Between drive-ins, backyard screenings and other outdoor movie events, summer is the ideal time to enjoy movies and cannabis together. Just ask anyone at the popular, ongoing Film on the Rocks series at Red Rocks Amphitheatre (where, it should be noted, pot-smoking is officially discouraged).
Still, calling something a “stoner movie” raises the question of definition: Is it a flick whose plot or characters are based primarily on cannabis consumption? Or simply a movie that’s best watched while high?
For the purposes of this list we’re choosing both: movies with themes, scenes or subject matter centrally related to weed, as well as films that are uniquely enhanced by being stoned — a state that opens us to new ways of thinking and feeling about visceral, inventive imagery, minus all the potential complications of an hours-long psychedelic trip.
Many of these movies are stoner-culture canon, while a few have crept up on us over the years. All are highly recommended. Use this handy guide to update your Netflix queue and kick back with us.
10 STONEY FAVORITES
Marijuana has played a starring role in Hollywood (and beyond) for decades
“Up in Smoke” (1978)
Premise: Anthony “Man” Stoner (Tommy Chong) and Pedro de Pacas (Cheech Marin) hook up on the road and bond over their shared love of weed before getting caught up in a series of nets that stretch from sunny Southern California to Mexico and back again — all related to their quest for more weed — culminating with them entering a Battle of the Bands at the Roxy Theatre.
Why it’s worthy: The template for stoner comedies was set in this movie, Cheech and Chong’s best film (by a long shot), which sketched the outline of dozens of weed films to follow, and which itself grafted drug humor onto a number of sturdy comedy tropes. It also notably lowered expectations for cannabis users to cartoonishly low levels, which continues to this day relegate much of stoner culture to lazy stereotypes.
“The Big Lebowski” (1998)
Premise: The noirish silhouette of this Coen Brothers masterpiece should look familiar to anyone who’s seen a detective caper, with a plot that turns on mistaken identity, ransom, self-interest and the chaos that ensues. In this case: The Dude (Jeff Bridges as Jeffrey Lebowski) and his bowling buddies are accidentally sucked into a twisted kidnapping case, launching them through gauntlets of surreal, awkward characters who disturb the normal order of things for the aging hippie and SoCal stoner Lebowski.
Why it’s worthy: Despite the institutionalized cult that has sprung up around this sprawling comedy (which often seems to be missing the point of its laidback protaganist), “Lebowski” is the definition of a film you can watch dozens of times and still find something new on each go-round. The tiny details, from dialogue to set dressing, and the Coen Brothers’ wicked humor ram headlong into several career-best performances from a flawless cast. The ’90s had a surfeit of emintently quotable films; “The Big Lebowski” might be the best of them.
“Dazed and Confused” (1993)
Premise: What do people mean when they say the kids are up to no good? “Dazed and Confused” practically feels like a documentary of such 1970s coming-of-age activities, full of lusty hazing, mailbox smashing, toking and the penultimate kegger at the moontower (OK, so not all of us had those).
Why it’s worthy: Along with the period-perfect production design and soundtrack, director Richard Linklater allows “Dazed and Confused” to live and breathe like a loose, spontaneous animal, which goes a long way toward selling the humor and heartbreak of the messy, thrilling, hormone-drenched experience of adolescence. Matthew McConaughey’s brief but quotable scenes aside, the ensemble cast pulls equal weight in recreating an agreeable day in the life of white, middle-class Texas teens.
Premise: Craig (Ice Cube) is suddenly out of work, and his bud Smokey (Chris Tucker, in an unitentionally career-defining performance) smokes him up one Friday afternoon. That’s a problem, since Smokey owes money to his dealer Big Worm. After Craig gets implicated in the deal, he and Smokey must navigate a series of escalating South Central L.A. obstacles (including uniquely boisterous supporting characters) to make it to Saturday.
Why it’s worthy: Despite its lesser sequels, this influential comedy remains an unassailable giant in the stoner-movie genre. That’s due as much to the achingly funny supporting performances (particularly John Witherspoon’s) as much as the fact that it humanely showed another side of an inner-city world that had been glorified as a gangster-rap paradise/hell in music and movies prior to that.
“Pineapple Express” (2008)
Premise: Dale (Seth Rogen) witnesses a murder, forcing him to go on the run with his pot dealer Saul (James Franco). They cross paths with another dealer (Danny McBride) who sells the film’s title-strain, which they then use to raise money (and consume, liberally) to evade the henchmen and cops on their tail.
Why it’s worthy: The cast’s off-screen chemistry helps this Judd Apatow-produced film deliver consistent laughs, while the sharp violence and plot twists maintain a buzzing tension as the paranoid, worst-case stoner scenarios continually unfold.
“Smiley Face” (2007)
Premise: Jane (Anna Faris) spots her roommate’s cupcakes in the fridge after a wake-and-bake session and gobbles them up, not realizing they’re also laced with weed. The next few hours find her in a series of frantic misadventures that span Los Angeles in her quest to replace said cupcakes — among other mundane yet stubbornly unattainable goals.
Why it’s worthy: In addition to director Gregg Araki’s light, snappy tone, Faris delivers a deceptively casual performance as Jane, the stoner we can all simlutaneolusly laugh and cringe at even as we relate to her absurd confusion. The cast of ringers and surprise cameos never outshines Faris — the rare female lead in a comedy that isn’t based around romance or gender. This film may also be the one that best captures the actual experience of being high out of your mind.
“Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle” (2004)
Premise: Harold (John Cho) and Kumar (Kal Penn) decide one stoned evening to head to White Castle to satisfy their munchies. The trip quickly goes off the rails as they run into a surprise surgery, sexual propositioning, Neil Patrick Harris, cops, a cheetah and — naturally — plenty of weed.
Why it’s worthy: More than just proof that the stoner-comedy genre isn’t the sole province of bumbling white, Latino and black folks, the Korean- and Indian-American leads in this tale are as relatably apoplectic or blissed-out as anyone who has ever gotten too high to function. The implicit political commentary and oft-cartoonish tone also never weigh down its considerable feeling of momentum.
“Easy Rider” (1969)
Premise: A couple of bikers hit the road for a long, strange trip from California to New Orleans, with plenty of cash from a cocaine sale stashed in the fuel tank. Their quest: to discover what America is really about, man.
Why it’s worthy: It doesn’t get much more counterculture than this, with iconic performances from Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper, the latter of whom also wrote and directed. It’s reputed that a fair share of real drugs were consumed during the shoot, including good ol’ grass. The film’s success helped kickstart New Hollywood and romanticized a rambling, post-hippie aesthetic that would define much of early-to-mid 1970s culture. It’s also got a pretty great soundtrack.
“Half Baked” (1998)
Premise: Kenny (Harland Davis) accidentally kills a diabetic police horse after feeding it junk food. To raise money for his bail, friends Thurgood (Dave Chappelle), Brian (Jim Breuer) and Scarface (Guillermo Díaz) sell government-grade weed that Thurgood steals from his custodial job at a research lab. Cameos abound as the situations grow increasingly ridiculous, including a day-saving appearance from the ghost of Jerry Garcia.
Why it’s worthy: It’s not that “Half Baked” is a good movie; the jokes are alternately broad and leaden, and the disjointed rhythm often makes it feel slapped together, like a product of corporate Hollywood trying to seem cool for a youth demographic. But look closer: screenwriters Chappelle and his “Chappelle’s Show” co-creator Neal Brennan prefigured an early 21st century sensibility in much of the giddily profane humor (hello, Bob Saget cameo), and certain non-sequitor sequences still sing to this day. It’s also one of the rare stoner comedies helmed by a woman (“Billy Madison” director Tamra Davis).
“Reefer Madness” (1936)
Premise: Did you know that the dreaded marijuana leads fresh-faced teens to commit murder and sexually assault each other, and for everyone to generally lose their minds? That’s what this shoddy propaganda film, arguably the daddy of all cult flicks, wanted us to believe, arriving as it did a year before the infamous Marihuana Tax Act of 1937.
Why it’s worthy: It’s no secret that “Reefer Madness” is neither a good movie nor an effective piece of propaganda. It is, however, so hilariously overwrought, wrongheaded and poorly made that its ironic embrace by stoners over the decades (starting in the early 1970s with NORML-sponsored screenings) has made it a gleaming touchstone for anti-cannabis hysteria.
“Fast Times at Ridgemont High”
“Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas”
“Dude, Where’s My Car?”
10 ENHANCED FILMS
Weed isn’t a central theme in these films; they just benefit from an elevated state of mind
Premise: Disney’s best animators interpret orchestral hallmarks from Beethoven, Stravinsky, Bach, Tchaikovsky and others under the hand of master conductor Leopold Stokowski. From the impressionistic, hallucinatory “Toccata and Fugue in D Minor” to the Technicolor “Sorcerer’s Apprentice” and elegant/disturbing “Night on Bald Mountain,” it’s a tour de force of audio-visual brilliance that frequently threatens to overwhelm (and spiritually enlighten) the viewer.
Why it’s worthy: At 77 years old, “Fantasia” still looks and sounds unlike any other film. Its realistic (for the time) depictions of dinosaurs and surreal intrepretations of gossamer melodies stand as defining images for many of its musical selections. Along with early color films like “Gone With the Wind” and “The Wizard of Oz” (both released the year prior), it also provided one of the first full-color trip-outs in cinematic history — and one that stoners have been patiently enjoying for decades in theaters, thanks to the occasional art-house revival.
“2001: A Space Odyssey” (1968)
Premise: An epic meditation on the origin, limits and purpose of human consciousness. Based on the Arthur C. Clarke novel, “2001” begins with the dawn of man and continues through an imagined future in which technology allows us to explore the mysteries of the universe deep within our own solar system.
Why it’s worthy: Director Stanley Kubrick’s finest work is also one of the best examples of the film medium in general — a mind-expanding, masterful monolith that redefined artistic potential at the cinema and provoked deep thoughts on the part of its audience. A late-film sequence in which Dave (Keir Dullea) is pulled into a psychedelic tunnel of light still cultivates the sort of drooling awe that most laser-light shows could only ever hope to inspire.
“The Holy Mountain” (1973)
Premise: Alejandro Jodorowsky’s 1973 masterpiece is as beautiful as it is unsettling, offering a litany of seemingly disconnected and immaculately staged scenes that play like surrealist paintings come to life. The plot and characters comment on religion, spirituality, sex, death and a Tarot-deck of other topics both literally and symbolically without ever offering black-and-white answers.
Why it’s worthy: Leave the interpretation of this frequently psychedelic film to scholars, who have picked away at it for nearly a half-century, and just let it wash over you upon first viewing. Nothing in the history of cinema or visual art quite prepares you for its exquisite tableaus. It is the defition of “mind expanding.”
“Blazing Saddles” (1974)
Premise: A land-grab in the Old West leads to friction between the residents of the small town of Rock Ridge and the evil attorney general Hedley Lamarr (Harvey Korman). A black prisoner (Cleavon Little) is appointed as sheriff to speed up the demise of the situation among the racist townspeople, but with his savvy approach — and help from aging dynamo The Waco Kid (Gene Wilder) — he turns Lamarr’s plans inside out.
Why it’s worthy: If stoner movies are defined by their humor, “Blazing Saddles” towers above all of them. Laugh-out-loud funny and still relevant in its observations on race, class and gender, it’s a meta-Western featuring Little as a jive-talking sheriff and Wilder as the laidback drunk caught in the midst of a small-town power struggle. There are a couple overt pot-smoking references, but really, anyone who doesn’t at least giggle uncontrollably at the classic campfire-fart scene is dead inside.
“Spirited Away” (2001)
Premise: Ten-year-old Chihiro Ogino and her family are in the process of moving to a new home when her father accidentally (and literally) sets the family on a path of discovery, horror and wonder containing an army of magical beasts, nightmare creatures and spirits.
Why it’s worthy: You don’t have to be an anime fan to appreciate Japanese director Hayao Miyazaki’s breathtaking meditation on the mysteries of youth, spelled out here with some of the most fantastic, pleasing and grotesque images ever put on screen. This bonafide modern classic is another film that rewards multiple viewings over the course of years.
“The Lord of the Rings” (trilogy) (2001-2003)
Premise: Young hobbit Frodo Baggins finds himself the unlikely savior of Middle-earth as he journeys to Mordor’s Mount Doom to vanquish the evil lord Sauron and his orc minions by destroying The One Ring. Meanwhile, the exiled Ranger Aragon struggles to reclaim his rightful place as king of men — a kingdom sick with corruption and myopia.
Why it’s worthy: This trilogy has it all, including fairly overt (and notably faithful to creator J.R.R. Tolkien’s) references to “”pipe weed”” as a calming and nourishing agent for the wizard Gandalf and his Hobbit buddies. Even without that, the movies’ historical-minded, influential production design and special effects are some of the most satisfyingly epic things to lay one’s eyes on whilst high.
“Star Wars” (original trilogy) (1977-1983)
Premise: The story of a young farm boy from the planet Tatooine who takes on the evil Galatic Empire has since become an integral part of the same global culture from which its story and characters were originally cobbled.
Why it’s worthy: There are few things more friendly to cannabis than watching the original “Star Wars” trilogy, whether it’s in the theater or at home with the volume cranked all the way up. George Lucas’ impressive world-building and addictively escapist tone has been endlessly copied, but hardly any of the clones have found the same ideal balance of charisma, hope, adrenaline, mysiticsm and thrilling action.
“Donnie Darko” (2001)
Premise: Donnie (Jake Gyllenhaal, in his breakout role) is a brooding Virginia teenager who may or may not be able to see the future, and may or may not have schizophrenia. His visions — including a demonic bunny named Frank — lead him on a dark path that twists back on itself in delightully disturbing, mind-bending ways.
Why it’s worthy: With elements of sci-fi, philosophy, “Catcher in the Rye”-style angst and the sarcastic black comedy of “Heathers,” “Donnie Darko” is an intoxicating concotion that’s as dreamy and mysterious as it is brutally funny and, ocassionaly, scary. The otherwordly feeling of unease that permeats the film is headily reinforced if you toke, vape or gobble a couple of edibles before viewing.
“Pulp Fiction” (1994)
Premise: What’s the relationship between violence and redemption? And can we explore those themes with effortlessly cool, stylish characters who seem to fetishize and embody every last corner of L.A.’s culture, past and present? Hitmen Vincent (John Travolta) and Jules (Samuel L. Jackson) are joined by a stellar cast in this semi-episodic film that improved in every way on Quentin Tarantino’s bloody debut “Resorvoir Dogs.”
Why it’s worthy: Expertly crafted dialogue and precision-tuned visuals combine for this love letter to genre cinema, which is by turns playful, graphic, harsh, sad, hilarious and sentimental. Tarantino didn’t just channel mid-’90s zeitgeist, he helped invent it. Watching it while high brings both the funky, soaring soundtrack and the muscular performances into impressive relief.
“Mulholland Drive” (2001)
Premise: Betty (Naomi Watts) is an aspiring actress living her dream in Los Angeles (or is that living IN a dream?) who runs into a woman who has lost her memory (Laura Elena Harring). As the two try to unravel the mystery, they become even more entangled in a surreal, disturbing series of events.
Why it’s worthy: Like most films from director David Lynch, “Mulholland Drive” is an artful and inscrutably cryptic product of dream/nightmare logic. And like most of the films on this list, it’s also best not to use your conscious mind or try to lay a grid over its blurry contours, instead letting it take you where it wants to go. Like the best highs, it’s a buzzy, slightly scary experience that’s difficult to put into words.
“A Clockwork Orange”
The Cornetto Trilogy (“Shaun of the Dead,” “Hot Fuzz” and “World’s End”)
“Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”
Which is your fave? Which ones did we miss? Leave your answers in the comments
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