II, the “weakness” of Superman is that “he cares,” which is what makes us love him all the more. John Williams’s score is also an iconic piece of film music, from the sweeping triumphant Superman theme to the heavy burden of Krypton’s music. The current crop of superhero movies even pales in the music department.
Pee Wee’s Big Adventure (1985, dir. Tim Burton)
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As a kid, I couldn’t tell you exactly what the appeal of Pee-Wee was, but I knew I loved seeing him on screen. I can’t exactly remember when I saw him for the first time, but I remember a family friend telling me the plot of this film. I’d later watch his Playhouse series on CBS and, of course, come to love this movie. One of the things I like best when I revisit Big Adventure is how we got Tim Burton before he became so consumed by his personal aesthetics. The picture has his touches all across it, especially with the dark places the story will sometimes go. Now his movies seem fixated on pushing his repetitive and simply boring stylization without any substance behind it. In Big Adventure, the film is carried quite impressively on the back of actor Paul Reubens. He is wholly committed to this role and delivers a genuinely impressive comedic performance delivering Pee-Wee’s emotional highs and lows. You laugh, but you also come to love Pee-Wee and root for him. This is one of those movies where it’s not so dependent on a single cohesive narrative but rather putting Pee-Wee in interesting situations and seeing what he does. There have been a couple appearances of the Pee-Wee character in films since this, but none of them have come close to capturing the magic of Big Adventure. I think that the missing ingredient is Burton. Reubens has expressed a desire to produce a script about Pee-Wee’s dark fall in Hollywood, and I hope one day that can be made. I think going back to the character’s darker roots is what is needed.
Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011, dir. Sean Durkin)
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This is the most recent picture in this batch of films, and it’s the first time I saw Elizabeth Olsen perform. I would say I was immediately impressed, and I’ve found the Marvel movies have sort of sidetracked her. I also think she does a great job alongside Aubrey Plaza in Ingrid Goes West, but her career certainly seems to have been taken over by Marvel for the foreseeable future. This film is a deceptively simple story about a young woman, Martha, who is picked up and taken in by her older sister after fleeing from a cult. The film jumps between the present in her sister’s lake house and the year before, where Martha is gaslighted and brainwashed by the cult and its leader. Director Durkin builds the tension with precision and weaves a story that leaves the audience unsure about Martha’s motivations. Even Martha may not be sure of her own motivations or what she actually wants as her sense of self was obliterated. This picture was the subject of my to-date only Cinematic Deprivation Tank, where I watched it for five consecutive days in a row. The result was seeing how rich the character work was in the supporting roles and all the ways Durkin subtly displays the breakdown of Martha while the character is convinced that she’s being empowered.
Brazil (1985, dir. Terry Gilliam)
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I am so conflicted about Terry Gilliam as most of his films I do not like in the slightest. He’s constantly a test of whether artists should be given free rein or reigned in. Brazil is an example of his sensibilities working best without editing and notes, and that can literally be seen when comparing the two versions of Brazil. The director’s cut of Brazil is better because Gilliam indulges in a story that only he could tell. Sam Lowry (Jonathan Pryce) is a paper pusher in a not-too-distant dystopia. His escapes are his dreams where he exists as an armored & winged hero rescuing a mysterious woman. Things change when he sees this woman in real life while also dealing with some horrible corruption in his government. By the end of the movie, Sam’s dreams become his one way of victory but not necessarily in the way an audience might expect. I have to applaud Gilliam for his willingness to deliver dark, ambiguous endings. This picture and Time Bandits conclude with our characters in dubious spots and may not hit the audience as feel-good. But I would argue Brazil’s conclusion is incredibly honest when you look at the outcomes of authoritarian states. Those places often don’t have regular people who emerge as heroes who last very long.
Unbreakable (2000, dir. M. Night Shyamalan)
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I have extremely strong opinions about M. Night Shyamalan, which have become increasingly negative over the last 20 years. However, Unbreakable still stands as one of the best things he’s ever made, a baffling piece of evidence in a body of work that is utterly terrible at so many points. What appealed to me most and continues so about Unbreakable is that he has such a deep understanding of what makes comic books and their characters compelling. Bruce Willis plays David Dunn, an everyman who discovers he may be an actual superhero. He’s guided by Elijah Glass (Samuel L. Jackson), a comic book art gallery owner born with a bone disease that leaves him prone to regular breaks. Glass keeps pushing Dunn to reflect on his life and times he may have been imperiled. What Dunn realizes is that he’s never really been harmed in his entire life. This is not a film about the spectacle of being a superhero but about the emotions and humanity involved. I think the whole picture is so beautifully done, from the acting to the directing and all technical aspects. I wish I could say the follow-up films were as good, but they were made when M. Night entered his “dark period,” i.e., the rest of his career. I enthusiastically recommend Unbreakable though, it is arguably the best superhero movie ever made without relying on colorful costumes or hundred million dollar special effects.
Airplane! (1980, dir. Jim Abrahams, David Zucker, and Jerry Zucker)
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Airplane! remains one of those comedies that still leaves me laughing every time I view it. It’s funny that a critic like Roger Ebert would dislike Wet Hot American Summer yet love Airplane! Though they are not precisely the same, both pictures are cut from the same comedic cloth. The filmmakers aspired to throw as many jokes as possible into a script, and they succeeded. If one joke doesn’t hit strong enough, there’s another coming. The comedy is a mix of slapstick, wordplay, callbacks, parody, and absurdism. The film was intended to be a parody of airport disaster movies, and it directly references many of them. However, as someone who has never seen those films, Airplane! is still uproariously funny. The performances from Robert Hays, Julie Hagerty, and Leslie Nielsen are standout, but you have so many great supporting roles as well. I particularly love Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as navigator Roger Murdock who gets called out by a child passenger that recognizes him.
Lost in America (1985, dir. Albert Brooks)
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Albert Brooks is definitely an acquired taste, a particular acerbic talent who can needle at his characters without ever becoming mean-spirited. Lost in America is a tale of the yuppie boomer, inspired by films like Easy Rider, growing restless with the mundanity of corporate life. Our protagonist, played by Brooks, quits his job when he’s given a “lateral promotion” or what we would call a transfer from the L.A. to the New York offices of his advertising firm. Julie Hagerty makes her second appearance on the list as Brooks’s wife, who is willing to follow him on this dream of independence. In some ways, this film works as a companion piece to Nomadland. In that film, a life lived out of a van is a burden that also frees its protagonist; Lost in America presents characters in a similar situation who eventually clamor to get back to their life of blissful middle-class ignorance. What works best in this film is Brooks as a man breaking down in the funniest ways possible and Hagerty when she takes on a persona that challenges our preconceptions of her. Despite my love for Brooks’s other films, particularly Real Life and Modern Romance, I will always have a special place in my heart for this one.
Young Frankenstein (1974, dir. Mel Brooks)
Admission: I have never seen the original James Whale Frankenstein picture or any of the Universal horror films aside from The Wolfman starring Lon Chaney, Jr. This is strange to me upon reflection because I rabidly consumed books from a series at my library as a child all about these monsters and their movies. I first became aware of films like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari through one of these books. You would think when I finally had greater access to cinema, I would have watched through them all, however to date, I have not. That didn’t diminish my love of Mel Brooks’s Young Frankenstein, a comedic sequel that follows the nephew of the late doctor. I don’t know if Gene Wilder has ever given a better performance than this. I know I’ve loved him in almost every one of his films, save some of the later works, but he is simply on fire in this picture. Wilder made a name for himself playing the most neurotic, panic-prone characters, and he delivers that with a side of arrogance that makes the ensuing contrast hilarious. Seeing Wilder shift in seconds from assured confidence to utter terror and fear will never cease to be funny.