Best conversation-fodder movies
February 1, 2009 11:06 PM   Subscribe

What are your favorite conversation-fodder movies?

At a social function, what movies would best spark and maintain the conversation?

For example, Memento is a fascinating movie, but I'm not sure it's suitable for even an intellectual conversation, outside of a film class, because it's just too complex to talk about unless you have it right there, or very fresh in your mind. Shawshank redemption is again great, but I see conversations about it as rather short.

On the other hand, these movies I think will do:

Social issues:
Bowling for Columbine
John Q
Lord of War
Runaway Jury
Thank You For Smoking
The Constant Gardener
Who Killed the Electric Car?

Philosophy / thought experiment:
Nineteen Eighty-Four
Minority Report
The Butterfly Effect
The Matrix
The Truman Show

Before Sunrise
Before Sunset
The Bridges of Madison County

Thanks for reading and I'd love to hear your suggestions.
posted by harwons to Society & Culture (42 answers total) 38 users marked this as a favorite
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, the Prestige, the Princess Bride, and Star Wars are great movies to talk about (IMHO).
posted by iamkimiam at 11:43 PM on February 1, 2009

A group of us saw Twelve Monkeys together and afterwards had a long argument over whether the time travel sequences made logical sense.
posted by electroboy at 11:48 PM on February 1, 2009

Children of Men
posted by gt2 at 11:58 PM on February 1, 2009

A movie worth talking about is one that rewards deeper examination - I would leave memento out not for the complexity, but the shallowness of the insight sorting it out would give - OK, you figured out some plot events that happened off screen and what order things happened, so what?

Other movies actually lead to discussions about interesting topics, ideally allowing for multiple rewarding approaches to the one film.

Anything by Stan Brakhage - his films tend to have a concept or vision, and they are mostly short enough that you can watch it together and have a discussion with all the details fresh in your mind. A large number have no soundtrack, so you can discuss them while watching (ideally after having watched them silently first).

Safe, by Todd Haynes, is a good one to watch if you want to talk about alternative medicine, hysteria, hypochondria, suburban middle class alienation, the stigmatization of mental illness, and of course chemical sensitivity. He addresses a controversial issue while retaining a detached ambiguity.

The Conspirators of Pleasure, by Jan Svenkmajer, has some interesting subtexts and metaphors - or maybe it really is only a story about people with absurd fetishes.

Some movies become interesting if you throw in some speculation or some knowledge from outside the film: in Alien, the Ripley character was male until Weaver got the part. "Zach and Miri Make a Porno" is a more interesting film if you consider that it would make much more sense as "Jay and Silent Bob Make a Porno" - think about it, they are lifelong friends that have never seriously considered having sex? there are so many gay jokes and jokes about men taking it up the butt and jokes about gay porn? I seriously considered starting a blog where each entry would be a movie and a minor alteration to the script (real or imaginary) that makes the version that was actually made more interesting.

There are many many more I could think of that are escaping me right now (these are not necessarily the best but the ones freshest on my mind at the moment).
posted by idiopath at 12:06 AM on February 2, 2009 [2 favorites]

These films have continued to provide excellent conversational fodder even lo these many years later:
Lawn Dogs - the cover blurb was completely misleading; this movie is the reason I remain woefully disappointed in Mischa Barton's later projects.
Immortal Beloved
Gods and Monsters
Léon: the Professional
posted by batmonkey at 12:22 AM on February 2, 2009

I'll second Thank You for Smoking and Lord of War - both much more interesting than they might have been.

Let me also suggest:

Four Rooms
12 Angry Men
Original Sin
Requiem for a Dream
Anything by Wes Anderson
posted by coward at 12:23 AM on February 2, 2009

Being John Malkovich
posted by Ookseer at 12:32 AM on February 2, 2009

It depends on who you're talking to and what they're interested in.
Some of my favorites:

Ma Nuit Chez Maud -- people who love to apply philosophical ideas to life

"Explores the issue of freewill and the ability of one human being to choose his destiny in spite of competing external influences. "

A Face in the Crowd --- Culturejammers, progressives, people who hate FOX News

"An Arkansas hobo becomes an overnight media sensation. But as he becomes drunk with fame and power, will he ever be exposed as the fraud he has become? [...] more than a TV personality: he is a media demagogue who understands the manipulative power of language and images. [...] a sour and bitingly satiric parable on the corruption of American glamour and fame, and how publicity is just as much of a curse as a blessing.

The Sweet Smell of Success-- people wrestling with the idea of compromising their ideals to get ahead at work, critics of capitalism

" Sweet Smell of Success (1957) is an acerbic, dynamic and intense film that exposes the diseased under-side of New York City's glamorous night life, revealing brutality, capriciousness, greed, evil, psychological violence, corrupt American ambition, betrayal and cynicism. "

The Comedian (1957)-- armchair psychologists, people who hate TV

"Sammy Hogarth, a vaudeville comedian who now has his own TV show, is a ruthless egomaniac who demands instant obedience from his staff and heaps abuse on those in lesser positions than he is. His most vituperative behavior, however, is reserved for his weak-willed brother, Lester, who Sammy has hired as his assistant but who really uses him as his whipping boy. "

Network -- all the groups mentioned above

"A TV network cynically exploits a deranged ex-TV anchor's ravings and revelations about the media for their own profit. "
posted by aquafortis at 12:56 AM on February 2, 2009 [2 favorites]

Triumph of the Will can lead to all sorts of tired conversations about the political and ethical reprehensibilities of (intentionally capitalized) Art and Artists.

Or you can mention that when well-meaning liberals in the 1970s showed the riveting scene of German Olympic divers springing into the air, white American primary school students described the divers as "flying into the sky" but same-age African American students described them as "falling". Then you can segue to the recent research indicating that Obama's election resulted in higher black scores on standardized tests.

For general pretentiousness, talking about independent non-narrative films is a staple: I like to mention Kenny Anger (also a gay icon and author of Hollywood Babylon) and Stan Brakhage. But I actually really like their films, and I don't bring them up too often.

On the other hand, I still cringe to recall the guy in college we referred to as "Cyclops" for the hank of hair that obscured one of his eyes, who couldn't shut up about Peter Greenaway (and barely seemed to be able to keep from grabbing his cock while blathering abut it). It was pretty obvious that he was looking to impress us with his appreciation for the "subtle" symbolism of the great visionary filmmaker. While it did gain him a vacuous girlfriend, most of us quickly learned to a) never bring up film and b) to run away when he did.

But as I suggest above, a "canned" conversational strategy is likely to bring up subjects most of us have long ago (in college) talked to death and really don't want to hear again, though we'll smile politely as we cringe inside and then compliment you on your astuteness. Ditto for Ayn Rand, why a good God allows evil to exist, The Grandfather Paradox, naive understandings of Godel, Turing or quantum theory, and most philosophical questions, especially any that have come up in Memento, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,Gattaca, or oh dear god, The Matrix.

You'll be much more interesting in conversation, I think, if you can mention something all of us haven't seen -- and talked to death -- before.
posted by orthogonality at 12:56 AM on February 2, 2009 [3 favorites]

Starship Troopers and Total Recall -although on the surface appearing to be popcorn fodder- are both great movies for this. Verhoeven rules (well, except for Showgirls).
posted by ClanvidHorse at 12:58 AM on February 2, 2009

Donnie Darko and Primer (time travel)
Serpico and Dog Day Afternoon (movies based on actual events.)

o/t, Wow, Frank Serpico is still alive.
posted by emelenjr at 1:05 AM on February 2, 2009

Raising Arizona. You have two potential conversations:

1) "What, you HAVEN'T SEEN Raising Arizona? It's the best movie ever! Go watch it! NOW.

2) [sobbing] "Ah luuve him so muuch!" Commence laughing hysterically.
posted by phunniemee at 1:10 AM on February 2, 2009

posted by pompomtom at 1:23 AM on February 2, 2009

Fight Club


At the right age, Mrs Parker and the Vicious Circle. I saw it at maybe 19 and it kicked off a kind of shell-shocked, "You know, maybe wittily trashing stuff isn't going to seem so great in ten years time" gowing up type discussion. I wouldn't discuss it for it's filmic qualities, though.

Robocop is great, starting with, "It ain't as dumb as you thought" and going from there.

Comparing and contrasting Seven Samuri and The Seven Samurai is good fun.

Big Fish kicked off a lot of conversations amongst friends, mostly with guys trying to explain what they thought made it resonate so hard, and most of the women being slightly mystified.
posted by rodgerd at 1:38 AM on February 2, 2009

orthogonality: I never attended college, and still want to talk about movies ;)

What you wrote pushed some buttons for me. I have some issues regarding accusations of pretentiousness. For starters it gets kind of grating to have people repeatedly accuse me of not liking the music, movies, books, whathaveyou that I actually seek out. My tastes run kind of highbrow much of the time, but does that give someone reason to presume I don't really like the stuff? And the tone comes off as some kind of defensive inferiority complex. Yeah I am willing to put more work into my entertainment than some people are. This doesn't make me a better person than them, but many people seem to presume that I think it does - I don't know how else to explain that someone hearing about my artistic taste would accuse me of being a phony.

Sorry for the rant, it really isn't about you.
posted by idiopath at 1:55 AM on February 2, 2009 [2 favorites]

posted by fire&wings at 3:02 AM on February 2, 2009

I've had some really interesting talks about movies and culture in general (rather than specific movies) when we discussed an idea popularized by comic strip artist Alison Bechdel, often called the "Mo Movie Measure". Basically, one of Bechdel's characters declares that she won't see a movie unless:

1) there are at least two named female characters, who

2) talk to each other about

3) something other than a man.

It's appalling how few movies pass this test, and considering this will give you an interesting perspective on how male-skewed even "chick movies" are. Women rarely drive the story in movies; female characters tend to be passive "goals" for the male characters to attain (as in Slumdog Millionaire) or the female characters seem to drive the story, but really they're just moving the earth to get the man. There are lots of movies about interesting men who don't fixate exclusively on women, but who have hobbies, jobs, obsessions, and interests of their own. But there are very few movies where a woman is presented as a complete, self-possessed character, and even fewer where groups of women have their own agenda. Here's a short list of movies that do pass the test; offhand, I can also think of Ghost World, Rachel Getting Married, and nun movies like Doubt and The Sound of Music.... not an extensive list!
posted by pseudostrabismus at 3:26 AM on February 2, 2009 [4 favorites]

Here's one you won't see on many lists:

Man From Earth


Theremin: An Electronic Odyssey
The Fountain
(Those last two are by Darren Aranovsky, who might be the most intelligent director working in "mainstream" movies. He also did "Requiem for a Dream" and "The Wrestler").
The Red Violin
American Movie
Home Movie
posted by dbiedny at 3:52 AM on February 2, 2009

Pay it Forward
posted by watercarrier at 4:04 AM on February 2, 2009 [1 favorite]

Rear Window; although the dialog pretty much sums up the meaning of the movie. Brazil; compare and contrast with 1984, Videodrome; Long live the new flesh!
posted by Gungho at 4:13 AM on February 2, 2009

Straw Dogs
posted by matteo at 4:35 AM on February 2, 2009

I second "Primer", but mostly because it's one of my favorite movies.

Basically any movie (even if it's terrible) is worth conversation, from brilliant films like any Kubrick or Hitchcock film for instance to Plan 9 from outer space. Recent movies like Wendy and Lucy and Old Joy by the same director have interesting material to talk about in terms of reality in America in film.

Also: recent film "Milk" sparked a conversation with my British friend about Gay marriage and the state of religion in the world. The recent film "Doubt" also sparked a good conversation about females in religion.
posted by codybaldwin at 5:07 AM on February 2, 2009

The Big Lebowski. Is this the Great American Movie? Discuss.
posted by qxntpqbbbqxl at 5:37 AM on February 2, 2009

Koyaanisqatsi, and perhaps the rest of the Qatsi-trilogy. Koyaanisqatsi made a huge impact on me when I saw it in high school back when it originally came out. It was recently released on DVD, although it really needs to be seen on the big screen to be appreciated. This is a film without any dialogue at all- just images and music by Philip Glass. Even without dialogue, the film still packs a great punch-line at the end, and I think I could discusss many aspects of the fiml with you for hours...

Still available on amazon, looks like.
posted by taubman at 6:12 AM on February 2, 2009 [1 favorite]

The best film conversations I've had (multiple times) are around:

BRAZIL - endless depth, interpretation, reference, what ifs plus great behind the scenes backstory about the different cuts and so on

SOUTHLAND TALES - First, "WTF was that?", then the interpretation, then trying to piece it all together, then the debating over whether it's a liberal or a conservative movie, then debating over how the heck they got Mandy Moore and Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson to do it, then parsing out all the pieces that were cut, then identifying the threads of plot, then back to why Wallace Shawn is the perfect drag Zepplin baron

SYNCHEDOTE, NY - Symbolism, personal meaning, script structure, individual performances, larger themes, and then, of course every watching ends with, "Which leads me to conclude that I'm wasting my life."
posted by Gucky at 6:15 AM on February 2, 2009 [1 favorite]

Run Lola Run

Capturing the Friedmans

Slacker (better and quirkier than the more obvious Waking Life, by the same director)

My Dinner with Andre!!!
posted by Jaltcoh at 6:19 AM on February 2, 2009

Spanish Prisoner - the only movie ever made where half the people think it's absolute genius and the other half think it's absolute crap.

Crimes and Misdemeanors - Woody Allen's best movie, hands down.

Being There - It used to be fun speculating whether or not an absolute simpleton could become president - then Bush II happened and those conversations just stopped and we watched in horror as our predictions of what would happen came true.

Trust - this movie, if you can find anyone else who has ever seen it can engender hours of discussion that is unfortunately just as relevant today as it was in the 80's when Hal Hartley first made it.

Lives of Others - movie about the waning days of the Stasi in East German - frighteningly relevant to modern day US.

Waking Life - Linklater pieces together a movie where some of the most interesting fringe philosophers detail their ideas about the ills of modern society. Some really great conversation fodder here.

Hud - another movie that was made years ago but is timeless in its theme.
posted by any major dude at 6:40 AM on February 2, 2009

Groundhog Day, of course!
posted by emhutchinson at 6:45 AM on February 2, 2009 [1 favorite]

I can't believe no one's mentioned Werner Herzog yet - the plethora of controversies, rumours, and anecdotes about the director and his work make great conversation starters (Herzog may or may not have hypnotized / threatened with a gun / otherwise mistreated his actors, ate a shoe, gotten shot, have a very loose definition of "documentary", etc). Not to mention the content of the films themselves, which are frequently fantastic. It's impossible to watch Grizzly Man, Lessons of Darkness, The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser, Where the Green Ants Dream, etc. with a group without having a good conversation afterwards.

Also: Persepolis, Oldboy, Caché, Tarnation, I'm Not There and nthing Primer. You would probably also enjoy The Pervert's Guide to Cinema.
posted by oulipian at 7:00 AM on February 2, 2009 [1 favorite]

Spanish Prisoner - the only movie ever made where half the people think it's absolute genius and the other half think it's absolute crap.

I would disagree -- I have seen quite a few like this. Twenty years ago I worked in a rep cinema, and in my three years there, the only movie that had people storming out and demanding their money back AND those who remained applauding at the end as How To Get Ahead In Advertising.

Anyway, to answer the question, I think the films of Neil Labute tend to provoke conversations -- especially In the Company of Men, Your Friends and Neighbors, and The Shape of Things.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 7:10 AM on February 2, 2009

Groan all you want, but The Happening sparked an evening-long conversation in my circle, and it wasn't about how bad the movie is.
posted by owtytrof at 7:32 AM on February 2, 2009 [1 favorite]

the films of Neil Labute tend to provoke conversations...

Or impede them, actually: I took a female friend to see In the Company of Men and she almost didn't talk to me for the next year...funny thing is, after I (somehow) convinced her to see The Shape of Things, she said it "totally made up for the first one."
posted by kittyprecious at 8:14 AM on February 2, 2009

Pulp Fiction, man. There are so many loose ends.

  • What's in the briefcase?
  • Why is Fabienne watching an ultra-violent motorcycles?
  • What happens to Jules/Mia/Marcellus after learning Vincent is dead?
  • What's with the breakfast imagery?
    • Jules' muffin
    • Butch's toaster pastry
    • Vincent's bacon & eggs
    • Fabienne's blueberry pancakes
    • Jimmy's coffee
    • Lance's cereal
    • Marcellus' donuts
    • Bret's hamburgers

  • posted by cowbellemoo at 10:33 AM on February 2, 2009

    Straw Dogs

    I ran a weekly movie night in college for several years and over time the three films that kept us around talking long after the films were over were Straw Dogs, Safe, and Dead Ringers.

    As for more recent releases, Ilya Khrzhanovsky's 4 and Criterion's re-release of The Double Life of Véronique are often discussed in my circle of friends. American Psycho is still the source for much of our jokes and banter.
    posted by vkxmai at 10:50 AM on February 2, 2009 [1 favorite]

    There are a lot of good suggestions here, but I think in general movie discussions are best saved for either a) right after seeing a movie, so everyone's on the same page and it's fresh in the memory, or b) discussing a movie that everyone has seen, because there is very little more annoying in a social context than being the odd one out. Especially since there are very few people who can skillfully explain why a movie is so cool and you should see it, rather than just talking at you.
    posted by bettafish at 10:50 AM on February 2, 2009

    Backing up the Doubt suggestions. I saw it with three other people and we talked about it all throughout dinner afterwards. There's a lot to chew on: gender roles, religion, authority, trustworthiness, more. Of recent (last 1-2 years) movies I've seen, it's the one that's sparked the most discussion.
    posted by lillygog at 10:57 AM on February 2, 2009 [1 favorite]

    If you can manage to view it (very sparsely distributed in US) try "Let The Right One In". Swedish with subtitles. There are so many small, nuanced moments in that film it demands discussion over beers (or whatever). It's the finest vampire film ever made (imho) and one of the best films of 2008.
    posted by elendil71 at 12:06 PM on February 2, 2009

    Another vote for "Let The Right One In." Not only the best vampire film ever, one of the greatest films about children ever made. Perhaps not an obvious choice for intense debate, but it stays with you and there is a lot to marvel at and discuss.
    posted by fire&wings at 4:19 PM on February 2, 2009 [1 favorite]

    Kieslowski--Decalogue, Blue/White/Red
    Noe--I Stand Alone
    Haneke--Funny Games, Code Unknown, The Pianist, Cache
    Aronson--Sound and Fury (documentary)
    posted by zerobyproxy at 7:31 PM on February 2, 2009

    Here are some movies that I've had some interesting conversations from:

    Donnie Darko
    Mulholland Dr.
    One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest
    American Beauty
    Jurassic Park
    American History X
    Arlington Road
    American Psycho
    posted by katyggls at 2:30 AM on February 3, 2009

    Response by poster: Wow, lots of suggestions; thank you!

    Princess Bride, though... what is there to talk about?
    Waking Life is interesting indeed, but only for someone who hasn't been exposed almost at all to philosophical ideas. orthogonality will roll their eyes at it.
    Pay it Forward - loved the movie, but the ensuing conversation is likely to be short: "Oh, it's a lovely idea to pay forward, ok..."

    New suggestion:
    Savage Messiah - the best movie I've seen on the topics of sect/cult/religious fanaticism and the battered wife syndrome. It's not a what-if scenario, though, so the conversation may die quickly after everyone agrees on the obvious conclusions.

    Seems like I'm looking especially for debate-sparking movies.
    posted by harwons at 4:57 AM on February 3, 2009

    The Player --Robert Altman
    Aguirre, the Wrath of God --Herzog
    posted by pushing paper and bottoming chairs at 8:52 PM on February 8, 2009

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