In August, my mom and I were sitting on the beach celebrating our birthdays, and we got to thinking. We collectively decided that we wanted a change of scenery this holiday season. I proposed Vegas, and so here we are. I’ll be in Sin City through the New Year, so this list will act as my final post of 2012.
I plan on posting a ‘12 retrospective a little later, but for now, please know that I am forever grateful to anyone who has spent any part of their day reading this blog. When I began this beast five years ago, I never imagined I would gain an audience. My appreciation for you all is boundless. I’ll see you in ‘13.
The finest So Bad It’s Good film ever made is a Vegas movie staple. The glow, the glamour, the glitz, the tackiness, the excess – Showgirls IS Las Vegas. Say what you will about the film’s lame plot (or complete and utter lack thereof) but once you’ve bathed in the city of sin, it’s not at all difficult to believe that the world Showgirls depicts is alive and well underneath the surface.
9. Bugsy (1991)
Bugsy Siegel had a vision. An LA pusher tempted by fame, wealth and indulgence, Siegel sought the comforts of the Nevada desert to help legitimize his business practices. There’s a great scene in Barry Levinson’s remarkable film in which Warren Beatty has an epiphany while driving through the desert. He stops the car, gets out, and looks. This could be it. This spot of land could reinvent him. And did it ever.
8. Swingers (1996)
Most of the films on this list take place exclusively in Las Vegas, others expertly highlight the city in just a handful of scenes. Noting that, it’s impossible to not include the film that forever embedded “Vegas baby, Vegas,” in pop culture on a list of this sort. Early in Doug Liman’s kind-of-brilliant LA bachelor romp, Swingers, Trent (an unrecognizably young Vince Vaughn) senses his buddy Mike is down, so he proposes a spontaneous trip to Vegas. Their car ride to Sin City is one of the funniest scenes I’ve ever witnessed, and it isn’t nearly the most hilarious thing that these guys get into while they are there.
7. Very Bad Things (1997)
The old (or current, or never ending) maxim states that if you want to do a bachelor party right, there’s only one real proper way, and that is the way of Vegas. Five friends shack up in a large hotel suite, boozing, snorting, smoking and, ultimately (accidentally) killing. Very Bad Things is a fiercely dark comedy that executes the concept of Murphy’s Law as entertainingly as you could possibly imagine. There’s certainly nothing wrong with a Vegas bachelor party… until you create something wrong.
6. Go (1999)
Like Swingers, Doug Liman’s Go (which, for the record, is easily my favorite Pulp Fiction knockoff ever made) contains a brilliant Vegas set piece that ultimately serves as the best sequence in the movie. Heading to Vegas for Christmas, four dudes quickly find themselves in hot shit after a playful night at a strip club turns lethal. The result is one of the most reserved, and frankly masterful car chase sequences ever shot. It is a remarkable study of how music and film can be married oh so flawlessly.
5. The Cooler (2003)
What I love about The Cooler is that it depicts a side of Vegas we rarely see in movies, at least Vegas-set movies that take place in contemporary times. If you’ve ever been to Las Vegas, then you know the very obvious distinction between Vegas and Old Town. Vegas has the strip, Old Town has the nostalgia. Bernie Lootz is one such nostalgic fella. A loser who gets paid to bring people’s luck down, there’s simply nothing better than watching a schlub like William H. Macy finally get the girl and attempt to turn his life around. Oh, and how fucking perfect is Alec Baldwin in this flick? He alone makes it worthwhile.
4. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1997)
I have a complex relationship with Terry Gilliam’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. It starts strong (so very, very strong) but after about 30 minutes, continues on a downward spiral that it never finds its way out of. Once Johnny Depp and Benicio Del Toro leave Sin City for the first time, the movie is essentially over. In short, pay attention to its first half, and you have one of the finest, most warped visions of Vegas ever filmed.
3. Ocean’s Eleven (2001)
Ocean’s Eleven so perfectly captures what Vegas is today. Although the hilarious heist antics are treated as the primary objective of the film, I’ve always viewed the theft as secondary to the city at hand. The best way to articulate my sincere appreciation for the way in which Ocean’s Eleven chronicles this city is by using one of its final scenes as an example. With the heist done and the reward netted, the merry band of misfit men stand around the fountain of the Bellagio, in awe of its beauty. The scene reminds us that, underneath the lights and the ceaseless lunacy, there is magic in Las Vegas. Magic waiting to be discovered.
2. Leaving Las Vegas (1995)
Now, to move completely opposite of the world Ocean’s Eleven depicts, we have to go to Mike Figgis’ perfect and relentless Leaving Las Vegas. And think about it, if you’re an alcoholic failed writer with a desire to drink yourself to death, is there really a more appropriate city to do it in than Las Vegas? Beyond that, this film is so many things, and more. A flawless depiction of addiction, a unique portrayal of hopeless love, and, just as significantly, a sorrowful sonnet to the city of sin.
1. Casino (1995)
From my perspective, there’s really no arguing this point: Martin Scorsese’s Casino is the best Las Vegas film ever made. It has it all: the highs in the ups, the lows in the falls; it showcases the luxury of extreme material wealth, and the heartbreak that can accompany it. There are many noteworthy sequences to make specific mention of (point in fact, Casino may indeed be the shortest three hour film I’ve ever seen), but specifically to the Vegas culture, nothing captivates me more than the film’s closing minutes, in which Robert De Niro’s Sam ‘Ace’ Rothstein narrates how Vegas has turned from the Who’s Who Insider’s town of yesteryear, into a family friendly theme park. He says this with resentment, or, more specifically, contempt. He misses the city that brought him up and tore him down. For better or worse, he misses the life. And that’s that.