Cannabis isn’t the reefer madness your grandma made you believe! Welcome to Higher Education, a column that investigates – and destigmatizes – marijuana in movies.
When you think of a stoner film, what comes to mind? Is it a couple of potheads questing for the perfect meal? Maybe some hazy buddies, lost in a cloud of smoke, just trying to find their car? But then where do these stoner archetypes leave all of the THC-soaked noirs, or the experimental films made better when viewed through marijuana goggles? Hell, where does it leave the outdated morality tales that propagated exploitation cinemas in the late 1930s?
The fact is there are no Dogme 95-style rules as to what constitutes a stoner film or not. And by focusing on the stereotypes of the subgenre, we’re actually narrowing our vision of what these niche films can actually be. Personally, I find that the stoner film encompasses what the viewer brings to it. Namely, cannabis. But also an array of expectations that prime us for the film experience we’re looking to have.
Do you want to watch a film filled with stunning visuals and pulsing music, made for the audience to get lost in? There’s a stoner film for that. Maybe you want to experience a psycho head trip or watch something so silly it transcends to genius? There’s a stoner film for that, too. Looking for a bouncy comedy that you enjoy communally, flowers passed back and forth amongst friends? There’s definitely a stoner film for that. Simply put, to embellish a quote from Jon Stewart in Half Baked, any movie can be a stoner movie…on weed.
But because the stoner film spans multiple genres and eras, defying classification, it’s a bit of a fool’s errand to say one film is better than the other. Besides, ranking a list of stoner films sounds like a sure-fire way to harsh your buzz. So in the spirit of harmony and straight chillin’, we present to you twenty of our absolute favorite films.
The Trip (1967)
Stoned has always been a catch-all phrase for the effects of any number of illicit substances, so while marijuana is smoked during Roger Corman’s The Trip, the titular journey in question is thanks to some heavy tabs of acid that a younger-than-you’ve-ever-seen-him Peter Fonda drops with the help of a bearded Bruce Dern and Dennis Hopper at his hippiest and dippiest. The plot is slim: Fonda is a movie director who, upon hearing his wife is having an affair, drops some acid to work through his feelings. And it takes place completely within Fonda’s trip, so don’t expect much of a narrative. Though it really doesn’t matter. The movie is an absolute spectacle. The truly striking imagery is said to be, in part, thanks to Corman and crew tripping out on their own before the shoot. If this is what Roger Corman sees while high, it’s no wonder that he’s made a career of producing and directing some of the most daring, and wacky, films to ever come out of Hollywood.
Cabin Boy (1994)
Marijuana makes your attention span spread, so if you don’t have a watchful eye, you may be wondering what time period Cabin Boy is set in. Sure it’s got a Manifest Destiny spirit, but then what’s with the limousines and the 40oz’s? One blink, you see a real seaside port; the next, you’re transported to a huge studio set with a beautifully colored cyclorama. It’s hard to keep track, but it doesn’t really matter when you get lost in this wacky world from the mind of Chris Elliott. Adhering to an Adult Swim sensibility that leans on the random humor of the early ’90s, Cabin Boy is a silly romp filled with rapid-fire jokes alongside visually striking cinematography and production design, including some really fun usage of miniatures. And while Tim Burton opted to direct Ed Wood instead of this, his thumbprint is still all over this movie. If you’ve always wanted to see Russ Tamblyn play a shark person or David Letterman selling sock puppets, then Cabin Boy is tailor-made for you.
Inherent Vice (2014)
Let’s be honest: getting high and watching Inherent Vice is one of the best ideas you’ve ever had. Sometimes, when you’re soaring, you just want to laugh with Seth Rogen or at Steve Martin. Other times, you want your head rocked. Inherent Vice is that transcendent cinematic sojourn, a pilgrimage of 21st-century cinephilia that bends your brain to the extent that you feel like you’re riding the waves of something stronger than weed, something on author Thomas Pynchon’s plane. At no point are you certain about what’s happening and at no point is the film anything less than fascinating. (It also helps to know that you’re meant to get spun in circles so violently by the narrative that it would be more concerning if you came out claiming you didn’t have any questions.)
The look of every image is sublime. Paul Thomas Anderson weighs different tones and textures against each other with measured brilliance while screen testing for his films. As his career has progressed, he’s mastered his ability to choose an image as lush and rich as possible, to make the right choices in that screen testing process and then later down the road with cinematographer Robert Elswit (or himself). Traces of it exist as early as Hard Eight, but by the time we get to 2014, P.T.A. has 16 years of ever-evolving screen testing brilliance under his belt, and as a result, Inherent Vice is a visual feast of 35mm film grain that captures the rotting free love spirit of 1970 Los Angeles with adoration for its strangest corners and most eclectic characters. And there’s an added feeling like you’re lighting up with the lead, Doc Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix in his highest, but also…greatest role?), for a dense two and a half hours that somehow never end up being long enough. (Luke Hicks)
An experimental film from Godfrey Reggio, Koyaanisqatsi (meaning “Life Out of Balance” in Hopi) is mesmerizing even when you are stone-cold sober, so imagine for a moment what its blend of sights and sounds would look like juuuuuust as that edible you ate kicks in. This film and its marriage of music, cinematography, and the human condition is perfectly suited for the stoned viewer looking for meaning in everything. And luckily, there’s plenty of real meaning in each of Reggio’s carefully curated moving images. Like Alice through the looking glass, Koyaanisqatsi is a stoner film you fall into, allowing your senses to overload through a pulsating soundscape scored by acclaimed composer Philip Glass. If you watch one new-to-you stoner movie this year, make it this one. You will not be disappointed.
Prior to Friday, everyone thought of Ice Cube as a socially conscious gangsta rapper and villainous actor. However, this movie showed that he could also write and star in comedies. Including one of the most entertaining of its era, mostly due to the performances of Cube and Chris Tucker as two unemployed stoners who spend their day getting high and preparing for a fight. Friday’s humor is crass, but the film doesn’t rely on drug gags for its laughs by any means. It’s a well-rounded comedy that boasts an abundance of heart, and while the sequels aren’t as good, I still hope this franchise returns to our screens someday. (Kieran Fisher)
The Night Before (2015)
If you’re looking for a stoner movie to watch during the holidays, the only option you should consider is Jonathan Levine’s The Night Before. About three friends celebrating one final night of holiday shenanigans before submitting themselves to adulthood, the movie was overlooked during its initial run, but I’m going to blame that on our collective Joseph Gordon Levitt exhaustion. It’s definitely not because of the excellent relationship dynamic between the three leads, specifically Anthony Mackie at his comic best since Pain and Gain and Seth Rogen doing what he does better than ever. Factor in a scene-stealing Michael Shannon as the trio’s high school weed dealer, Mr. Green (who may or may not be filthy rich or bequeathed with mystical powers), and you’ve got a winter stoner movie that hangs its warm and fuzzy heart on its sleeve.
Altered States (1980)
There’s no irrefutable proof that Academy Award-winning screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky ever dropped tons of acid and smoked his weight in grass over the course of his life. But even so, how the hell are we supposed to explain Altered States? The movie is about a scientist who is trying to discover the origins of mankind through psychedelic drugs and isolation tanks, and its trippiest moments are mostly thanks to the virtuosic eye of Ken Russell, but everything on screen can be accounted for in Chayefsky’s original novel, so again: he had to be smoking some top-shelf bud to come up with something so inventive, so beyond the scope of comprehension, that I still have a hard time explaining what in the actual fuck happens at the end of the movie. Are we all nothing but light and potential energy, ever connected to the Big Bang? I don’t know, but Paddy, baby, pass that dutchie so the rest of us can find out!
Smiley Face (2007)
Cannabis is not misogynistic, but movie producers are, so it’s no wonder there are so few female stoner characters in film. But Gregg Araki – best known for his influential work in queer cinema like The Doom Generation and Kaboom – gives us an absolutely delightful riff on the old-school stoner film with Anna Faris absolutely crushing every scene she’s in. The movie is about an actress-cum-economist who accidentally ingests way too many THC cupcakes and now must venture outdoors to come up with the dough to pay her electric bill and her weed dealer and still make it to her big audition. It’s as madcap as stoner comedies come. Filled with stellar cameos (baby faced John Cho! Nerdy John Krasinski! Rasta Adam Brody!) and sharp wit, Smiley Face’s title says all you need to know about how this movie will make you feel, high or otherwise.
Under the Silver Lake (2018)
It’s just a fact that if someone ingests way too much cannabis, you’re going to get paranoid. It beats a hangover by a mile, but you still never want to smoke yourself into the place that Andrew Garfield has found himself in David Robert Mitchell’s Under the Silver Lake. Sure, for Garfield’s aimless wannabe detective, that paranoia is due more to potential mental illness than the potency of any THC, but the way he tries to string together clues to uncover what happened to a missing woman is not unlike how you know there’s meaning behind David Lynch’s Lost Highway, you’ve just gotta smoke the right type of weed to really see it, man!
Idle Hands (1999)
I created a meme to best illustrate my point, but there is no better cross-section between stoners and horror than Idle Hands. Yes, sure, Evil Bong exists, but Charles Band is on an entirely different planet and is no match for the charming star power of Devon Sawa, Seth Green, and Jessica Alba! Idle Hands is about a lackadaisical stoner whose hand gets possessed by some demonic forces and is clearly a stoner send-up of your favorite scenes in Evil Dead II — but it’s more than just (wait for it) a rehash. Rodman Flender’s film has razor-sharp timing and a mean spirit that sets it apart from the other teen screams that typified the late ’90s. Also, what stoner with asthma didn’t try to hide their stash in their inhalers after this movie?! It’s a modern marvel of cannabis invention!