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The Reelist: Booze Movies

The holidays are a time of both joyful spirits and 80-proof spirits, and since December 5th is Repeal Day—the day which marked the end of Prohibition—we've compiled a list of 12 great booze-soaked flicks to get you through the season.

In the weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas, many people mark smaller occasions, including Hannukah, Pearl Harbor Day, the Winter Solstice, and Black Friday. But there's a little-known date that should get more play, and that's today—December 5th, also known as Repeal Day, which celebrates the end of Prohibition. So in honor of our constitutional right to get soused and make asses of ourselves at company holiday parties, we've assembled a list of movies devoted in one way or another to the pleasures and pitfalls of drinking. Now, we should note that there are plenty of cautionary tales on this list (and could have been plenty more), perhaps because down-on-their-luck boozehounds are more believable and have more dramatic potential than happy, successful lushes. But if you're the sort who hits the eggnog too hard this time of year, perhaps the darker stories on the list will offer a useful deterrent.

My Favorite Year

Dir. Richard Benjamin, 1982
Set in the age of 1950s NYC live television, My Favorite Year is the story of young Benjy Stone (Mark Linn-Baker), a junior writer on a major comedy show who is assigned to chaperone the week's guest, a Hollywood matinee idol with a raging drinking problem named Alan Swann (played with swaying brilliance by Peter O'Toole). Benjy spends the entire week trying to keep the actor sober so that he won't get thrown off the show, but the push-and-pull between them leads to one comic accident after another. The film, later turned into an unsuccessful Broadway musical, is a fictionalized account of an experience executive producer Mel Brooks had as a young writer with legendary swashbuckler Errol Flynn.

12 More
  

Drunken Master
Dir. Woo-ping Yuen, 1978

Mudhoney
Dir. Russ Meyer, 1965

Cocktail
Dir. Roger Donaldson, 1988

The Big Hangover
Dir. Norman Krasna, 1950

American Beer
Dir. Paul Kermizian, 2003

Beerfest
Dir. Jay Chandasekhar, 2006

The Black Angel
Dir. Roy William Neill, 1946

The Philadelphia Story
Dir. George Kukor, 1940

The Wild Party
Dir. James Ivory, 1975

Never Give a Sucker an Even Break
Dir. Edward Cline, 1941

The Big Lebowski
Dir. Joel Cohen, 1998

Factotum
Dir. Bent Hamer, 2006

Sideways

Dir. Alexander Payne, 2004
Miles (Paul Giamatti), a failed writer, divorcé, and oenophile, takes his soon-to-be-married friend Jack on a week-long road trip through California's wine country for a last hurrah before the wedding. Miles is out to enjoy the scenery, drink fine wine, and eat great food, but Jack sees the trip as an extended bachelor party; he wastes no time in getting to know Stephanie (Sandra Oh), a winery employee whose friend Maya (Virginia Madsen) Miles has in turn developed a crush on. Because of Miles' strong opinions on good and bad wine, demand for Pinot Noir skyrocketed after the film's release in 2004, and as for Merlot... well, Miles was famously not "drinking any fucking Merlot," and after the movie came out, hardly anyone else did either.

The Lost Weekend

Dir. Billy Wilder, 1945
With the help of his brother and his girlfriend, alcoholic Don Birnam gets sober for ten days, but just as they're leaving for a weekend trip, he gives them the slip and goes on a weekend bender, seeking solace in the company of the bartender while sliding into an alcoholic haze that has dramatic consequences. The film won four Oscars in 1946, for Best Actor (Ray Milland), Best Director (Wilder), Best Screenplay (Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder), and Best Picture. Along with Marty, it is the only film to ever have won both an Academy Award for Best Picture as well as the Cannes Film Festival Palme d'Or.

Leaving Las Vegas

Dir. Mike Figgis, 1995
In this darkly comic tragedy, Nicholas Cage stars as Ben, an alcoholic Hollywood screenwriter who loses everything and heads to Vegas to drink himself to death. There he meets Sera (Elisabeth Shue), a prostitute with problems of her own, and they begin to fall for one another, achieving fleeting happiness before being consumed by their vices. Shot entirely on 16mm, Leaving Las Vegas had a limited release, but won Cage an Academy Award for Best Actor for his unforgettable performance. The film was based on the book by John O'Brien, who, sadly, wrote from experience; he committed suicide shortly after it was optioned, and his father told the New York Times later that the novel was his suicide note.

Arthur

Dir. Steve Gordon, 1981
Arthur (Dudley Moore) is a sweet, somewhat pathetic young man whose millions have left him lonely and aimless, not to mention dependent on alcohol for a good time. His family has arranged for him to marry a wealthy heiress whom he does not love. When he realizes that he has fallen for blue-collar shoplifter Linda (Liza Minnelli) instead, his family threatens to disown him and cut off his inheritance if he does not go through with the intended marriage. An anachronistic comedy worthy of Frank Capra or Leo McCarey that could easily have been made a half-century earlier, the film was nonetheless a big box office success, also winning the great Sir John Gielgud his only Oscar.

Animal House

Dir. John Landis, 1978
It's Rush Week 1962 at Faber College, a mediocre Pennsylvania school still very much in the thrall of '50s conservatism, whose Dean Wormer has it in for the raucous boys of the Delta fraternity. He enlists the help of the stuffy rival Omega fraternity to do whatever they can to revoke the Delta charter and kick all the Deltas off campus for good. The film included countless now-famous scenes that have since been endlessly parodied—including the disastrous peeping tom scene involving a ladder, the Delta house toga party, and John Belushi's impersonation of a zit—and provided a template for decades of booze-soaked fraternity flicks, from PCU to Old School.

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Dir. Mike Nichols, 1966
Based on the controversial and seminal 1962 play by Edward Albee, Mike Nichols' auspicious debut feature is an alarming descent into the private lives and veiled, agonizing secrets of two couples who get together very late one night for cocktails. Starring real-life couple Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, the Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie of their day, it tells the story of George (Burton), a middle-aged history professor who uses alcohol to deal with his abusive and equally well-lubricated wife Martha (Taylor), and the vicious games they play with the naive Nick (George Segal) and Honey (Sandy Dennis). All four actors received Oscar nominations for their astonishing performances, but only Taylor, who gained 30 pounds for the role, and Dennis won.

Days of Wine and Roses

Dir. Blake Edwards, 1962 This Academy Award-winning film tells the story of Joe Clay, an endlessly thirsty PR guy, who marries Kristen Arnasen, who has an addiction of her own—to chocolate. But when Joe introduces his wife to the joys of booze, their marriage quickly spirals downward as they repeatedly attempt to break the habit, only to relapse again and again. Director Blake Edwards was himself an alcoholic and entered recovery soon after completing the film, which is still required viewing in many rehab clinics across America.

One A.M.

Dir. Charles Chaplin, 1916 Made in 1916, One A.M. is a two-reel short featuring Charlie Chaplin at his comic best. Here, the Little Tramp plays the Drunk—the only character in the film—a soused ragamuffin who loses his keys coming home from a night out on the town, then has trouble getting into his house and into bed. Crazy gags, including an elusive revolving table and a collapsible wall bed, certainly make this, the fourth of 12 films that he made for Mutual Films, one of Chaplin's most hilarious shorts.

Barfly

Dir. Barbet Schroeder, 1987 In this autobiographical film written by Charles Bukowski, Mickey Rourke is Henry Chinaski, a poet and alcoholic who spends his evenings drinking in Los Angeles bars. One day he meets and falls for Wanda (Faye Dunaway), a fellow alcoholic who remains beautiful despite years of hard living. When a publisher comes calling, seeking to print some of Henry's poetry, they get a second chance, but soon enough, both realize that the bottle is their greatest love. Matt Dillon brought Chinaski, Bukowski's frequent literary alter-ego, to the screen a second time last year in Factotum.

Bad Santa

Dir. Terry Zwigoff, 2003
Sadly, Santa isn't real, but just as sadly, drunken con-men Santas are. Billy Bob Thornton plays Willie, a mall Santa with a Grinch-like attitude and a taste for booze who plans to rob a department store on Christmas Eve with his little helper Marcus—that is, until a precocious eight-year-old boy comes along to teach them the true meaning of Christmas. Not only did Billy Bob Thornton admit to drinking constantly on the set, but according to IMDB, this drunken comedy broke the record for the most F-bombs dropped in a Christmas film (147, and 170 on the unrated DVD!). It was also John Ritter's final role (as the mall manager) before his untimely death in September of 2003.

Trees Lounge

Dir. Steve Buscemi, 1996 Native New Yorker Steve Buscemi wrote, directed, and starred in his 1996 directorial debut. He plays Tommy Basilio, a 31-year-old auto mechanic who loses his job and his girlfriend. He knows he's searching for something, he just doesn't know what, and in between shifts driving an ice cream truck, he hangs out boozing at the Trees Lounge below his apartment with the other regulars who have no lives. The film is based heavily on Buscemi's early days before becoming an actor, when he also drove an ice cream truck on the same streets.

 

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