We Learned It by Watching Movies

A film primer for the best in wicked entertainment

Movies can teach us many things. They can teach us about love and friendship. They can teach us that life is like a box of chocolates, and to always cut the red wire when defusing a bomb (or is it green?). In celebration of all things immoral and corrupt, the Screens team has offered up a rogue's gallery of degenerate films to help you navigate this new year. Screw the chocolates; we're going for the hard stuff. – Josh Kupecki

California Split (1974)

Never has gross desperation and self-loathing appeared so attractive on film. Robert Altman's gambling cult classic has a wisecracking rogue (Elliott Gould) with a thrill-seeking editor (George Segal) in hock with an unusually forgiving gangster. Using the two actors – at the top of their game – to split the difference, Altman eases the viewer through the grimy filters of his own life as a heavy gambler, even offering portions of the film as part instructional gambling video. It's as if he's told you, "Congratulations, you're on your way into true blue and boozy charlatanism." Content in his magnificent childishness, Gould's character revels and wades comfortably in his bullshit, flinging it around with a smoke and a knowing smile. The culminating scenes, where Segal's character has gloriously gone for broke – quite literally, as he's gambling his life savings – is an excess-filled piñata ready to be smashed. – Kahron Spearman

My Favorite Year (1982)

Set a thief to catch a thief. Cast a lush to play a lush. If you're looking for a hard-drinking actor as a hard-drinking actor, go straight to Peter O'Toole as Alan Swann, a booze-addled swashbuckler from the Golden Age of Hollywood, reduced to appearing on a 1952 TV variety hour. "That's not acting," producer Sy Benson (Bill Macy) spits through a coffee-soaked bear claw as freshman comedy writer Benjy Stone (Mark Linn-Baker) fails to convince him of Swann's genius. "That's kissing and jumping and drinking and humping."

Of course, Benson knows a thing about indulgence: a chimney of a smoker, even flirting with a prop box of Old Golds on legs. But no one can match the dissolute Swann. "He's plastered!" Benson roars as the lush staggers into the studio.

"So are some of the finest erections in Europe," responds the ever-inebriated Swann, before collapsing mid-handstand.

Loosely based on executive producer Mel Brooks meeting Errol Flynn on Sid Caesar's Your Show of Shows, there may be no finer reminder of the time when the arts were the place for self-destructive pleasure. – Richard Whittaker

Barfly (1987)

Dive bars can be some of the loneliest places on Earth, and never more so than during the daylight hours, or when the bartender barks out last call. Infamous skid row poet/bard Charles Bukowski acknowledges as much in the autobiographical screenplay that Barbet Schroeder commissioned from him. But then again, those neon booze shacks are also communal, ritualistic, and forever sloshing over with true-blue romance. Mickey Rourke – so young, so wasted – is hypnotic as Bukowski's alter ego Henry Chinaski, a lyrically self-mythologizing ne'er-do-well with an intoxicating presence despite the grime. Constantly at odds with the world around him, Henry finds companionship, of a sort, with both Faye Dunaway's nihilistic day-drinker Wanda and eager book publisher Tully (The OA's Alice Krige). In between drunken brawls and the flotsam and jetsam of his daily interactions with other castaways, Rourke's painfully believable Henry becomes king of the souses, not that it benefits his writerly career all that much. When Wanda tells him she hates people and asks Henry's opinion on the same, he replies "No, but I seem to feel better when they're not around." 'Nuff said. – Marc Savlov

Velvet Goldmine (1998)

Job postings for tech companies would have you believe "rock stars" are a dime a dozen – just everywhere, beating their quarterly sales goals and middle-managing marketing agencies over on the west side. Used to be you could comb through hundreds of trashed penthouses and panty-covered stages and still not find one. This year, revel a bit in the good old days when rock stardom still meant something. Pull out your feather boas and your fruit-flavored prophylactics and give zero fucks along with the cinematic masterpiece Velvet Goldmine – director Todd Haynes' love letter to David Bowie, Iggy Pop, (actual) rock stardom, and all things glam. The story follows journalist Arthur Stuart (Christian Bale) as he attempts to uncover the real fate of Brian Slade (Jonathan Rhys Meyers), a David Bowie-like star who fakes his own death. It also features Ewan McGregor as Slade's love interest, Curt Wild, and Eddie Izzard as their manager. With its BAFTA award-winning costumes and amazing soundtrack, it's basically everything you need to start that downward spiral for 2017. – Ashley Moreno

The Man With the Golden Arm (1955)

Forget that trendy Fentanyl habit you've picked up of late and regurgitate all the Vicodin you just palmed. Instead, return to the golden age of jazz-infused smack via director Otto Preminger's doozy of a dope fiend melodrama. Skeleton-thin Frank Sinatra jitters his way through this triple Oscar-nominated masterpiece as freshly cleaned and pressed junkie Frankie Machine, who returns to his old neighborhood only to have the "good stuff" dangled in front of him by Darren McGavin's pusher-man Nifty Louie and big boss Zero (Robert Strauss). Saul Bass' titles and Elmer Bernstein's twitch-perfect score play second fiddle to a ravishing Kim Novak as tortured Frankie's potential savior Molly, while old flame Zosh threatens to demolish all hope in sight, not least of which is Frankie's beloved drum kit. Unforgettably adenoidal character actor Arnold Stang, as Frankie's scam-happy pal Sparrow, rounds out a joltingly top-notch cast in what is for our hard-earned sawbuck the coolest film of 1955 and the first-ever to deal with heroin addiction in a serious – ahem – vein. – M.S.

The House of Yes (1997)

Few acts between consenting adults remain truly taboo. And yet The House of Yes – the delightfully witty tale of familial love and murder – touches on several of them. Of course, when you start with an incestuous affair between twin siblings (played by Parker Posey and Josh Hamilton), and then presume to mock poor people and the tragedies that befell the Kennedy family, it's pretty easy to rack up the offenses. Writer/director Mark Waters adapted the film from the play of the same name. Its brilliantly funny dialogue keeps it all surprisingly tasteful, and Posey won a Special Jury Prize at Sundance for her performance as "Jackie-O" – the beautiful, witty, and recently institutionalized main character in love with her twin brother, Marty. When Marty brings his naive fiancée (Tori Spelling) home for Thanksgiving, the night gets a bit complicated. In the event of a questionable New Year's Eve decision, give the film a try. It's sure to make your indiscretion look like amateur hour. – A.M.

Crash (1996)

"Maybe the next one, maybe the next one," Catherine (Deborah Kara Unger) coos to husband James Ballard (James Spader) as they engage in fetishistic sex, swapping stories of recent infidelity. Nothing is shocking anymore, until James crashes his car and speeds the pair into a realm of extreme automotive paraphilia. After all, we have fetishized the car beyond all reason, so why not its most destructive act?

Well before he popularized BDSM in Secretary, Spader was Hollywood's preferred sexual transgressor (Less Than Zero; Sex, Lies, and Videotape; Bad Influence). But David Cronenberg saw him as the perfect driver for his adaptation of J.G. Ballard's psychosexual novel about the way we eroticize fuel-injected chrome power. Fluids erupt, flesh splits open, adrenaline spikes, all the way to the only logical morbid conclusion. "Maybe the next one." Keep crashing this car, over and over. – R.W.

Kink (2013)

Every act of creativity is a job. Every film studio is a production line, as unromantic as that sounds. That's just as true for every Hollywood mega-shingle as it is for Kink.com, the BDSM porn company under the cool scrutiny of Christina Voros' documentary lens. After producer James Franco spent time in the studio for his 2012 porn industry drama About Cherry, his fixation on the house of simulated and real fetish was the inspiration for her whiplash-marks-and-all exploration of the studio that enabled a billion nights of self-pleasure. But is there anything sexual going on here? Voros shows how the sausage is made, and where it's inserted, but it's anti-erotic, like a bored fluffer with an arm cramp. Proving that it's not the act but the way it's shot, you'll never think of your deepest, darkest, log-out-of-Google search terms the same way again. – R.W.

Ravenous (1999)

Every new year, I make the same promise to start exercising and eating right. And for what? By mid-February I'm already double-salting my morning routine of chicken & waffles (with a queso back) courtesy of my own tears. This year: Skip it. Get weird starting day one with a bucket of cheddar-bacon-butter popcorn and a copy of Ravenous, director Antonia Bird's wintry jaunt through 19th century cannibalism. Guy Pearce stars as Capt. Boyd, an unlikely war hero sent to guard a remote outpost. Shortly after Boyd's arrival, a half-frozen Mr. Colqhoun (Robert Carlyle) stumbles into the post, claiming to be the last survivor of a traveling party lost in the mountains. Writer Ted Griffin – who also wrote Ocean's Eleven and the small-screen gem, Terriers – balances the film's buckets of blood and guts with a wry sense of humor that's guaranteed to make you feel better about whatever it is you're eating. – A.M.

Caligula (1979)

Quoted at the film's opening, Mark 8:36 asks, "What shall it profit a man if he should gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?" Caligula's real answer, underneath it all, is: everything. If only all of our lives could be so lit. Despite spoilsport director Tinto Brass, producer and Penthouse founder Bob Guccione had vision: Malcolm McDowell plus Helen Mirren plus gratuitous amounts of togas, tits, and ass. Roger Ebert claimed it was "the worst piece of shit" he'd ever seen? How can that be possible, Rog in the sky with diamonds, when all the major keys about living your best life (aside from, y'know, the unconscionable depravity, but let's focus on the positives) are there? We're talking weird sex, cult living, threesomes, high-level power plays, and money shots. The film resonates as the earliest playbook on how to destroy – men, their collective souls, and every hole located on the human body. – K.S.

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Vice films, Barfly, California Split, Velvet Goldmine, The Man With the Golden Arm, Crash, Ravenous, Caligula, My Favorite Year, The House of Yes, Kink

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