Not feeling the holiday spirit? Here’s the first of a dozen movies and TV shows to help you avoid the season.
Bah, humbug. With Christmas finally arriving this weekend, some of us aren’t feeling the holiday spirit, despite all the efforts of the media and our economy to get us in line. Still, the cold weather and ready supply of DVD’s and Blu-Rays, combined with some long, bleak days off from work, make the next week or so a perfect time to catch up on some movie watching.
This week we’ll profile ten great movies and two superb television series, none of which have a damn thing to do with Christmas, New Year’s, or any of the other reasons to “celebrate.” As always, they’re ranked in no order or importance or quality. Where possible we’ve included trailers or other video clips that were available on YouTube when we looked for them.
Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels (1998) – Say what you will about his later films, Guy Ritchie’s debut feature about bratty gangster wannabes hustling the London underworld remains an irresistible whirlwind of style, violence, and swaggering retro cool. The shaggy plot, about a crooked poker game, two vintage musket rifles and a strain of greenhouse grown super-pot, is almost incidental to the brazen energy and gritty atmosphere. The film’s ugly, smart, witty, and honest – all the things Christmas ain’t.
The great cast of (then-) up and coming actors includes Jason Statham, Jason Flemyng, Nick Moran and Vinnie Jones, but it’s Lenny McLean who frequently steals the show as mob enforcer Barry the Baptist.
The New World (2005) – Terrence Malick’s fourth feature follows the romance between 17th Century lovers John Smith (Colin Farrell) and Pocahontas (Q’orianka Kilcher) as the Virginia colony of Jamestown gets off to a shaky start. Sent on a reconnaissance mission by colony chief Christopher Newport (Christopher Plummer) to look for trade partners among the area’s “naturals,” Smith is capture by a local tribe and sentenced to death until the chief’s daughter saves him. The two fall in deep – if star-crossed – love.
Malick uses the setting and time to explore some of his favorite themes – the moral capacities of the human spirit, mankind’s relation and place within nature, individual will against tightening social norms – and creates a tighter story than 1998′s more expansive (and less cohesive) The Thin Red Line. Farrell is somewhat miscast as the fundamentally restless Smith, but Kilcher, Plummer, and Christian Bale are all just about flawless.
Magnolia (1999) – Paul Thomas Anderson’s sprawling, overreaching saga about interconnected Los Angeles lives at the end of the millennium remains amazing a decade later if only for its sheer audacity and scope. Long, complicated, and at times self-indulgent (the film concludes with a biblical “plague”), Anderson nevertheless keeps things moving by keeping small-scale but taut suspense brewing for all his many characters; some storylines resolve tidily and some don’t, but you have to think a while to determine which ones do which.
The ace cast – the names of which read like a Who’s Who of late-90s talent – keep the events from getting too cumbersome or letting Anderson’s reach exceed his grasp (as it has in both of his films since.) All of that and a career-best performance by Tom Cruise, too.
Ruthless People (1986) – For those who want a snarky holiday, this pitch-dark comedy from the creators of Airplane! showcases both Danny DeVito and Bette Midler’s scene-chewing gusto while still remaining a clever comic thriller.
Fashion marketer Sam Stone (DeVito) plans to murder his wife Barbara (Midler) until she’s kidnapped by a hapless couple (Judge Rheinhold and Helen Slater) that Stone cheated out of millions. But Barbara’s an impossible hostage, and Stone’s attempts to negotiate the ransom demands – the better to provoke the kidnappers into killing her – cause a storm of comic mishaps. Ugly, misanthropic, and shrill but quotably funny, it’s the right movie for the day after Christmas.
Night and the City (1950) American grifter Harry Fabian (Richard Widmark) moves through the post-war London underworld scheming to get out from beneath his employer’s (Francis L. Sullivan) iron grip. Pulled into his tragic plans are his kind girlfriend (Gene Tierney), an ageing champion wrestler (Stanislaus Zbyszko) and his employer’s wife (Googie Withers).
Noir auteur Jules Dassin (Brute Force) adapts Gerald Kersh’s novel by making London’s underbelly both the film’s antagonist and its explanation for the desperation of its inhabitants. Widmark is criminally underrated as a leading man, and he’s at his best here. The downbeat ending remains as haunting as any story put to film.
Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip (2006) – dismissed as an epic white elephant by critics and media virtually upon its debut, Aaron Sorkin’s follow-up to The West Wing easily holds its own against contemporary Emmy-bait fare like Mad Men and Breaking Bad.
When the veteran showrunner (Judd Hirsch) of a Saturday Night Live-like variety show has an on-air meltdown, a newly hired network executive (Amanda Peet) replaces him with the writer-director team (Matthew Perry and Bradley Whitford) fired from the show’s staff several years before. Complicating the teams’ return are the writer’s pious, gorgeous ex-lover (Sarah Paulson) and the wrath of the network chief (Steven Weber) who canned them.
NBC cancelled the big-budget affair after 22 episodes, though lately the DVD box set has reached clearance sale prices. The first half-dozen episodes especially are simply unmissable, as this clip from the pilot illustrates.
We’ll be back later this week with five more films and another late, lamented television series that was long before its time. Thanks for reading.
- Michael Kabel