Considering that a lot of us spend a large amount of time in bars, it is amazing how few movies feature bars as a central element of the story. There are classic bar scenes (Star Wars Cantina for example or the saloon in High Noon) but few movies feature a bar as a character unto itself. Bars are usually plot devices thrown in as shorthand. Depressed or lonely? Then the seedy run-down bar on the bad side of town reflects the character’s inner angst. Happy? The trendy martini bar with its neon and bright colors is front and center. Mysterious, jaded or edgy? Then the characters are sitting up at the hotel bar drinking scotch.
For all the evidence out there and spots for solid research, few movies actually capture the atmosphere of a real bar. Bartenders rarely respond to “hey barkeep,” and “gimme whiskey” is usually met with a blank stare. Capturing the essence, smells, sounds and feel of a real drinking hole is apparently hard. Here are ten movies set in a bar. Not necessarily realistic representations, but interesting nonetheless.
10. Coyote Ugly. (2000) A ridiculous bar movie that follows a young girl trying to make it big in New York as a songwriter but ends up working at an all girl bar named Coyote Ugly. This film featured lots of dancing on bars and scantily clad women tossing bottles around. The bar was modeled after an infamous Greenwich Village watering hole and spawned a whole raft of copy-cat bars across America.
9. Road House. (1989) Either the finest bouncer genre movie of all time or one of the worst pieces of drivel ever committed to film. But you can’t resist anything with Patrick Swayze, who hung up the dancing shoes to play a tai chi practicing bouncer. Swayze plays our pec-flexing hero who is given the impossible task or cooling down the violence at the Double Deuce, a rowdy honky tonk bar. He must also learn the secret ways of the bouncer guru and then confront the most evil man in Jasper, Wyoming — Ben Gazarra.
8. Cocktail. (1988) The trend of “flair bartending” reached its nadir or apex depending on your point of view with this fromage from 1988. A youngish Tom Cruise is the hot shot young bartender who is shown the ropes by the older wiser Brian Brown. They become partners then fall out over a woman and become rivals. Rivals at throwing bottles in the air and shaking girl drinks. Imagine John Wayne ordering a drink from these guys.
7. Robin and the Seven Hoods. (1964) Ocean’s Eleven is the most famous rat pack movie and probably the worst. Much better is this stylish retelling of the Robin Hood legend. This movie mostly took place in prohibition era Chicago speakeasies, where the hard drinking, crooning and partying band of Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr and Bing Crosby take on the evil sheriff and Guy Gisborne (Peter Falk). The band sign, swap zingers and spend most of their time downing anything they can brew up.
6. Swingers. (1996) Technically this movie does not take place in one bar, but its grand tour of Los Angeles and Las Vegas drinking holes is money baby. This movie launched the career of Jon Favreau and Vince Vaughn and made swing bars and tiki-lamped cocktail lounges hip again.
5. 54. (1998) Studio 54 was the most famous nightclub in late 1970s New York. It was the quintessential disco and was the party place of the famous and wannabe famous. Mike Myers steals the show as the gay club owner Steve Rubell, while Ryan Phillipe, Salma Hayek and Neve Campbell play the beautiful people who made the nightclub home. Perfectly captures the disco era and the exuberance of the 70s nightclub.
5. BarFly. (1987) On one level depressing, on another a great expression of the joy of life. Mickey Rourke plays Henry Chinaski, a poet and alcoholic (loosely based on the real poet Charles Bukowski). He spends his life in LA bars drinking every night. One day he meets and falls for Wanda (played by Faye Dunaway). She’s an alcoholic too but she sees the true Charles. She helps him get his poems published and for a short time he becomes famous. But in the end they are both happier as anonymous barflies.
3. Trees Lounge. (1996) Indie star Steve Buscemi directed this small picture imagining what would have happened to him had he stayed in his small hometown on Long Island and not moved to Manhattan to pursue acting. His film centres around, and perfectly captures, a neighborhood bar full of colorful eccentrics who can’t seem to move on. Also starring Anthony LePaglia, Samuel L. Jackson and Chloe Sevingny, Buscemi plays Tommy Basilio a drunk who wanders through his life desperate for some sort of meaning beyond the bar that is his only home.
2. Lost in Translation. (2003) Sofia Coppola’s gem of a movie mostly takes place in a hotel bar in Tokyo. Disillusioned, weary and bored actor Bill Murray meets neglected newlywed Scarlett Johansson and the two create an unlikely bond as they try to discover or rediscover themselves while in a foreign and confusing land. They end up at a Japanese nightclub which is a great counterpoint to the austere bar. While they don’t form a traditional romantic attachment they find something that awakens each other.
1. Casablanca. (1942) Perhaps the perfect movie. Bogart and Bergman shine is this classic romance drama. Originally named “Everybody Comes to Rick’s,” Casablanca regularly tops best of lists. It’s World War II and Rick Blaine, exiled American and former freedom fighter, runs the most popular bar in Casablanca. It’s filled with thieves, spies, Nazis, partisans, refugees and piano players. The Nazis and their puppet Captain Renault are after underground leader Victor Laszlo who is supposed to be somewhere in Casablanca. Lazslo secretly arrives at Ricks, only not alone. With him is Ilsa, Rick’s one time love and the breaker of his heart. “Of all the bars in all the world she walks into mine.” The rest is cinematic magic.