When fellow columnist Diablo Cody remarked on how little use she had for summer movies, I felt like rushing to her current location so I could give her a hug and a high five, because I feel exactly the same way. I loathe romantic comedies that play fast and loose with human nature, and I avoid cartoons about cuddly talking animals (Ratatouille being the exception that proves the rule). And superheroes? Had my fill, thanks. Once you’ve seen The Dark Knight, the original Spider-Man movie, and Watchmen (too long, but visually gorgeous and thematically ambitious), the rest are just testosterone-injected filler.
I’ll be a moviegoer until the day I die, but between mid-May and the end of August, I haunt the video store and go back to my old friends. Here are 20 that never disappoint. Comments are brief because space is limited; basically what I’m saying is trust your Uncle Stevie.
20. White Heat stars Jimmy Cagney as a trigger-happy hood who suffers from migraine headaches and a mom complex. Michael Mann’s Public Enemies looks boring in comparison.
19. In Mr. Peabody and the Mermaid, William Powell hooks a mermaid while on vacation with his wife and keeps her in his bathtub. Funny and sweet.
18. Point Blank is a John Boorman chiller starring Lee Marvin as a walking wall of vengeance. As one sage viewer on IMDb points out, ”Nobody punches a crotch like Marvin!”
17. Titanic: Go ahead, laugh. My heart will still go on.
16. Saturday Night Fever features John Travolta’s mad cool dancing and hilarious ’70s fashions. Plus the high, peeping voices of the Bee Gees.
15. Curse of the Demon is an older (1958), calmer version of Drag Me to Hell. Small budget, seat-of-the-pants SFX…and still scary.
14. Steven Spielberg’s 1941 is a terrific screwball comedy filled with amazing visual sequences. Screen it for your kids and watch their jaws drop.
13. Cujo is still scary, and a movie with real resonance. I remain pissed that Dee Wallace didn’t get an Oscar nomination for her portrayal of the mom who turns tigress when her son’s life is threatened by a rabid dog.
12. The Caine Mutiny features Humphrey Bogart in his finest role, as the shifty-eyed, ball-bearing-rattling Captain Queeg.
11. The original version of The Thing was moody and atmospheric, but I prefer John Carpenter’s gaudy remake with Kurt Russell (1982).
10. Dr. Strangelove: ”Gentlemen, you can’t fight in here! This is the War Room!” Need I say more?
9. Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia: Warren Oates as the grimmest, grittiest small-time bad guy ever. This is the cinematic equivalent of Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian.
8. Kiss of Death is my favorite film noir. Richard Widmark plays a hood who shoots people in the belly ”so they can roll around for a long time thinkin’ it over.”
7. Die Hard has been often imitated but never duplicated. Willis good, Rickman better. Yippee-ki-yay, motherchucker.
6. The Blues Brothers: Aykroyd and Belushi, still cool in shades. And the music kicks ass.
5. The Blair Witch Project: Now that all the hype has subsided, you can revisit this pocket masterpiece and marvel at how scary it really is. Impossible to say why it works, but it does.
4. The Wild Bunch: Quite simply the best Western ever made. Sam Peckinpah may have gotten more honesty and grit out of his Hollywood stars than any other director in history.
3. Sling Blade still tugs my heart after a dozen viewings. The portrayal of small-town American life is sweet, and Billy Bob Thornton’s portrayal of Karl Childers is a thing of beauty.
2. and 1. Desperate men with nothing to lose set out in a truck convoy through the South American jungle. Their cargo is rotting dynamite sweating nitro, stuff so unstable the least bump may set it off. The original, Wages of Fear, is considered one of the greatest movies of the modern age, but I have a sneaking preference for Sorcerer, William Friedkin’s remake. Roy Scheider had two great roles: Chief Brody in Jaws and Jackie Scanlon in Sorcerer. These films generate suspense through beautiful simplicity.
Go and watch some of these. And if you miss your summer window of opportunity, there’s always next summer. Or hell, this fall.