4. The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh (1979). One of the best titles for a movie ever made — it could really only go downhill from here. It’s about a terrible Pittsburgh basketball team that turns to an astrologer for help, and finds that Pisces players (the fish, get it?) hold the key. It’s a fun document of the disco era, where a team of scrappy underdog weirdos (and crude ethnic stereotypes) comes together to boogie their way into the playoffs. Shot at the Civic Arena, “The Fish” collects perhaps the greatest grouping of basketball talent to ever appear in Pittsburgh, including Julius “Dr. J” Erving, Bob Lanier Meadowlark Lemon and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. This movie couldn’t be any more ‘70s if Richard Nixon showed up to personally kick a hippie. Recommendation: Watch, preferably with fondue.
5. Rappin’ (1985). Rap music was still so new in 1985, that even the movie business had no idea how to exploit it yet. This clumsy rap musical is actually a sequel to the immortally-named “Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo.” An ex-con (Mario Van Peebles) returns to Pittsburgh to remove a dangerous element in the old neighborhood … with rap battles! Unfortunately, you can probably dance and rap better than Van Peebles, though his dorky rhymes and moves are kind of endearing in their earnest silliness. Ice-T makes a cameo, showing everyone how it’s really done, and rap-narrates the trailer, which is, um, less successful … with rhymes like: “This movie had to happen/Rappin.’” Recommendation: Watch with the mute button ready.
6. The Last Witch Hunter (2015). Despite looking like a giant thumb, Vin Diesel is kind of the quintessential action hero of the 2010s, all muscles and muttered threats. Diesel plays a stoically immortal warrior here, ready to fight the latest witch infestation because that’s apparently a problem. There’s some interesting worldbuilding here, marred by mediocre special effects that look like cutscenes from forgotten PlayStation 3 games. This movie seems somewhat self-aware of its own ridiculousness, which makes it fun. Oh, and the Catholic Church is involved, with Michael Caine as the witch hunter’s priest assistant, and Elijah Wood as his rookie replacement. Sample dialogue: “There are some very bad things out there.” Recommendation: Watch, but root for the witches.
7. Bloodsucking Pharaohs in Pittsburgh (1991) Though it looks like it was made for the cost of nachos at a Buccos game, this ultra-low-budget, straight-to-video slapstick grade-Z gorefest has its charms, if you like blood and groan-inducing jokes. Horror special effects/Pittsburgh legend Tom Savini (“Dawn of the Dead”) supplied the flesh-ripping, though it’s far from his best work. There’s a serial killer loose who likes to kill prostitutes with various garden implements, and a buddy cop duo tracking him — one of which throws up at the sight of blood. This movie was clearly never intended to be “good,” and isn’t. Recommendation: Watch, with booze and buddies.
8. Inspector Gadget (1999). This was based on a really amusing 1980s cartoon series, with a theme song still stuck in my head from childhood. Matthew Broderick stars as the bumbling, robotically-enhanced detective, with helicopter blades that pop out of his head, and arms that stretch down the street, toothpaste-shooting fingers, and a zillion other gadgets. The special effects are the real star here, though they’re squandered in service of a plot that’s as random and arbitrary as the useless gadgets its star wields, which is about as gripping as the average toy commercial. Look for a cameo from the glass castle turrets of PPG Place, which serve as the big baddie Dr. Claw’s lair. Recommendation: Binge-watch the cartoon instead with the nearest kid.
9. The Mothman Prophecies (2002). A monster movie starring a local (well, West Virginia) urban legend come to life? Sign me up! Oh, wait, it’s just going to be a confused Richard Gere, moping around looking for clues for some kind of man/bird/angel/creature that is somehow connected to premonitions of a future disaster. There’s a story somewhere deep inside here, but it’s funnier and weirder and less of a lugubrious slog than this. The trailer makes it look like a rollercoaster of terror and mystery, but that stuff is harder to find in the movie than credible signings of the actual Mothman. Recommendation: Fall down a Mothman Wikipedia wormhole instead.
10. My Bloody Valentine 3D (2009). Again, another slasher movie that’s not really intended to be “good.” And now you can’t watch it in the format for which it was designed: 3D on a big screen. But this mid-budget horror flick does what it says on the label: lots of gore, nudity (hopefully Betsy Rue got paid big-time), and jump scares that are supposed to come right out of the screen at you. A psycho coal miner goes on a rampage and kills with his pickax, sometimes flinging it at the screen. It’s a remake of an obscure Canadian 1981 slasher flick. Recommendation: Find the original.
11. The Mysteries of Pittsburgh (2008). One of the greatest novels ever made that’s set in Pittsburgh — by Pitt and CMU student Michael Chabon, who would later win the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction — somehow made a pretty terrible movie. In fact, the only thing memorable about it at all is the presence of Sienna Miller, whose snooty disdain for the city (calling it “shitsburgh” in Rolling Stone) and desire to be somewhere, anywhere more glamorous rubbed Pittsburghers the wrong way, unsurprisingly. Recommendation: Watch only with Sienna Miller.
12. White Noise (2005). Michael Keaton is a terrific actor, a Pittsburgh icon, and still the best Batman. However, I had the distinctively weird experience of watching this movie in a theater surrounded by Michael Keaton’s extended family … while this nonsensical, supernatural, horror flick lumbered on. When it was over, everyone filed out in embarrassed silence. It got a 7% on Rotten Tomatoes, which is pretty close to the worst you can get. Recommendation: Don’t watch with Michael Keaton’s family.
13. Sorority Row (2009). You know the drill: Hot sorority girls who like to party and get naked, do a bad thing, and get paid back tenfold by a stalker with a tire iron. Honestly, I get this one mixed up with “My Bloody Valentine 3D” all the time. If there’s one highlight here, it’s Carrie Fisher as a shotgun-toting housemother who taunts the killer by shouting, “Come to mama!” Recommendation: Serious gorehounds only.
14. Houseguest (1995). A fish out of water comedy that should be thrown back in the Mon. I had a friend who was an extra in this, so we talked about it a lot. Sinbad was a thing at one time, though I can’t remember why. Phil Hartman, who had a good run on “Saturday Night Live” is a rich Sewickley lawyer, and Sinbad is a streetwise con man, who gets in trouble with the mob and seizes an (pretty stupid) opportunity of mistaken identity to ingratiate himself into the lawyer’s troubled household. The catch is that he has to pretend to be a wildly successful dentist, which leads to some quality slapstick, but laughs are scattered sparingly on the ground here. Recommendation: Watch if there’s literally nothing else.
15. I Was a Communist for the FBI (1951). Political divisions right now may be the worst they’ve been in decades — but even the supposedly idyllic post-war 1950s was no picnic. This McCarthy-era anti-Communist propaganda film unintentionally illustrates the Red Scare paranoia of the era perfectly, as a Pittsburgh steel mill worker goes into deep cover infiltrating the Communist Party for the FBI. His family doesn’t even know what he’s up to, and thinks he’s a rotten commie. The Communists are standard-issue heavies, interested only in seizing power and cynically exploiting ethnic tensions — like wrapping a lead pipe in Jewish newspapers to beat people during a strike. The hero eventually testifies before the House Committee on Un-American Activities to expose the Communists. In fact, this movie likely exists because Hollywood was trying to get back in the good graces of the government after hearings about suspected Communist sympathizers in the movie business wrecked hundreds of brilliant careers (leading to the Hollywood blacklist). Recommendation: Nah. If you want unsubstantiated, nonsensical accusations of “Communism!” you have a number of cable news channels to choose from.