THE ENDLESS SUMMER (1966)
The first great surfing documentary is also, in a weird way, a time-capsule portrait of what the counterculture looked like before it had a name: two surfers from California, Mike Hynson and Robert August, as clean-cut as the Hardy Boys, dropping out to chase sun and waves and yuks around the world. Director Bruce Brown’s narration is goofy (and, on occasion, pretty racist in a lookit-the-crazy-natives sort of way), and there’s nothing “extreme” about the filmmaking—no you-are-there shots of adrenaline junkies parachuting into typhoons, no drugs, only the corniest of rock-n’-roll. Still: If you know that the movie was shot in 1963, and that director Bruce Brown and his stars were somewhere in Africa when they heard about the Kennedy assassination, that the country they came home to wasn’t the one they left, it plays like a home movie from a less-complicated world. Put it on like a screen saver when Seasonal Affective Disorder begins kicking your ass; it warms any room it’s playing in.
GAME OF DEATH (1978)
Bruce Lee’s final film—actually bits and pieces of a movie he started shooting in 1972, before Enter the Dragon, and left unfinished when he died, stitched together using stock footage, Lee stand-ins wearing sunglasses and/or fake beards, clips of Chuck Norris from Way of the Dragon, and, in at least one amazing shot worthy of Bobby Bowfinger, a cardboard cutout with Bruce’s face on it. Pure exploitation—but it does feature Bruce fighting Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and the most culturally-influential tracksuit in movie history (see Thurman, Uma.) Hulu also has the superior Fist of Fury, from 1972. You should probably watch that first.
STRAIGHT TO HELL RETURNS (1987)
This deranged homage to the Italian Western, which director Alex Cox says he turned down The Three Amigos to make, throws a whole lot of spaghetti at the wall, and not all of it sticks. But as a punk-rock indigestion-dream about the madness of Sergio Leone (and his peers—Giulio Questi’s Django, Kill! was a major inspiration) it’s pretty triumphant. Three hit men (Sy Richardson and the Clash’s Joe Strummer, in black suits and skinny ties 13 years pre-Pulp Fiction, and Dick Rude, the “white suburban punk” from Cox’s Repo Man) botch a job and rob a bank. With a young, chubby Courtney Love in tow, they hole up in a remote Mexican town with an all-weirdo population; Dennis Hopper shows up, as does a gang of espresso-chugging bandits played by the Pogues, and eventually Jim Jarmusch gets shot in the head.
LAST ACTION HERO (1993)
A self-aware movie with amnesia. The backstory: Two college students, Zak Penn (who’d go on to become Hollywood’s go-to superhero-movie screenwriter) and Adam Leff, hit the spec-script lotto with a screenplay called Extremely Violent, in which a movie-mad kid is magically transported into his favorite action-film star’s fictional universe. It’s a semi-affectionate goof on the Lethal Weapon-style explosions-and-one-liners formula, so of course the guy Columbia Pictures hires to rewrite it is Shane Black. Who wrote Lethal Weapon.
And Black is a genius, but for obvious reasons he’s sort of a weird choice for this project, and even with Arnold Schwarzenegger gamely attempting meta-Schwarzeneggerosity as the hero, “Jack Slater,” it’s kind of an action-movie-parody omelet trying to unscramble itself into action-movie eggs; having an annoying kid (Austin O’Brien) point out all the cliches isn’t the same thing as deconstructing them. It doesn’t seem any less like a blockbuster Spruce Goose today than it did in ’93, but it’s kind of fascinating to watch big names like Arnold and director John McTiernan (Die Hard) attempt something like this, way before Scream and Hot Fuzz mainstreamed popcorn postmodernism. With Danny DeVito as an animated cat detective, because hey, why not?
CONFESSIONS OF A SUPERHERO (2007)
The best experience I ever had in Las Vegas: One night a couple years ago, walking back to my off-Strip hotel room after killing a long and weirdly sober night wandering from casino to casino after an interview subject failed to show up, I found myself standing at a red light behind a Superman impersonator and a woman dressed as Marilyn Monroe.
Superman had a receding hairline; Marilyn was wearing flip-flops and carrying something (her Marilyn shoes, maybe) in a rumpled Desigual shopping bag and looked like she might have been older than the real Marilyn was when she died. They seemed tired and didn’t talk much, like maybe they’d had just about enough of begging drunk tourists to pay them for a photo op. We were walking in the same direction, so I followed them at a safe distance for several long blocks of vacant-lot Vegas, taking smeary headlight-blurred pictures of them with my iPhone whenever I could. People walking by in the other direction, pointed at them, gorilla-flexed their arms at Superman. People yelled from cars.
Finally they peeled off, into a big condo development a few blocks from the Hard Rock. As they crossed the parking lot, Marilyn took Superman’s padded arm. By that point I’d forgotten all about the article I’d come here to do; I wanted more than I’d wanted almost anything to follow them home and learn everything I possibly could about whatever weird, heartbreaking Raymond Carver story was about to unfold inside that condo. How did they get here—to this city, to this profession, and finally to this traffic island on East Harmon Ave at midnight? Were they going home together for the first time? Was this the kind of workplace hook-up that happens when your job involves tussling for tips with guys dressed as Wolverine and Gene Simmons from Kiss and your workplace is the sidewalk in front of the Venetian? Was Superman going to wake up tomorrow and decline to buy Marilyn breakfast on the grounds that “Superman belongs to the world”? Or were Superman and Marilyn married? Did they talk shop at night, Superman with his hands in a sink full of Woolite suds, wringing the day’s sweat out of his muscle-suit? Did they laugh on the couch in front of whatever they’d DVR’d? If and when Superman made love to Marilyn, did he actually feel like Superman making love to Marilyn Monroe, or did the gap between fantasy and reality become more pronounced in those moments, making Superman feel like the fictional Superman struggling to stretch himself between the ends of a broken railroad bridge, so that a train run across his back? At night, did Superman lie awake, staring at the ceiling, listening for Marilyn to betray him with whispers in her sleep about John and Bobby and Joe DiMaggio? Or Batman? Anyway: It’s not really fair to put Confessions of a Superhero, a documentary about the lives of the celebrity/character impersonators who work Grauman’s Chinese Theatre in Hollywood, on a list of nearly-great movies; it’s funny and humane and pretty unequivocally great, as thought-provoking an exploration of the gulf between ordinary people and the idea of the superhero as “Watchmen.”
Christopher Dennis, the Superman at the movie’s center, is an amazing character, both as delusional as you think he’s going to be and way more noble in a Kal-El kind of way than you’d expect from somebody who’s basically chosen a life of rejection and/or misdemeanor loitering arrests. I’m also partial to Anger Management Issues Batman Who Doesn’t Really Have His Batman Outfit All The Way Together. I guess it’s nearly-great in the sense that it falls short of the movie about the supportive and/or troubled marriage of a Superman impersonator and a Marilyn Monroe impersonator that I imagined on that walk home from the Strip; it’s not as good, in other words, as a documentary that existed only in my mind. I guess if you look at it that way, all movies are, on some level, only “nearly great.”