Presented in SAMX

Raiders of the Lost Ark

[Steven Spielberg, June 1981]

For the first time in his 11-year-old life, my son Sam has a best friend, oddly enough named Benjamin. This new Ben (yes, it does throw me when I hear him say it yet mean Benjamin) has seen all four Indiana Jones films. Clearly he’s a fan — and what’s not to be a fan of? OK, fine, no one need sit through Kingdom of the Crystal Skull twice. (Do I hear once?) Sam, however, has yet to see any of these movies, despite repeated suggestions that we turn off the [insert screen or console of choice here] and watch the inarguable best of the bunch. That this still has not occurred is a travesty, a failing as a father. Make no mistake, it will be corrected, and soon, BenFest or not.

That is all.

My Bodyguard

[Tony Bill, July 1980]

This ought to be required viewing before entering high school — hell, middle school. As I started sorting through possibilities for this corner of my imaginary Cannes, comprising films I intend to show Sam before he’s 18, I took a look at the first half of this great coming-of-age piece, both a critics’ darling and commercial hit roughly four decades ago that has since slipped through the cracks and largely been forgotten in favor of two or three too many John Hughes movies (they’re not all so meaningful). I was instantly struck by how very real My Bodyguard still is; its subtle strengths haven’t aged a bit, despite some of its clothes and hairstyles.

Whether you’ve seen this onetime cable-TV mainstay or not, you’re still likely to have that “wow, look how young they were!” moment of recognition when Matt Dillon and then-unknowns Adam Baldwin and Joan Cusack first appear. (By contrast, Martin Mull has, until recently, always looked like he’s 40-pushing-50, and most of us have only ever known Ruth Gordon, so beloved in Harold and Maude, as the most lovable old broad this side of Betty White.) After those opening minutes, however, what gradually emerges is one of the most believable portrayals of high school captured on celluloid, within which resides a most timely tale of overcoming bullying. Central to its effectiveness: Chris Makepeace, in his first of two SAMX appearances, proving he’s just about as perfect an Everykid as there’s ever been — open-hearted and closed-off simultaneously, like pretty much every adolescent I’ve ever known, myself included.

Here’s a non-fantasy fiction that gets all the details right and gives David a fighting chance against his Goliath, a treasure worth rediscovering in this time of accelerated youth and too many (which is to say any) horrific school shootings and images of helpless, trapped children. This outstanding picture ought to be studied by or at least during freshman year, with highly encouraged safe-space debate over each character’s motivations and lessons learned. It’s also quite funny.

The Sting

[George Roy Hill, Christmas 1973]

My first memories of Paul Newman and Robert Redford, legends with dozens of major works to their credits, start around ’77-’78 via a taped-off-Channel-7 copy of this somewhat unlikely (but not undeserving) top Oscar winner. Only occasionally did it have the commercials cut out, and in spots where it did, I also sensed that I’d lost a half-minute or more of the movie, not to mention the curse words my 4th-grade eyes could tell were being dubbed over. Also, because it was such hiss-filled audio, it wasn’t until 20 years later that I noticed how detective Charles Durning’s shoes squishy-squeak when he walks.

Back then that quirky little detail couldn’t have made me love The Sting more than I already did. Man did I ever play that thing to death, ’til there was scarcely a segment that didn’t have some warbled crease in the tape. I just could not get enough of all the crafty setups and crooked deals and double-double-crosses — what fun it must have been, I thought, to be a Dapper Dan con man during the Depression! All those wily tricks, outsmarting folks outta their cash, and all set to Marvin Hamlisch’s nifty approximation of Scott Joplin’s ragtime. That’s the life!

What did I know from abject poverty at 9? I wanted to learn to shuffle cards (and cheat) like Newman and help plot the perfect grift like Redford — especially if it means foiling a scary meanie like that crazy-ass captain from Jaws, Robert Shaw! You can’t imagine how elated little me was to discover in the days/weeks after ABC aired The Sting that a handful of school friends had also seen it. Soon all of us were flicking our index fingers down our noses at each other, stealing the Newman/Redford gang’s secret signal and morphing it into our own coolness code — at least until some other kids noticed us doing it, and when we wouldn’t tell them why, they teased us, so we stopped. Because childhood.

I don’t for a second suspect Sam will find this charmer half as enthralling as I did. But I’m curious all the same what he’ll think of it. If I hit him with it soon, he may not see any of the surprises coming.

Bringing Up Baby

[Howard Hawks, February 1938]

Nothing makes me laugh like a great screwball comedy — not This Is Spinal Tap or The Naked Gun or There’s Something About Mary, nor anything from Monty Python or Bill Murray, not Elf (nearly wet myself the first time I saw that one) or the deadpan best of the Coen brothers, or the unexpected lol’s that come from Tarantino or South Park, or even my pre-collegiate favorite Fletch, which in a weird way made me want to be a journalist just as much as All the President’s Men did. I love all of those and too many more to count. But over the years I’ve found that even the very best of them make me guffaw loudly and heartily the first time I see them — and then only make me smile and snicker and maybe chuckle a bit whenever I encounter them again.

Not so Bringing Up Baby, the most consistently hilarious screwball comedy of all-time, narrowly beating out My Man Godfrey, His Girl Friday, The Lady Eve and Ball of Fire to lead my Top 5 from the classic era. Although, I did just see Twentieth Century, another Howard Hawks entry in this canon, with John Barrymore and the divine Carole Lombard; its wit is still razor-sharp. And don’t even get me started on how everything Preston Sturges ever wrote or directed (or both) is essential. Sonofabitch, now Sam needs to see all of these movies.

But if I limit the chief factors to laughs-per-minute and sustained humor over time; admit that Katharine Hepburn is every bit as singularly alluring as Lombard or Barbara Stanwyck or Rosalind Russell, and that no one but Roz ever delivered rapid-fire dialogue more eloquently; and then also weigh in my unswayable opinion that Cary Grant is the finest-looking specimen to ever be filmed, at any age, even when playing a nerdy, befuddled paleontologist whose inadvertent involvement in endless shenanigans, mainly involving a scatterbrained heiress and her pet leopard, ultimately leads him to snap, until he leaps while wearing a sheer lingerie robe and in a seething tone yells: “I just went GAY all of a sudden” ...

Taking all of that into account, plus some of the cleverest banter ever concocted and a book’s worth of other reasons, this gets my vote for funniest movie ever. Sam will see it, or one of us is grounded.

Meatballs

[Ivan Reitman, June 1979]

This one requires no belaboring to get to the point. Although before I do: It’s worth reminding anyone scratching their heads at the choice of this box-office smash ($40 million-plus profit on a roughly $1.5 million production) that it also represents the first starring role from one pock-faced, noogie-dispensing William Murray, quite possibly the funniest man in movies these past 50 years; as well as the directorial breakout of Ivan Reitman (one of those rare Slovak-Canadian Jews!), who went on to make a number of films you might have heard of: Ghostbusters and its sequel, Twins, Stripes, Dave, Kindergarten Cop.

That said, the reason Meatballs is playing this year’s BenFest is because Sam recently went nuts for a Disney Channel series called Bunk’d (and, consequently, its predecessor show, Jessie, which at least has Debby Ryan going for it, but sadly lost one of its family, 20-year-old Cameron Boyce, earlier this year).

Bunk’d, featuring counselors, CITs and newbies (hello again, Chris Makepeace!) at understandably squeaky-clean Camp Kikiwaka, is basically Meatballs without the hormones or dick jokes. Or, of course, Bill Murray, because were it not for that endearingly smug, borderline-unpredictable, on-the-whole deranged persona of his back when his rocket to stardom via SNL was just being launched, this movie long ago would have been stashed in the forgotten dustbin of mildly naughty/stupidly executed teen comedies of the ’80s, right next to Ski School and Up the Creek. Sam, however, ought to learn from whence his precious Bunk’d didst come, T&A jiggle and girl-on-girl slumber party and orgy references and all. As he’s so quick to tell me these days, ever since that night I still don’t know how I suddenly drew an ejaculating stick figure to help explain masturbation (among other basics): “Dad ... c’mon ... we’ve had The Talk.”

Guess we’ve crossed that hurdle. Next stop: Last Tango in Paris.

Almost Famous, Cameron Crowe’s justly beloved autobiography about becoming a teenage rock critic in the early ’70s, although Sam’s mom has called dibs on showing it first; Animal Crackers, my favorite Marx Brothers movie, but I skip the operatic numbers and might back it up and giggle through “Hooray for Captain Spaulding” more than once; The Breakfast Club, because one day John Hughes’ truest picture may well be Sam’s teenage riot just like it was mine; Breaking Away, Peter Yates’s terrific cycling flick, further proof that champions come in all varieties; The Celluloid Closet, an ideal primer on the history of gays and lesbians in cinema, which ought to be seen before Philadelphia or Boys Don’t Cry; Dead Poet’s Society, so he might realize that someday some teacher will amaze and inspire him, and to help illustrate how poetry can be more than song lyrics; Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, because soon enough he’ll relate and make Matthew Broderick’s wiseass one of his heroes, too; Gallipoli, about the senseless, futile Battle of the Nek in Western Australia during World War I, the first anti-war film I recall having a major impact on me, back when Mel Gibson was young and great and not noticeably anti-Semitic, and something I intend to inflict on Sam alongside Kubrick’s Paths of Glory; Gandhi, to head him toward a path of peaceful resistance; Groundhog Day, so we can giggle while counting how many iterations of the same day Bill Murray must endure before breaking the curse of this brilliant construct; Hoop Dreams, a remarkable documentary about the obstacle-laden rise of two promising high-school basketball stars, a crucial assist in understanding how much more of a struggle life can be outside of (as well as within) white suburban America, and a movie he ought to watch with his stepdad Chris, especially if he hasn’t seen it either; Hugo, Scorsese’s superb paean to childhood wonder and the imagination-unleashing power of silent films; Inherit the Wind, Stanley Kramer’s re-staging of the Scopes monkey trial with Spencer Tracy and an unrecognizable Frederic March lobbing verbal fireworks at each other, a film that has as much to say about the power of faith and the blindness of religion as it does about evolution, censorship and freedom of thought; It’s a Wonderful Life, likely to be watched not at Christmas but whenever his first teenage depression sets in; A Little Romance, another George Roy Hill gem, a sweet little sparkler like no one makes anymore, co-starring 13-year-old Diane Lane in her film debut (“the new Grace Kelly!” Olivier declared) and empathetically capturing first-crush innocence and the thrill of escaping parental oversight; Malcolm X, Spike Lee’s biopic starring a never-better Denzel Washington, which I’d show Sam after Gandhi but before Do the Right Thing or Boyz N the Hood; National Lampoon’s Animal House, because he’s a boy, after all, one who ought to know where raunchy comedies came from; Poltergeist, as he’s way overdue for a good scaring that isn’t too terrifyingly gory; Quiz Show, to reinforce why truth matters and why no one should trust everything (anything?) on TV; and Time Bandits, Terry Gilliam’s clever time-traveling fantasy, complete with seven dwarfs, because only cats falling down stairs are cuter than little people bumbling into each other.