Before the reign of streaming services and their bottomless wells of content, finding a movie you hadn’t seen in a while on a TV station was fun and unexpected – like finding a lost dollar in a coat pocket. If you were stuck in the house on a rainy day or flopped on the couch late at night unable to sleep, watching a few scenes from a favorite movie could really come to the rescue. But not every movie you liked when you saw it the first time makes for a good one to stop and watch again. What makes a film good for drive-by watching? Some of it is quality, some of it is just a certain connection you have with the movie. Overall, it’s hard to say, but you just know it when you see it.
There is definitely not as much channel flipping as there used to be. In “my day” you channel surfed until you came across something you liked or when you were tired of going through all the stations. The digital guide is the channel surfing in the modern age and if I can’t find anything new or I am not in the mood to start something new I can always count on the films below if I see one of them on. At one point I think I owned half of them on VHS. Some are funny, some have action and some just have great acting. I even would stop at the G rated TV versions if I see them – Yippee Kay Yay Motherfudger!
- That Thing You Do! (1996) – This has everything for me in a film, fun story, great music, good acting, and a funny script. Tom Hanks directed this One-Hit Wonder film just as it should be. It’s warm, funny and can be watched with the kids, my only feel-good film on the list – unless you count number 8.
- Tommy Boy (1995) – Silly, nonsensical and Chris Farley showing what he could do. It’s a shame he’s gone because this film is comedy gold, and it’s all him. Don’t judge me but I also occasionally stop on Beverly Hills Ninja….I know…I know…
- Dog Day Afternoon (1975) – This is a master acting class, John Cazale and Al Pacino playing off each other. It mesmerizes me. No bank robbery film comes close to showing this wide range of emotions, just pure excellence.
- Die Hard (1988) – When you know almost every word in a film, it’s hard not to stop and watch, it’s like doing movie karaoke. Hearing Ellis get his comeuppance always makes me weep shallow tears of sorrow, right bubby?
- Apocalypse Now (1979) – My number one film, the humanity of it all, the brutal insanity of a world gone mad (much like 2020). It’s epic and dramatic all at once and Brando is at his craziest, well if you look past the garbage heap that was The Island of Dr. Moreau.
- The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) – The oldest film on the list may have the brightest colors, and is always a favorite for me. Errol Flynn and Basil Rathbone swashbuckling on the castle stairs, perfect. Flynn just had that confidence and charisma and recently passed Olivia De Havilland shines. A boyhood classic for me.
- Jesus Christ Superstar (1973) – The film itself is dated and hokey to an extent, but the music will stop me every time and the story of The Christ told from Judas’ point of view was almost sacrilege in 1973. Christ as human gets me every time.
- Star Wars (1977) – As quickly as I turn past episodes 1-3, and 7-9 is as quickly as I will turn to “New Hope”, I almost always pick up something new. I marvel how it does not look dated.
- The Searchers (1956) – A beautifully filmed movie, John Wayne’s best performance and just an epic story that hints at racism way back in 1956. Influenced many directors of the 70s including ones on this list.
- The Ten Commandments (1956) – So this only comes on TV once a year, but I think I catch part of it almost every time. It’s just tradition, and it’s an epic film despite the religious context.
Bonus Christmas Film: Elf (2003) – Will Ferrell has made a ton of flops but this Jon Favreau directed film hits me in my candy cane forest. Fish out of water stories are always fun and Elf makes me stop every time even in the summer months.
MG: I will usually stop on Die Hard 1, 3 and 4, with the original being the best, of course. Star Wars is a must stop for me too, unless it’s the added CGI Jabba scene and I move on. I love Apocalypse Now, but for me that’s one I prefer to watch start-to-finish and really get immersed in it. Elf I have found myself stopping on, but only between Thanksgiving and Christmas.
Definitely with streaming services, there is less of a need to sit-and-scroll, but there are still times where I’m not in the mood for anything specific and look for something to pique my interest for a few minutes. For a while I was drawn to the food and home porn of HGTV/Food Network, but I have tired of that nonsense for the most part and now am back to being more likely to stop of a film I have enjoyed in the past. For me it is usually action films or sci-fi that grab my attention. Here are ten of mine that come to mind (and come up on cable enough to be ones I will stop on).
- The Terminator (1984) – A near-perfect action film with many quotable lines and no fat. Even the slightly dated special effects work for me, because I know director James Cameron had to stretch a tiny budget with guerrilla-style filmmaking.
- Braveheart (1995) – The lush soundtrack, exciting battle scenes and beautiful cinematography make this enjoyable to stop and watch a few minutes of.
- Beverly Hills Cop (1984) – This movie always seems to be on, and I’ve stopped on it a number of times in the past few years. I really miss the action comedy film, and Eddie Murphy starred in several good ones. Director Martin Brest deserves the credit, though, for keeping the pace tight and the action sharp.
- Starship Troopers (1997) – I used to view this as a dumb action film, but on watching it again recently it’s a subversive critique of a fascist, war-oriented society and the brainwashing of youth into the war machine.
- The Alien saga (1979 – 2017) – Yes, the original is the best, but I’ll stop on any of the Alien movies, including Prometheus and Covenant, which are better than people give them credit for. At the very least, they are beautiful to look at and fulfill the promise of how CG effects can enhance practical effects, not just replace them.
- Seven (1995) – For such a 90s masterpiece this is rarely on TV anywhere, but when it is I can get into this at any point in the story. Fincher’s rain-soaked, neo-noir imagery elevates what could have been a rote crime/horror story into something great.
- Hot Tub Time Machine (2010) – This movie brings me back to the 80s, in storyline and goofy format. I have a hard time finding comedies I like, so when I find one I’m like a dog with a bone and keep going back to it.
- Taxi Driver (1976) – For me Scorcese’s best film is also the ultimate 70s gritty, dystopian vision. The screenplay and DeNiro’s immersive performance both mesmerize and disturb me, and I can’t look away.
- Bridesmaids (2011) – Director Paul Feig was on a roll collaborating with Melissa McCarthy (also The Heat and Spy) until hitting the skids with the Ghostbusters reboot. All three of these films are genuinely funny and ones I still laugh at, even when stopping on them for a few minutes (and the swears are bleeped out).
- Christopher Nolan’s Batman Trilogy (2004 – 2012) – These films are a true staple of cable networks. Nolan was masterful at blending quality writing/acting/filmmaking with commercial appeal. I’ve seen all three films in their entirety and in parts many times, and I never tire of watching them.
DJ: I think I may feel the same way about Taxi Driver as you do about Apocalypse Now. Love the film but not one I want to pop in on. I could just pop in to Brando’s nonsense at the end of Apocalypse Now. Seven is absolutely one I missed. An amazing film. Hot Tub Time Machine another bit of nonsense I love. Braveheart is tough for me as I am sour on Mel Gibson and on TV it looks dated like they are using an old copy. I do stop on the Batmans – I mean Nolan and Fincher are pretty much guaranteed for a stop on the way by the News nauseum and redundancy of the miles of crappy channels currently out there.