CASINO (1995) — Martin Scorsese’s hyper, and hyper-cynical, portrait of the “mob years” of the country’s gambling mecca was greeted lukewarmly in 1995 but has accumulated stature like a pile of chips. This drama derived from Nicholas Pileggi’s book features one of Robert De Niro’s more passionate performances, a lunatic Joe Pesci, Sharon Stone’s Oscar-nominated turn as the hustler with the heart of glass, and James Wood’s parasitic Lester Diamond. “Casino” strips away the glitzy veneer of Vegas to expose its money-grubbing soul.
BUGSY (1991) — Warren Beatty’s labor of love about mobster Benjamin (“Don’t call me Bugsy”) Siegel garnered 10 Oscar nominations and two wins, and it remains the definitive story about the birth of modern Las Vegas — and one particularly blood-drenched road to the American Dream.
LEAVING LAS VEGAS (1995) — A royal straight for everyone involved — Nicolas Cage as the suicidal alcoholic, Elisabeth Shue as the benevolent hooker who nurses him toward death and Mike Figgis as the director who found in Las Vegas a perfectly disinterested locale for a character who wants to cash in his cosmic chips.
MELVIN AND HOWARD (1980) — Director Jonathan Demme had made half a dozen films (including “Citizen’s Band”) when he took on the story of Melvin Dummar and his alleged real-life meeting-in-the-desert with Howard Hughes. Through it, Demme paints a bittersweet portrait of middle-class dreamers and the mirage of success that Vegas thrives on. In the film, Melvin (Paul Le Mat), who is remembered in Hughes’ will for having picked up the hitchhiking billionaire and dropping him at the Sands hotel, remarries his wife Lynda (Mary Steenburgen) at Vegas’ Silver Bells Wedding Chapel, in a $39 ceremony.
FEAR AND LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS (1998) — Hunter Thompson’s pharmaceutically enhanced, drug-muddled memoir is turned into a contact high of hallucinations by helmer Terry Gilliam, who uses Thompson’s trip in the mythic Red Shark for yet another search after the American Dream. As Dr. Gonzo says, “As your attorney, I advise you to drink heavily.”
RAIN MAN (1988) — Dustin Hoffman won an Oscar for playing autistic savant Raymond Babbitt (“I’m an excellent driver …”), but Tom Cruise is also on a roll as Charlie, the brother cut out of his inheritance, who wants to use Raymond’s peculiar talents to make a killing at Caesars Palace. Directed by Barry Levinson, who also helmed “Bugsy” (despite being synonymous with Baltimore).
THE COOLER (2003) — When title character Bernie (William H. Macy) falls in love with Natalie (Maria Bello), he loses the knack of killing any winning gambler’s good luck. This makes him useless to his boss (Alec Baldwin), the manager of their old-school Vegas casino, but makes for one of the more feel-good (if occasionally violent) fables about finding love after your life has turned to craps.
HONEYMOON IN VEGAS (1992) — Nic Cage’s “other” Vegas movie, the one with the 34 Flying Elvises and Sarah Jessica Parker doing wonderful things to a bikini. Genuinely funny and sweet, with James Caan as a particularly craven schemer whose schemes include Parker.
LOST IN AMERICA (1985) — One of Albert Brooks’ best, about the yuppie couple who drop out of the monied rat race, visit Las Vegas and end up with very little left to lose. Julie Hagerty gives one of her best performances as the wife with the gambling problem, not exactly the poster girl Vegas is looking for.
VIVA LAS VEGAS (1964) — If only for anthropological value, how can you leave it out of a list like this? A profoundly post-Beatles Elvis Presley and Ann-Margret sing their hearts out, on what seems to be a planet far far away.
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