Next Wednesday is March 17th, a.k.a. St. Patrick’s Day. In its native country, Ireland, it’s both a religious holiday commemorating the life of the nation’s patron saint and – not until more recently than you’d think – an official celebration of cultural heritage and national pride.
Where I’m from, on the other hand, (The United States, specifically Boston, Mass.,) it’s a holiday where we – regardless of Irish descent or lack thereof – write ourselves a license to engage in acts of public drunkenness without fear of social reprisal as a tribute to archaic ethnic-caricatures of Irish-American culture.
It’s in this spirit (and the spirit of not really wanting to write the 951st Oscar Recap piece anyone will have read by this point) that I bring you this brief list of the Five Best Drinking Movies of All Time. Perhaps they will aid in your own St. Paddy’s revelry in the coming days. Providing you’re conscious, of course.
#5. Beerfest (2006)
This almost feels like cheating, since everything about Beerfest, from its 80s guy-comedy channeling to its very title are evocative of a film that exists for no other reason than to appear on lists like this. I should find something more clever, less well-known, less obvious at least… but, damn it, the thing is just too funny. A send-up of underground sports movies from the Broken Lizard comedy troupe, it follows a team of Americans as they prepare to compete in a high-stakes drinking game competition in Germany. There’s a running subplot about ancient family conflicts over a stolen recipe for a legendary beer recipe, but the main draw is seeing games of quarters, beer pong and the like treated like something out of Bloodsport. It’s not quite as good as Club Dread – I.M.O. the Lizard crew’s high water mark, but it’s pretty damn close at points.
#4. The Thin Man (1934)
Ask your grandparents about this one. Based on the final novel of detective fiction legend Dashiell Hammett, it’s a comedic mystery with William Powell and Myrna Loy as the husband and wife team of Nick and Nora Charles – he a retired detective, she a wealthy socialite – who solve a murder mostly against their will, and largely to amuse themselves. That’s more or less the “hook” of the whole enterprise: Nick and Nora are comfortably wealthy, deliriously in love and really don’t want to do much more than flit about in luxury, trade witty banter, screw like wild monkeys (presumably; this is, after all, a movie from the early 30s so you have to read between the lines) and imbibe a rather astonishing amount of high-end cocktails.
That last part is why it’s on the list, of course, but also what makes this particular movie franchise (in its day one of the most popular of all film series) so fascinating to revisit. Today, of course, just about everyone will recognize Nick and Nora as (at best) what you’d call “functioning alcoholics,” but in 1934 the concept of alcoholism as a disease (as opposed to just another symptom of poor behavior in the lower classes) was largely alien to Western culture. Alcoholics Anonymous wouldn’t be founded until a year later, and it would take almost a decade before it was taken seriously. As such, what was in its day an exceptionally well-refined rendering of what was an expected behavior of the leisure class (i.e., the Charleses are too well-off for their boozing to hurt them) is somehow funnier today, where one can easily recognize them as the wealthy progenitors of every “substance-abusing-accidental-heroes” duo from Cheech and Chong to Harold and Kumar.
This was so popular in its day that they made five sequels, and they’re all pretty good for the most part (though the alcohol consumption eventually reduced greatly as society changed post-WWII.) I know there’s a wholly understandable hesitancy to hit up much older movies, but believe it or not most popular cinema made before the late 40s actually plays much more modern than stuff made in the 50s and early 60s. One of these days that’ll be an article of its own, but for now give this series a look and see for yourself.
#3. Strange Brew (1983)
Today, Rick Moranis and Dave Thomas are well-known TV and movie stars with tons of credits to their names. But once upon a time they were neophyte comedians making their name on Second City TV – the same comedy show/troupe that gave us Dan Ackroyd, the late John Candy and others. Thomas and Moranis’ signature bit was Doug and Bob McKenzie, a pair of blue collar, beer-loving Canadian brothers who hosted a low-budget TV talk show from their couch (good lord, but how many sketches have used that premise since then?). Originally designed as filler material, the skits became the most popular thing on the show, spawning a bestselling comedy album and this movie.
The story – believe it or not – is a reworking of Hamlet with the McKenzie Bros. as a front-and-center Rosencrantz and Guildenstern: A beer company heiress suspects her deceased father was intentionally usurped by his evil brother, and the brothers – newbie employees at the brewery – get swept up in her quest. The whole thing is part of a nefarious scheme by a supervillain Brewmeister (Max Von Sydow!) who plans to rule the world through mind-control beer. Disgraced hockey stars, haunted arcade machines and superhero dogs also play a part, and the whole thing is just about as ridiculous as it sounds.
#2. Sideways (2004)
I know, I know, but don’t let the “middlebrow-indie-your-aunt-loved” sheen put you off this authentically funny buddy comedy that somehow straddles the line between urbane Boomer angst and goofy “guy movie” shenanigans. Paul Giamatti and Thomas Hayden Church are a grousing wine expert and a soon-to-be-married washed up actor on a comical vacation in California Wine Country.
What’s great about Sideways is how it takes the outer trappings of a milquetoast Sundance-style sophisticated indie – Southern California setting, respected character actors, banter about obscure wines, male midlife crisis, writer’s block, etc. – and drapes them over what’s ultimately the skeleton of a Cheech and Chong (or Beavis and Butthead, or Harold and Kumar, or Wayne and Garth) movie about a pair of badly-behaved male buddies getting into trouble on a road trip.
It’s that rare movie that can move back and forth effortlessly between moments of high-minded character drama and bawdy slapstick: Scenes of two wounded souls bonding over passionate love of wine or wrenching personal breakdowns share the screen with pratfalls, drunk golfing gross-out gags involving wine-tasting “leftovers.”
#1. Drunken Master II (a.k.a. Legend of Drunken Master) (1994)
There’s a school of thought that this is still Jackie Chan’s best movie after all these years. Once you see it, it’s kinda hard to argue that logic even if you’re more of a Police Story or Project A fan. Either way, I can’t think of anything else that ought take the top spot as the Best Drinking Movie Ever.
You don’t really need to have seen Drunken Master I to get into it, or even know that Chan is technically playing a variation on martial arts folk hero Wong Fei-Hung, for that matter. What’s important is that he’s a bumbling kung fu master who finds himself at odds with the criminal dealings of British interlopers in turn of the century China, and that he utilizes a (highly fictionalized) version of Zui Quan – a.k.a. “Drunken Boxing” – his skill at which increases the more intoxicated he becomes.
The Drunken Boxing setpieces – including a duel against street thieves where Fei Hung’s stepmom and her ma-jong buddies toss him ever-more-potent drinks and the jaw-dropping final melee in a steel factory – are still an utter marvel even today, some of the greatest moments from the prime of Chan’s career. But the film also makes ample room to showcase its star’s range for slapstick and verbal comedy. But, at the end of the day, it’s a movie where Jackie Chan gets super powers from getting fall-down drunk! How can you not want to see that?
Bob Chipman is a film critic and independent filmmaker. If you’ve heard of him before, you have officially been spending way too much time on the internet.