Channel surfing, a national passtime since the advent of cable television, is dying out now that so many young people are abandoning traditional TV services in favor of on-demand internet viewing. But if you haven’t pulled the plug yet, I’m willing to bet this has happened to you:
It’s late (or maybe it’s the afternoon and it’s your day off) and there is nothing on worth watching. You’re flipping through the channel listings when you come across a movie that you’ve seen dozens of times and is actually sitting on a shelf right the fuck over there, and you feel compelled to watch it. You could get off the couch and throw on the disc so you can watch it from the beginning without commercials, but that seems like too much of a commitment, so instead you just start watching in the middle and keep it on in the background while you’re on your phone or laptop or whatever. It’s less about watching the movie and more about comfortable atmosphere, like lighting a “freshly baked cookies” scented candle.
Each of us has a movie that we just have to put on any time it’s playing on TV, even if we’re only half watching. Here are a couple of ours. -DR
The Hunt for Red October (1990)
This movie is everything I want movies to be. It’s in a totally different league from its two higher-octane, Harrison Ford-filled sequels, probably because it’s directed by action genius John McTiernan in a way that totally eschews traditional action scenes.
The Alec Baldwin version of Jack Ryan is a wonkish nerdocrat whose theory about a new Soviet submarine ends up foreshadowing a mad plan from “Totally Lithuanian, Not Scottish, Honest” Sean Connery to heist the thing. With virtually every scene taking place aboard a ship or boat, it brings to mind nothing so much as the contemporary Star Trek epics, complete with literary aspirations and a strong sense of the combatants’ humanity.
The movie cannot be turned off because of the perfectly paced increase of tension. We follow a character’s journey as he goes from quibbling with a flight attendant over turbulence to screaming orders at a helicopter pilot hovering with no fuel over a choppy sea—due to the pacing mastery the viewer is not once jolted into disbelief. The magisterial calm of sub commanders belies crisis after crisis, from sabotage to enemy aircraft to crazy proteges, with thread after thread at last tying together in a triumphant, nail-biting climax.
Sean Connery fearlessly elevates his every scene into the boldest melodrama—this is not only entertaining but a reminder that he is the wild card in a universe full of bloodless spies, soldiers, and bureaucrats. It is their clockwork rationality has balanced the Cold War world on a knife’s edge. To McTiernan, the only way out is to trust those mid-level Decent Guys who inspire others to create peace by combining self-sacrifice, loyalty, and intelligence. Given that it is a 1990 film set in a fictionalized 1984, it’s a remarkably effective summation of the real-world Cold War, which of course is exactly why it is so uniquely compelling.
– Patrick Stinson
No Country for Old Men (2007)
No Country For Old Men exists at a unique crossroads for movies that draw my attention on cable. The first factor is that it’s a Coen Brothers movie, and even their worst efforts (looking at you Ladykillers) are at the very least fascinating. Secondly, there’s Tommy Lee Jones, whose stoic presence has uplifted good films to the sublime (Men In Back, The Fugitive), and also elevated bad movies to being incredibly watchable (U.S. Marshals, Men In Black II).
Ostensibly it’s a crime story of a man (Josh Brolin) on the run with two million dollars in drug money while a relentless killer (Javier Bardem in his Oscar-winning turn at the amazingly-coiffed Anton Chigurh) tracks him. The ending of the film is greatly controversial because it skips over the climactic gunfight that most films would use as their centerpiece, but you get that the Coens are more concerned with the people involved, even tangentially to the chase. We spend a lot of time with Brolin’s wife, Carla Jean (Kelly Macdonald), or the drug cartel middle managers who have reservations about the monster they’ve let loose in Chigurh. There are at least five different storylines going on and they rarely intersect.
No Country is both a truly great film as a whole, but while I hesitate to call it episodic, it’s comprised of so many excellent scenes that you can drop in for five minutes and come away having seen a satisfying short film. Of course there’s the famous coin flip scene, but even small scenes like Jones’ sheriff and his deputy Wendell (Garret Dillahunt) surveying the site of the desert massacre is just a great piece of laconic filmmaking.
No Country For Old Men isn’t my favorite Coen Bros film (bounces between Raising Arizona and Fargo depending upon my mood) but it’s still one of their best. All of their films share a certain charm that draw the viewer into their world and No Country is no different.
– Jason Urbanciz
The thing about Ghostbusters is that every scene is my favorite scene. There is literally no moment in Ghostbusters that I’m tired of, and I’ve seen the movie upwards of fifty times. So if it comes on at 11:30 at night on TBS (or USA, or HBO, or whoever’s got the broadcast rights this week), whether it’s ninety minutes in or just starting, my favorite scene is on. And right after that my other favorite scene is gonna be on, so how could I possibly turn it off? I would be missing my favorite scene.
“‘Get her?’ That was your big plan, ‘get her?'” “Tell him about the Twinkie.” “You will perish in flame!” These are throwaway lines from relatively unimportant scenes in Ghostbusters, but I’ll bet anything that you recognize them. That’s simply because there are no throwaway lines, no forgettable moments in the entirety of the film. The more you watch, the more you’re rewarded.
Ghostbusters is a film that can make any kind of day bearable. The first evening I spent sharing an apartment with my newly ex-girlfriend, we watched Ghostbusters. It is a comfort food of the highest magnitude. By that measure, any two hour period during which you could be watching Ghostbusters and elect not to, you are willfully choosing to make your life worse.
– Dylan Roth