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The Academy Award Goes to the Bar

The best bar scenes of the past 25 years


Film director Jean-Luc Godard once quipped that all he needs to make a movie is a girl and gun. Of course, my question is: What about the bar? The often unheralded character of the silver screen is the old mahogany. Some of the most iconic movies include pivotal scenes in a bar where the protagonist faces some manner of catharsis, whether through ruin or rumination.

Imagine “Fast Eddie” (Paul Newman) in The Hustler shooting pool in a recreation center or Bob (Bill Murray) and Charlotte (Scarlett Johansen) in Lost in Translation meeting by chance in a Tokyo library. It’s just not possible. There’s a certain quality that a barroom exudes, where danger, intrigue, ritual and remorse all coalesce into a section of human experience only found when people drink together in a public place. These scenes could only have happened in a bar.

Directors have known this since the earliest days of cinema. Charlie Chaplin starred in and directed The Face on the Bar Room Floor in 1914, based on the poem “The Face upon the Floor” by Hugh Antoine D’Arcy. Chaplin’s character, an artist, loses his love to a wealthy suitor and recalls the story to a group of fellow drinkers at the bar, who watch him drunkenly try and sketch his lost love’s face on the floor. When his skills proves wanting, chaos ensues.

So, when the Oscars are handed out this month during the 85th Academy Awards–where the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences issues its famous award to the best movies, directors, actors and screen craft–let me suggest a new category: Best Bar Scene.

To help them along, I’ve selected my favorite bar scenes of the past 25 years. This is by no means a complete list. There are plenty scenes that hit the cutting room floor and I’m sure that you, good readers, will remind me of them. The list is in chronological order. Skip the popcorn and grab a highball.

Django: Unchained (2012)

Somewhere between “Spaghetti Western” and “Blaxplotation” film, Quentin Tarantino’s farce highlights how a bar can set the tone for a movie. In my favorite bar scene, Django (Jamie Foxx) is now ostensibly a free man, though he owes the man who frees him, Dr. Schultz (Christoph Waltz), a favor. Django and Dr. Schultz sit and share a beer, which, of course, is verboten in the slave-owning South. The sheriff is summoned. But it’s all part of the Doctor’s plan, and Django and Dr. Schultz’s often comical and complicated relationship unfolds from there. The scene shows just how drinking in a bar can sometimes unite otherwise distinct classes of people.

X-Men: First Class (2011)

I love this movie for many reasons, including that it’s nostalgic of my comic-reading youth, but chief among my reasons is a simple quip by actor Hugh Jackman as Wolverine. Professor X (James McAvoy) and Magneto (Michael Fassbender) are searching for fellow mutants and have found one, Wolverine, in a bar. The conversation is short but poignant. Wolverine doesn’t want to be found and, when approached, all he needs to say is “Go fuck yourself” to get his point across. In this he exemplifies man alone at a bar and the irony that we sometimes seek privacy in the most public of places.

The Other Guys (2010)

Detectives Terry Hoitz (Mark Wahlberg) and Allen Gamble (Will Ferrell)  are down on their luck both at work and in love. As soon as “Imma B” by the Black Eyed Peas kicks in, after Detective Hoitz comments that he’s “…talking about doing some serious drinking,” you know that the scene to follow will be full of all the incoherence and bravado that often accompany male drinking-binges. And it does. Firing weapons in the bar, biting priests, urinating on top of pool tables. Who knew that a kind of “Bullet Time” effect that marked the Matrix fight scenes would be reinvented to capture getting blind-drunk at a bar, but it works surprisingly well.

Inglorious Bastards (2009)

Here Michael Fassbender makes a second appearance on my best bars scenes list with his portrayal of English spy, Lt. Archie Hicox. Lt. Hicox is acting as well, doing his best impression of a German officer off-duty in a bar during World War II, until he is betrayed by an ever so slight faux pas. He uses his ring finger instead of his thumb to signify an order for three Scotches. When his error becomes apparent, Fassbender both reverts to the Queen’s English and takes a drink after stating a rule I’ve always held too, “There’s a special rung in hell for those who waste good Scotch.” The remainder of the scene is typical of Tarantino movies, blood and bodies.

Lost in Translation (2003)

Bob Harris (Bill Murray) and Charlotte (Scarlett Johansen) have few reasons to connect. He’s a star whose time has passed trying to live out the remnants of his fame and she’s a young women whose star has yet to take flight in a neglected relationship. That they’re both drinking at a bar, in Tokyo and happen to be there at the same time is about it. But they do connect, don’t they? While this film may be most notable for its lack of catharsis–instead it’s a slow but powerful meditation on loneliness and alienation–the bar plays a tangible role as the one familiar thing in an completely unfamiliar place.

Good Will Hunting (1997)

There are some laughable aspects of Goodwill Hunting. Not Matt Damon (Will Hunting) as a brainiac or his cohort, Ben Affleck (Chuckie Sullivan), as a brusque townie. What’s laughable is the stereotypical privileged, smarty-pants Harvard bully, Clark, played by Scott William Winters. I mean, who goes up to someone in a bar and, as a means of intimidation, asks them to offer insight into “…the evolution of the market economy in Southern colonies?” Nevertheless, the intellectual smack-down that Matt Damon gives Clark in historiography is well played and eminently cheer-able. Call this, literally, the smartest bar-fight ever filmed.

Swingers (1996)

“You’re so money.” This phrase peppered in between Trent’s (Vince Vaughn) exhortations for Mike (John Favreau) to see himself as a bear with “claws and fangs” and the women he is striking-out with as a “cowering bunny” is comedic genius for its realistic portrayal of men being men at the bar. Vaughn’s dialogue just feels like bar-talk and the ritual that ensues, of psyching Mike up to return and “kill the bunny,” chronicles one of the long standing reasons the bar is such an important part of movies: it’s a place of male bonding.

A Bronx Tale (1993)

Bikers behave badly. That’s a given but upon walking into mobster Sonny LoSpecchio’s (Chaz Palminteri) bar in an Italian neighborhood of the Bronx, this particular biker gang realizes the error of their ways as soon as Sonny locks the door and tells them “Now yous can’t leave.” The ominous narration of this scene as the camera pans the faces of the bikers suggest that this bar fight will be short-lived and one-sided. It is. Reminding us that bars are also sometimes havens for sub-groups and that the bar in this scene is also a signifier of cultural insularity.

Goodfellas (1990)

Raging Bull may be the first Martin Scorsese film where we see Joe Pesci go ballistic in a bar (and in the street)–later a typecast so lampooned that it became a skit of Saturday Night Live–but, in Goodfellas, this scene gives a real sense of how bar misunderstandings can grow into full fledge grudges with the potential for violence. Something that happens even outside of the inherently violent world of the mafia. Reminding us that bars, while a generally peaceful, sociable place, can still be dangerous.

Derek Brown has one of those dream jobs that your high school counselor never tells you about. He drinks for a living. He also writes and teaches, while traveling around the world, telling the story of how drinking is such an integral part of our culture and values. While he’s made drinks at the White House, been featured in the Wall Street Journal and drank with Martha Stewart, he’ll tell you that the greatest compliment he’s ever received is when the New York Times wrote that he played a “face-melting solo on the kazoo” at Lambstock. Seriously. You can read his articles in a wide array of publications from The Atlantic to Entrepreneur Magazine, visit his bars in Washington, D.C., The Passenger and Columbia Room, or just join him in his quest for better drinking by enjoying his favorite dram, a good Bourbon.


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