Living in Grand Rapids was an interesting time in the 2010s when Michigan had enacted a film tax credit to lure more productions to Michigan. I recall the movie 30 minutes or less shooting at the pizza place around the corner from my home at the time, and having random run-ins with the likes of Aziz Ansari and Danny McBride while going out for dinner. Those were strange times in a small city, but it was (and continues to be) fun to see familiar places on the big screen when Michigan is represented.
While most people are familiar with some of the bigger blockbuster successes of movies made in Detroit like 8 Mile, RoboCop, and Gran Torino, Michigan has a much longer and richer film tradition than most people realize. Let’s look at some of the top film classics coming out of the state of Michigan.
The Obvious Hits
8 Mile. 8 Mile is a movie about the life of a young aspiring rapper struggling to make it in the music scene. The main character, played by hip-hop artist Eminem, navigates the pressures of daily life with his family, friends, and rivals. Despite seemingly insurmountable obstacles, he never gives up on his dreams, using his skills and talents to rise above all challenges. Ultimately, 8 Mile is a story of resilience and determination in the face of adversity. It’s an inspiring movie that has become a modern classic.
Gran Torino. Gran Torino is a movie about a Korean War vet who befriends his Hmong neighbors. The movie starts with Clint Eastwood’s character, Walt Kowalski, being grumpy and racist towards his Hmong neighbors. However, over time he begins to understand them and their culture better. He eventually comes to respect and care for them, even helping them out in difficult situations. Gran Torino is a heartwarming movie about understanding and respect.
RoboCop. RoboCop is a science fiction movie set in a turbulent near-future Detroit. The movie follows the journey of Alex Murphy, a police officer who is brutally gunned down in the line of duty and subsequently transformed into RoboCop, a powerful robotic crime fighter. RoboCop has superhuman strength and agility, making him an unstoppable force on the streets. His rampage through the criminal underworld takes him from one explosive encounter to another as he fights to restore justice and protect the innocent citizens of Detroit. As he battles his foes with relentless ferocity, it quickly becomes clear that he may not be able to control the destructive forces within himself.
American Pie. American Pie is the classic coming-of-age movie about a group of high school seniors who embark on a hilarious and memorable journey to lose their virginity before prom. Set in 1990s America, the movie perfectly captures the unique energy of that era, from the popular music and fashion to the attitudes and anxieties of young people facing the challenges of growing up. Featuring a star-studded cast and plenty of laugh-out-loud moments, American Pie paints an endearing portrait of teenage life as it explores themes like friendship, first love, and exploring your boundaries.
Semi-Pro. Will Ferrell stars in Semi-Pro, a sports comedy set in the 1970s. Ferrell plays Jackie Moon, the owner, coach, and star player of the Flint Tropics, a basketball team in the fictional American Basketball Association (ABA). The movie follows Moon’s efforts to keep the Tropics afloat as the ABA merged with the National Basketball Association (NBA). Along the way, Moon must contend with a rival coach, played by Woody Harrelson, and an uncooperative GM, played by Andre 3000. Semi-Pro is a funny and entertaining movie that will appeal to fans of Ferrell’s previous work.
Under the Radar Movies Set/Made in Michigan
Yes, there’s some disparity in this list between what was made (or partially made) in Michigan versus movies that were set in Michigan. This past year saw the Amazon movie “Don’t Look Up” supposedly set in Lansing, but having lived in Lansing for a decade it became clear very quickly that the scenes supposedly in Lansing weren’t actually shot there. All the same, it was fun getting some Michigan State shout-outs included in the film.
Anyhow, here are a few slightly more under the radar Michigan related flicks that you may want to check out.
Escanaba in da Moonlight. Escanaba in da Moonlight is a movie written, directed, and starred in by Jeff Daniels. The film is about the wild and unpredictable lives of hunters in the remote northern town of Escanaba, Michigan. Set during deer hunting season, the film follows a group of men as they traverse the woods in pursuit of their prey. From bumbling rookie Jeff to gruff veteran Reuben, these characters are drawn into conflict by both the struggles of hunting and their complicated interpersonal relationships. Despite its comedic tone, Escanaba in da Moonlight offers an insightful look at life in a small fishing town, offering deep reflections on faith, family, and community.
Roger & Me. Maybe this should have been listed in the top section of this blog, but I struggle to understand how well-known this film is in modern times. My father was a GM worker in Flint, so this film resonated with me more than most I imagine.
Roger & Me is a groundbreaking documentary film that explores the devastating impact of the automotive industry on the people and communities of Flint, Michigan. Directed by acclaimed filmmaker Michael Moore, this movie follows the story of Roger Smith, then-CEO of General Motors and one of the most powerful men in America, as he grapples with declining sales in the wake of global economic challenges. Drawing on humor and personal anecdotes, Moore highlights how corporate greed has negatively impacted thousands of workers in Flint and other cities across America. Despite its grim subject matter, Roger & Me is ultimately a powerful statement about social justice and an important call to action for a better future.
Paper Lion. Many modern Lions fans probably aren’t aware that MASH alum Alan Alda starred in this 1968 movie that revolves around the Detroit Lions’ preseason. Paper Lion is a movie based on the book by George Plimpton. The movie follows George as he tries out for the Detroit Lions football team. Despite having no experience, George is determined to prove that he can play with the best of them. However, as he quickly discovers, the NFL is a whole different level of competition. Despite his best efforts, George just doesn’t have what it takes to make the cut. While the movie may not be based on a true story, it provides an insight into the world of professional football and the dedication required to make it to the top. For any sports fan, Paper Lion is a must-see.
Grosse Pointe Blank. Grosse Pointe Blank is a movie about a hitman who goes to his high school reunion to kill someone. He reconnects with his old flame, who is now married. The movie is full of action, humor, and romance. It was directed by George Armitage and stars John Cusack, Minnie Driver, and Dan Aykroyd. The movie was released in 1997 and was a box office success. It received positive reviews from critics and was nominated for several awards.
Why Him? While there are only a few scenes taking place in Grand Rapids, this was one of the last major motion pictures with major bloodlines in West Michigan. Why Him? is a 2016 American romantic comedy movie directed by John Hamburg and written by Ian Helfer and Jonah Hill. The movie stars James Franco, Bryan Cranston, Zoey Deutch, Megan Mullally, Griffin Gluck, and Keegan-Michael Key. The movie follows Ned (Cranston), an overprotective father who goes to visit his daughter at college, only to discover that she is dating a wealthy older man (Franco). Despite his initial misgivings, Ned eventually comes to accept his daughter’s boyfriend and the two men form a close bond. Why Him? is a funny and heartwarming movie about family, love, and learning to let go.