Robert De Niro in The King of Comedy
Robert De Niro in The King of Comedy

11 Films for Your Flight

Last month in this space, I suggested some reading matter for the road. Now it’s time to talk about films for your flight.

I’ll skip most of the better-known movies on my list of favorites—All the President’s Men, American Graffiti, Annie Hall, Dr. Strangelove, the Graduate, The Grapes of Wrath, It’s a Wonderful Life, Ordinary People, 12 Angry Men, 2001 and a few others. I’ll also skip some gems that are inexplicably not yet available on DVD.

Here, in alphabetical order, are 11 films—some dramatic and moving, some comical—that you can find on disc and that are well worth packing for your next trip. I must have spent a lot of time at the movies during the 1970s and 1980s because every one of these appeared during those decades.   

1. The Atomic Café. This 1982 documentary uses vintage government films, TV news footage and other material to portray America’s mood during the ’50s, a time when adults were shopping for fallout shelters and teachers were showing kids how to protect themselves from atomic bombs by hiding under their desks at school. A black-comedy classic.

2. Baby, It’s You. This 1983 romance isn’t John Sayles’ best-known film, but I think it’s his best. It speaks volumes about the differences between high school and college—and between the mid and late 1960s. Rosanna Arquette stars and Bruce Springsteen contributes to the soundtrack. 

3. Chilly Scenes of Winter. Based on an Ann Beattie novel, this 1979 film finds Charles (John Heard), a bored and alienated civil servant, falling madly, obsessively in love with Laura (Mary Beth Hurt), who can’t decide whether to leave her husband. Quirky subsidiary characters and humorous dialogue abound, but this is a serious movie at heart. Much like The Graduate, it is in one sense the story of a generation trying to connect to something that feels real.     

4. Coming Home. OK, this 1978 drama isn’t exactly unknown—it did well at the box office and won Academy Awards for best actor, best actress and best original screenplay. Still, I meet people all the time who haven’t seen it. If you haven’t either, you’re missing a superbly written, acted and directed tale about the Vietnam War and its impact on a handful of people. And with the possible exception of American Graffiti, I can’t think of a movie that uses popular music to better effect.

5. Escape from Sobibor. This 1987 British film, which aired on American TV but was never shown in theaters, tells the gripping true story of a mass escape from a Nazi extermination camp in Poland. In my view, it’s even more powerful than such better-known efforts as Schindler’s List.

6. The Heartbreak Kid. Lenny Cantrow (Charles Grodin) falls madly in love with the fetching Kelly Corcoran (Cybill Shepherd) in this 1972 romantic comedy. There’s only one problem: Cantrow is on his honeymoon with another woman. Directed by Elaine May (of Nichols and May fame) from a frequently hysterical script by Neil Simon.

7. The King of Comedy. Martin Scorcese directs Robert De Niro in a 1983 tale about America’s celebrity culture. De Niro is totally convincing as a nobody who will do anything to achieve fame as a comedian. Sandra Bernhard is equally memorable as a nut case who is obsessed with a TV talk show host played by Jerry Lewis.

8. Lost in America. In Albert Brooks’s best film, which came out in 1985, he stars as a West Coast yuppie who decides on a whim to liquidate all his assets, drop out of society and take to the road “like in Easy Rider.” Unlike the characters in that film, however, the lead character in this one travels with his wife in a Winnebago and heads first for Las Vegas, where his plans unravel literally overnight. They don’t make ’em any funnier than this.

9. Pennies from Heaven. My favorite of the several masterpieces created for BBC television by the late Dennis Potter, this six-part 1978 drama is set in England in the 1930s and employs an unusual technique: the characters periodically stop what they’re doing and begin lip-synching to popular songs of the day. It may seem strange, but it turns out to be an ingenious way to show how the characters’ thoughts differed from their words and how the music sketched a world that differed from the realities of the time.

10. Racing with the Moon. A fine coming-of-age movie set in California in 1942, as two boys prepare to go off to war. Costars Sean Penn, Nicholas Cage and Elizabeth McGovern—all well cast and in fine form—were relatively unknown at the time of this evocative 1984 drama, which was only the second film to be directed by Richard Benjamin.

11. Roots/Roots: the Next Generations. Like Coming Home, these 1977 and 1979 TV mini-series are far from obscure—as many as 130 million people watched various episodes. Still, they originally aired more than 30 years ago, and if you didn’t catch them then, you may well not have seen them. If you haven’t, you’re missing one of the greatest stories ever told, with lessons about family, prejudice, endurance and love. And the acting is as good as the script. As far as I’m concerned, everyone should see this series, and it should be part of the curriculum in every high school.

Want more lists? Check out Business Jet Traveler’s Second Annual Book of Lists, coming in our June/July 2013 issue.