ANY LIST OF THE 25 GREATEST TEXAS movies on DVD has to start with the question, What the hell is a Texas movie? Is it made in Texas? Actually, some of the greatest Texas stories were created in Arizona, Mexico, Canada, or the Mojave Desert. Is it historically accurate? Sometimes the myth of Texas, not the reality, is the whole point, as in Blood Simple, which could have been made anywhere but fairly drips with assumptions about the dark side of the state. Was it written or directed by Texans? The most legendary of all Texas films, Giant, was based on a Yankee’s novel and directed by a Hollywood potentate, with a cast of mostly California movie stars. So we have to start with the notion that the idea of Texas has entered into movie history as a place that’s no easier to define than, say, cinematic Brooklyn, where gangsters will always be more interesting than hardworking immigrant families, or cinematic California, where grifters and private eyes will always be more exploited than surfers or computer programmers.
What we can say about Texas themes on the big screen is that the best ones almost always deal with our sins more than our virtues. Whether it’s John Wayne as the rapacious, unprincipled rancher in Red River or James Dean as the upstart oilman who represents the death of civility and the triumph of hard-edged greed in Giant, Texas is inevitably seen as a place of isolation, raw emotions, and hardscrabble lives more suited to tragedy than comedy. (Only recently has there been a turn toward comedic fare, notably in the work of homegrown filmmakers like Richard Linklater and Wes Anderson.) Even in the most life-affirming of all Texas films, Horton Foote’s superb Tender Mercies, the narrative begins with a life wasted by alcoholism and ends with that same life devastated by the death of a loved one. Movies that try to celebrate Texas history—those based on the Alamo story, for example, or the dozens of Texas Ranger movies—nearly all fall short. The Alamo story, for one thing, is inherently undramatic, almost like a one-act play, lacking the necessary twists and turns to sustain itself for two hours, much less three. The most famous of the Texas Ranger movies, The Lone Ranger, was so bleached of its Texas roots that it’s widely perceived to be a California story anyway.
The other thing we can say about Texas movies is that they’re overwhelmingly set in the least populous part of the state: West Texas. Tumbleweed, sage, and roads to nowhere are inherently more interesting, it seems, than blackland farms, cities ringed by interstates, dense hardwood forests, or even the Mexican borderlands. Larry McMurtry may or may not be the state’s greatest novelist, but he’s certainly the most cinematic. Four of the movies on the Best 25 list are based on stories by McMurtry, including Hud, whose audiences stunned its director when they viewed the character played by Paul Newman—a crass, soulless egotist—as a hero. It was the movie that launched what has come to be known as the antihero. The gentler fiction of Central Texas (Fred Gipson, author of Old Yeller) or South Texas (Horton Foote, our greatest playwright) has proven mostly resistant to the big screen, or at least resistant to modern tastes. And it’s only since Urban Cowboy, in 1980, that Texas cities were considered candidates for movie treatment at all. (That prejudice had already begun to change with the massive popularity of the TV series Dallas, which acted as a sort of bridge between the old ranching-and-oil themes and the tacky landscapes—never quite respected—of Dallas and Houston.)
Unfortunately, some of the best Texas movies haven’t been included on this list because they haven’t yet been released on DVD—notably, Victor Seastrom’s The Wind (1928), based on Dorothy Scarborough’s popular West Texas novel and featuring Lillian Gish as the heroine choked to death by her new life on the bleak prairie, and the late Eagle Pennell’s Last Night at the Alamo (1984), a brash yet tender look at the clash between Old and New Texas at a Houston bar marked for demolition so that a skyscraper can rise in its place. Last Night at the Alamo was written by Kim Henkel, who also wrote the greatest Texas horror film, if not the greatest American horror film, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Like most of our native Texas filmmakers—Anderson, Linklater, and the enigmatic Terrence Malick, creator of Badlands and Days of Heaven—Pennell and Henkel are loners, individualists, and prone to being described as “quirky.” Perhaps this is the secret to Texas films, whether they’re made in Seguin, Houston, Guadalajara, or Calgary. It’s all about a worldview that’s neither tied to Europe (the New York film) or tied to Hollywood (the international blockbuster). It’s all about characters who surprise us because they’re so damn different, and so damn recognizable. The Texas character stands out in sharp relief because we’re not used to seeing him on the screen at all.
Duel in the Sun(1946)
With an unheard-of $6 million budget, a running time of 144 minutes, an overwrought Dimitri Tiomkin score, and Technicolor photography so lush it drips crimson onto your shoes, this was producer David O. Selznick’s attempt to do for Texas what his Gone With the Wind did for Georgia. It’s generally regarded as a magnificent failure, yet it’s strangely compelling, mostly due to several scenes that were among the greatest ever filmed by the legendary silent auteur (and Galveston native) King Vidor. Instead of the Civil War, Selznick used a cattle-baron guerrilla war against the railroads, and instead of Scarlett O’Hara, he used his girlfriend, Jennifer Jones, as a half-breed sexual spitfire torn between good brother Joseph Cotten and bad brother Gregory Peck, scions of the ranch empire viciously lorded over by Texas senator Lionel Barrymore. Loaded with star power (Orson Welles does the opening narration), it survives because of those amazing scenes that did work: hundreds of mounted cowboys facing off against the Army at a railroad track, Lillian Gish’s tearjerker death scene, and the final extended shoot-out among red-rock boulders, where Peck and Jones alternately avow their love and express their hate with a rifle and a pistol.
Red River (1948)
John Wayne’s performance as a psychopathic fascist who represents the foundation of the Texas ranching industry is perhaps his greatest role. Based on Borden Chase’s six-part serial in the Saturday Evening Post called “The Chisholm Trail,” this is the dark side of Giant, a movie so rich in epic symbolism that it’s virtually biblical (the Red River as the Red Sea, Wayne as a disoriented Abraham figure, Montgomery Clift as a bastard Isaac). But audiences saw it as merely the greatest cattle drive movie ever made. It has the added virtue of being relatively accurate historically, with no sugarcoating of the way Texas ranchland was stolen from Mexican cattle barons, the Reconstruction economy that left ranchers cattle rich and cash poor, and the reasons that the Chisholm Trail to Abilene, Kansas, supplanted the dangerous earlier route to Sedalia, Missouri. Wayne’s character amounts to a Texas Captain Ahab, and his full-bore embracing of it makes you wonder what kind of great actor he could have been if he had embraced his inner bad boy more often.
This is the archetypal Texas film, encompassing nearly every theme in the state’s mythology, including the clashes between Anglos and Mexicans, cattle and oil, rich and poor, new money and old, and the state’s ever-present battle against modernity itself. Of all the film’s classic moments, perhaps my favorite is an early scene in which the soon-to-be-married Bick Benedict (Rock Hudson) and Leslie Lynnton (Elizabeth Taylor) are at Leslie’s family home in Ardmore, Maryland, prior to their journey west. She asks, “Isn’t Texas green, Mister Benedict?” Bick demurs—“not exactly”—and shortly thereafter we see a train dropping off the newlyweds at a whistle-stop in the middle of nowhere, where the desolate West Texas landscape resembles the surface of the moon (actually a patch of land outside Marfa). The clear implication of Edna Ferber’s novel was that this was a place that could never quite be civilized. What’s remarkable about the past fifty years is that the novel and film—both demonized by fifties Texans as a carpetbag caricature of the state’s history—have become official state mythology.
The Searchers (1956)
This is the film most responsible for making non-Texans believe that the whole state looks like a Rocky Mountain outcropping. That’s because John Ford took the excellent Texas novel by Alan LeMay and filmed it in Colorado and Monument Valley, Utah, places where Ford loved to work no matter how awkwardly they fit the script. The film is frequently cited as the greatest movie ever made, and it’s one of cinema’s most complex studies of racism. The French are especially fond of it, but so are tough-guy character actors, who notice the nuances of the supporting performances (never have so many minor characters been so richly drawn). The story is simple. John Wayne returns home from the Civil War and the Indian wars, embittered and hardened, but becomes enraged when he’s decoyed away from his brother’s ranch so that the Comanches can burn it, kill an entire family, and kidnap his niece. He’s soon the archetypal dead-man-with-a-mission as he vows to hunt down and kill every Indian involved. Why, at the moment of truth, he doesn’t carry through on his plan of ethnic cleansing is one of those great moments in cinema that you remember for a lifetime—it’s mysterious at its heart, an act of mercy and grace that Ford left unexplained.
Written On the Wind (1956)
Douglas Sirk’s dark soap opera about how oil wealth corrupts the soul seems made for Texas, but the original novel, by Robert Wilder, was really set among North Carolina tobacco fortunes. The relentlessly downbeat noir feel of the film is redeemed by the over-the-top Oscar-winning performance of Southern Methodist University grad Dorothy Malone as the town floozy who loves the only man who won’t marry her (Rock Hudson, in his “other” Texas role of 1956). Although the fictional Texas city is called Hadley, it is almost certainly some combination of Midland and Odessa, the only West Texas places that paired vast oil wealth with these kinds of small-town theatrics. As in many family dramas of the fifties, most of the principals are alcoholics, if not degenerates. Call it the Peyton Place of the Southwest.
Old Yeller (1957)
The movie everyone is embarrassed to love was in fact Texas novelist Fred Gipson’s second try at Hollywood. His book The Home Place, filmed in 1952 by Twentieth Century Fox as Return of the Texan, was a bomb, but Walt Disney himself saw in Old Yeller just the kind of coming-of-age story that he’d made his trademark. It’s probably the finest performance of Disney regular Tommy Kirk, as the young boy who hates the yellow cur when he shows up on the farm one day, then starts to admire the dog’s fighting ability, and ultimately becomes a man by deciding to put him down himself after the dog fights off a wolf and gets rabies in the process. Often passed over as a “guilty pleasure,” the film is extremely well directed by veteran Robert Stevenson, who became a Disney star with this movie and would go on to direct The Absent-Minded Professor, Mary Poppins, and The Love Bug.
Rio Bravo (1959)
Howard Hawks claims he made this western as an antidote to the soft, simpering liberalism of High Noon. John Wayne is the small-town Texas sheriff who knows a killer gang is coming to do away with him and spring Claude Akins out of jail. But he turns down the help of his trail-boss friend and his teamsters, assembling a motley crew of misfits instead: a town drunk (Dean Martin), a smart-mouthed young hired gun (Ricky Nelson), a crippled old deputy (Walter Brennan), and a saloon girl turned love interest (Angie Dickinson). It takes two hours to build up to the violent climax, but the time is well spent, as each character seeks redemption and courage (Martin’s pouring a shot of whiskey back into the bottle is perhaps that actor’s finest moment). Hawks seems to be saying that in Texas, strength is discovered from within and that the people who appear to be weak turn out to be stronger than you think.
State Fair (1962)
Rodgers and Hammerstein loved to set stories in exotic locales, and so Texas’s getting the Broadway musical treatment was inevitable. We fared better than Oklahoma (despite the continuing popularity of Oklahoma! among high school dramatists), as this goofy, exuberant tour of the State Fair of Texas never fails to amuse, in part because of the sheer energy of Ann-Margret. The whole film—episodic adventures of a family traveling to Dallas for mincemeat judging, car racing, and pig showing—is silly in the extreme, but the music is lively and hummable, and the only false note is plain-vanilla Pat Boone as the romantic lead. None of the actors pass muster as authentic Texans—Bobby Darin (!) plays the foil to Boone—but the closest is the great Tom Ewell as the wacky family patriarch who spikes the mincemeat.
This is the first fully authentic Texas movie—filmed on location on the bleak Panhandle Plains of Armstrong County, based on Larry McMurtry’s Horseman, Pass By, and free of the usual claptrap of Texas clichés and stereotypes. Paul Newman plays the title character, a man so morally irredeemable that it’s hard in retrospect to know just what audiences liked so much about him. (The film was a huge box-office hit and won three Oscars.) Melvyn Douglas is Hud’s father, a rancher who clings sternly to the principles of a vanished age, and yet he seems less appealing than Hud, who spends his life lying, cheating, womanizing, speeding through the prairie in a Cadillac, and squandering the family birthright. The cinematography of James Wong Howe brings out the lifelessness of people tied to the land when the land is unclean and unforgiving, and the scene in which an entire herd of diseased cattle is destroyed goes on for well over a minute and is virtually dialogue free; never have gunshots been used so effectively in a western.
Bonnie and Clyde (1967)
Great directors have always been attracted to the story of Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow—see Sam Peckinpah’s The Getaway or Robert Altman’s Thieves Like Us—but nobody got the whole myth as completely as Arthur Penn. A near-perfect film that’s alternately comedy, action, gangster, horror, and romance, it was also one of the most controversial pictures of the decade, with critics unloading on Penn for the lavish use of blood squibs and the casting of Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway as leads so attractive and winning that, when their crimes turn their blackest, we feel complicit and dirty but still want them to get away. The film was shot entirely in North Texas, making use of old buildings and lonely roads to evoke Depression-era Texas and Oklahoma, and it was a sensation both stylistically (adapting the French New Wave to American films for the first time) as well as politically (these were anti-war hippies destroying everything created by an older generation).
The Wild Bunch (1969)
By the time Sam Peckinpah’s masterpiece was released, the buzz from test screenings and film festivals had already identified it as the bloodiest, most violent, and most sickening display of carnage ever made. Normally that kind of publicity would translate into a box-office hit, but the film was disturbing on so many levels that people either loved or hated it, were exhausted or mesmerized by it, and it was many years before it was recognized as perhaps the greatest western ever made. It begins in the fictitious South Texas town of San Rafael, where the men we’re supposed to identify with are terrorists who use a Main Street parade full of women and children as a human shield for their guns-blazing robbery. William Holden plays Pike Bishop, the broken-down, guilt-ridden boss of this gang of desperadoes trudging wearily toward their doom. Peckinpah created a world in which everyone is damned and the whole universe is full of killers. He then populated this landscape of burned-out houses and vicious villagers with some of the greatest western actors in the history of film. What kind of world are you living in when you see Ben Johnson naked in a wooden tub, fondling the breast of a hooker? Peckinpah would no doubt say that it’s the world we all live in.
The Last Picture Show (1971)
This iconic small-town Texas movie (filmed in author Larry McMurtry’s Archer City) was the launching pad for a lot of careers—Peter Bogdanovich, who instantly became a “class” director; Cybill Shepherd, who became a sex symbol after she appeared on the diving board performing a striptease; Timothy Bottoms and Jeff Bridges, as best friends trying to figure out how to make a place for themselves in a dying town; and Randy Quaid, as the rich kid. But it was known among actors for the two supporting performances: Cloris Leachman, as the coach’s wife fighting her fading looks by having flings with students, and Ben Johnson, who finally got his Oscar, as Sam the Lion, the last vestige of Old Texas as it exists only in our dreams. Bogdanovich shot the dead-end story in black and white, and veteran cinematographer Robert Surtees delivered a beautiful, unsentimental portrait of rural Texas in the fifties that doesn’t have a single wasted shaft of light or shadow.
The Sugarland Express (1974)
Steven Spielberg’s first theatrical film raises the question, Why hasn’t Texas been used more often for road movies and chase scenes? An extended tragicomic chase involving a redneck mom who busts her hubbie out of a pre-release center so they can head to Sugar Land (with a kidnapped state trooper in tow) to liberate their son, Langston, from foster care, this wildly entertaining action farce was inspired by true events (in 1969 Robert and Ila Fae Dent kidnapped Texas state trooper Kenneth Crone). It’s the finest performance of Goldie Hawn, as the dense but feisty mom, and William Atherton, as the fugitive dad. (Atherton, constantly groomed for stardom in the seventies, never caught on with audiences until he played the prick EPA bureaucrat in 1984’s Ghostbusters.) This film makes better use of the back-road landscapes of Texas than any movie before or since.
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)
This collaboration of hippie slackers (the cast and crew) and Austin politicos (the financiers) is not just a great horror movie, Hitchcockian in its complexity, but the most successful independent horror movie in history. And not only was it directed by a graduate of the very first University of Texas film school class (Tobe Hooper), but it was guided through its early distribution by the head of the newly formed Texas Film Commission, Warren Skaaren, who would go on to become one of the top rewrite men in Hollywood. Billed as a docudrama—25 years before The Blair Witch Project used the same kind of misleading promotional materials—it was famously excoriated by the New York intelligentsia. But the movie established for all time the horror conventions of the “final girl” (in this case Marilyn Burns, perhaps the greatest screamer in film history) and the menace of illiterate people who live in the woods, essential elements in what would come to be known in the eighties as the slasher film.
The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976)
The journey from Missouri to Texas has always been one of escape and rehabilitation, a way for flawed men to remake themselves by traveling from the last traces of Eastern law to a wild place where every man makes up his own rules. Stephen F. Austin made that trip. So did many Civil War rebels. When Missouri guerrilla fighter Clint Eastwood makes the journey, he does so as a condemned, bloodthirsty killer who feels that southwest Texas can somehow reform him—well, southwest Texas along with some savvy Indians, a prostitute, a gambler, and a pistol-packing Yankee grandmother whose relatives, just a little while before, he would have gunned down on sight. This movie has all the Eastwood themes going for it—the guilt-racked but essentially honest man, the killer who knows that every death takes part of his soul, the seeker of vengeance who’s so successful he sees the emptiness of the enterprise, and the man with a past he can’t escape—but it’s also perhaps the most subtle of all anti—Vietnam War films.
The Buddy Holly Story (1978)
The only thing that makes this routine biopic worth watching is Gary Busey in the oversized glasses and pompadour, singing the Crickets canon and playing his own instruments without any overdubbing. But that performance alone drives the movie, much as Jamie Foxx drove the flawed Ray (and yet Foxx lip-synched all the songs, using Ray Charles’s real voice). Only someone as manic and obsessive as Busey could have pulled this off, but pull it off he did, despite a lackluster script that follows Holly from his roller-rink gigs in Lubbock to his big break at a Buffalo radio station to The Ed Sullivan Show, hit songs, touring, a love affair ending in marriage, and a triumphant concert in Clear Lake, Iowa, featuring a medley of Holly hits followed by a freeze-frame, so as not to show the downer of the plane flight out.
Days of Heaven (1978)
The career of Waco native Terrence Malick is one of the oddest in film history. Raised on a Central Texas farm, he went to Oxford on a Rhodes Scholarship, dropped out after a quarrel with his thesis adviser, then taught philosophy at MIT, freelanced as a journalist, and wrote and directed two of the most stunning movies of the seventies—Badlands and Days of Heaven, a poetic noir thriller set in the Panhandle (actually Alberta, Canada, doubling for the Panhandle). Malick then promptly disappeared for twenty years before directing another film. Days of Heaven features Richard Gere and Brooke Adams as a pair of migrant farmhands who turn grifters to take advantage of a young farmer (Sam Shepard) who they think is dying, and in the age-old formula popularized by novelist James M. Cain, they take matters into their own hands when he doesn’t die soon enough. It’s Malick’s moody masterwork; especially memorable is the plague of grasshoppers, which is both surreal and timeless in its evocation of the Great Plains as a place that, even after settlement, can’t be wrested from God’s control.
North Dallas Forty (1979)
Of the three notable Texas football movies (Semi-Tough and Friday Night Lights are the other two), this blackest of comedies is hands down the best. Based on Dallas Cowboy Pete Gent’s roman à clef about the Tom Landry years, it’s an early indictment of the corporate takeover of sports franchises, a cliché today but not always understood in the seventies. Nick Nolte steals the movie as the creaky, used-up, battle-scarred wide receiver, with Mac Davis as his amiable quarterback friend (whose character is obviously based on Dandy Don Meredith). Against a backdrop of painkillers, alcohol, smoking in the locker room, and constant womanizing, America’s Team sallies forth each Sunday, offering its flesh in the service of mammon. The movie seems dated by the seventies hair- and clothing styles, but otherwise it still rings true.
Tender Mercies (1983)
The joke among New York actors is that Horton Foote has been writing plays for sixty years and we’re still waiting on his first plot twist. But this Oscar-winning film indicates both the truth and the inanity of the joke. From the thinnest of plots—has-been country singer beats the bottle with the help of a good woman, then starts to live again despite shards of his life that can never be repaired—Foote shows magnificently what simplicity can accomplish. Australian Bruce Beresford directed this minimalist classic, shot mostly on the scrubland around Waxahachie. The sensibility of the film is contained entirely within the performance of Robert Duvall, who tape-recorded an elderly East Texan and replayed the tapes endlessly so he could strike the perfect accent and pronunciation of the type of elegant but unlettered Texas Everyman who has all but vanished. It’s a movie about grace and spirit and mystery, and it’s religious without being preachy or maudlin. It’s that rarest of film experiences, a movie that works deeply into your soul without your ever knowing how that happened.
Terms of Endearment (1983)
Brooklyn’s own James L. Brooks was still known primarily as the creator of The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Taxi when this sprawling, estrogen-drenched weeper came out in 1983 and swept the Oscars (including two for Brooks himself). Loosely based—some thought too loosely—on a Larry McMurtry novel, the story of mother-daughter warring, vapid men, middle-aged sex, and death by cancer seemed wildly uncommercial. At the last minute, Paramount slashed costs and forced Brooks to bring the picture in for $8 million and not a penny more, otherwise the plug would be pulled. Meanwhile, Brooks was tacking on an additional character (astronaut Garrett Breedlove, eventually played by Jack Nicholson after Burt Reynolds passed on it to make Cannonball Run II) and casting screen legend Shirley MacLaine as the mother opposite rising star Debra Winger, as her daughter. The result is what would be recognized today as a Brooks-style movie: a sophisticated soap opera, loaded with one-liners, teetering right on the edge of bathos.
Blood Simple (1984)
“Now, in Russia, they got it mapped out so that everyone pulls for everyone else. That’s the theory, anyway. But what I know about is Texas, and down here . . . you’re on your own.” Hence the great character actor M. Emmet Walsh, as sleazy private detective Loren Visser, explaining in the prologue why the Minnesota-born Coen brothers set their debut film in Texas: It was the most lawless place they could imagine. This horror film noir introduced the world to the Coens’ quirky, mannered universe that would later be worked out in Raising Arizona, Fargo, and O Brother, Where Art Thou? among others. Dan Hedaya is the nastiest bar owner in the history of Texas roadhouses. Walsh is the definitive sociopathic private eye, a man so soiled with corruption that flies light on his face in the middle of scenes. John Getz and Frances McDormand (who would later become Mrs. Joel Coen) are mesmerizing as the sweaty lovers. Because it was done on a shoestring, this film lacks some of the more elaborate stylistic devices of the Coens’ later films, but it’s a better film without them. In Texas, we’re on our own.
Lonesome Dove (1989)
This miniseries for people who despise the miniseries is six hours of unadulterated brilliance, thanks to director Simon Wincer, another Australian who seems to “get” Texas better than some natives. Staying extremely faithful to the Larry McMurtry novel, the Bill Wittliff script combines three western genres—the wagon train movie, the cattle drive movie, and the aged-cowboys-in-the-dying-West movie—into one epic buddy film led by Robert Duvall and Tommy Lee Jones as retired Texas Rangers trying to shake up their pallid lives with a drover’s odyssey to Montana. The Ship of Fools structure includes outstanding performances by Anjelica Huston as the woman Duvall still carries a flame for, Steve Buscemi as a buffalo-skin trader, Diane Lane as the town prostitute, Danny Glover as the scout, and Robert Urich as a morally compromised Texas Ranger fleeing a murder rap in Arkansas. All the usual obstacles get in the way of getting the cattle to the northern pastures, including flooding rivers, Indian attacks, snakes, and rustlers, but the plot always resolves back to the interplay between the wry Duvall (“If there’s one thing I can’t stand, it’s dawdlin’ service”) and the stern, silent Jones, who both give performances of a lifetime.
When Oliver Stone showed up in Dealey Plaza in 1990 with his top-secret script, we all safely assumed that his plan was not to reinforce the lone-gunman theory. This is what happens when you have a genius filmmaker in the service of agitprop: a highly entertaining movie—remarkable for its mixed-format editing and spot-on performances by a cast of hundreds—that has absolutely nothing to do with evidence about the Warren Commission or Lee Harvey Oswald (who is superbly and eerily channeled by Gary Oldman, by the way). Much to the horror of the law-enforcement types who were around in 1963, Stone made self-promoting New Orleans district attorney Jim Garrison the hero, in the form of a more-convincing-than-usual Kevin Costner. He also used Donald Sutherland for a Deep Throat type referred to only as X. Is there anything creepier than Donald Sutherland alluding to dark secrets as he paces around the reflecting pool on the Washington Mall? Scenes like that make for bad history—and great cinema! In the final, thrilling climactic sequence of a three-hour, nine-minute film, we have to assume that Stone is making his best surmise as to what he thinks happened on November 22, 1963, yet the images are so complex that his theory eventually dissolves into a version as fuzzy as the unreleased files of the Warren Commission. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I think Joe Pesci did it.
Dazed and Confused (1993)
Austin-based Richard Linklater has made a whole career out of plotless behavioral comedies, in the process bringing narrative film ever closer to the reality show or, truth be told, the satirical sketch revue. After an auspicious debut with Slacker, he scored again with this American Graffiti for the nineties, set on the last day of school in 1976 at a rural Texas high school, where keg parties in the woods, pool-hall hanging, toking, hazing, and the finer points of squeezing into tight jeans are endlessly expurgated in side-splittingly funny dialogue and gags. This is one of those movies that, in satirizing the party, becomes the party, as successive generations of high school initiates rediscover it. The interesting thing about this movie, for the history of Texas film, is that although it’s set in a small Texas town, its ethos is no longer alien to the rest of the country. Even jaded Manhattan high schoolers can identify with it.
It’s a plot only Wes Anderson could concoct: Prep school geek Jason Schwartzman and middle-aged millionaire Bill Murray fall in love with the same first-grade teacher (Olivia Williams), and heart-wrenching complications ensue. Anderson and his co-writer, Owen Wilson, indifferent college students who met in a playwriting class at the University of Texas, set this winning, whimsical comedy in an alternate universe of excessive privilege and equally excessive neurosis. Schwartzman is especially charming as the flunking king of extracurricular activities who becomes a dynamo of never-say-quit love stratagems. Wilson and Anderson are fine writers of dialogue. Their characters speak in a kind of stilted slang that seems at once a parody of itself and emotionally true, the sort of sophisticated comic repartee we haven’t really had in film since the days of Kaufman and Hart.