What defines a stoner movie in 2021?
Even in the minds of those familiar with "stoner cinema," the term is likely to conjure up images from a select few stoner comedies: tweaked-out toker caricatures in Reefer Madness, a red-eyed, surf-scorched young Sean Penn in Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Cheech & Chong hotboxing a car with a giant blunt, Chris Tucker and Ice-T vibin' on the front porch.
All great stuff. But the thing about weed movies is that they were born in a time of prohibition, when the only way Hollywood felt comfortable absorbing and representing weed culture was through an exploitative lens. Kinda how it goes in Hollywood. If you want to make a countercultural statement, you usually have to sneak it down the exploitation lane first. Point is, in a rapidly materializing post-prohibition world where cannabis is becoming more absorbed into mainstream culture and vice versa, the definition of "stoner movie" should be as broad and inviting as possible.
As a faithful progenitor of, and believer in, the art of watching movies while stoned, I'm as game as anyone for a classic stoner comedy. But I also love movies that, whether by design or by accident, leave little ideas or moments or create spaces in your head that you only pick up on if you're watching them while baked. On the Dazed and Confused 25th anniversary episode of The Ringer's "Rewatchables" podcast, Bill Simmons highlighted the idea of hidden moments or ideas you pick up on when you watch Dazed with your "stoned goggles" on. I think this is something that a lot of movies from the '90s picked up on, whether they were thought of as stoner movies at the time or not. Cannabis was making a big comeback in pop culture, which had an enormous influence on Hollywood at large. There were new stoner comedy classics like Dazed and Confused, Friday, and Half Baked, and there were also movies like The Big Lebowski and Jackie Brown — crime-genre remixes from hip Gen-X auteurs who let the chill "hangout" vibes of the hazy '90s permeate their projects.
I think this is the template through which we should build an unofficial "canon" of stoner movies for a 21st-century generation of cannabis and cinema connoisseurs alike. There should always be sacred space for the more traditional weed movie or stoner-centric flick, but stoner-adjacent movies (with maybe a supporting or cameo appearance of actual weed) and films that are particularly potent when you're nursing a joint or delving deep into an edible high, should probably have a bigger piece of the pie at this point.
This isn't a new idea in and of itself. You'll find plenty of “funny stoner movie” listicles on the internet that cast a wide-ass net, but I'm never sure if the intention with these lists is creative or SEO-driven, you know? Either way, I think it's a natural step forward for an art form tailor-made for the stoned mind anyway. I've been thinking a lot lately about this thing legendary filmmaker (and prolific stoner in his own right) Robert Altman once said, that "ideally, the audience can look at a film, emotionally get the whole thing, and not necessarily be able to explain it to somebody else [...] They should feel and know what it means [for themselves]. You get an impression, and you know what it means but you can't articulate it."
There's a lot of profound wisdom in that. Altman's describing a type of ethereal cinematic experience that can only be enhanced when you have your stoned goggles on. Being stoned, after all, is not just about couchlock. It’s about getting below the couch, down down down to the electric humming primordial ooze from which we all sprang, down to the same hazy-clear plane on the other side of an underground storm of inflamed synapse where indescribable thoughts and feelings can manifest and the ancient clairvoyant lizard brain is wide awake. I think cinema, when it's firing on all cylinders, is operating on that same level.
So let's put our stoned goggles on, check out 9 potential entries in the "Best Movies to Watch When High” stoner film canon, and see what we come up with.
The Beach Bum (2019)
In 1998, the Coen Brothers laid some serious groundwork for the modern stoner movie with The Big Lebowski. It mixed the hazy rock’n’roll “hangout movie” vibes of Dazed and Confused with a healthy dose of LA neo-noir, centering the whole thing in the instant stoner iconography of Jeff Bridges’ The Dude. It checks out, then, that the 21st century would render us a batshit pop-psychedelic extension of The Dude in Matthew McConaughey's Moondog, the proto-punk poet and center of the meandering odyssey of benevolent technicolor excess that is Harmony Korine’s The Beach Bum (because of this movie, my wife and I say we’re “Moondoggin’ it” every time we’re chillin’ or vibin’ or lampin’ or whatever).
A charming, intoxicating, and criminally underexplored new stoner flick, The Beach Bum offers up an atmosphere that takes visual cues from Korine’s previous masterpiece Spring Breakers, but subs out all the leering menace for a lovely weed and margarita crossfade that’ll make you wonder why you aren’t giving up on the rat race completely and joining the never-ending Moondog revelry at the end of the world.
Sorry to Bother You (2018)
A dark, funny, frenetic cannabis-infused exploration of the necessity of radical politics and the reality of class struggle in USA Inc. circa now, Boots Riley’s Sorry to Bother You has about everything you could ask for in a thinking person’s stoner movie. In a hazy, surreal, alternate Oakland, California, LaKeith Stanfield is a telemarketer who stumbles upon a meteoric rise up the corporate ranks by discovering his “white voice,” throwing him and his radical girlfriend (Tessa Thompson) down a rabbit hole of corporate conspiracy and sociopolitical intrigue.
This one hits the modern stoner flick sweet spot where weed isn’t necessarily the main player but it has a supporting presence and its influence can be felt in every frame (plus, it was the only 2018 movie to sport its own cannabis line). Sorry to Bother You certainly operates within a stoner’s logic and biting wit.
Make no mistake about the intention of this list of best stoner movies. We’re not throwing the baby out with the bathwater here. In other words, the legacy stoner movies still matter, albeit in a repackaged context. Nominating Caddyshack as the first classic stoner flick to make the jump because a) it's aged relatively well, and b) it's a hazy fuckin' riot that's also gorgeous to look at, thanks to the early-'80s filmstock cinematography and lush-greens setting. It also happens to be a total lampooning of polite society — evergreen content for stoners. And though Caddyshack was a legendary cocaine-fueled shoot, the counterculture ethos left over from the stoned-'70s days of stars Bill Murray, Chevy Chase, and Rodney Dangerfield permeates every moment.
Inherent Vice (2014)
A prime candidate for the new best stoner movie canon, this P.T. Anderson joint is based on the 2009 novel by Thomas Pynchon. Inherent Vice follows private sleuth/aging hippie Larry "Doc" Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) on the case of a missing land developer and real estate conspiracy, meeting a delightful series of colorful burnouts along the way.
Inherent Vice captures the essence of the post-Altamont comedown we’ve been living in for the last 50 years, and filters the source material through a cinematic language that evokes everything from Cheech & Chong to The Maltese Falcon, somehow all at once, frame by frame. It’s got that delayed stoner movie logic thing going for it where you’re kind of lost through the whole thing, but you have all these little moments of humor and sometimes even clarity, and it all sort of makes sense after the fact. It’s a vivid indica fever-dream that, in the words of Pynchon, says “there is no avoiding time, the sea of time, the sea of memory and forgetfulness, the years of promise, gone and unrecoverable, of the land almost allowed to claim its better destiny, only to the claim jumped by evildoers known all too well, and taken instead and held hostage to the future we must live in now forever.”
Smiley Face (2007)
Smiley Face is, by my estimation, the slickest, smartest, and funniest mid-2000s stoner comedy out there — a day lin the life of Jane F (the incomparable Anna Faris), an LA actress and pothead who accidentally eats a whole batch of laced cupcakes and gets into a series of stoned mishaps all over town. The film sets itself apart from its funny stoner movie peers with an unconventional protagonist (for the genre at least), humor that finds universality in the specific (boy, I could go for a glass of orange juice and some Tostitos right about now), and a variety of unique cinematic tricks that elevates the material without ever feeling like it’s apologizing for being a stoner movie. No shade to Pineapple Express, but this is the film that captures mid-aughts stonerism with an exceptionally keen eye for detail.
Only Adam Step Brothers McKay could've taken the concept of a Dick Cheney biopic and turned it into a full-fledged mad-dash psychotropic ride through American politics in the late 20th and early 21st century. There's an undeniable, bitingly tragicomic stoner logic to Vice, and a strong sense of righteous anger in its kitchen-sink approach to chronicling Cheney’s life, from his early days as a wandering dirtbag to the height of his shadow-empire Vice Presidency to George W. Bush. Watching this movie is like hearing your cool stoner uncle rant and ramble and quip about the Bush administration during a smoke sesh … but, like, in a good way. We’re adding it to our list of best movies to watch when stoned.
Superhero movies are such a massive part of our culture now that there kinda has to be room for them in the broader stoner genre we're trying to chart a course for here. And there are plenty of worthy comic-book joints, from Spider-Man: Into the Spiderverse to Thor: Ragnarok and even Flash Gordon. But if you're looking for some hazy comic-book fare with a little of that Adult Swim/midnight movie sauce, look no further than the 2012 new cult classic Dredd. This heavy-metal sci-fi/action joint has the dankest slow-motion scenes with a diesely-indica look and feel all their own for a great stoner movie classic. It's also got an industrial cyberpunk atmosphere that anyone alive in 2021 will vibe with under the right hyper-sensory conditions.
Ocean’s Twelve (2004)
Steven Soderbergh is another Gen-X filmmaker whose particular strain of cinema I’ve always appreciated, but started to dig a lot more when I started watching while sparkin’ up a fatty. There’s a sort of laid-back, sativa-flavored existentialism to his movies, even the blockbusters. Case in point: Ocean’s Twelve, the chillax Eurotrip sequel that Soderbergh himself said was made with the stoned movie viewer in mind:
“I think in these situations, when you’re making a sequel to a movie that has been successful, you’re dealing with expectations.” he told the Huffington Post in 2014. “That is what this film confronted and got beaten by, because it’s a completely different movie from the first one. It’s weirder. I would argue — and I’m happy to be challenged on this — that it’s one of the biggest budgeted stoner movies of all time. It certainly rewards a viewing in an altered state. It’s very digressive.”
Jackie Brown (1997)
As I mentioned up top, by the latter half of the ‘90s, the hippest directors were knocking at the gates of the weed world instead of the other way around. Exhibit A: Quentin Tarantino’s stoner movie Jackie Brown.
Tarantino could have gone in almost any direction in following his two mammoth indie hits, Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction. What he did was make a decidedly calmer, groovier, more meditative joint that ticked all the boxes of decent late-’90s stoner cinema fare. Clearly pickin’ up some hangout vibes of Dazed and Confused and Friday, Jackie Brown is equal parts postmodern crime caper and stoner art film. Robert De Niro is recast as an aging criminal who just wants to kick back and smoke a bowl with Melanie, the resident weed avatar of the whole piece. Bridget Fonda plays Melanie like an underachiever who's also the sharpest person in the room, and in doing so gives birth to a new stoner movie icon that never quite got her due.