Considering that many of us spend a great deal of time in bars, it is surprising that few movies have bars as a central element of the story. There are classic bar scenes (Star Wars Cantina, for example, or the lounge at High Noon), but few movies feature a bar as a character unto itself. Bars are usually raster devices introduced as shorthand. Depressed or lonely? Then the ramshackle bar on the bad side of town reflects the character’s internal anguish. Happy? The modern martini bar with neon and bright colors is front and center. Mysterious, jaded or nervous? The characters then sit in the hotel bar drinking whiskey.
Despite all the evidence out there and the points for solid research, few movies capture the atmosphere of a real bar. Bartenders rarely respond to “hey barkeep,” and “give me whiskey” is usually met with a blank stare. Capturing the essence, smells, sounds, and feel of a real drinking well is seemingly difficult. Here are ten movies set in a bar. Not necessarily realistic renderings, but interesting nonetheless.
10. Ugly Coyote. (2000) A ridiculous bar movie that follows a young woman who tries to make it big in New York as a songwriter, but ends up working at a girls’ bar called Coyote Ugly. This movie featured a lot of bar dances and scantily clad women throwing bottles. The bar was inspired by an infamous Greenwich Village watering hole and spawned a host of copycat bars across the United States.
9. Road House. (1989) Either the best gorilla genre movie of all time or one of the worst nonsense ever committed to cinema. But you can’t resist anything with Patrick Swayze, who hung up his dancing shoes to play a tai chi practicing gorilla. Swayze plays our push-up hero who is assigned the impossible task of chilling the violence at the Double Deuce, a noisy honky tonk bar. He must also learn the secret ways of the gorilla guru and then face the most evil man in Jasper, Wyoming: Ben Gazarra.
8. Cocktail. (1988) The “stylish bartender” trend reached its lowest point or apex depending on your point of view with this 1988 fromage. A young Tom Cruise is the hot young bartender that the older and wiser Brian Brown teaches the ropes. They become partners, then fight over a woman and become rivals. Rivals in tossing 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 and probably the worst rat pack movie. Much better is this elegant account of the legend of Robin Hood. This movie took place primarily in the speakeasies of Prohibition-era Chicago, where Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr and Bing Crosby’s gang, who drink a lot, sing and party, take on the evil Sheriff and Guy Gisborne (Peter Falk). The band signs, swaps zingers, and spends most of their time drinking whatever they can make.
6. Swingers. (1996) Technically, this movie doesn’t take place in just one bar, but his big Los Angeles and Vegas tour is money babe. This movie launched the careers of Jon Favreau and Vince Vaughn and made swing bars and tiki cocktail lounges back in fashion.
5. 54. (1998) Studio 54 was the most famous nightclub in New York in the late 1970s. It was the quintessential nightclub and the party place for celebrities and aspiring celebrities. Mike Myers steals the show as gay club owner Steve Rubell, while Ryan Phillipe, Salma Hayek and Neve Campbell play the beautiful people who made the nightclub their home. It perfectly captures the disco era and 70s disco exuberance.
5. BarFly. (1987) On one depressing level, on another a great expression of the joie de vivre. Mickey Rourke plays Henry Chinaski, a poet and alcoholic (loosely based on the true poet Charles Bukowski). He spends his life in Los Angeles bars drinking every night. One day he meets and falls in love with Wanda (played by Faye Dunaway). She is also an alcoholic, but she sees the real Charles. She helps him publish his poems and for a short time he becomes famous. But in the end, they are both happier as anonymous barfly.
3. Tree room. (1996) Independent star Steve Buscemi directed this little film by imagining what would have happened to him if he had stayed in his small hometown on Long Island and not moved to Manhattan to pursue acting. His film focuses on, and perfectly captures, a neighborhood bar filled with colorful eccentrics who can’t seem to go on. Also starring Anthony LePaglia, Samuel L. Jackson, and Chloe Sevingny, Buscemi plays Tommy Basilio, a drunk who wanders his life desperate for some kind of meaning beyond the bar that is his only home.
2. Lost in translation. (2003) The jewel of Sofia Coppola’s film takes place mainly in a hotel bar in Tokyo. Disappointed, tired, and bored actor Bill Murray meets abandoned newlywed Scarlett Johansson and the two form an unlikely bond as they try to discover or rediscover themselves while in a strange and confusing land. They end up in a Japanese nightclub which is a great counterpoint to the austere bar. While they do not form a traditional romantic bond, they do find something that awakens them to each other.
1. Casablanca. (1942) Perhaps the perfect movie. The brilliance of Bogart and Bergman is this classic romantic drama. Originally called “Everybody Comes to Rick’s”, Casablanca regularly tops the best charts. It’s World War II and Rick Blaine, an American exile and former freedom fighter, runs the most popular bar in Casablanca. It is full of thieves, spies, Nazis, partisans, refugees and pianists. The Nazis and their puppet Captain Renault hunt down the underground leader Victor Laszlo, who is supposed to be somewhere in Casablanca. Lazslo secretly arrives at Ricks, but not alone. With him is Ilsa, Rick’s one-time love and the one who breaks his heart. “Of all the bars in the world, she enters mine.” The rest is movie magic.