The Strop is a place to whet your appetite for damn good stories. Check back every Friday for our latest recommendations. This week, the recommendations come from Wrangler contributor Benjamin Smith.
When we consider the aspects of a story—a film, in this case—that make it qualitatively “good,” we often turn to structure. Pacing, dialogue, cinematography. What technical aspects make a movie more memorable than any other? But on thinking about what films to recommend, I found myself considering those I go back to again and again, not because of their artistic value, but because they’re engaging stories — and more importantly, in this case, fun stories. And while none of them are particularly under the radar — in fact, you might make a case for all these films as cult classics — few of them are the most celebrated of their respective creators. In no particular order, here are five films that know how to have a damn good time — and how they involve you so deeply in their zany universes that you forget you’re watching a movie at all.
1. John Carpenter’s They Live (1988)
Carpenter, best known for writing, directing, and scoring classic horror flicks like Halloween and The Thing, created a masterpiece in They Live, a sort-of horror, sort-of comedy, definitely sci-fi romp about a society of hostile aliens living among us, controlling their human subjects with subliminal messaging — which, sure, can only be seen with special sunglasses. Our protagonist, Nada (played by the late, great “Rowdy” Roddy Piper), finds a box of the shades hidden inside a church wall, and once he sees the invaders for what they are, the movie takes on a classic humans vs. aliens vibe — but its best work has already been done. By the time you get to its most familiar moments, you’re already hooked. It’s a film that, for all its excess and bald-faced politicism, deftly pulls the viewer into its universe, managing to make the aliens seem both terrifying and just a little bit ridiculous at the same time. It knows exactly what it is, but doesn’t shy away from its emotional moments, as in the desperate brawl between Piper and Keith David’s Frank, a scene that remains the movie’s most iconic and effective. Notable at the time of its release for its not-so-subtle anti-Reagan agenda, They Live stands the test of time as nothing more or less than a well-spun tale.
2. The Coen Brothers’ Burn After Reading (2008)
While not the Coens’ best movie by any stretch, it’s certainly one of their most underrated. The story of a couple of local gym employees attempting to cluelessly blackmail the CIA with accidentally-obtained information of indeterminate importance, it’s a film that revels in its own convoluted pointlessness — and I mean that as a compliment. Few other narratives have the chutzpah to declare (and, in fact, celebrate) how little they matter, and to have such a good time doing it. These characters’ motivations, while ridiculous, couldn’t be more transparent. And the film never sacrifices the clarity of its storytelling. Still, there’s no rational beginning or ending to this situation. People die senselessly and make senseless decisions, and everyone is either out to get someone else or has no idea what’s going on. But the strength of the story is in its dramatic irony; even as none of these characters have the experience or the information to piece it all together, the audience does. That’s where its humor comes from, and that’s what makes it such a great story. JK Simmons’s CIA superior sums up the film’s plot in the final scene: “I guess we learned not to do it again,” he says. “But I’m fucked if I know what we did.”
3. WD Richter’s The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the Eighth Dimension (1984)
Buckaroo Banzai is something of a paradox. On one hand, it’s unabashedly silly. Here’s as close to you can get to a one-sentence rundown, straight from Wikipedia: “The premise centers upon the efforts of the polymath Dr. Buckaroo Banzai, a physicist, neurosurgeon, test pilot, and musician, to save the world by defeating a band of inter-dimensional aliens called Red Lectroids from Planet 10.” And while plenty of it is played for comedy (all the aliens are called John, for example, replete with surnames like “Bigbooté” and “Small Berries”), it’s also unabashedly earnest. Here’s where the paradox comes in: it’s somehow good. Nothing in this movie’s recipe says quality, and yet everything sort of works together in a way that’s hard to fathom. Part of that is a function of the incredible cast (Peter Weller, John Lithgow, Chris Lloyd, and Jeff Goldblum, among others). It’s not just that they’re good actors, but that they play these abjectly ludicrous characters so straight, tackling each (often silly) emotional beat with a deadpan sincerity that takes the movie from funny to hilarious, from vapid to surprisingly heartfelt, even as it knows exactly how wacky it is. It’s a balancing act that’s hard to pull off. Few films could, but this one does.
4. Jonathan Lynn’s Clue (1985)
Plenty of people know and love this movie. They should. It’s great. Plenty of people (mostly professional reviewers) have also derided it as gimmicky or convoluted. I’d argue they’re all right. An adaptation of the classic board game by Jonathan Lynn (of My Cousin Vinny fame) and John Landis (of, well, everything fame, including Animal House, Coming to America, and The Blues Brothers, a mess of a film I love so much I could write a whole essay about it), Clue lands on the opposite end of the spectrum from Buckaroo Banzai. It’s a film that is at every turn distinctly insincere, a world populated with spiteful, petty characters whose relationships with one another grow more ridiculous by the minute. At the same time, the acting is so charming, the writing so witty, that you can’t help but be pulled along anyway. It’s one of the few movies that works almost entirely on the strength and delivery of its jokes rather than its characters — which you’d think would make for a pretty poor viewing experience. But it doesn’t. If nothing else it’s a film with tremendous momentum, ramping up these characters’ discomfort with every plot point, not for a second taking itself seriously — and that’s the magic of it.
5. Edgar Wright’s Hot Fuzz (2007)
Edgar Wright is the master of genre parody, getting his start with the brilliant, underrated sitcom Spaced before getting his big break with Shaun of the Dead, the first installment in the barely-related Cornetto trilogy. The second movie in that trilogy, however, remains Wright’s most inspired, hilarious, and strangely tender film. At heart, Hot Fuzz is nothing more than a buddy cop movie, but the witty back-and-forths between Simon Pegg’s Nick Angel and everyone else, plus his clipped delivery, plus Wright’s distinctive editing style all culminate in a perfect immersion in the world of Angel and his bumbling partner (Nick Frost, of course!). The movies on this list veer from shameless sincerity to well-placed irony, but Hot Fuzz feels like the perfect blend of the two. It’s a story that can perfectly capture the emotional nativism at the heart of many tight-knit communities, that can acknowledge the tragedy of a broken family, only to play a dude getting impaled by a church roof spire mostly for laughs. But the relationship between Pegg and Frost’s characters, as in all their films, is the emotional core here, and it’s what drives this one from good to great.