Flirting with Disaster (1996)

A devilishly rich character comedy about how being a new parent compels one to explore one’s own roots, David O. Russell’s high-concept rip Flirting with Disaster is packed with unpredictable rhythms, dead-perfect line readings, and hilarious peripheral characters. New dad/adopted schlemiel Ben Stiller wants to find out who his biological parents are; a cross-country journey ensues, in which viewers are treated to frustrated wife Patricia Arquette, chain-smoking social worker Téa Leoni, gay cop couples, a raft of mistaken identities, inadvertent LSD consumption, armpit sex, and the meddlesome hell of Jewish parents Mary Tyler Moore and George Segal. The baby is somewhat secondary to the mind frames of the neurotic father, but the states of parenthood and familial belonging have never been so hilariously besieged. One viewing won’t cut it.

 

Raising Arizona (1987)

Joel and Ethan Coen’s second film, and a wild-eyed, Rube Goldberg riot, as Southern-fool marrieds Nicolas Cage and Holly Hunter, unable to have babies of their own (“Her insides were a rocky place,” Cage’s dopey felon bemoans in an unforgettable narration, “where my seed could find no purchase.”), kidnap one from a set of quintuplets. From there, Raising Arizona is a veritable Road Runner cartoon revolving around the infant’s essentially irresistible baby-ness, and there are enough character-rich hee-haws for ten movies. The urgent matter of getting your hands on some Huggies in the worst of circumstances was never made so thrilling.

3 Godfathers (1948)

 

3 Godfathers
3 Godfathers (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

The template for the “bachelors find themselves raising an infant” comedies of later years, this John Ford western is actually pretty emotional and defiant of expectations, what with John Wayne as a self-pitying leader of a band of bank robbers (which also includes Pedro Armendariz and Harry Carey Jr.), the last act’s desert walk of death, and Ward Bond’s humane lawman. Made a decade after Stella Dallas, that ode to maternal martyrdom, this might well be the first American film that’s centered on the paternal sacrifice for the future of a gurgling newborn. Ignore the canned New Testament parallels and invocations if you can

 

Being John Malkovich (1999)

Perhaps the closest a Hollywood movie has ever gotten—and probably will ever get—to the free-associative shotgun spray of Salvador Dali’s and Luis Buñuel’s Un Chien Andalou, this first film by the team of director Spike Jonze and screenwriter Charlie Kaufman is an ingenious, incredibly entertaining, Rorschach blot of a metacomedy.  The primary metaphoric vehicle of Being John Malkovich is a mysterious, slimy tunnel that leads directly from a small door in an obsolete office building into the consciousness of actor John Malkovich. After fifteen minutes spent in Malkovich’s head, however, tunnel travelers are interdimensionally chucked out onto the shoulder of the New Jersey Turnpike, but the orgasmic thrill of living inside Malkovich’s skull  spurs the characters (including office clerk and formerly unemployed puppeteer John Cusack, his frumpy—yes, frumpy—wife, Cameron Diaz, and sultry business chick Catherine Keener) to repeat the experience and steer Malkovich’s actions into fulfilling their sexual fantasies.  Charlie Sheen shows up, as himself, blabbering about “hot lesbian witches!”

Being John Malkovich
Being John Malkovich (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Little Big Man (1970)

Director Arthur Penn (of 1967’s Bonnie and Clyde fame) was never a subtle craftsman, and this shticky yet intelligent rendition of Thomas Berger’s big, absurdist farce Little Big Man fit him like a glove. Dustin Hoffman plays a 121-year-old man who claims to have been everywhere and witnessed everything, from the death of Wild Bill Hickok to Custer’s Last Stand.

 

Little Big Man (film)
Little Big Man (film) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Great Escape (1963)

This perennially popular World War II POW-camp adventure is the least traumatic war film you can imagine—a precursor to TV’s Hogan’s Heroes, it’s peopled with glib movie stars doing “outwit the Nazis” shtick and exhibiting the Allies’ “we can take it” wherewithal. As you might guess, The Great Escape is not an emotionally demanding film: Steve McQueen suffers time in solitary with a mitt and baseball, James Garner manages to scrounge everything but the kitchen sink in the middle of nowhere, Charles Bronson’s “Tunnel King” digs toward the fences despite his claustrophobia, and so on.

 

Laura (1944)

The chattiest, dreamiest, and wittiest of noir mysteries, Otto Preminger’s Laura begins with a murder and a romance—cool cop Dana Andrews falls for the dead woman, personified by Gene Tierney’s wall portrait. Then Tierney’s heroine walks in from a weekend away, and no one’s sure who the body belongs to. All in all, the film is virtually owned by Clifton Webb, the feyest and most acidic character actor of the 1940s.

Laura (1944 film)
Laura (1944 film) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Kings of Summer (2013)

Yet another disaffected-teen indie but one loaded to the brim with energetic personality, comic timing, bizarre non sequiturs and raw script wit. Two high school buddies with generational problems – motherless Joe (Nick Robinson) has commanding widower Nick Offerman dishing him sarcastic shit every day, while Patrick (Gabriel Basso) endures hilariously overripe helicopter parents (Megan Mullally and Marc Evan Jackson) – discover a patch of forgotten woods, and decide, with a third kid, the cryptic weirdo Biaggio (Moises Arias), to run away, build a makeshift house in the secret glade, and “live off the land,” more or less forever. The dissection of The Outsiders mythology is deft, and there’s no denying the film’s blast of nonstop drollery (even a running gag about the largest Chinese takeout dumplings on Earth keeps paying off) or verdant hang-out aura.

Berberian Sound Studio (2012)

Peter Strickland‘s seething and self-conscious Berberian Sound Studio offers a dynamic that’s impossible to resist: being trapped in a Kafkaesque netherworld of vintage Euro-genre film post-production. It’s Italy in 1976, in that post-dubbing-crazed industry’s seediest foley studio, where Toby Jones, as a shy British sound engineer, is imported to fabricate the soundtrack for what seems to be an absurdly gory Dario Argento-ish giallo. We never see the film in question, but only hear it, as a thousand cabbages and melons are decimated with knives and sledgehammers, and as the brittle Gilderoy finds himself lost in whimsical Italian bureaucracy and appalled by the bloody mayhem on the screen. His strained subjectivity takes over, and the two films he’s “in” cross-fertilize each other – until there’s almost no film left.

Caché (2005)

Michael Haneke’s quasi-metaphysical domestic thriller, in which a bobo French couple (Daniel Auteuil and Juliette Binoche) become victims, shall we say, of history’s own surveillance. Caché is a masterpiece that grows in your head long after you see it—but pay attention.

JFK (1991)

Maybe this Oliver Stone blitz should be listed under “Election Day” (although that may depend on your political predilections), but it’s also one of our modern era’s most convincing paranoiac screeds. Much of JFK —which revolves primarily around actors like Kevin Costner acting out one of several semi-possible conspiracy scenarios regarding the events that occurred in Dealey Plaza on November 22, 1963—is questionable, but just as much is not. At least credit Stone for having the cajones to have Costner’s Jim Garrison, unraveling a plot that reaches straight to Lyndon Johnson, spit the word “facism” during his in-court summation. With Gary Oldman, Tommy Lee Jones, Kevin Bacon, Joe Pesci, and Sissy Spacek.

The Conversation (1974)

Between the Godfathers, Francis Ford Coppola crafted The Conversation, a nerve-racking essay on privacy and surveillance; Gene Hackman is a bugging expert who’s so good at his job that he’s emptied his life rather than be bugged himself. Murder might result from one assignment, sending him on a guilty, destabilized tear—which in turn makes him the subject of the surveillance he’s always dreaded. Indelible. With Harrison Ford.

Lars and the Real Girl (2007)

This strange and irresistible film more or less begins with a Bunuelian idea: a smalltown man (Ryan Gosling), grieving for his dead mother, solves the problem of his lonely neurotic existence by ordering a full-size sex doll and then puts her forward to his family and close-knit Midwest community as his new, wheelchair-bound girlfriend. What comes of that for us is a queasy balance between ghastly comedy and devastating melancholy – we’re never instructed by the movie to react one way or the other about Lars’ blank-eyed insistence on the doll’s humanness, and every shot featuring “Bianca” is a masterpiece of painful farce. But then Lars and the Real Girl becomes something else: the focus imperceptibly shifts away from Lars-as-problematic-protagonist and onto the busily populated neighborhood around him, who for their own reasons accept Lars’ doll as a real person, and end up inadvertently allowing Lars to find an emotional escape hatch out of the impossible corner into which he’s painted himself. It turns out to be one of the most convincing and generous portraits of smalltown American life movies have seen in years, and still a portrait of adult lostness that hurts to think about. With Emily Mortimer and Paul Schneider.

Lars and the Real Girl
Lars and the Real Girl (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

High Fidelity (2000)

In this adaptation of Nick Hornby’s farcically self-pitying novel High Fidelity, John Cusack plays a going-nowhere record store owner and pop-music obsessive who, after his latest relationship collapses, takes the viewer on a tour of his past romances. With Jack Black and Catherine Zeta-Jones.

Cover of "High Fidelity"
Cover of High Fidelity

The Swimmer (1968)

The Swimmer (film)
The Swimmer (film) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The loneliest lonely-man movie ever made, based on what you’d think would be an unfilmable John Cheever short story: Burt Lancaster is a Connecticut family man who, apropos of nothing, appears in a neighbor’s yard and dives into the pool. He proceeds to “swim” a long circuit of his rich neighbors’ pools, “going home,” as he says. The Swimmer is a journey that reveals along the way what the pool-owners already know: that this buoyant, athletic guy has nowhere to go.

Double Indemnity (1944)

Cropped screenshot of title from the trailer f...
Cropped screenshot of title from the trailer for the film Double Indemnity (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The concept of the “femme fatale” was old hat when James M. Cain wrote his vicious thriller Double Indemnity, but (with some help from this film adaptation, which was coscripted by Raymond Chandler and director Billy Wilder) he made the man-eating antiheroine into the dramatis persona of the postwar era.

42 (2013)

The story of Jackie Robinson, the first black player to be brought up into the Major League show in 1947, has a particularly heroic, folkloric glow, and the impulse to cinematize it into an all-American chest-sweller was so strong that Robinson was egged into starring as himself in 1950’s ill-advised The Jackie Robinson Story. That didn’t work out, but although this Spielbergian version isn’t the film Spike Lee had wanted to make for years, 42 tells a necessary story, and reconstitutes a a slew of baseball legends and gives them props, from Chadwick Boseman‘s long-suffering Jackie to Lucas Black‘s egalitarian Pee Wee Reese to Harrison Ford‘s avuncular character turn as Dodgers executive Branch Rickey. The telegraphed nobility, dumb as it is, can warm your baser nerve endings if you let it, which shouldn’t be hard for a fan.

English: Jackie Robinson
English: Jackie Robinson (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Lego Movie (2014)

As the song says, everything is awesome, from the joke visuals to the machine-gun-fire spew of one-liners and textual gags. Transforming Legos from a line of personality-less building blocks into an iconic and lovably hilarious culture staple is just the first of many surprises of The Lego Movie; getting Liam Neeson‘s career performance out of him might be the last. With Chris Pratt, Morgan Freeman, and Elizabeth Banks.

The Wind Rises (2013)

Japanese master animator Hayao Miyazaki ‘s final film, portraying the youth of a flight-obsessed Japanese boy who grows up to design airships and war planes for his country prior to WWII. It doesn’t sound like rich material for poetic animated epipanies, but Miyazaki is a wizard, and the film is a eye-candy elegy for everything lost in life, and the exquisite beauty of ephemeral things. The Wind Rises might also be the single best film ever made about flying and the machines that enable it.

Life of Pi (2012)

Life of Pi
Life of Pi (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Magnetic and fundamental storytelling from director Ang Lee, from the ubiquitous bestseller, Life of Pi leads viewers of every age comfortably through a life-&-death arc (aboard a floating lifeboat, tensely inhabited by a boy and a tiger), all the way from pure survival drama to wondering about the necessity of storytelling and faith. Visually bedazzling, and though the narrated denouement is sort of questionable, as it was in the novel, it may start young gears turning and conversations rolling.

Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009)

Wes Anderson‘s stop-motion terrarium-movie, loosely based on an old Roald Dahl story, is a fast-talking, zesty riot, in which the eponymouse George Clooney-voiced egomaniac hero jeopardizes his tabletop country’s animal denizens by stepping outside of his tamed middle-class life and succumbing to his essential fox-ness. Kids will be dazzled in an analogue kind of way – it’s made of handheld toys more convincingly than the sheeny Toy Story films – and parents will be struck be its grown-up comic timing and the fact that, unlike other films of its kind, Fantastic Mr. Fox is a film that remembers but does not mourn childhood, in all of its cobbled-together, dirt-digging, plan-hatching dizziness. With Meryl Streep.

Fantastic Mr. Fox (film)
Fantastic Mr. Fox (film) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Iron Giant (1999)

The Iron Giant
The Iron Giant (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Adapted from the fantasy tale that poet Ted Hughes wrote for his children after their mother, Sylvia Plath, killed herself, this splendid Brad Bird feature is as visually arresting as it is a potent skewer through 1950s Cold War anxieties and arms-race paranoia. The climax, involving an errant nuclear missile, the naive alien robot of the title, and a single inspiring memory of Superman comic books, is a throat-catching marvel.  The Iron Giant has voices by Jennifer Aniston, Harry Connick, Jr.

Time Bandits (1981)

Time Bandits
Time Bandits (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Ex–Monty Pythonite Terry Gilliam’s second solo feature is a nutty, sui generis fantasy-comedy crack-up about a rebel band of time-traveling dwarves bouncing through history (both documented and completely nonsensical). The rambunctious journey is made possible by a certain time-portal map desired by both the underworldly Evil Genius (David Warner) and the beneficent Supreme Being (Ralph Richardson). With tons of in-jokes, pratfalls, cameos, wondrous fantasy ideas, and Pythonesque surrealism, Time Bandits is quite lovable and inventive in ways that Gilliam’s subsequent films haven’t managed; kudos to John Cleese as a clueless Robin Hood, and David Rappaport as the leader of the pint-sized insurrectionists.

Our Gang/Little Rascals shorts (1929–1938)

Rough-hewn but brilliantly funny and captivatingly spontaneous, these seminal Hal Roach Our Gang/ Little Rascals comedies will be a rapturous flashback for parents who remember seeing them rerun on local TV in the 1970s and early ’80s, but anyone, regardless of age, will find them irresistible. The year span noted here is not arbitrary—after 1938, Spanky McFarland got too close to puberty, and the 1940s shorts were just not in the same class.

English: George McFarland as Spanky in "O...
English: George McFarland as Spanky in “Our Gang Follies of 1938” (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Junebug (2005)

Junebug (film)
Junebug (film) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

An impeccable and eccentric indie for anyone who’s fled small-town life. Going home is often fraught with land mines; here, Alessandro Nivola goes home to his North Carolinan white-trash family, with his new, British art-dealer wife (Embeth Davidtz) in tow. The point of view is hers, however, and the cheap notion that small-town folks are simple doesn’t play here: relationships are complicated and much is left unsaid. Dry and charming, Junebug is lit at its center by Amy Adams, as the huge-hearted pregnant sister-in-law, whose performance netted her an Oscar nomination.