53: FAST TIMES AT RIDGEMONT HIGH 
DIR: Amy Heckerling
In 1982, three raunchy American teen comedies came out. Porkys was ribald, and held the promise of loads of nudity, The Last American Virgin - while interesting - never quite reconciled its comedic first and dramatic second halves, but Fast Times at Ridgemont High got it just right. The backstory is quite famous now. Aged 22, Caameron Crowe, then a journalist for Rolling Stone, returned to high school for a year to research a novel. That novel (notes for which were often taken, apparently, during frequent bathroom breaks at parties) became Crowe's first screenplay, and fortunately for Crowe and debuting director Amy Heckerling it came to Hollywood just when a glut of young talent was also arriving.
Fast Times at Ridgemont High IS the 80's, aside from the brat packers, everyone is in it. Sean Penn, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Judge Reinhold, Phoebe Cates, Nicolas Cage, Eric Stoltz, Forrest Whitaker, Amanda Wyss and Anthony Edwards are all familiar names, and then the cast is filled out by 'oh, it's THAT guy' actors like Scott Thomson, Robert Romanus, Brian Backer, Ray Walston and Vincent Schiavelli. It's a great cast, and it's easy to see why such talent gravitated towards the film (well, leaving aside the ever present need of young actors to no longer be living on their best friend's floor), because the screenplay gives them all sharply defined (even archetypal in some cases) characters, and fantastic dialogue, as well as an effective mix of comedy and drama to play. That's perhaps why it's such a joy to watch, because you can see how much fun everyone is having, how much they are enjoying these characters and these words.
This is especially true of the two leads. Sean Penn is now known as an incredibly intense and serious dramatic actor, but here, in his first really significant role, he's playing Jeff Spicoli; the stoned surfer dude that every stoned surfer dude since, in movies or otherwise, has to live up to. He brought his customary intensity to the set; insisting that everyone call him Spicoli, even when they called him at home, but his on screen performance is totally relaxed, and hilariously funny (perhaps more so now, viewed through the prism of 30 years of absolute seriousness). His rivalry with Ray Walston's authoritarian history teacher Mr Hand is the comedic gift that just keeps on giving from the beginning of the film ("You DICK") to the end ("What Jefferson was saying was, Hey! You know, we left this England place 'cause it was bogus; so if we don't get some cool rules ourselves - pronto - we'll just be bogus too! Get it?"). And then there is Jennifer Jason Leigh, also in her first really significant role. Ever the method actress, Leigh got a job at the exact pizza place where her character works, and worked there for a month between getting the part and filming. She doesn't so much act Stacy - the most challenging role in the film, as she has the most happen to her, and does the most growing up in the course of the story - as become her. She does this so completely that, when reviewing the film, Roger Ebert asked; 'How could they do this to Jennifer Jason Leigh? How could they put such a fresh and cheerful person into such a scuz-pit of a movie?' Now, I'm sure he's right that Leigh is 'fresh and cheerful', but one thing the last 30 years made clear she's not is delicate, or afraid of immersing herself in a scuzzy world for the good of a movie. What Ebert's done here, essentially, is mistake the actress for the character. That is how good she is here.
But I don't want to get too serious here, because Fast Times doesn't get too serious, oh sure, it deals with the trials of being a teenager, from disappointing sex, to shitty McJobs, from awkward dates, to break ups and even to abortion, but for the most part it deals with everything with a smile on its face and a really good joke not more than a minute away. Crowe crafts the dialogue beautifully, but Heckerling's direction often proves equally droll, be it the graffiti she focuses on as Stacy loses her virginity or the comically huge chairs she uses to make Stacy and her nervous date Mark Ratner (Backer) look tiny as they eat together, Heckerling packs the film with fun little visuals. Visually though, there's one thing most people remember from this film. Well, no, two things; Phoebe Cates' twins. Cates (who I wish had kept working after she had a family with Kevin Kline) plays Linda; Stacy's outwardly worldly wise friend, but plays her with the implication that, actually, she's far less experienced and worldly than she portrays herself. Her nude scene, a dream sequence in Brad's (Reinhold) masturbatory fantasy, is the scene that launched a generation on the way to puberty, and in the age of VHS you could hardly rent a copy on which the track stayed sound in that moment.
Fast Times does have an overarching story (two really; Stacy's and Spicoli's) but it is more a film of moments, and that's fine, because actually that's being a teenager; you aren't thinking about the grand overarching scheme of things at 15, you're living from one moment, one experience, to the next. In this respect Fast Times, written as it clearly is, is a good reflection of that time in your life, and while the fashions and the soundtrack (especially the soundtrack, and especially Somebody's Baby) have dated massively, the film itself still feels fresh and relevant as it approaches its 30th birthday. The laughs haven't dated either (I don't want to live in a time when the fact that someone has written Big Hairy Pussy on a bathroom mirror isn't funny) and the performances are strong all round. Among the cameos Vincent Schiavelli's science teacher may be my favourite (his opening line "I just switched to sanca, so, have a heart" is one of the film's biggger laughs), but just about everyone gets their moment to shine here.
I wish there were more American high school movies this good (the last one to get close was perhaps the still underrated 10 Things I Hate About You), but this one remains a real joy and even though my heart sinks every time we hear Somebody's Baby it still makes me laugh, and, actually gets me on an emotional level too, because it's easy to feel, so well written and acted are these characters that you know, and largely like, these people. That's why it's endured, and that's why it's on the list.
Oh, and this...
Mike Damone: First of all Rat, you never let on how much you like a girl. "Oh, Debbie. Hi." Two, you always call the shots. "Kiss me. You won't regret it." Now three, act like wherever you are, that's the place to be. "Isn't this great?" Four, when ordering food, you find out what she wants, then order for the both of you. It's a classy move. "Now, the lady will have the linguini and white clam sauce, and a Coke with no ice." And five, now this is the most important, Rat. When it comes down to making out, whenever possible, put on side one of Led Zeppelin IV.
Businessman: It says one hundred percent guaranteed, you moron!
Brad Hamilton: Mister, if you don't shut up I'm gonna kick one hundred percent of your ass!
Jeff Spicoli: People on 'ludes should not drive!
Jeff Spicoli: Hey, you're ripping my card.
Mr. Hand: Yes.
Jeff Spicoli: Hey bud, what's your problem?
Mr. Hand: No problem at all. I think you know where the front office is.
Jeff Spicoli: [stunned] You dick!
Mike Damone: I can see it all now, this is gonna be just like last summer. You fell in love with that girl at the Fotomat, you bought forty dollars worth of fuckin' film, and you never even talked to her. You don't even own a camera.