By Scott Cole
As a burgeoning young film fanatic in the ‘90s, the discovery of independent film was somewhat life-changing for me. Up until that point, I had basically just accepted whatever the big movie studios had force-fed me at the local multiplex. But as I started thinking more critically about film and religiously watching Siskel & Ebert every week (which I had to record on VHS tape as it was aired locally at 12:35 a.m.), Miramax Films soon made itself clear as the mother ship of independent films being widely distributed. While Miramax was often dubbed “The House That Quentin Built,” an argument could also be made that writer, director, producer, editor, and actor Kevin Smith had just as much reach and influence with his breakout hit comedy Clerks in 1994, which was made on a shoestring budget in black and white and took film festivals and audiences by storm.
In the years since, Smith has written and directed several more films of varying degrees of maturity and comedic sensibility. To listen to Smith talk, you can almost hear the exact tone and cadence of dialogue in his films. He has that gift that eludes writers so very often: he writes the way people actually talk. And Smith himself is quite the raconteur if you catch him in an interview or a podcast. He talks a lot – which is ironic since he plays the quietest character in his films – and loves to tell stories. With the current release of his newest effort Clerks III, here is a tribute to Kevin Smith’s long and impressive career. These are my choices for his five best films.
5. MALLRATS (1995)
This first pick is more of a sentimental choice than anything else. After a successful early screening of Clerks, Smith was given a sizable budget by Universal Studios to make another comedy. Smith’s idea, he has said, was to essentially remake Clerks in a mall. When Mallrats opened, it was panned by critics and seen as a major misstep after his initial success. In the years since, Mallrats has developed a reputation as something of a cult classic. It is not a great film by any stretch of the imagination, but it does have a fun and entertaining lightness to it that I have always enjoyed. It immediately introduces a set of small town New Jersey characters who we quickly learn operate in the exact same universe as Clerks. This sets the tone for many of Smith’s future films which include references to or even appearances from characters from his other films. Having met Jay (Jason Mewes) and Silent Bob (Smith) in Clerks, we are initially surprised to see them having a large presence in this film. Of course, as the years go on, they end up being the connective thread throughout most of Smith’s work. The main story of Mallrats follows a day in the life of T.S. (Jeremy London) and Brodie (Jason Lee) as they navigate relationship problems while spending most of their day in and out of a local shopping mall. The mall setting plays like a perfect time capsule of the mid-90s which is enhanced by every detail from the clothing down to the soundtrack. Just like Clerks, the humor is extremely vulgar and colorful, but I would bet those critics that panned it actually laughed more than they are willing to admit. This is one of those movies I will always watch if I happen across it on TV one lazy afternoon.
4. ZACK AND MIRI MAKE A PORNO (2008)
In the mid to late ‘00s, raunchy comedy had found its way back to mainstream success. Comedies with a dirty streak like The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Knocked Up, and Forgetting Sarah Marshall had become popular and profitable. Let’s call it the Apatow Era. Not to be outdone, Smith turned in one of his raunchiest comedies in 2008 with Zack and Miri Make a Porno. Buoyed by a pair of winning performances from Seth Rogen and Elizabeth Banks, this movie is above all just really really funny. They play two best friends living in Pittsburgh who are having money troubles. After a conversation at a class reunion sparks an idea, they become convinced that they could solve their financial woes by making a pornographic movie. The rest of the film follows their journey with some genuinely outrageous and hilarious moments. However, in true Smith fashion, the film develops a huge amount of heart when its pair of Zack and Miri start to look at each other possibly as more than friends. I love how unabashedly romantic Smith often is, and despite how filthy Zack and Miri ultimately is, it wears its heart on its sleeve and wins you over.
3. CLERKS (1994)
No list would be complete without the film that started it all. While I will admit that I am not in love with Clerks in the way some people are, I do recognize it as a funny and effective slice-of-life that manages to preserve its charm even while its characters spout the crudest things to each other. It’s the story of Dante (Brian O’Halloran) and Randal (Jeff Anderson), who work at a side-by-side convenience store and video rental store. It is also a day in the life film, and we watch as they talk about their lives while customers, friends, and girlfriends come in and out of the store (and the film). As mentioned, the film was shot in grainy black and white for under $30,000 and the locations are the actual stores that Smith worked in himself. Smith is not the strongest visual stylist or director, but in his debut here he really gets to show off his ability to write interesting and realistic characters. By the end of the film, we have grown to really like Dante and Randal and want to see them succeed. But it’s really its importance and significance in independent film history that will keep Clerks around forever.
2. DOGMA (1999)
As someone who has struggled with my own crises of faith from time to time, I have enormous sympathy for what Smith accomplishes with Dogma. This is a funny, biting comedy that actually asks serious questions and pulls off the difficult task of lampooning Catholicism while at the same time taking it very seriously. Smith, who grew up Catholic, brings his lifetime of knowledge to the forefront here as he tells the story of the fallen angels Bartleby (Ben Affleck) and Loki (Matt Damon) who have discovered a loophole in Catholic dogma that will allow them to re-enter Heaven. The only problem is if they succeed in proving God wrong, existence as we know it will be wiped out. Linda Fiorentino, a fantastic actress whose career seemed to drop off soon after this film, plays Bethany, a Catholic struggling with her own faith who is perhaps the only human who has the ability to stop them. The film features a dynamite supporting cast including Alan Rickman, Chris Rock, Salma Hayek, Jason Lee, and George Carlin. At times it falls into the standard juvenile sensibility that Smith can’t ever seem to totally abandon, but I admire his attempt to rattle the cage a bit and ask some difficult questions.
1. CHASING AMY (1997)
If there is really only one Kevin Smith film that I truly love, it’s Chasing Amy. I think it’s the most honest and grown-up film he has ever made, and it still really affects me on an emotional and psychological level. It tells the story of Holden (Ben Affleck), a cartoonist who meets and develops a massive crush on Alyssa (Joey Lauren Adams). The only problem is Holden is not aware that Alyssa is a lesbian, and Holden’s declaration of love could possibly ruin what has become a valuable friendship. This sounds very simple, but the plot takes several twists and turns that are genuinely surprising and unexpected, especially concerning Holden’s best friend, roommate, and comic book partner Banky (Jason Lee). When watching this film, you have to also accept that it comes from a 1997 sensibility. The way that queerness is handled in the film is certainly not perfect. In fact many of Smith’s films have trouble with skating on the line of homophobic rhetoric. But I really think Smith has his heart in the right place with Chasing Amy, and he really has things to say about love and friendship and what happens when those lines get blurred. This film also incorporates the best usage of Jay and Silent Bob, for my money, of any of Smith’s films and gives Smith his moment to shine on screen as Silent Bob when he explains the film’s title in a great monologue about his own life. Chasing Amy is, at times, as human and raw as it gets while also genuinely tickling the funny bone.