With the combination of the previous days’ inebriation and the sound of fireworks still ringing in everyone’s ears, countless Americans will have woken up on July 5th, 6th, etc. with a headache. What better way to pass those few hours, waiting for the Advil to kick in and the fear to dissipate, than to watch a film? So, as you try (or are forced, by virtue of aforementioned hangover) to forget America’s birthday — and all the embarrassing and unnecessary things you did in its “honor” — we’ve thought ahead, and provided you with a list of ten films, all of which have protagonists with whom you’ll very easily empathize, due to your current… condition. (And we’ve also done you the service of not including The Hangover.) Depending on the exact brand of interminable nightmare you’re currently enduring, you may prefer more lighthearted fare, and the first five on the list will provide that. But if you’re simply beyond repair, and are feeling like a human handle of vodka and vomit, you may prefer to give in to the darkness — and the last five on the list will get you there.
Withnail and I (dir. by Bruce Robinson, 1987)
Bruce Robinson’s cult classic follows two hopelessly out-of-work London actors (Withnail and “I”) living in semi-squalor, who decide that what they need is a break in the countryside, and persuade Withnail’s well-to-do relative, Uncle Monty, to let them borrow his cottage.
The two take off, with zero preparation for the trip, and some of the best drunk and hungover descriptors captured on film ensue, including the great: “I feel like a pig shat in my head.” Withnail and I will no doubt comfort you in your hungover state, as no matter how desperate you were the day or night before, you likely didn’t revert — as Withnail does — to drinking lighter fluid. After he downs said fluid, he asks Marwood (the “I” of the title) for his antifreeze — similarly, to imbibe. “You bloody fool,” responds Marwood, “you should never mix your drinks!”
Withnail and I is ultimately a comedy of manners, but its genius is in how it meshes the absurd with the very real fear of failure. The final act in particular catches you unawares with its unexpected poignancy.
Bridget Jones’s Diary (dir. by Sharon Maguire, 2001)
Bridget is a heroine to all of us who’ve glanced at that bottle of wine, then glanced at the empty apartment that surrounds us, and given in. When we first meet her, Bridget explains the importance wine has in her life: “Unless something changed soon I was going to live a life where my major relationship was with a bottle of wine.” All in all, she is pretty relaxed about her fondness for the vino, which is instantly noted in the harshest of ways by the prim Mark Darcy, who Bridget overhears saying, at a brunch party after a night that left her with her “head in a toilet”: “Mother, I do not need a blind date. Particularly not with some verbally incontinent spinster who drinks like a fish, smokes like a chimney and who dresses like her mother.”
Bridget Jones’s Diary is big on embarrassing moments, which always helps ease the pain of your own. She is pretty much the perfect understanding companion to your late-afternoon hangover, ready to tempt you into a guilt free, just-a-drop, hair of the dog glass.
Sideways (dir. by Alexander Payne, 2004)
Alexander Payne’s Sideways is a wine-soaked, offbeat buddy road trip, centered around odd couple Miles (Paul Giamatti) and Jack (Thomas Haden Church). The erudite would-be writer Miles treats Jack to a week of wine, golf, and relaxation, before his wedding. But Jack has other things on his mind — well, one thing: women. He wants one last fling before he settles down, and he increasingly views the depressed Miles as a major stumbling block in his plan. At one point Jack pulls Miles aside before they go on a double date, and warns him not to screw it up, saying: “And if they want to drink Merlot, we’re drinking Merlot.” Up to this point, Jack has insulted Miles in every way about his sulky mood, but this is just too much for Miles, and he famously screams: “Oh no, if anyone orders Merlot we’re leaving. I am not drinking any FUCKING MERLOT!”
Barfly (dir. Barbet Schroeder, 1987)
Sure, at times Mickey Rourke’s Bukowski (or “Chinaski,” to be precise — Bukowski’s alter ego) is a bit too cartoonish, and the story never really goes anywhere, but these are minor details in a film that is otherwise full of charm. Barfly director Barbet Schroeder gives us a perfectly kitsch intro, snap shooting the neon-signed bar fronts of LA in all their flickering glory, accompanied by funky organ music. It all possesses a strange kind of beauty, juxtaposed with the grimy reality of what’s contained within the lives of, er, barflies. Rourke and Faye Dunaway play the leads and are just about believable enough, but it’s the extras — Schroeder used actual patrons of the bars they shot in — that give the film a sheen of authenticity. Barfly is rare in that it portrays the life of a drinker without the usual sanctimony or judgment. Of course, as written by Bukowski himself, it also contains some excellent lines. When Chinaski’s literary agent shows up at his apartment expecting him to be overjoyed that he’s been “discovered,” he almost disappointedly says: “I had an idea I’d be discovered after my death.”
Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope (dir. George Lucas, 1977)
Imagine making a trip back to your hometown only to find your house burned down and family dead. Well, that’s exactly what happens to one Luke Skywalker, and like any other sane person, he immediately makes for the nearest bar. That bar happens to be The Mos Eisley Cantina, whose denizens represent all corners of the universe (except droids, who are strictly banned because they don’t drink). Clientele come for the drink, but stay for the routine acts of extreme violence and contemporary jazz. Luke and Obi Wan’s time in the Cantina is all too short, they make a deal with a man on the run and a giant dog-bear to get a ride to the Alderaan system, and who among us can say we haven’t done that?
Naked (dir. by Mike Leigh, 1993)
Johnny is a very frustrated, though extremely smart, man on the brink. After a sexual encounter turns into something pretty unquestionably like rape, he flees his hometown of Manchester for London, and to the house of his ex-girlfriend, the straight-talking Louise. If you happen to wake up from your night of partying with an existential need to question all things, this is your film. Johnny (played by David Thewlis) dishes out big doses of hungover contemplation that could easily induce the dreaded “fear” in anyone. In the first ten minutes, he asks: “Have you ever thought you might have already had the happiest moment of your whole fucking life and all you’ve got to look forward to is sickness and purgatory?” And: “You know what frightens me about the human body? It’s the most sophisticated mechanism in the entire universe, and yet it’s so fucking quiet.”
So yeah, it’s quite heavy, and if it sounds all a little too much to deal with during a hangover, then just know this: you need to watch this film at some stage. Indeed, David Thewlis is absolutely captivating as Johnny; he got so in character that he found it hard to shake him after filming had ended.
Trainspotting (dir. by Danny Boyle, 1996)
A heroine epidemic has gripped Edinburgh, and our antihero Renton and his friends are in its midst. Although peppered with dark comedic moments (uh-hum, Francis Begbie), the nasty side of life takes center stage here. There’s the infamous cold-turkey scene (feat. dead baby crawling across the ceiling), betrayals of lifelong friendships, and the tragic demise of the once-clean member of the gang, Tommy. The story is set in 1980s Britain, when increasing unemployment under Margaret Thatcher had made life miserable for many, but it came out in the very different era of the mid-’90s, at the height of “cool Britannia.” The film’s soundtrack (and particularly opening song “Lust for Life” by Iggy Pop) made it an instant cultural reference point. Trainspotting represents a rarity — a great book that was made into an equally great film.
Kids (dir. by Larry Clark, 1995)
Kids follows the exploits of a group of teens who just don’t give a damn. The characters spend most of their time talking about, and pursing, sex. And when they’re not doing that, they smoke weed, suck on “40s,” and smash people’s heads in with skateboards at the park. As you can imagine, this caused some controversy at the time of release, and polarized many critics. The casting of non-actors (most of the leads were found in Manhattan parks by director Larry Clark) and the use of a documentary shooting style helped create a world that seems incredibly realistic. Kids is a film from which it’s hard to avert your glance, no matter how uncomfortable it gets.
The Shining (dir. Stanley Kubrick, 1980)
With “all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy,” Stanley Kubrick made an inanimate harmless piece of paper terrifying. Adapted from the Stephen King book of the same name (“adapted” being the operative word), The Shining is an iconic horror film. Recovering alcoholic Jack Torrance takes his family to a big ol’ empty hotel for the winter, thinking the solitude will provide the perfect environment to finish his book. Good one. The hotel is haunted, and Jack and his son Danny have a direct line to the deceased former guests. Danny’s way of dealing with it (covering his eyes tightly) proves much better than Jack’s (getting drunk and contemplating having sex with them), which eventually leads Jack into a murderous rage.
King hated the film, mostly because he thought Nicholson hammed up the crazy too much. But you didn’t write it (unless you are Stephen King, and in which case, Hello Stephen I’m a big fan), so you’re allowed to enjoy it for the masterpiece it is.
Leaving Las Vegas (dir. by Mike Figgis, 1995)
It has come to my attention that sharing the view that Nicolas Cage is a good actor can spark an unreasonable degree of anger in some people. Maybe he could learn a thing or two from Daniel Day-Lewis, because the sheer number of films he is in has clearly blunted the obvious: that he is an accomplished actor. Leaving Las Vegas won him the Oscar, and you feel that if it weren’t for Susan Sarandon’s excellent performance in Dead Man Walking, Elisabeth Shue would’ve won for her part as Sera. The story finds bipolar Ben losing his job and everything else to the bottle. So he decides to move to Las Vegas and drink himself to death: if you’re going to go out, go out with a bang. There, he meets Sera, a prostitute, and against the odds the two fall in love. The film does feel somewhat dated, but is still worth a watch for the great performances.