California Cut up.
Photograph: Courtesy of Columbia Photos

This text initially ran in 2020 and is being republished forward of the discharge of Paul Schrader’s The Card Counter.

Motion pictures about playing have an inherent drama as a result of, by definition, they’re about danger. It’s not enjoyable to look at somebody be prudent and cautious, however to see somebody continually placing his well-being on the road in determined, irrational hope for that One Massive Rating … effectively, gamblers in playing motion pictures are in some ways similar to that veteran cop who takes One Final Case earlier than retirement. They normally don’t find yourself with a peaceful dwelling life upstate, counting their winnings.

So, with the discharge of Paul Schrader’s The Card Counter, we determined to have a look again at a number of the greatest motion pictures about playing. A notice on methodology: We tried to verify we emphasised the playing over the film. Few would argue that Rounders is best than On line casino, however On line casino is much less in regards to the playing and extra in regards to the world through which that playing takes place; Rounders is certainly in regards to the playing. We veered extra towards motion pictures in regards to the playing. Fortunately, an entire lot of them occur to be nice motion pictures all on their very own.

26. Vegas Vacation (1997)

All proper, so we all know this isn’t an excellent film: It’s in all probability the worst Trip film, with the attainable exception of that horrible reboot with Ed Helms. However you’ll have to simply indulge us on this one, as a result of it has maybe the one funniest, dumbest on line casino joke of all time. Mainly, Clark Griswold develops an dependancy to playing and is suffering from a card-dealer named Marty performed — awesomely — by Wallace Shawn. Clark is so unhealthy at playing that, at one level at a “discount” on line casino, he forks over $20 to play a recreation referred to as “Pick a Number Between 1 and 10?” He guesses “4.” The seller says “nope, 7,” and … simply takes his cash. Clark storms away, grumbling to himself. The concept that such a recreation would exist principally sums up Las Vegas, and playing basically. It’s perhaps probably the most trustworthy attainable card recreation.

25. Lucky You (2007)

Made within the warmth of the now-mercifully-cooled World Sequence of Poker craze, the late Curtis Hanson put a right away halt to his terrific L.A. Confidential/Surprise Boys/8 Mile/In Her Sneakers run with this largely hackneyed story of a celebrity poker participant (Eric Bana) with an advanced relationship together with his even larger celebrity poker-player father (Robert Duvall). We’ve got seen that story 1,000,000 instances in 1,000,000 higher sports activities motion pictures — this even has a Massive Sport on the finish — however each Bana and Duvall discover some reality of their characters regardless. This film was a catastrophe on the field workplace, and Hanson’s sizzling streak was over.

24. 21 (2008)

Based mostly on the true (if embellished by writer Ben Mezrich) story of the MIT Blackjack Crew that beat the home for practically a decade, 21 turns an attention-grabbing math and enterprise story right into a type of dumb heist film that includes loads of younger, good-looking actors (Jim Sturgess, Kate Bosworth, Aaron Yoo, Jacob Pitts, and even Josh Gad) making an attempt to drag one over on Kevin Spacey. Spacey is especially checked-out right here, and the film was criticized for “whitewashing” in its casting, turning the largely Asian-American real-life gamers into generic white individuals. However for a short second, earlier than Spacey is being kidnapped and overwhelmed in a resort room, it’s an attention-grabbing have a look at the science behind sensible playing. However just for a second.

23. Let It Ride (1989)

An odd little comedy a few perpetual loser playing addict (Richard Dreyfuss) who, for in the future, hits on each single wager on the horse races. This simply conjures up him to push tougher and hold it going, and whereas this may transform a catastrophe in a film like, say, Uncut Gems, right here, it’s only a wacky ’80s comedy. Let It Journey nonetheless will get loads of comedic mileage out of Dreyfuss’s mania and goes a good distance on some very enjoyable supporting performances from Teri Garr, Jennifer Tilly, and David Johansen. However let’s simply say they don’t present this one at Gamblers Nameless conferences.

22. Maverick (1994)

There was a time that Mel Gibson was thought-about such a lightweight and full of life main man {that a} big-budget studio film may coast on his allure as a card shark and con man. Based mostly on the favored ’50s tv collection (and co-starring that present’s lead, James Garner), Maverick is a little bit of a bloated contraption, too lengthy and too overstuffed with would-be-epic-and-probably-unnecessary Western scope by Richard Donner. However the movie nonetheless has its pleasures, not least of which is Gibson’s pal Jodie Foster, who has a blast enjoying the type of damsel-in-distress feminine sidekick position she’d in any other case spent most of her profession avoiding. It’s a fuel to look at her so giddy.

21. The Cooler (2003)

This likable indie’s highest quality is its premise: Meet Bernie (William H. Macy), an expert loser whose job it’s to wreck any high-roller’s sizzling streak just by enjoying on the similar craps desk. The Cooler begins off as a tragic, humorous character examine of a recovering playing addict who’s nonetheless in huge debt to Alec Baldwin’s tough-guy on line casino boss — he’s working off what he owes by being the man’s go-to “cooler” — however the love of a very good lady (Maria Bello’s weary cocktail waitress) may simply change his luck. Realism takes a backseat to romance and crowd-pleasing sentiment in Wayne Kramer’s directorial debut, and the followthrough isn’t as entertaining because the setup. However Macy was born to play this type of hangdog failure who hasn’t stopped betting on himself.

20. Ocean’s Eleven (2001)

Typically, film characters who gamble are introduced as sobering cautionary tales. No one advised Steven Soderbergh, who turned his remake of the creaky Rat Pack caper right into a jazzy, fleet-footed blast. From the early scene the place George Clooney and Brad Pitt’s ultra-cool characters sq. off on the card desk, it’s clear that this Ocean’s Eleven will exude the modern, cocky spirit of recent Vegas, which is all upscale grownup pleasures and little or no precise degenerate habits. Soderbergh’s ensemble is impeccably dressed and by no means fussed, sporting the swagger that actual gamblers want they’d. The filmmaker isn’t within the intricacies of playing, and he additionally thinks the video games’ metaphors are equally foolish — as demonstrated by one of many movie’s greatest moments:

19. Molly’s Sport (2017)

In the event you chafe at Aaron Sorkin’s showy, know-it-all angle in his screenplays, then be warned: His directorial debut is the Oscar-winner at his Sorkin-iest. Molly’s Sport is predicated on the memoir of Molly Bloom, a former champion skier who shifts careers after a horrible accident, turning her consideration to the world of underground poker. Jessica Chastain is coiled-cobra cocky as Molly, strolling us by way of this unlawful however extremely addictive and profitable ecosystem as she turns into the queen of organizing high-stakes video games. This thriller is much too happy with its personal cleverness — a persistent Sorkin shortcoming — however you’re feeling Molly’s rush, and also you meet some actually heartbreaking characters, together with Invoice Camp’s hopeless gambler. It’s horrifying to look at him drown in sluggish movement.

18. Casino (1995)

“In Vegas, everybody’s gotta watch everybody else.” In 1973, Robert De Niro performed the damaging, unpredictable hothead reverse Harvey Keitel’s wise mobster in Imply Streets — a pair a long time later, it was De Niro as the person with the load of obligations bearing down on him. In On line casino, he’s Ace, a gangster operating a mobbed-up on line casino who’s making an attempt to do issues “the right way,” solely to be undercut by his hotheaded pal (Joe Pesci) and an bold lady (Sharon Stone) he shouldn’t belief. Need to perceive the interior workings of Vegas playing? Martin Scorsese’s intricate drama is for you, chronicling Sin Metropolis’s evolution from seedy to sanitized over the span of a number of years. As he did beforehand with GoodFellas, Scorsese understands how American enterprise works within the legal underworld — and in addition how people get trampled on alongside the best way.

17. The Hustler (1961)

When you think about the parameters of our playing film rankings, we should say, The Hustler isn’t pretty much as good a playing film as its sequel, The Colour of Cash, (which you will discover in a while this listing) … but it surely in all probability is a greater film general. The 1961 authentic is much less involved with a swaggering Tom Cruise–Paul Newman movie-star face-off and extra centered on loyalty and integrity and ambition. Newman’s Quick Eddie Felson is sort of a extra attention-grabbing model of Cruise’s character, and his battle to take down Jackie Gleason’s Minnesota Fat follows a extra human, soulful narrative than a typical sports-movie arc. It’s higher the much less it’s in regards to the pool hustling … which is nice, however retains it decrease on this listing.

16. Bugsy (1991)

An origin story of Las Vegas, Bugsy is principally a examine of Bugsy Siegel, a gangster who travels to the desert, satisfied he’s seen the mob’s future. Lavish, elegant, and sensible, director Barry Levinson’s Oscar-winning drama follows Siegel in his seemingly quixotic dream of making a mecca of playing and casinos, and Warren Beatty keenly performs him as a person of passions however maybe not sufficient motive. Bugsy is much less about playing — though Siegel absolutely takes some massive probabilities — than it’s about Sin Metropolis’s messy delivery, which proves fascinating, even when the film’s glitzy, prestige-picture trappings are a bit limiting.

15. Atlantic City (1980)

Right now, the legalization of playing has turn into a Hail Mary last-ditch effort for a lot of financially eroding city areas like Detroit, St. Louis, and others — however Atlantic Metropolis did this primary. Louis Malle’s heartbreaking however nonetheless charming, even regal Atlantic Metropolis captures each the blight of Atlantic Metropolis — which led to the legalization of playing there within the first place — and the hope among the many poor dreamers nonetheless hanging round its edges. With a screenplay written by John Guare, the movie options an trustworthy, old-school movie-star efficiency from Burt Lancaster and a riveting flip from a younger Susan Sarandon as a on line casino waitress with desires of being a seller however an ex-husband she will be able to’t shake. The film feels each dated and timeless, capturing a selected second that has the ability of folklore.

14. Eight Men Out (1988)

John Sayles’s historic drama in regards to the Black Sox scandal of 1919, when members of the Chicago White Sox (together with legend Shoeless Joe Jackson) threw the World Sequence to gamblers, is especially instructive right now, when skilled sports activities have embraced playing revenues wholeheartedly, ignoring the teachings of the previous. The story of Eight Males Out is much less about corruption from the gamers than it’s a labor-management battle: The gamers repair the collection not out of greed however out of desperation when their proprietor refuses to reward them for an unimaginable season. Playing’s corrosive affect on sports activities has largely been forgotten within the latest years, however Eight Males Out reminds us of its perils.

13. The Color of Money (1986)

Paul Newman received his solely Oscar for The Colour of Cash, revisiting the character of Quick Eddie Felson, whom he performed in 1961’s The Hustler. The sequel is a film about an growing older pool shark at a crossroads. “He had to stop gambling,” Scorsese stated in Conversations With Scorsese. “He had become a different kind of hustler in a way, selling liquor. But he couldn’t resist the joy of the game. I mean, not just pool, but livening up the game of life, which is the real gamble.” That quote undersells the movie’s cautionary tone — the way it portrays its characters, together with Tom Cruise’s upstart pool participant Vincent, as people who’ve thrown away their lives on a recreation that doesn’t love them again. This isn’t one among Scorsese’s greatest motion pictures — and as we stated earlier, The Hustler is the higher general movie — but it surely’s stable and despairing. Like with Scorsese’s mobsters, these are people who find themselves magnetic however not ones you’d wish to spend time with in actual life.

12. The Sting (1973)

Who says playing can’t be actually enjoyable? This Greatest Image winner exudes pure pleasure … effectively, until you run afoul of Shaw (Paul Newman) and Kelly (Robert Redford), that’s. These two con males determine to take down a no-good mobster (Robert Shaw), and their elaborate grift entails card video games and horse racing. Understanding the machinations of Shaw and Kelly’s plan doesn’t matter — it’s only a delight to look at the characters (and director George Roy Hill) flip The Sting into one massive, electrical narrative sport. These are some winners who’re straightforward to root for.

11. Owning Mahowny (2003)

Once you strip away all of the supposed glamour and glitz of playing and deal with the crippling, oppressive dependancy, you get Proudly owning Mahowny, the true story of a Canadian financial institution supervisor (Philip Seymour Hoffman) who stole cash from his financial institution and used it to make a collection of more and more harmful bets in Atlantic Metropolis. Hoffman, as you may count on, is good within the position, elusive and pathetic in equal measure, a person who’s helpless to manage himself however does his greatest to hold on so long as he can regardless. The film is so tuned in to Hoffman’s frequency that it’s nearly too distant to the viewer: His Mahowny is so locked in his personal head that there’s no method for us to get in. However that is in all probability as near the phobia of what it’s truly wish to have a playing dependancy as a film can in all probability get.

10. Rounders (1998)

We are saying this each time we write about Rounders, but it surely stays true: “It’s basically Citizen Kane for gambling addicts and … perfectly fine for everybody else.” That places it greater on this listing than it could be on nearly some other, but it surely does do a superb job of capturing the swaggering, dopey masculinity of being an expert poker participant. (Or not less than of being one within the late ’90s.) We’re glad Matt Damon ultimately grew out of those roles, however a supporting forged like this (John Malkovich! John Turturro! Martin Landau! Famke Janssen! Even Invoice Camp!) can’t assist however populate this with individuals who make a largely synthetic world really feel actual and lived-in. Nonetheless: See The Cincinnati Child, individuals. (That’ll be developing on this listing shortly.)

9. The Card Counter (2021)

Paul Schrader’s modern, moody, anguished drama a few skilled card participant (a incredible Oscar Isaac) who travels from on line casino to on line casino as a option to have some quiet management over his life and conceal from the guilt in his previous is extra enjoyable, however not much less intense, than Schrader normally has: He clearly loves this specific milieu and delights in detailing its intricacies and nuances. The playing scenes generally sit uneasily alongside Schrader’s normal tone of guilt and ache, however in addition they enliven and energize each him and the movie. And for all of the completely different examples of Cool Film Gamblers on this listing, Isaac’s could be very close to the highest: We’re not gamblers, but when we have been, he does it the best way we wish to fake we’d: sensible, cautious … and all the time in management.

8. Mississippi Grind (2015)

Earlier than they jumped aboard the Marvel bandwagon, Half Nelson filmmakers Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck crafted this lovingly retro two-hander about a few inveterate gamblers driving down south to a New Orleans poker recreation with doubtlessly massive payoffs. This may be Ryan Reynolds’s greatest efficiency: He’s terrific because the backslapping Curtis who befriends the troubled Gerry (Ben Mendelsohn). Dependancy, despair, and remorse are the hallmarks of Mississippi Grind, which doesn’t attempt to disguise its money owed to Seventies Hollywood — particularly, a sure Robert Altman movie that can seem later in these rankings. However that cinematic referencing does nothing to blunt the fabric’s determined, melancholy pull. Mississippi Grind virtually reeks of stale cigarettes and half-drunk cans of beer: It’s a portrait of nonstop playing as one unhappy grind.

7. Croupier (1998)

Clive Owen has been such a well-recognized, considerably disappointing, presence in movies for the final twenty years that it’s now arduous to recollect what a lightning bolt his arrival was. So return and rewatch Croupier, the place all that promise was laid out pretty magnificently. He’s Jack, an aspiring novelist determined for cash — quickly, he’s a croupier attending to know the world of on line casino playing. Pitched like a hard-boiler noir — Jack has the blasé seen-it-all vibe of a personal dick — Croupier explores the sweaty anxiousness and crippling disappointment of those that have thrown their lives (and cash) away on the tables. If the plot issues aren’t all the time satisfying, the movie’s vivid recreation of dingy on line casino life is completely intoxicating. It’s a disgrace that Owen has hardly ever discovered a movie since that’s so magnetic.

6. The Cincinnati Kid (1965)

Thought-about a little bit of a knockoff of The Hustler on the time, this film, which concentrates on poker quite than pool hustling, holds up simply in addition to that movie, and perhaps even higher, if simply because individuals do much more poker-playing than pool-hustling anymore. It additionally has a basic Steve McQueen efficiency as “the Kid,” a cocky participant who learns he’s perhaps not as nice as he thinks he’s. The film feels present and taut and related. Put it this fashion: All of the bros you already know who suppose Rounders is the perfect film ever clearly haven’t seen this.

5. Tricheurs (1984)

The perfect playing film you’ve by no means heard of. Proper earlier than Barbet Schroeder gave us Barfly, Reversal of Fortune, and Single White Feminine, he made this mad, irresistible little thriller a few charming man (performed by French rock star Jacques Dutronc) with such a determined dependancy to playing that he finally doesn’t actually care if he wins or loses. That turns into an excellent larger downside when he meets up with a person who enlists him in an advanced dishonest scheme that simply raises the stakes to an unmanageable stage. Tricheurs isn’t judgmental of those gamblers and cheaters: It simply follows them alongside to their inevitable doom. Not that the journey isn’t a depraved, darkish blast regardless.

4. Hard Eight (1996)

Paul Thomas Anderson’s first movie, an growth of a brief movie he made referred to as Espresso & Cigarettes (and starring a personality referred to as Sydney that Philip Baker Corridor beforehand performed in Midnight Run), was a significant ache for the neophyte filmmaker, a film he practically misplaced the rights to (and whose title he famously hates). And whereas it may’t stand as much as PTA’s masterworks, it’s a exceptional debut, a examine of a tragic, lonely man who has discovered to outlive within the underworld of Las Vegas by being quiet and unassuming till he meets individuals who may really want his assist. It’s much less showy than you’d count on from Anderson’s first movie — he was saving his actually bravura stuff for Boogie Nights — but it surely’s deeply shifting: The film appears to grasp Las Vegas, and the boys you by no means discover whenever you’re there, on an nearly transcendent stage. And Philip Seymour Hoffman’s one scene is immortal:

3. Uncut Gems (2019)

Each time we see the “This is how I win” meme on social media, we are able to’t assist however suppose … you already know, that second in Uncut Gems is basically heartbreaking. For all of the well-deserved dialogue about the truth that Josh and Benny Safdie’s thriller is extremely intense, what will get ignored is exactly why it’s so nerve-wracking. And that’s as a result of Howard, splendidly performed by Adam Sandler, is a hopeless playing addict who can not cease till he destroys himself completely. The brilliance of Uncut Gems is in Howard’s capacity to get us sucked into his illness, making us suppose, even for a second, that, sure, he may be capable of pull off this crazed caper he’s concocted — sure, perhaps that is how he wins. By no means as soon as moralizing about their doomed protagonist, the Safdies inject his mania immediately into our veins, using alongside on his crazed rush. But right here’s the craziest half: After seeing the movie’s tragic finale, chances are you’ll wish to get proper again on the experience instantly. Dependancy is type of like that.

2. The Gambler (1974)

James Toback, who has since been hit with allegations of all kinds of problematic behavior, based mostly his screenplay on his personal playing dependancy, however what’s nice about The Gambler — the 1974 James Caan model, clearly, not the 2014 Mark Wahlberg one — is that the title character is much less obsessive about playing than he’s with hazard, even self-destruction. His Axel makes bets merely to dig himself deeper and deeper into hassle, even arguing that, for him, the enjoyable of betting is dropping. That’s a deadly scenario for a gambler, to say the least, however Caan sells us on Axel’s determined chase for the subsequent rush. Axel isn’t betting on basketball: He’s enjoying Russian roulette.

1. California Split (1974)

The story goes that Robert Altman despatched Elliot Gould the screenplay to California Cut up, hoping he’d play Charlie, a gambler who befriends fellow gambler Invoice (George Segal). “I’ve always wanted to play this guy,” Gould advised the director, to which Altman replied, “You are this guy.” Hopefully not — Charlie’s dependancy is fairly extreme — however the actor exuded his laid-back allure to fantastic impact whereas working with Segal, who wasn’t that considering playing. And but the 2 males’s rakish allure, in one of many excessive watermarks of ’70s hangout cinema, makes this not only a nice buddy film however a ravishing exploration of boys-will-be-boys friendship. And, after all, there’s an entire lot of playing, which Altman movies with informal mastery, letting us listen in on the bizarre characters and harmful oddballs who populate that world. California Cut up stays maybe the director’s most underrated basic — and its gut-punch ending is so muted, but so excellent.

Grierson & Leitch write in regards to the motion pictures repeatedly and host a podcast on film. Comply with them on Twitter or go to their site.


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