WHAT MAKES A MOVIE BAD-ASS? It may be the enduring question of our age. While there’s a clear distinction between Gene Hackman and every other tough guy in a hat, or El Mariachi and the subsequent Robert Rodriguez oeuvre, how do you distinguish the Aussie grindhouse chops of Stone and the acidic self-loathing of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof? Both are bare-knuckled in their own way, completely different but equally fantastic. So is the dividing line action and explosions? Rarely. Monsters and gore? Nah. At least for the purposes of this list, bad-ass means relentless. A willing claustrophobia. Sweat and grime and spare dialog. Or absurd dialog. Bad-ass is the compulsion to go over the line, a yen to offend. It’s uncut inquiry, tight budgets, performances that transcend method, a fearlessness in scope or style, a hammer to the forehead of artifice.
What’s not bad-ass: obvious dialog, big stars, gratuitous CGI, torture porn, Tom Hanks, too-happy endings, Tom Cruise, farms and the losing to the bank thereof, all things Costner, movies where a good-looking dude teaches a fat dude to score with girls, Sly’s HGH-swollen lats, people who are ill magically recovering through the love of their family, all pets but in particular irrepressible pooches, Will Smith, derivative Tarantino, lousy Boston accents, every sports movie ever made, pretty much every war movie ever made except The Dirty Dozen and Paths of Glory, Marky Mark’s third nipple, movies that feature someone driving against traffic as part of a getaway, sequels, flying kicks (except for Bruce Lee), masturbatory Mel Gibson revenge fantasies, Shaft knockoffs, every Spike Lee except Do The Right Thing and The 25th Hour, Steve Segal, guns that never run out of bullets, robots gaining sentience, robots taking over, people who discover/invent humanoid robots but for some reason don’t stay home all day having sex with them, anything involving Wall Street, lawyers, or Wall Street lawyers, anthropomorphic teddy bears, Adam Sandler, and evil houses in Connecticut that drip stuff from the walls and shelter little girls with no eyes who speak Aramaic and menace the new owners, who for whatever reason are too stupid to load up the Prius and just leave.
More than anything else, the main criteria for a bad-ass movie is that it spends its entire running time unflinchingly looking at an aspect of the human condition most people prefer to turn away from. Bad-ass movies know the world is a rotted, corrupt mess and anyone who says it isn’t is either rich or full of shit.
A bad-ass movie is, in the end, more honest than we are prepared for it to be.
Also, The Deer Hunter is overrated and Dirty Harry is a thinly-veiled arm of the fascist state.
50. Man Bites Dog
A Belgian comedy so black it’s almost evil. Satire so rude it’s nearly abusive. One of the earliest and best examples of the “mock documentary” form that Ricky Gervais made a tutu out of and spun around in years after Christopher Guest had already quit the ballet. I normally hate the winking glorification of/fascination with serial killers (although Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer deserves mention here) but this film skewers its own nihilistic voyeurism so well that it’s a gem of the form.
Raw Alternatives: Jaws, Spinal Tap
49. Odds Against Tomorrow
Virulent racist Robert Ryan menaces both a wonderfully dissipated Gloria Grahame, as well as slick vibes player Harry Belafonte. Shot in stark expressionist monochrome, and with a soundtrack by The Modern Jazz Quartet’s John Lewis, this tight little burst of doom is a mediation on junkies, whores, weasels, gamblers, bank jobs, and the ineffable ugliness of all of man. It’s like a shot of kerosene with a diesel chaser, plus Wayne Rodgers’ first role.
Raw Alternatives: Dog Day Afternoon, Gold Diggers of 1933
48. Two Lane Blacktop
The most excellent down-low, grungy, and exhaust-filled Friday night you’ve ever spent: James Taylor (yes, that one) and Dennis Wilson (yes, from the Beach Boys) are itinerant hot-rodders who race a massively powerful Chevy 150 against various yokels and rednecks for pink slips, living sandwich-to-sparkplug and sleeping in the back seat. Add teenage hitchhiker Laurie Bird and an existential cross-country race against “GTO,” played by Warren Oates, who drives a killer ’70 GTO. Hardly anyone talks, there are endless shots of America pre-Interstate, and a soundtrack of brutal engine revs to accompany fey hitchhiker Harry Dean Stanton’s weary mumbling.
Raw Alternatives: The Road Warrior, Motor Psycho
47. Baby Doll
Karl Malden, Rip Torn, and thumb-sucking seductress Carroll Baker. For my money Elia Kazan’s best film, quickly banned by the Roman Catholic National Legion of Decency. Time magazine condemned it, which is like winning an Anti-Oscar. Even Sweden wouldn’t let it over their borders, so what else do you need to know? It’s actually far less sexually overt than it is smart and acidic, unsurprising since it was based on a one-act by Tennessee Williams, who was also one of the producers. If Cardinal Spellman decides you’re not together enough to handle a parable about greed, revenge, and sexual repression, it might be time to re-think what the Old Testament is actually about.
Raw Alternatives: Out of the Past, Lady From Shanghai
46. Putney Swope
You know what’s more excellent than Putney Swope being directed by Iron Man’s father? The fact that it was made in 1969 as a rude swipe at the evil pervasiveness of advertising, not to mention the utterly racist power structure of Hollywood–and not a goddamned thing has changed in fifty-five years. Wait, maybe that’s not the excellent part. That’s probably the inevitable part. Or the generational shame part. Or the get really angry and riot in the streets and storm the barricades part. What hasn’t changed is that it’s not enough to shake your head and call people assholes, or send a cleverly barbed tweet. Man, you gotta make a movie no one would ever dare put out. Or write that class-crushing book. Or paint Guernica II: The Streets of Missouri. Bad-ass is not being On-Ass.
Raw Alternatives: Heathers, Performance
45. Liquid Sky
No one had any clue what to make of this movie in 1985, including me. Even after I watched it eighty-three times in a row to make my video clerk shifts go by faster. Although in retrospect it may have slowed them down. That year people were still clamoring for The Big Chill, as if there were soon to be a shortage of weepy sixties nostalgia, or a black market for smarmy Goldblum. Hey, the best thing about the Big Chill is they cut out all the Kevin Costner scenes. Really! All you ever see is about two seconds of his wrist. And then a lot of limber Meg Tilly. Anyway, when people would come in and ask if we had a copy of The Big Chill, I always said, “No, but we have Liquid Sky” and they’d be like, “Huh. Is it good?” and I’d be like, “It’s fucking great. I can’t believe you haven’t seen it yet,” and they’d be like, “Is it okay for children?” and I’d be like, “It’s so perfect I’m surprised it’s not rated K for kid!” Those parents were rarely happy when they brought Liquid Sky back. I didn’t care because I knew their kids were probably already in therapy, if not trying to stuff themselves down the garbage disposal out of sheer terror, so they were definitely going to be in a band by the time they got to high school and could thank me then. Oddly, I was always on the verge of being fired. In fact, there were so many times I almost got canned that I started to keep a “go bag” of stuff I intended to steal by the rear door so I could grab it on the way out before giving the boss the finger. Liquid Sky is a completely excellent mindfuck of New Wave nonsense. Aliens, heroin, dance clubs, grimy Manhattan, a female character giving a male character a blowjob in which both parts are played by the same female actress, and Lloyd Ziff as Lester. It should actually have been rated OE for Onanistically Enjoyable.
Raw Alternatives: A Clockwork Orange, They Live
44. Lawrence of Arabia
Without question, Peter O’Toole was the most beautiful bad-ass ever. If you have the great fortune of seeing Lawrence projected in lush and sweeping 70mm Panavision (as I did three nights running at a revival theater in 1992), you can spend the entire time staring at O’Toole’s architectural and patrician features. Especially his eyes, which simultaneously manage to portray the deep blue nothing of Western hubris, as well as a horror of the desert, which in this case is a thin metaphor for greed, violence, and camel shit. But also the wrenching solitude that is being alive. Are we tiny and weak, flesh born to degrade, in the end understanding little or nothing of our purpose or actions? Yeah, pretty much. But at least there’s gin, khaki, and Senta Berger.
Raw Alternatives: The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover, Nashville
Sure, George C. Scott was fantastic in The Hustler and Dr. Strangelove, but it’s in this bitter, cynical, whinging mess of Chayefskian excellence that he really shines. When your lead can’t decide if he should lust after a compromised Diana Rigg or just go ahead kill himself, you know you’re onto something. Especially while trading sardonic barbs with everyone within reach. Is the hospital snuffing its own patients because they’re too much of a pain in the ass to care for, or because we’re all already dead anyway? The answer may be even more sinister.
Raw Alternatives: Rosemary’s Baby, Network
42. Killer of Sheep
An episodic, neo-realist look at Watts in the 70’s. Not a film, not mere narrative. Art. Human interaction. The nexus where music both describes and heightens experience. The life that America pretends does not exist. The cruelty of isolation. A meditation and a poem. Shot for $10k.
Yes, ten thousand dollars.
Raw Alternatives: The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, The Discrete Charms of the Bourgeoisie
41. The Thing
Is this the best movie ever made? If not, it’s close. Hey, the original with James Arness as a giant blood-guzzling carrot was pretty cool, but The Thing set the stage for a thousand-and-one ripoffs, not only in terms of plotting, but also conspiracy, alien transformation, the fear of the Other, Kurt Russell in a cowboy hat, a head sprouting spider legs before scampering away, and evil Wilfred Brimley. The matte paintings are better than a terabyte’s worth of CGI, and Rob Bottin’s glue and clay stop-motion effects will never be topped. Features one of the best endings in all of cinema history: two guys, still armed, completely fucked, on the outskirts of a failing compound, with zero hope left and not entirely sure that the other is even human. Nothing is coming. No salvation, no answers. No gods, no soldiers. The only reward left is a second to stare out across the frozen tundra and chuckle at the sheer ridiculousness of humanity.
Raw Alternatives: Scanners, Parallax View
40. Mean Streets
Where it all began. Better than Taxi Driver and Raging Bull and maybe even Goodfellas.
“You’re a mook.”
“No, you’re a mook.”
“What the fuck’s a mook?”
It’s possible that no one has ever been as perfectly cast as DeNiro playing Johnny Boy, a born sociopath and albatross. The mixture of fear and pleasure on his face, while standing on the table and swinging a pool cue at random wise-guy head, is a thing of genius. Harvey Keitel as the too-sensitive mob collector in love with his epileptic cousin also delivers a performance of nuance and pathos. It’s a raw, dark, almost expressionist film, lit in blacks and hellish reds. The use of music, with mob-heavy jukebox ballads by Vic Damone crashing against “Jumping Jack Flash” epitomized the time and place, as well as opened the door for directors like Tarantino to later make the soundtrack its own supporting character.
Raw Alternatives: The Warriors, Rumble Fish
39. Over the Edge
Seventeen-year-old Matt Dillon. A cast of unknown teenagers let loose on a crappy California suburb with dope, guns, and bikes with banana bars. Feathered hair and back-pocket combs and bell-bottoms. Well-meaning cops and crappy teachers and guns. A closed rec center. Bra-less halter tops. But mostly dirt, sun, and pure, aching boredom. More a documentary than a narrative, although it’s all fictional. Purportedly the impetus for River’s Edge and possibly the psychotic career of Crispin Glover.
Raw Alternatives: Kids, The Wild Bunch
38. Touch of Evil
The opening tracking shot! Yeah, you could stop right there, but don’t. Bloated and deeply corrupt Orson Welles traipses through a vaguely surreal boarder town, his lens soaking up all the symbolism, weariness, and disdain it can muster. Sweaty and desperate Chuck Heston is tasked with playing a Mexican vice cop. Marlene Dietrich looks like closing time’s most unwanted prostitute at the end of Tijuana’s most desperate bar. The art comes fast and in multiple layers: acting, compositional complexity, unusual phrasing, harsh lighting, a bizarre Mex-rock soundtrack, and many other tiny moments that warrant repeated views. Find the re-cut version from 2000 based on Welles’ own notes, and not the re-shot studio version originally released. There is a lot more than a “touch” in Welles’ Hank Quinlin; he is the epitome of evil, a cop without a soul, a repository of unchecked power, a tyrant without impedance. This film rang the death-knell for noir, whatever came after it requires its own name. Post-Noir. Post-Welles. Post-Post.
Raw Alternatives: Pulp Fiction, The Comfort of Strangers
37. Point Blank
Lee Marvin takes acid. Angie Dickinson lounges under silk sheets and various suitors. Betrayal, revenge, purse-smacking, wife-defiling, and getting screwed by “the Organization.” No explanation necessary. Marvin is the walking guts and tears of a generation of men back from World War II, dehumanized, violent, and world-weary. Shot with an angular and choppy style that implies the characters themselves can’t walk straight and have no idea where they’re going. Languorous sections punctuated with raw savagery. Deliberate misdirection. An unreality abounds as the timeline verges on nonsensical. The style is exactly the smack to the head that Marvin repeatedly delivers to various henchmen. Much better than Bonnie and Clyde, oh yeah, give me Lee and Angie any day.
Raw Alternatives: Point Break, Cool Hand Luke
I am a massive Swayze fan. While I really loved Red Dawn, Steel Dawn, and The Outsiders, this is very possibly the best truly horrible movie ever. Every second of its bone-dumb stupidity is sublimated genius. See, there’s a roadhouse bar outside of town, full of bikers that are just too much for one bouncer to handle. Or are they? The Swayze is a freelance ass-kicker called in to restore order, and he quickly trains the college boy staff in how to mop up belligerent drunks with finger locks, neck punches, and one liners. No one knew there was a professional bouncer’s circuit until this film came along. No one realized Sam Elliott could throw such a mean left hook for a guy that’s basically a hundred pounds of stubble and sweaty gristle. No one realized the Jeff Healey Band was so good they had to play behind a curtain of steel wire. Is Ben Gazzara awesome as The Dude Who Controls Everything, reprising half of Casavettes and Saint Jack through a lens of pure cheese? Yes. Is Kelly Lynch hot in a doctor’s smock? You bet. Is the insult “I fucked guys like you in prison” sort of a genius nod to changing cultural views about same-sex relations and the coming acceptance of MMA as homoerotic Kabuki? Obvs.
Raw Alternatives: Chinatown, Barfly
35. Sid and Nancy
Chloe Webb inhabited Nancy Spungen. It’s one of those beyond-brilliant performances that somehow took so much out of the actor that instead of launching an elite career, left them sucked dry. Sort of like the kid who played Danny in The Shining. Sid Vicious was a twat and a dullard. Barely a prop for a guitar, let alone a musician, he was a hundred pounds of greasy junkie with a haircut and bobby pins. But somehow he remains emblematic of all of punk–not just the music but the prison insult the word actually derives from. Being taken advantage of. A dim puppet for a rude McLaren, a man with the cynicism to market both the fury and filth without a shred of guilt. Sid is the slow realization that it’s pointless to try and wrap lyrics or bands or fashion around a time or place or idea. Is a hatred of everything enough to sustain a movement? Is Gary Oldham in a choke-collar enough to sustain a film? This is a portrait of two genuinely dreadful people in all its unflinching glory. Plus murder, dope, gobbing, Lydon, bollocks, CBGB’s, the Chelsea, and more dope.
And no, I don’t think he killed Nancy.
Raw Alternatives: Repo Man, The Passenger
34. The Candidate
Dead-eyed moron with a tenuous grasp on facts and policy but sporting a killer smile suckers the masses into electing him. Sound familiar? Sure, but this was 1972! Robert Redford sloughs off his disgust at the avarice and dishonesty of the political process four decades before FOX News and Benghazi. The brilliance of this movie is that it could have been made yesterday. Or tomorrow. Tom Jefferson was elected after double-crossing Aaron Burr. The Carnegies and Fricks bought us Warren Harding. Sheldon Adelson and the Kochs will buy us the next vacuous turd, whether it’s Bush’s dangling tripod or a slice of Bobby Jindahl. Nothing changes. Technology improves. People get more jaded. The rigging continues to be rigged. The world is 60% stupid, 30% lazy and 10% pure steel opportunist. But at least there’s celluloid.
Raw Alternatives: The Manchurian Candidate, The Conversation
You could make the argument that in the long run, subversive comedy is more bad-ass than any other form. Hey, the Baby Ruth is in the pool. Really, does anything else more perfectly describe the human condition than a candy bar floating in the shallow end mistaken as a turd? An entire generation is contained in this film, just as often within the jokes that fall flat as the ones that score. And so many do score. The kind of freewheeling stoned riot of a production this must have been will never be recreated again, a whole era of anarchic humor and indulgence no longer permitted on sets, or really in films at all, due to a vast influx of money as well as a profound distrust of baked improvisation. Genuinely giddy humor always trumps muscles or a gun.
Raw Alternatives: Life of Brian, Kentucky Fried Movie
32. Pope of Greenwich Village
This is Eric Roberts’ best role, by far. In fact, it may be his only good one, and it’s pretty easy to conclude that’s because he wasn’t really acting. Either way, he lets it all hang out as the doomed parasitic loser Paulie. Mickey Rourke’s original face and personality is also terrific, practically born for the part. Eighties Manhattan and a cheap con are all you need, plus the best use of “Summer Wind” ever. The movie asks a simple question: What do you want, and what are you willing to do to get it? Daryl Hannah is unbearably shrill and annoying as Charlie’s white-bread squeeze, but maybe that was the point. Her presence in every scene allows the viewer to understand why Charlie might prefer hanging out in sleazy mob bars instead of listening to her screech about how he would be so much better if he were just different. This is an anti-mob story, it’s about doomed relationships. And Mickey Rourke’s awesome suits, which apparently the producers wouldn’t pay for, so he bought them on his own dime.
Raw Alternatives: Bullitt, Miller’s Crossing
A vampire movie that’s not really about vampires, a violent horror film that’s not all that violent and is really more interested in the binding of familial ties. It’s about the search for intimacy and the terror of organized religion. This movie died an instant death at the box office because it was way too smart. This is the McCabe & Mrs. Miller of reluctant vampiracy. It’s Nosferatu with bad carpet. It’s deadpan and blue collar, ultimately commenting on the decay of the inner cites and the outer cities, the inner-soul and the outer pretension. A psychological drama that’s more about the character than eating the juicy inner parts of other characters. Romero’s movies, despite outward appearances, have never really been about the gore. It’s all social commentary. Dawn of the Dead is a satire of consumer culture consuming consumers. And Martin is about Martin.
Raw Alternatives: Return of the Living Dead, Donnie Darko
Forget all the boxing cheese at the end, this is one of the greatest movies about being a loser ever made. Stallone is fantastic, and the script absolutely nails a slice of inner-city dissolution and neighborhood myopia that no longer exists, if only because of the Internet. Alternately stirring and baldly manipulative during the scenes where Rock trains for the big one, it’s really about the first half-hour. It’s about Sly telling Talia Shire that his turtles are named Cuff and Link. It’s about Burt Young’s face, and his ignorance, and the albatross of family in tight-knit communities that dooms anyone from ever getting ahead. Unless they’re really, really good at punching raw meat, let alone Carl Weathers.
Raw Alternatives: Get Carter (’71), The Wild Ones
29. In A Lonely Place
Nicolas Ray. Bogart. Gloria Graham. A study in exhaustion. Bogart can barely drag himself through the scenes, too tired to light a cig or even lift that scotch to his mouth. The film has one theme: everyone deserves everything they ask for, and most of what they don’t as well. Plus hangovers. But chin up, pal, because there’s always tomorrow. If you hang on long enough, there will be a convertible and a fresh bottle and the chance to feel each other up before smacking each other down in yet another steamy Hollywood night.
Raw Alternatives: Betty Blue, True Romance
28. The Long Goodbye
“Nothing says goodbye like a bullet.” The same could be said of any given Robert Altman film. Elliott Gould as a tough private dick in an adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s best book? Only in 1973, but it works. This is a lumbering grouch of a film, a contemptuous backhand to all of sixties hippie culture in the form of the exasperated noir misanthrope. Who else could save us from power to a people who deserve no power but a sweaty, idiosyncratic drunk? The real question is, can a relatively private dick retain his morals while surrounded by brute immorality? The cinematography is washed-out and hungover, like waking up on the beach after a two-week Quaalude binge. Hey, I’ll watch anything with Sterling Hayden in it. Also includes a bit of David Carradine, and Governor Ah-nold as an uncredited bodyguard.
Raw Alternatives: Sexy Beast, Bob Le Flambeur
The best of times, the worst of times. The best movie ever, the worst movie ever. Is it an utterly subversive reflection of our most decadent selves and the excesses of culture? Or is a just a turd of a film with a bad script, terrible acting, and way too much Joe Ezterhas? In either interpretation, it’s certainly bad-ass in terms of its camp extremes: hilarious dialog, career-ruining scene-chewery, thrashing pool sex, frenetic jazz hands, coke-stiff Kyle MacLachlan, and possibly too many pounds-per-square-inch of Gina Gershon. But oh, those lips! This film is either a buzzsaw of social commentary that absolutely cuts off the legs off modern ambition and rapacity, or the biggest train wreck ever committed to celluloid. It makes this list either way.
Raw Alternatives: Faster Pussycat Kill Kill, Last Tango in Paris
Tom Hardy is a farking genius. Really, the guy kills it in pretty much every role. I’m not sure I even like him, but if he’s in a movie, I will definitely watch it–a fact that remains true of maybe five actors alive. This movie is a sort of glorious stomp to the face, a spurt of lavishness dying to tear down celebrity culture. Is it possible to make a CellDashian of yourself through constant violent outbursts and generally being the hardest man in an entire country? Bronson (real name Michael Peterson, he wanted to sound tougher) is a mix of Cabaret and A Clockwork Orange (especially the usage of classical music and behavior modification, not to mention raw style and odd imagery) with a side of Totally Masturbatory tossed in. Based on a true story and then confabulated into an acid-drenched art project, it also examines the notions of confinement as punishment and violence as sexual release. Hardy was farkin’ genius in Locke, too.
Obvious Alternative: Blue Velvet, The Last Detail
25. Blade Runner
In the futuristic L.A. that we all know is coming, the one that’s primarily Asian, always raining, and as full of bad advertising as bad people, there will come a time when “Pleasure Units” will walk among us. And they’ll arrive in the form of Goth Daryl Hannah. If we’re lucky. Yes, we’ll soon be surrounded by utterly convincing androids, our humanity shredded in the face of young Rutger Hauer’s leering face. Only a knowledge of incept dates will allow us to watch slave ships burning off the shoulder of Orion, just prior to our collapse. We will make swan origami like Edward James Olmos and then unwittingly kick off an Android Resurrection to be completed in other, lesser films. Hell, it’s been three decades and people are STILL copying Blade Runner’s style and art direction. If fact, it may be the most copied movie in the history of cinema, somewhere just below Road Warrior but above Reservoir Dogs.
Raw Alternatives: The Terminator, Barbarella
(Hey, have you watched the original Terminator lately? It’s so low-down and dirty and depressing! You probably forgot. I did too. Terminator is deeply 80’s, thoroughly soaked in grunge and raw pessimism. It’s so good. And Arnold was basically unknown then, still just some cheesy bit-player. The haircuts! The sex scene! The shitty lighting! Linda Hamilton’s hair!)
24. Aguirre: Wrath of God
So many Herzog movies deserve consideration here, but there can only one, and it must be Aguirre. Based on a few fragmentary truths about previous doomed expeditions into the heart of the rain forest, Klaus Kinski takes over a group on their way to find the lost city of El Dorado, supposedly paved with gold but instead ground under by greedy Spanish skulls. One can float downriver if they are prepared to meet whatever is there, an apt metaphor for life. And death. Obsession is nightmare is sacrifice. The annihilation of empires comes on a whim. Dehumanization by greed or myth. Supremacy of species as fallacy in the face of nature. By musket and knife. By canon and horse and breastplate. The cinematography is beyond beautiful, the madness palpable, it practically seethes off the frame as the sanity leeches away.
Raw Alternatives: Apocalypse Now, There Will Be Blood
There’s an infamous scene in Klute where Jane Fonda is naked in bed and a man is on top of her. We can only see his back, the camera directly above, looking down on her face. She’s giving it the “Yea, baby, oh, yea,” routine, and then suddenly yawns and looks at her watch. Wait, I thought, Women fake it? Also, Is it really possible to be that cynical? And finally, Why am I twelve years old and half in love with a prostitute who will go on to make a billion dollars selling workout videos? That scene was a bringer of unwanted truths far too early. It has since sort of epitomized my view that we have limited choices in life:
–You can be the guy on top and close your eyes and believe.
–You can be Jane and put on a convincing act.
–You can be Jane and do what you gotta do for cash.
–You can be Jane and fake it without really giving a shit.
–You can be the camera and observe bloodlessly
–You can be Jane’s watch, sweaty under the strap but always right there with the correct time.
Candy Darling and Sly Stallone, both uncredited, can be spotted in the nightclub scene.
Raw Alternatives: Don’t Look Now, Jackie Brown
22.The King of Marvin Gardens
A bleak and freezing Atlantic City as viewed by Jack Nicholson instead of Burt Lancaster, and a much better film. This is a movie about emotional interpretation in a way rarely seen anymore. Nicholson as the smart brother, Bruce Dern as the hustler. Small movies about bent lives are bad-ass, especially when they’re this well acted and convincing. Scatman Crothers shows up to make it just that much more cool. Seeking redemption is a guarantee that redemption will never be found. You might as well throw it all on twenty-three red. And then double down.
Raw Alternatives: Who’ll Stop The Rain?, The Last Picture Show
21. Straight Time
When’s the last time that you saw a movie about a parolee that felt completely honest? Never was my answer too. It’s wrenching as it becomes clear that Max Dembo is doomed, mainly because he was never given a choice in the first place. Of all the completely fucked up aspects of our Military Incarceration Complex, the fact that ex-cons are so limited in their options that they are practically cajoled into recidivism is the worst one. This is Hoffman’s best role, and it makes his deep-method Ratso Rizzo routine look like pure self-indulgence. Straight Time is small, slow, and true. Plus, it boasts a murderer’s row of the best character actors in Hollywood: M. Emmit Walsh, Theresa Russell, Gary Busey, Kathy Bates, and Harry Dean Stanton. Oddly, Harry Dean might have made this list more than any other actor. Which probably just means he has a great agent.
Raw Alternatives: Scarecrow, The French Connection
20. Panic in The Streets
Young Jack Palance had the best face in the history of cinema. Here he makes a totally convincing thug, with a raspy voice and killer’s grin. Zero Mostel was born to be an overheated lacky. For some reason Richard Widmark is cast as the hero, which is odd since he usually plays a psychopath himself, but in this case he’s an army medical examiner or something equally improbable. There is an outbreak of plague, which gives us plenty of shots of the seamy, claustrophobic New Orleans docks. But none of that matters, because this movie is about stark photography, high-contrast, and Palance’s face. The ending chase scene is brilliant and beautifully ugly, daring us to deny that we are all rats, carrying disease and crime and pure rodent ignorance as we duck bullets and cower beneath pylons.
Raw Alternatives: Panic in Needle Park, The Big Combo
19. My Dinner With Andre
A movie composed entirely of dialog is approximately sixteen-thousand percent more bad-ass than all the Expendables put together, plus every clunky Jason Stathem accent, male pattern baldness fest, and broken HGH vial from Vancouver to L.A. This is a tense and slyly creepy film. It’s unbelievable that it actually got made. Two men, sitting at a table, talking. To each other. No effects, no artifice, no tricks. Conversation. A camera. Action across the planes of the face, the movement of lips. And it’s fascinating. Wallace Shawn could totally kick The Rock’s butt.
Raw Alternatives: You Can Count On Me, What Happened Was
Oliver Stone wasn’t always a moron. You have to chalk it up to the mountains of cheap cocaine. Most people should never be forgiven for releasing brainless and indulgent shit like Natural Born Killers, Alexander, and whatever that Wall Street sequel was. But give the man credit for having some genuine stones. Not only is Salvador a fantastic film, it was truly a guerrilla project. Stone somehow talked his way into El Salvador with a bunch of cameras and actors pretending to be making an entirely different film. They hid the script. They got stopped at military checkpoints. They smuggled the exposed film back over the border. For that alone, Stone should be one of your favorite directors. But he’s a man of excesses, someone unable to control their appetites as they extend from the mirror to the lens. In any case, James Woods and Jim Belushi are perfect in the roles of photographers caught between leftist guerrillas and the right-wing military, between American-orchestrated coups and violent madness. Our complicity in the horrors of 80’s Central America is still largely unknown or acknowledged, and the great saint of the right, Ronald Reagan, has a lot to answer for in hell. In the meantime, this is one of the most loaded films of the last half-century, an absolutely needed corrective that unfortunately corrected nothing, but at least remains a document of unforgivable sins.
Raw Alternatives: Ace in the Hole, Bring Me The Head of Alfredo Garcia
17. Prime Cut
The very young and scarily beautiful Sissy Spacek, who is so pale and wan that she is nearly ethereal, somehow ends up in the middle of this ruthless, sadistic post-noir look at a Chicago mob enforcer who takes on a Kansas City rancher that might be more depraved than all the cosa nostra put together. The movie wades through the pig slop of violence and degradation without one false note of sympathy, morals, or fake remorse. There’s sex slavery, shoot-outs, and enemy sausage-making in abundance. Toss in some scene-chewing Gene Hackman and enough tough guy patter to choke a Chandler, and you’ve got a very ill-mannered but excellent film.
Raw Alternatives: Deliverance, Carnal Knowledge
16. Blood Simple
For one thing, no list of bad-asses would be complete without at least one M. Emmett Walsh movie, and it’s possible this is his best. Or maybe it’s Blade Runner, where he leeringly insists on calling replicants “skin jobs.” In any case, the first Coen Brothers movie remains the standard by which they will always be measured. If such a thing as modern noir exists, this is it. Quick aside: why do the detectives in all Coen Bros. movies drive VW Beetles? This really does trump the shot-to-shot brilliance of their best films, particularly Raising Arizona and Fargo, if only because it’s so pure. And hilarious. Betrayal, murder, stupidity, all the usual dirty work. From the inside out.
Raw Alternatives: The Usual Suspects, Taxi Driver
15. Requiem For A Dream
If any American actress has gone further out on a limb, I haven’t seen it. This is one of the most bad-ass performances of all time, so brutally true it’s excruciating to watch. It’s the kind of performance so completely inhabited that it’s now impossible to imagine anyone but that actress (Ellen Burstyn) pulling it off. Based on the Hubert Selby Jr. novel of the same name (bad-ass literature hall of fame), this look at personal breakdowns and mental dissolution is relentless and has little or nothing to do with entertainment. Director Darren Aronofsky refuses to shoot an easy scene or take a shortcut. Ever. Terrific score by the Kronos Quartet.
Raw Alternatives: Titus, Why Does Herr R. Run Amok?
14. Hell in the Pacific
Two actors stuck on an uninhabited island. An American pilot and a Japanese naval officer. It’s a fairly obvious parable, and one that has been used and abused many times since. But none of its successors carries it off half as well. A smattering of dialog, half in Japanese. Lots of staring and wordless distrust. Stubble and sweat. Eating of bugs. Screaming in the rain. Being tiny in the face of the vast ocean, the sky, the stars, the pure animal dumbness of man. Does survival trump prejudice? Is xenophobia a blanket that can be merely tossed away? Men are mere beasts, cunning and cruel. Humanity has to be fought for and won, just as much as any other victory, god or country, military or individual.
Raw Alternatives: Battle Royale, Predator
13. The Man Who Fell To Earth
Nick Roeg’s three-hour fever dream and disjointed lysergic homage to David Bowie. Not to mention aliens, rambling visual poetry, the ruthlessness of the Sapien, pure greed, lust, sex, Rip Torn, inter-species love, the inevitable corruption at the hands of our repellent culture, gorgeous photography, and a complete lack of plot. Let’s repeat that: a compelling, accomplished film that has zero plot, and intends to rub your face in it for three hours like your rich, jaundiced, art collector cousin. Bad-ass? You bet.
Raw Alternatives: A Prophet, Stalker
12. Boogie Nights
Someone had to get it together and make a realistic look at the John Holmes-era, pre-VHS, San Fernando Valley porn scene–if only so future generations, archaeologists, or invading aliens understand how demented and repressed American sexuality once was.
This film requires its own 30k word essay, so I’ll limit myself to three comments:
–Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s tight tube top and needy laugh quietly makes the film.
–Nina Hartley is the most believable and heartbreaking actress in the cast.
–The opening shot out-Goodfellas Goodfellas.
Raw Alternative: Planet of the Apes, Easy Rider
11. The Shining
Stephen King hates it. Kubrick haters hate it. Linda Lovelace probably hates it. All I know is that this movie scared me more than any other has in my entire life. I was ten when it came out, visiting my grandmother in upstate New York. We decided to go to a movie. My cousins were all older and wanted to see The Shining. I wanted to see Disney’s The Black Hole, a Star Wars rip-off that that was so terrible it almost crashed the company. I got outvoted. The soft-core epic Emmanuel was playing on the other screen, and in a last moment of dread, I almost snuck in to see it myself. I don’t remember much of watching The Shining. Mainly because it broke my tiny un-formed brain. The visuals. The tension. The elevators full of blood. Lloyd the bartender (Joe Turkel, who also played Eldon Tyrell in Blade Runner). That second when Scatman Crothers tells Danny about room 237 and says everything in there is just a memory, and then whistles pronouncing the S when he says “Like burnt toast.” The Diane Arbus-inspired twin girls. The costumed furries doing something nasty on the bed. The soundtrack. The helicopter shots of the drive up to the Overlook. All Work and No Play Makes Jack A Dull Boy. All Work and No Play Makes Jack A Dull Bot. On the drive home I kept looking in the back seat, expecting to see a bloody caretaker head. I didn’t sleep much that night. I don’t think I’ve really had a good night’s sleep since.
Raw Alternatives: Heavy Metal, Invasion of the Body Snatchers (’57)
10. Pickup On South Street
Samuel Fuller was a madman. While Naked Kiss and Shock Corridor are both hilarious and entertaining in their excesses, Pickup is just flat-out genius. Want one tiny example? The way Lightening Louie will only pick up money with chopsticks. Or how Richard Widmark talks to the cops, clearly his intellectual inferiors, but also with the certainty that there is no moral hierarchy, everyone’s either a square or in on the scam. Whores, pick-pockets and dirty cops are far more interesting than whatever’s happening in the straight world, and they all know it. But the best angle is how ludicrously smoldering Jean Peters is as Candy. The way Widmark touches her cheek is more erotic that an entire shelf worth of porn. Peters is one of the unsung bad-asses of noir, you’d be a fool not to do exactly what she told you to, and fast. Toss in some Communists, microfilm, and various stoolies, not to mention saxes, Thelma Ritter, and reviving your knocked-out squeeze with a splash of beer.
Raw Alternatives: The Godfather, Rebel Without A Cause
9. Stranger Than Paradise
Imagine, at the height of Gorden Gekko and Fawn Hall and the bloated carcass of Ed Meese, the release of a black-and-white road movie/love story with a soundtrack by Screaming Jay Hawkins that also starred a downtown art-jazz sax player and a Hungarian model. Impossible, right? I was fifteen, stoned, and stupid when I first saw this. Expecting nothing. Couldn’t pronounce Jarmusch to save my life. Me and a friend walked into a rank South Norwalk revival house and walked out changed. Stranger Than Paradise was my first connection to what “cinema” really meant, or at least what I assumed it aspired to be. It was the first film I stopped enjoying midway through and began to deconstruct, because, like being hit in the temple with a frying pan, I realized that for once I genuinely understood the director’s point. His artistic intent. I absorbed it all with an arresting completeness, as well as the notion that you could take an offbeat, un-commercial idea, and still make a movie out of it. Without compromise. You could rack up credit card debt, beg favors, wheedle and plead and persevere. You could have a vision and enact it, no matter what it took. Fuck budgets. Fuck green-lights. Unadorned life was all that mattered. This was a revelation. I scrounged my Dad’s banged up AE-1 and immediately started shooting rolls of high speed Tri-X. I told everyone I was going to film school. I became me. Because of this movie. Also, some other stuff, like that bottle of Old Overholt, and getting arrested for hitchhiking naked, and making out in the back of a parked ’77 Buick Regal. But still.
Raw Alternatives: The Blues Brothers, One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest
It’s possible this is the most overtly political and subversive movie of the last fifty years. Horror film? Sorry, this is a straight-up Marxist parable. The mission of the Nostromo and the illogic of the crew’s directives are classic examples of class structure, the rape of the proletariat, hundreds of years of economic slavery, and the need for labor to finally take control of the means of production and distribution. Not to mention the helm. The ship is a hovering feudal system in which serfs/expendable shit-asses are called upon to sacrifice themselves for a nameless corporation, for random profit, for an experiment, for nothing. The alien is not a monster, it’s class structure run amok. The face-hugger is capitalism, which forces its genitals down John Hurt’s throat and deposits the seed of lucre into his stomach. Pure, honed greed forces its way back out of his chest, a mindless killer scampering off into the dark. To feed. And grow. And replicate. Ian Holm’s android is the complacency of all society, a machine positive that it serves a greater purpose but in the end is just a programmed extension of its corporate masters. Harry Dean Stanton is the doom-song of Blue Collar. Yaphet Kotto is Black America, which never stood a chance. Ripley is Trotsky trying to escape to Mexico with nothing but panties and a flame thrower.
Yes, it’s time for a revolution, even if it only comes in the form of Jones the cat.
Raw Alternatives: Coffee, Double Indemnity
7. The King of Comedy
No question Scorcese’s weirdest movie, and most hilarious. Rupert Pupkin is a comedian, stalker, and sociopath. But he has a dream. And that’s to take over for his idol, Johnny Carson stand-in “Jerry Langford.” DeNiro as Pupkin is a two-hour cringe of blind ambition and bad jokes thirty years before David Brent. The inexplicable Sandra Bernhard is a razor in a leotard. How do you follow up Raging Bull? Easy. Pull this weird little fever dream of grinding humiliation out of your ass, toss in a little of the barely–remembered Charlie’s Angel Shelly Hack, a flash-cameo by The Clash, and give all your fans and critics the huge middle finger by saying, “Tear down your Travis Bickle poster and worship this!”
But you know what this movie isn’t? A comedy.
Raw Alternatives: The Big Lebowski, Grizzly Man
6. The Sweet Smell of Success
Utterly corrosive indictment of the reign of Walter Winchell and the 50’s-era gossip column culture that destroyed lives and launched careers on a whim. The power of columnists like Winchell has mostly been forgotten, but at one time was near-total, when a crass whisper about a star’s sexuality or secret abortion or drug habit could ruin them and everything they touched. Adapted by Clifford Odetts from Ernest Lehman’s book, it ranks with the best of Nathaniel West and Budd Schulberg for rude flayings of the phoniness and duplicity that choked both Hollywood and Manhattan at the time. And still does. Not to mention the producers and directors and agents and writers and stars who fucked each other and fucked each other over. Plus, all those rainy shots of 52nd Street at 2am? Fantastic. Tony Curtis absolutely kills as one of the great sycophants in cinema history, Sydney Falco.
Raw Alternatives: The Tenant, The Pawnbroker
5. Wages of Fear
A crew of men in the jungle, with a job to do. No time for cowards or whiners. The heat, the sweat. The steamy claustrophobia. Riveting rivets. One man mops his brow. Two trucks full of nitro need to be transported over miles of torturous road. Three shots of Yves Montand in a neckerchief. Four close ups of the Dangling Cigarette of French Smolder. Five jealous smirks trumping six treacherous glances. Seven high-belted slacks. Eight rank armpits. Nine subtitles that don’t match the intensity. Ten big Fuck-Yeah’s! for this killer movie. Remade as the also excellent and bad-ass Sorcerer with Roy Scheider in the mid-70s. But the original is better.
Raw Alternatives: A Fistful of Dollars, East of Eden
4. Five Easy Pieces
Oil rig wildcatter, concert pianist dropout, and Karen Black-spurning Jack Nicholson helms this dive into 70’s angst and the meaningless search for meaning amongst the striations of class and cossetted privilege. What’s it about? Well, only confusion, JFK assassination-lag, free-floating hopelessness, a dawning realization that drugs are nothing but a slow diminishment combined with the need to flee, now and to anywhere. Based peripherally on the life of the phenomenal Glenn Gould (really, you should listen to him right this second and, inevitably, the rest of your life), it asks if the self-obsession required of true art forgives an appalling lack of humanity. As well as if an immersion in “art” is any different in the larger sense than the immersion in comfort or wealth. In the end, they are both affectations. We should probably all die alone and unfulfilled. In the meantime, there’s buttery popcorn, Karen Black’s shoulder, and Jack’s grin. Yeah, it’s enough.
BONUS POINTS: Quick, name another movie that features Fanny Flagg (Fried Green Clichés), Sally Struthers (Meathead’s squeeze, Christian charity weeper), Susan Anspach (nearly killed Dudley Moore with those endless legs), and Toni Basil (Wore cheerleader outfit, sang brain-worm tune “Mickey”) in it. Got one yet? No? Exactly.
Raw Alternatives: The Graduate, Man on Wire
3. Band of Outsiders
Wait, a jazzy French film with subtitles that is simultaneously subversive, philosophical, and a shitload of fun? Believe it. Based around the thinnest of heist stories, it’s an homage to noir that dares to include a full minute of complete silence, as well as a scene of the three principals running through a scandalized Louvre. When I once owned a VHS copy of this film, I used to watch the dance scene over and over again, mainly just because it made me feel good. About myself and humanity. So much so that when Tarantino stole it for Pulp Fiction, I didn’t even mind. Bande á Part is like a shot of Rimbaud with a Bogart chaser. Goddard manages to strip away the tourist pretensions of Paris and show a city that is worn and lived-in, that for once gives up its glittering charms and forces its inhabitants to be interesting instead. Or at least liars and thieves. Is being utterly charming bad-ass? Not always, but in this case I have declared it so. If the word chic were invented for one thing only, above and beyond the singers of “Le Freak”, it would be to do justice to all 95 of these minutes.
This is one of my favorite films of all time and I am still deeply in love with Anna Karina. As I have been since I was twelve.
Raw Alternatives: Badlands, Midnight Cowboy
2. Criss Cross
A left cross of Siodmak to temple. This gorgeously shot noir is just the thing for the cynic or armored car robber in your life. Yvonne DeCarlo is beyond a femme and vastly more fatale. My man Dan Duryea (dying nobly in a trench in almost every war movie made from 1955-1964) plays Slim Dundee, bad-ass mob cuckold. In a tight 88 minutes it manages more jaundiced dialog and blasé back-stabbing than you could cram into a hundred seasons of Mad Men. The ending is pure cynical disdain. It’s like taking your medicine, a big tablespoon of cod liver oil, This is who we are and this is all we’ll ever be.
Raw Alternatives: The Big Combo, You Can Call Me Mr. Tibbs
Global conspiracy. Television as porn/pain medium. Sweet scatological madness. Freaky, low-rent exploitation intellect. Debbie Harry. The philosophy of sleaze. The worship of corruption. The mystery of Betamax. Pirate cable. Dawn of VHS. Clinical sexuality. Venereal nostalgia. Virtual paint huffing. Fumes of surrealist nonsense. Analogue becomes organic. Epidermis as cheap plastic. Anti-consumption. Brute cynicism. All torture comes from Pittsburgh! An indictment of everything and nothing at all. One of the few movies ever made that will never be re-made. Get the director’s cut! Welcome to the new flesh!
Well, yeah. But in the end, Videodrome is the most bad-ass movie ever made because not a single frame of it gives a shit what you think. There is no pandering toward the commercial, no compromise, no indication of marketing or promotional considerations, no stepping off the gas, no looking away from the twisted or uncomfortable. In fact, it looks right at it. Forces your nose into it. And then kicks you in the neck for good measure. Videodrome exists entirely for itself. It does not admire its devices, but it can live with them, because it’s a cruel, inscrutable world and anyone who hasn’t already been driven half insane by it is either a fool, deluded, or just the sort of person who would hate this movie anyway.
If you die and go to heaven and St. Peter stops you at the gates and charges you the gate fee and then asks (as he almost certainly will) “What did you think of Videodrome?” you had better have your answer ready: “It’s the most offensive thing I’ve ever seen. In fact, I didn’t even see it, I just read this article about it.” Because then St. Peter will admit you for coming up with such a slick response and only take sixty-six percent off the top of the halo polishing concession he just awarded you.
If you die and go to hell and Beelzebub stops you at the pyramid of flaming sinners and asks (as he almost certainly will) “What did you think of Videodrome?” just wink and go, “It ruled.” You’ll still burn in a sea of eternal torment, but they’ll probably give you an asbestos Speedo and an autographed pair of James Woods Wayfarers.
Obvious Alternative: The only movie so fucking hardcore that it doesn’t have an obvious alternative. Okay, fine, maybe Eraserhead.
You sir, should be teaching this in college somewhere. Even Community College.
All I can add is a couple of mine
Escape from New York
Mr. Blaine, I took a long, hard look at Mr. Plissken and did not find him wanting. But possibly a touch too campy to kick someone else off…
Snake doesn’t need us to make him look any cooler than he already is.
But it occurs, to me, Kurt Russell, in two of the best movie endings of the decade (ever?) in back-to-back films? FULL props to him and especially John Carpenter.
The man who made the patch cool again, directed by the man who made Rowdy Roddy Piper watchable.
This is a QUALITY ITEM. There are many films I like in here, but that’s not the point, is it? So the main criterion for bad-assery is basically nihilism. An impressive piece of work.
A recent film I dug is Blue Ruin, which has been compared by many people to Blood Simple. Mind you, Bronson is often compared to Chopper, and Chopper is not fit to wax Bronson’s ‘tache.
Ooh, I could go on and on. Oh yeah – Old Boy (original Korean)?
I guess it’s true that in my estimation the honestly of nihilism trumps what is usually taken to be bad-assery, namely the ability to fire a gun that never runs out of bullets and then say something snide about the corpse.
I just saw Blue Ruin as well (it’s in the tags) and liked it quite a bit. It almost made the list! An actually plausible revenge fantasy, minus almost all the fantasy.
Glad you dug it, Steve.
(Korean, most certainly)
Excellent read, a good list, though I might have disqualified a few and added a few others. For example, I might have added Ganja and Hess and Tarkovsky’s Stalker. And yes, you should go spend a semester at your alma mater teaching this as a course!!
Thanks, Bob. Stalker is actually an alternative under The Man Who Fell to Earth. I haven’t seen Ganja & Hess but just added it to my list. Would love to hear any other suggestions you’d have for films I’m overlooking…Also, do you have any pull in getting me this teaching gig?
I would think a movie list like this would have you counting how many times you yelled “badass”
its a list of shocking movies for people who have no context to cult cinema and by no means comprehensive. A more correct list of BADASS movies would be – Falling Down, Tarantino sorted reverse chronologically, The Crow/Bruce Lee, Kurt Russel, Like even a 90’s rap music video would be more “BADASS” than this list/
scream “badass” at a movie you are watching.
Have you gotten any smarter in the intervening two years?