After exhaustive research by our panel of judges (me), I had a list of 14 movies that starred alcohol in some way. I tried to whittle it down to just 10, but failed. So, the title of this post is a lie, but it sounds better than the truth. Considering some of the characters in the following list, that is kind of appropriate. The 3 movies that I reluctantly cut were Animal House (toughest cut to make), Arthur (hasn’t aged well), and sadly, The Quiet Man (my favorite John Wayne movie, but just not enough hooch).
I also left off a lot of booze-drenched films, well, because they sucked. Conspicuously missing are a lot of quite good wine movies. Once I started making the list it became clear to me that Alan Rickman’s Steve Spurrier would pass out long before spurned Arthur was even warmed up. Maybe a list of just wine movies will be in order down the road.
Here, in reverse order, is my list of the best drinking movies ever. I tried to rank them both by quality, and soddenness. Warning: if you are offended by “bad” words, there are a few choice ones in some of the movie quotes below.
11. Tree’s Lounge
Written and directed by Steve Buscemi, Tree’s Lounge probably rings truer than any other movie about the regular denizens of a corner bar than any other that I have ever seen. In my wilder, harder living days, I knew every one of these people. While definitely less well known than the other films on this list, this one couldn’t be excluded and is the reason it goes to 11.
10. Leaving Las Vegas
Nick Cage deservedly won the Oscar for his brilliant work in this movie, and has been taking the money and running ever since. Cage’s Ben Sanderson heads for Las Vegas where he plans to drink himself to death. This movie is probably the perfect metaphor for his subsequent career, it is difficult and painful to watch the self-destruction. However, unlike his other painful-to-watch movies, this one is well worth the effort.
9. My Favorite Year
Forget Lawrence of Arabia, this may very well be Peter O’Toole’s greatest role. As Alan Swann, an over-the-top drunken Errol Flynn-type character, O’Toole swaggers, stumbles, charms, blusters, and ultimately reveals his weakness and humanity beneath it all. No one, not even Flynn, could have pulled off this role any better. The scene where Swann is mistakenly using the lady’s room, and Lil (perfectly played by Selma Diamond) yells at him that “This is for ladies ONLY!” to which Swann replies, “So is THIS, ma’am, but every now and then I have to run a little water through it,” is one of my favorites ever. From any other actor that line would be amusing, from O’Toole it was perfection.
8. Cat Ballou
Lee Marvin’s drunken gunfighter, Kid Shalleen is easily one of the most sodden characters ever to be featured on the big screen. One line from the movie sums up this fantastic Oscar winning performance for me: “He did it! He missed the barn!”
Having a screenplay written by Charles Bukowski would be reason enough to include this movie, but mesmerizing performances by Mickey Rourke and Faye Dunaway as two of the most memorable drunks in film history really put it over the top. Rourke’s Henry is a poet who lives to drink and brawl with his nemesis, Eddy the Bartender. Dunaway is a professional barfly. as her character, Wanda, tells Henry, “if another man came along with a fifth of whiskey, I’d go with him.”
6. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
When the names Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton are mentioned, most people probably think of Cleopatra. Not me, they both kind of sucked in that. They definitely do not suck in this flick, in fact, it might just be the best acting that either would ever do. Written by Edward Albee and directed by Mike Nichols, this demented and drunken drama about a young couple trapped into watching an older couple rip off all of the scabs of their marriage still delivers.
Robert Altman made many masterpieces, but for me, none better than M*A*S*H. For anyone who has only seen the small screen version of this, which was great in its own right, Donald Sutherland and Elliot Gould’s Hawkeye and Trapper John have to be a shock. These are not sensitive, lovable folks making the best of a bad situation, they are hardened, cynical, sometimes mean-spirited front line surgeons, fighting hard, and drinking even harder, in reaction to an absurdly terrible situation. Satire and comedy will probably never be done this well again.
4. The Big Lebowski
Jeff Bridges played memorable characters before this movie, and continues to do so today, but of all of the roles he has played, or ever will play, the Dude will abide. The beard, the bathrobe and the ever-present White Russian have become iconic. I am a huge fan of the Coen Brother’s movies, but this is easily my favorite.
3. The Last Detail
Jack Nicholson plays “Bad Ass” Buddusky, a tough Navy man who has been charged with delivering Randy Quaid to a Portsmouth prison for the crime of stealing $40 from a charity box. Along the way, they drink, get laid and commit mayhem as “Bad Ass” delivers life lessons to his prisoner. Nicholson may be more well known for other quotes, but for my money none top this line: “Fuck help, fuck fair! Fuck injustice! Don’t you ever just wanna fuckin’ whomp and stomp on someone, bite off their ear, just to do it…? I mean just to do it, just to get it out of your system?”
2. Bad Santa
There is a running debate in our household about the greatest Christmas movie of all time. Amy and both kids opt for A Christmas Story, and I staunchly (and correctly) defend Bad Santa. IMDB has this trivia nugget about the film: The unrated version of the film furthers the record for the most profanities in a Christmas film, including 170 uses of “fuck”, 74 uses of “shit”, 31 uses of “ass”, 10 uses of “bitch”, and 1 use of “bastard”, in variable forms. Billy Bob Thornton is perfect as a cynical, suicidal, potty-mouthed conman working as Santa who habitually drinks until he pisses himself. Unbelievably, despite all that, this is a sentimental tale of personal redemption. It is also uproariously funny and twisted.
While it is no surprise that I picked a wine movie for the number 1 slot, it is probably more surprising that it was the only one to make the cut. It surprised me, at least. Bottle Shock, Mondovino, French Kiss, and even Silence of the Lambs were excluded, but I had to put Sideways at number 1. Not just because this is a wine blog, but no other movie that I can think of features an alcoholic beverage so completely that it could be considered the star of the movie. From the opening scene, through the spit bucket chug, until Miles eventually does “drink some fucking Merlot,” this movie delivers. Ironically, of all of the movies on this list, the top 2 were both movies that I was prepared to hate when they were released.
There you have it, my Top 10 + 1 list of the best drinking movies ever. I will probably hear about it for leaving off everything from Notorious to Strangebrew, but that’s okay.