Saturday, March 22, 2008

The Best Movies You (Probably) Never Saw

Every time I have an hour or two to avoid using my noggin for constructive thought and don't feel like braving the elements and/or the denizens of the busiest city in the world, I typically opt for a movie from the comfort of my couch. The problem, of course, is that there are so many films available for viewing -- and my distaste for wasting what little free time I seem to have these days -- that I occasionally spend more time trying to figure out what to watch rather than actually watching it.

Part of the "problem" is the proliferation of standard, old-fashioned DVD's -- with HD-DVD disappearing faster than a client hearing the first sirens warning of a potential bust at a North East DC brothel and Blu-Ray prices climbing like Ashley Dupre's per-hour conjugal visitation fees, a variety of films -- both noteworthy and awful alike -- are available for next to no money.

To wit, worthwhile films like Garden State, Singles, Raging Bull, Goodfellas and The Brothers McMullen are readily available for less than $15 (most of these titles cost something around $8 a piece). Conversely, their Blu-Ray counterparts are all fetching nearly $19.95 on average, if not more. I can accept people wanting to upgrade movies they owned on videotape to DVD's, but for those of us with more than 750 DVD's (I stopped counting awhile back), there's very little reason to upgrade each title to Blu-Ray simply for the sake of keeping current.

Now, considering the fact that a good number of the films I own on regular DVD aren't science-fiction masterpieces or the kinds of movies that enhanced sound, clarity and features will make all that much difference, I don't expect, once I finally plunge into the world of Blu-Ray, to be bothered replacing more than 10% of my discs. Of course, the Star Wars films deserve Blu-Ray upgrades, and several more series -- The Godfather, The Lord Of The Rings, etc. -- merit the extra expense.

However, for now -- before most people have opted for high-definition players from either HD-DVD or Blu-Ray format -- and before companies stop producing standard DVD's -- it's time to consider spending $6 or $7 for a film that would have cost $15 for a ticket.

Therefore, in no particular order, are a ten-spot of films that you should consider clicking "Add To Cart" next time you visit
The Sandlot
Every so often a film poignantly and perfectly captures what it's like to be young and to live for nothing more than living life. Even with the days of our youth long since past, there's nothing wrong with spending an hour or two reminiscing in the form of a great baseball movie that's really about growing up as an awkward, misguided kid. Not all of us had Dennis Leary as a stepfather or a doting Karen Allen as a concerned, overly-protective mother; but anyone who's ever learned about baseball and life on a sandlot or a dusty neighborhood Little League field can enjoy this film and who knows full-well that the biggest insult one could hurl to another is telling him "You play ball like a girl!" And more importantly, anyone who's ever been a kid can find a part of themselves among this group of real-life kids.

· · ·
Garden State
Watching Natalie Portman's uncomfortable, self-conscious performance here against the backdrop of Zach Braff's self-instilled emptiness shows that sometimes two incomplete characters can come together to fill one another's emptiness. While Zach Braff waxes a combination of stupid and silly on Scrubs, his films -- this one specifically -- are, surprisingly, a worthwhile mixture of poignant, real, sad, uplifting and memorable. In addition to those two, the always-awesome Peter Sarsgaard turns in yet another solid performance (see him in "The Center of The World" for another creepy but memorable performance). And while we're talking Garden State, the nice part is the soundtrack is every bit as good as the film itself.

· · ·
Waiting/Just Friends
With Dane Cook being so quickly over-exposed, his turns in "Good Luck Chuck" with Jessica Alba and "Employee of The Month" with Jessica Simpson might be his only shot at big-time Hollywood films. However, for my $0.02, I'd much rather see him in his supporting role in Waiting, a 2005 film starring Ryan Reynolds, Justin Long (the "I'm a Mac" guy) and Anna Faris. Jordan (daughter of Cheryl) Ladd and Luis Guzman, among others, make appearances here as well. This film feels like Office Space meets TGIFridays, and invariably this is the kind of film that people have come to appreciate via the Second Stage, ie home video. The first of these "Second Stage" films was the keeper, Fast Times at Ridgemont High. I'm not suggesting this film was its equal, but Waiting is very much a worthwhile film not just for a first-time viewing but for lots thereafter. And it reminds us not to break the cardinal rule: "Don't fuck with people that handle your food."

Just Friends, another 2005 Ryan Reynolds offering, is nearly as entertaining as Waiting, if a bit less snarky and a more straightforward comedy-love story. What makes this one so worthwhile is Ryan Reynolds, who is great no matter the role. This particular film is no exception; Reynolds is a music company exec whose plane makes an emergency landing near his childhood home in south Jersey in the dead of winter -- and in the heart of Christmas season. The few weeks he spends there, trapped, reliving his childhood and his high-school days, are a cacophony of awkward, hysterical, slapstick and genius.

· · ·
Ash Wednesday
Edward Burns is known for The Brothers McMullen, a worthwhile sub-$10 offering in and of itself. It was a low-budget ensemble piece focusing on three brothers and their lives in their hometown, and it launched the worthwhile career of Ed Burns.

However, 2002's Ash Wednesday -- something a bit different, for Edward Burns, anyway -- is a departure from his usual "my brothers and I are going to drink, whine and complain a bit but everything's going to be better by the end of the movie" thing. This film is more of a solid thriller with the backdrop of he and his brother (Elijah Wood). There's still religious imagery and brotherly comradery, and there's alcohol, but this one's plenty different from the other Burns films. And if you can't find this film, pick up The Groomsmen, another solid offering from Eddie B. from 2006. It's more of the same -- solid, well-crafted, entertaining and really enjoyable. But Ash Wednesday's the black sheep of the litter.

· · ·
Beautiful Girls
Another stop in the perfect ensemble drama-comedy is Beautiful Girls (1996), perhaps one of the best films made over the past twenty years. A bold statement, true, but try as I might, I can't really find anything to dislike about this film.

First, the cast: Timothy Hutton, Uma Thurman, Matt Dillon, Lauren Holly, Michael Rapaport, Annabeth Gish, Martha Plimpton, Rosie O'Donnell, Mira Sorvino...and this film marks the first performance of Natalie Portman's career. Ted Demme managed to catch lightning in a bottle; the film is set in upstate New York against the approaching high-school reunion of a bunch of friends, most of whom seem stuck in a rut of one form or another but mostly of their own design.

There's not much to be said about this film other than it is absolutely perfect for multiple viewings and never gets old or fails to push the viewer's buttons. It's almost like the perfect roast turkey and homemade gravy with mashed potatoes on Thanksgiving. No matter how many times you experience it, it never falls short or fails to hit you somewhere in the center of your chest. And the fact that even Rosie O'Donnell was great in this film says a lot. What also says a lot is this film can be picked up for less than $10, which qualifies it as a bona-fide steal. Run, don't walk...

· · ·
Thank You For Smoking
Aaron Eckhart, Maria Bello, Katie Holmes, Robert Duvall, William H. Macy, Rob Lowe...a farce dedicated to magnifying the hypocrisy of lobbyists in modern American politics, this one set against the backdrop of Big Tobacco.

Aaron Eckhart, who is great in every role he takes on, is Nick Naylor, a high-profile, high-stakes pro-smoking lobbyist who manages to spin everything his way. He takes on his nemesis, William H. Macy, the senior senator from Vermont, and the movie never lifts its foot off the to-the-wall accelerator. It's funny, it's political, it's insightful and it's worth keeping for repeat viewings.

· · ·
John Woo's The Killer
Long before the name John Woo was as much an American household name as the California Roll, John Woo was perfecting the art of Asian crime thrillers. That is to say that his films aren't simply films that focus on crime, death and the art of the double-cross, they combine all those things in a package that is slick, ultra-contrived, incredibly detailed, and for the most part, this film, like many of his other earlier films, is typically described as a grisly ballet of death.

It's hard to describe the film in terms typical to American audiences, in that The Killer incorporates typical, traditional Japanese values (honor, respect) with a combination of almost cartoonish violence (both martial arts and gunplay) with a physical depiction akin to anime (angular camera shots, quick-stop lighting and POV's, etc.). What makes this particular film even more interesting than is typical is the conflict between the paid assassin and the man chasing him; they are diametrically opposed, yet they become almost -- friends. It's somewhat similar to the distended, strained relationship between Al Pacino and Robert DeNiro in Heat, except it's more -- or less -- genuine, depending on what you think of subtitles. This film isn't new (it was originally made in 1989) and it's hard to find on DVD, but if you come across it spend an hour or two. Starring Chow Yun Fat, whose career on these shores was largely established by this film, this is the kind of the film that changed the genre across two continents and, subsequently, the world.

That, and it'll keep you reaching for the popcorn until the last frame fades to black.

· · ·
Clay Pigeons
Each time I run my fingers along the DVD rack to pick out something to watch, I invariably laugh out loud when I reach Old School and/or Wedding Crashers and/or Swingers. Why? Vince Vaughn is easily one of the most entertaining actors of this generation. He's not overly confident but he's more than confident enough on-screen to make you laugh. He single-handedly has managed to share the stage with Snoop Dogg, Jennifer Aniston, Jon Favreau and Owen Wilson. And the word "earmuffs" will never be the same, not to mention he'll be indelibly linked to the phrase "You're so money."

But this film -- starring Vaughn, Joaquin Phoenix and Janeane Garofalo -- is uniquely entertaining much like a bloody but non-fatal car crash. It's a plodding, slowly-told story like Fargo; without giving anything away, it keeps you on your toes and turns you upside down with regularity, and it will stay with you long after your Aunt Connie's legendary meatloaf.

And for $10, it's worth owning in lieu of renting. You might come across it on cable or on TBS, but keep in mind that one day it will cost $25 on Blu-Ray in "Criterion" guise. Definitely worth a look-see or two.

· · ·
Suicide Kings
Christopher Walken manages to steal every movie he's been in since The Dead Zone. Impressively, he managed to take a random afterthought of a film like 1997's True Romance and put it on the map (recall his performance as Dennis Hopper's torturer as Vincenzo Coccotti? If you saw the film you recall it).

In Suicide Kings, Walken plays a mob boss who runs into a bunch of rich kids who get themselves deep into a world in which they have no business being. Suffice to say that Walken, in true form, personifies entertaining, unsettling, captivating and humor all in one compact package, as per his usual. The plot is engaging, the acting solid if not top-notch, and the film is memorable. There's blood, there's laughs, there's grit, there's cruelty, and there's raw emotion all wrapped around an engaging situation that is as unique and cringe-inducing as it is fun. It's almost an American version of a Guy Ritchie film except it's better than that.

And it's only $9 on DVD.

· · ·
The Spanish Prisoner
David Mamet has authored some of the best modern plays you'll come across. His juxtaposition of vulgarity for effect, sharp dialogue for cadence, and tension for plot is peerless. Who can forget Glengarry Glen Ross? There's the gratuitous use of the word "fuck" in Scarface, but if you're going for quality over quantity, you go with Mamet -- anything by Mamet. And for anyone who enjoys hard-edged plot and tension that cracks itself open like a self-boiling egg, it's really hard to do better than Mamet.

In this particular film, however, it's his use of clever plot twist and intriguing characters and not brute force that is so memorable. Even knowing all the answers, this film had to be a fun romp through dialogue and plot twists for its actors, including Campbell Scott, Steve Martin, Ben Gazzarra and Rebecca Pidgeon.

The ins and outs of a Mamet script are legendary, but what makes this one interesting is that so few people know of it; I include Glengarry Glen Ross as one of my all-time favorite films and I would choose it over The Spanish Prisoner. However, the fact that this film is such a little-known gem makes it even more attractive and worthy of inclusion here. It's the kind of movie that will reward you for having expended two or so hours and the energy to figure it out.

It's not as cheap as some of the other films included herein, but if you come aross it -- most likely in a bargain bin somewhere -- don't hesitate.

· · ·

There are more DVD's out there in virtual bargain-bins through the click-and-order world as much as there are DVD's stacked twenty-high in the brick-and-mortar world. It's your job to go find them; sure, you could run right out and grab a handy-dandy Blu-Ray player (they do play standard DVD's, after all), but it seems to me that now that the final nail in the HD-DVD coffin has been hammered home, Blu-Ray prices aren't going to drop for at least six to twelve months. And while we can all admit Blu-Ray is the future, it doesn't need to be the present.

At least not while there are great, worthwhile titles out there for under $10.


PS If there's a film you think should be included here, let me know. If your nomination is worth inclusion, you'll have the satisfaction of knowing you, unlike the rest of your fellow readers, is actually paying attention ;-)

No comments: