A smile to my face and a spring to my step
by Mr. Nobel
Spurred by a conversation I had following The Avengers, I thought about my favorite bits of escapism in film. These aren’t movies that are great because of their thematic depth or artistic significance, but, rather, because they give viewers a great time. It’s artistic merit of a different kind yet valid and vital all the same. The resulting list wound up skewing towards the modern (mostly because, hey, I was raised now, not in the 70s), so I probably missed several classics along the way. Disclaimer: I’m not including any John Carpenter films because I’ve, shamefully, not viewed any.
Hot Fuzz is the only film on this list that also cracks my top 10 favorite films of all time. Hot Fuzz is a film whose labyrinth construction not only successfully emulates but improves upon the standard cop film conventions. The first time I watched Hot Fuzz, I honestly had no idea where the plot was going to take us. A wonderfully absurd thrill ride from start to explosive finish, Hot Fuzz handily carves out a slot among the classics.
Another cop movie, although marginally more serious this time. While Hot Fuzz wasn’t without an emotional core, Die Hard has a more powerful one – I find the plot about McClane’s wife to be a bit more compelling than the bromance in Hot Fuzz – with great characters, hardcore action and many quotable one-liners (a must in this genre).
Star Trek (2009)
Here is a movie whose flawless editing elevates the more mediocre aspects of the production. So, the script and the story aren’t the greatest things in the world. And Eric Bana as the villain didn’t really have a lot to do. Yet, Star Trek moves at such an assured clip that you hardly notice these little to big flaws. J.J. Abrams expertly zips from comic relief to epic vistas to actiony set pieces without missing a beat. Star Trek is the kind of movie after which you want to high five the people next to you.
Aliens is a vastly different beast than Alien, trading atmosphere and dread for camaraderie and an immense will to survive. I’m not saying that Aliens is superior to the original, but that Aliens provides the kind of thrills I’m looking for in this post. Infinitely quotable and with fantastic action direction, Aliens is an action movie for the ages, even if the special effects have not aged gracefully.
Spiderman has never been more epic and more relatable than in Spiderman 2. The movie’s an expert mix of comedy, action and pathos, delivering both visceral and emotional thrills in spades. Out of all the superhero movies since then, Spiderman 2 is still the only one in which I felt genuine emotional investment, making the ending all the more satisfying and conclusive.
Ocean’s 11 and Inside Man
Two vastly different heist movies yet they trade in, pretty much, the same level of engagement from the audience. Ocean’s 11 is a throwback to a more glamorous era of cinema, while Inside Man is a bit of a homage to the grittier films of the 70s and 80s. Soderbergh’s masterpiece trades in a steady stream of laughs culminating in a ridiculously convoluted and ridiculously smart caper. Inside Man is more about the build up of tension, as the audience gets more and more intrigued by the premise under which the robbers operate and their actual plan to get out of the bank alive. I felt a little bit conflicted about including Inside Man on this list, but I wound up doing so because the movie’s still a pretty light-hearted affair (spoiler: no one dies) and because Denzel Washington and Clive Owen exchange some pretty funny quips (that’s not a pina colada…).
Raiders of the Lost Ark
Really, all the Indiana Jones movies (yes, even Kingdom of the Crystal Skull) belong here. I think that I marginally prefer the first one to the others, if only for the bringing a gun to a sword-fight gag.
Catch Me If You Can
Spielberg is pretty good at making these diverting bits of popcorn fun. William Abagnale Jr.’s story is slightly tragic, but Spielberg never lets his film wallow in self pity. He uses Abagnale’s crooked yet lovable father as a springboard, the inciting event for the movie instead of the ever present force guiding Abagnale’s escapades (like in W.). It’s fun, breezy and slick, an almost guaranteed two hours of fun.
The Social Network
This one’s probably a little bit more controversial pick, but I don’t feel too bad about including it on this list. Because, really, even with all the drama, this is still a story about how some dudes wound up with a slightly smaller fraction of a lot of money. And, David Fincher has come out and said that his movie is pretty much a modern take on John Hughes. Still, Sorkin’s spectacular script and the cast’s fantastic performances keep viewers constantly entertained, and left just a little bit sad at the end.
I have a problem with portentous high school movies that claim to capture what it’s really like in secondary education (12, Prom, Havoc I’m looking at you) because I don’t remember doing that slamming that many drugs, getting that beaten up or wreaking that much havoc during my four years. On the other hand, I don’t have any problem with a high school movie that drops that pretense in favor of surrealism or unabashed theatricality. I like Mean Girls a little bit more than Fast Times at Ridgemont High and its ilk because I cannot conceive of a world in which Sean Penn is considered sexy. I like Mean Girls a little bit more than Rushmore, because I think it’s funnier. The movie’s got a lot of great gags and a genuine core to it. Tina Fey doesn’t bother getting the details right, opting, instead, to try and nail the emotions of adolescence. It works, to spectacular dividends, even if I was never fully convinced that Rachel McAdams was a junior.
Airplane! – One too many pop culture references that flew over my head, not enough jive talk.
Caddyshack – Not enough dick jokes.
Mission Impossible 3 – A great movie that could have been more effectively trimmed. Also, the fourth one spoiled me in terms of IMAX-aided vertigo-inducing set pieces.
Dr. Strangelove and In the Loop – Great comedies that I couldn’t include because they’re too pitch black to belong on the same list as fucking Mean Girls.
The Big Lebowski – Would include, but there’s only so many times you can hear, “Shut the fuck up, Donny” before it gets old.
True Lies – Not enough dick jokes.
The Incredibles – Fantastic opening and ending, boring and largely forgettable middle.
The Avengers – Amazing finale let down by the 90 minutes and 6 films it took to get there.