With the 2020 season in question and the world still in the midst of a pandemic, we’re continuing our series of recommendations of all sorts of things to do at home. Today, we make our second round of movie recommendations.
Help!: The Beatles, like Elvis Presley before them, became movie stars after their music made them unbelievably popular. Their first film, A Hard Day’s Night is a nearly perfect film for what it is. Its follow up, and my personal favorite Beatles film, Help!, is nowhere near perfect. It’s a stoned, slightly discombobulated mess. But it has a certain charm that has me coming back, time and time again.
The film, introduced to me by my dad when I was 4 or 5 years old, is a supremely watchable film, with brilliant musical sequences (especially “You’re Gonna Lose That Girl,” which kicked off a life-long obsession with recording studios) and some silly set pieces, and a lot of good humor and charisma, which makes up for a sometimes nonsensical plot. The Beatles themselves don’t love this film, but having shown it to my kids recently, it holds up. Three generations of Salvatores can’t be wrong.
Knives Out: There’s a timeless quality to a whodunnit, and Knives Out takes that timeless quality, adds in an all-star cast, an engaging score, and the best director working today, and you’ve got something really special. The film is structured in a way that splits the difference between linear and disjointed, relying heavily on flashbacks, with each one revealing more about the various characters and their motivations. Funny, engaging, and unique, Knives Out is one of the most fun movie watching experiences I’ve had in many years.
The Darjeeling Limited: This film is often considered one of the lesser works of Wes Anderson, and that is certainly how I viewed it the first couple of times I saw it. However, it has been on cable a lot lately, and so I’ve found myself catching a few minutes here and there, and it has really grown on me. I’m sure a large part of that is due to the fact that the film, about three brothers still trying to process their father’s death, has a lot more relevance for me since my dad died last year. Not that I see myself, too much, in any of the brothers, but the idea of grief sending me on a trip around the world certainly is relatable.
The film is also specifically tailored to a lot of my interests: I love Indian music, trains, and am obsessed with family dynamics. The Darjeeling Limited may not be as instantly loveable as Rushmore or The Royal Tenenbaums, but fantastic performances, a beautiful setting, and a slow-motion scene of luggage being tossed onto a train to the Kinks’ “Powerman” all lead to a surprisingly rich film.
The Ten: Yesterday, I recommended MTV’s The State, a sketch comedy series from the 90s. The Ten features all 11 cast members of The State (well...10 and a photo of one who couldn’t make it to set) in a sketch film, loosely based on the Ten Commandments. The cast is absurd, with Paul Rudd, Gretchen Mol, Winona Ryder, Justin Theroux, Adam Brody, Liev Schreiber, Famke Janssen and a ton more actors all taking small parts in this absurdist movie. Ever see a story about two guys competing to see who can own more CAT scan machines? How about a woman in love with a ventriloquist’s dummy? What about a surgeon who left an instrument inside a body ‘as a goof?’
If you answered no to any of these questions, you haven’t seen The Ten.
Inside Llewyn Davis: The Coen Brothers make movies that feel incredibly lived in, and Inside Llewyn Davis is so comfortable to slip into that it’s hard to believe the viewer just spends a couple of days with the characters. Everyone in the film (except maybe for Justin Timberlake, who overacts in a particularly Timberlake-ian way) feels like a real person, and the world instantly envelopes you in all of its aspects. It’s hard to watch it and not feel cold, hungry, and desperate.
But it’s not a bummer! Well, not all of it, at least. Another film that the soundtrack elevates from good to great, Inside Llewyn Davis is a period piece, a faux-telling of Dave Von Ronk’s life, and a memorable and funny story of trying to make it as an artist.
Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975): During the last round of recommendations, I included the comedy cult classic Airplane! as one to watch if you’re in the need of a distraction in the form of nonstop laughter (and who isn’t right now?). I recommend Monty Python for a similar experience. If absurd British humor is your thing, there is no better movie than this classic. I struggle to think of a movie my family quotes more often than this one; it’s definitely a rare gem whose timeless humor works across all generations.
Big Hero 6 (2014): For my Disney movie entry for this round, I’m going with another criminally underrated entry in the Disney canon in Big Hero 6. This movie suffers from having a terrible trailer that doesn’t remotely convey what the movie is about, nor how great it is. For that reason, I hadn’t seen it myself until about two or three years ago. But it immediately inserted itself among my favorite Disney films for its warmth, sincerity, and fun. There isn’t a character out there more lovable than Baymax, the affable healthcare companion robot who helps the protagonist Hiro navigate love and loss while also fighting an unexpected villain. Not to mention the soundtrack to this movie is dope.
Parasite (2019): There’s some sort of metaphor in the fact that Parasite was the last movie I saw in theaters before everything went down. But if you haven’t seen the current reigning Best Picture winner, you should. A masterful, sharp, and thrilling social commentary, it explores what people are willing to do when pushed to the brink and how easily our fragile economic and social bubbles can be destroyed. It will make you uncomfortable, but you will be unable to turn away—and you shouldn’t.
Persepolis (2007): Speaking of social commentary, this film based on Marjane Satrapi’s fabulous autobiographical graphic novel follows a young girl growing up in the age of the uprising against the Shah of Iran in the late 1970s. The animation style is very unique—black and white with simplistic shapes—and that adds a layer of intrigue to the film. I can’t recommend both the graphic novel and the film enough, both for the story and the historical context.
Juno (2007): Looking back, I suppose 2007 was a good year in films for me because Juno came out the same year as Persepolis and as someone who was very close to the same age as Juno was in the film when it came out, it definitely resonated with me and remains one of my favorite movies of all time as a result. A star-studded cast featuring Ellen Page, J.K. Simmons, Allison Janney, Michael Cera, Jennifer Garner, and Jason Bateman are all truly wonderful in this film. I would argue that Jason Bateman’s character is more sinister than any superhero villain and I can’t watch Bateman in anything without thinking of Mark Loring from Juno. On its surface, it is a quirky film about teenage pregnancy and its many fallouts, but it’s so much more than that. It’s a story about relationships and what it really means to love another person and make sacrifices for them.
“Look, in my opinion, the best thing you can do is find a person who loves you for exactly what you are. Good mood, bad mood, ugly, pretty, handsome, what have you, the right person is still going to think the sun shines out your ass. That’s the kind of person that’s worth sticking with.” - Mac MacGuff
Bull Durham: In my last recommendation, I talked about my favorite baseball movie, Major League, so it made sense to recommend my second favorite one this time around. This is probably the sports film I quote more than any other, and it includes some of the best baseball-related dialogue I’ve ever heard (“Anything that gets out of here that fast aught to have a damn stewardess on it!”) Many of my favorite quotes are far too vulgar to include here, but the interactions between Nuke and Crash never fails to get a laugh out of me, and their relationship as the hot young prospect and the disgruntled veteran looking for a real shot in the bigs is iconic and endearing. The film really romanticizes the game of baseball, which makes it a good watch if you’re missing the sport and looking to pass the time until it returns. I also agree that there should be a constitutional amendment banning the designated hitter.
Inception: I mentioned in our last recommendation series that I am a huge fan of Christopher Nolan, and I highlighted Memento as my all-time favorite film. This time around, I’ll recommend my second favorite of his movies, Inception. If you’re looking for a real mind-bender, this one will have you hooked and thinking long after the final scene. The film features an all-star class headlined by Leo DiCaprio, who plays a thief who ventures into people’s dreams to steal information by manipulating the subject’s subconscious to his advantage. The film constantly keeps you interested and guessing, and features some of the best visual imagery I’ve seen in recent sci-fi movies. While The Dark Knight rightfully gets a lot of praise, I would argue this is Nolan’s magnum opus. With his new work Tenet coming out soon (I hope!) this would be a great time to catch up on his fantastic back catalog.
Milk: With June representing LGBT Pride Month, it seemed like as good a time as any to talk about Milk, which is one of the best character pieces I’ve ever seen on film. The movie is an autobiographical portrayal of Harvey Milk, the gay rights activist who rises to become the first openly gay elected official in California’s history. His impact on the gay rights movement continues to be felt to this day, and the film certainly does it justice. The performance by Sean Penn as the title character was tremendous and earned him an Oscar for best leading actor. Milk’s story is important and the film does a great job at highlighting the major moments and giving them room to impact the audience.
The Lego Movie: As a child, I loved playing with Legos. When I saw that they were making a Lego movie, I expected it to be a half-assed marketing ploy to sell toys to a younger generation, so I was immediately cynical. However, a number of reviews and Youtube videos praising the film convinced me to give it a shot. The end result was an unexpectedly touching and sincere film with a whole lot of heart, and it has since cemented itself as one of my all-time favorite animated movies. It takes place in a lego world where Emmet (voiced by Chris Pratt) enjoys his generic, cookie-cutter life until he finds out he is the chosen one to foil President Business (voiced by Will Ferrell) and his evil plan. I don’t want to give anything away, but there’s a twist that pops up about two-thirds of the way through that absolutely wrecks me emotionally and really gives this movie an edge on its competitors. The voice cast is an all star team of talent (Nick Offerman, Elizabeth Banks, Channing Tatum, Charlie Day, Alison Brie, Will Arnett, Liam Neeson, etc.) who all have fun with it. It’s not quite Toy Story, but it almost feels like that film’s distant cousin in a good way.
The Truman Show: This is one of those films that had an immediate impact on me at an impressionable young age and, for that reason, will forever be one of my top ten favorite movies. I must have watched this film when I was nine or ten, and I was so engrossed with the ideas it presented that they are forever ingrained in my memory. The film follows Jim Carrey’s Truman Burbank, who is an unsuspecting star of a reality show that is constantly filming his life. All the people in his universe, from birth, have been actors, and the film deals with the effects of the reality that’s been built for him. It’s a thought-provoking film that makes you ponder about your own life and the mechanisms that run it. I’ll admit I’m not always fond of Carrey’s more goofy comedic work, but I absolutely adore this piece, as well as his more serious performances (like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind). Make no mistake, there’s plenty of comedy to be found, but his performance is a lot more grounded and he really makes you invest in the character, just as the viewers in the film invest themselves in Truman. It’s one of the most unique pieces of cinema I’ve ever seen, and I cannot recommend it enough.
The Fantastic Mr. Fox (Disney+): Directed by Wes Anderson this offbeat movie is typical of other Wes Anderson films. George Clooney gives voice to Mr. Fox who is a thief that wreaks havoc on the farms of his human neighbors who, in turn, want to kill him. Based on the book by Roald Dahl, the sly Mr. Fox seeks to outsmart them with the help of Badger (Bill Murray) and his wife Mrs. Fox (Meryl Streep). Deeply funny, this movie is not standard Disney fare but highly entertaining if you are in the mood for trying something different.
Apollo 13 (Amazon Prime): With space exploration back in the news, it is the perfect opportunity to watch this film based on a true story. Apollo 13 was supposed to be a mission to the moon but an explosion damages their ship which triggers Tom Hanks’s famous line “Houston we have a problem.” This movie is fraught with tension as the three astronauts on board deal with problem after problem and have to work with NASA to figure out a way home. This movie is obviously peak Tom Hanks but the true standout is Ed Harris who plays flight director Gene Kranz. Space is endlessly fascinating but inherently dangerous and this movie captures the emotions that surround the two.
O Brother, Where Art Thou (Amazon Prime): During an interview with Jacob deGrom that aired on the Citi Field scoreboard, he was asked what is his favorite movie and he said it was O Brother, Where Art Thou. If that endorsement isn’t enough the soundtrack features a song titled “Man of Constant Sorrow” which is a fitting soundtrack for every deGrom start. It is a Coen Brothers film with music done by T Bone Burnett, and the two combine to come up with a brilliant film based on Homer’s Odyssey that takes place during the Great Depression. George Clooney’s character escapes from a chain gang along with two companions and they travel along the Deep South in the 1930s as escaped convicts. Clooney shows off both his comedic and dramatic acting chops and is supported by an amazing cast that includes John Turturro, Tim Blake Nelson, John Goodman, and Holly Hunter. Check out both the movie and the soundtrack. You won’t be disappointed.
Catch Me If You Can (Amazon Prime): This movie is severely underrated as one of Tom Hanks’s best in my opinion. Based on a true story, he plays a hapless FBI agent who must find and catch Frank Abagnale Jr., played by Leonardo DiCaprio, who is forging checks while posing as a pilot. This movie captures the glamour of flying in the 1960s while just being a fun tale of cat and mouse. This is one of those movies that I have to watch every time it is on and it is absolutely enjoyable every single time.
Three Identical Strangers (Hulu): I’m admittedly a lowly pleb who generally has little interest in watching documentaries - I liken deciding to watch a documentary to being offered a snack and choosing a nutritious handful of nuts - but the true story behind Three Identical Strangers is so insane that it feels like a well-crafted piece of fiction. Without giving away too much, the premise is that three college-age men realize that they are long-lost triplets who have each been adopted by families of differing socioeconomic statuses. It also has the added bonus of taking place in the New York metro area, so people who lived through this time might remember the story. If you don’t know anything about it, I strongly urge that you not read anything else about the film and go in fresh. In fact, forget everything else I just said and watch it immediately.
The Hate U Give (HBO Max): The story centers on a black teenager named Starr (a star-making performance by The Hunger Games’ Amandla Stenberg) who witnesses the police shooting of her unarmed friend. Starr must then deal with the fallout from both her predominantly black neighborhood and her predominantly white private school as she decides whether or not to come forward as a witness. Though the movie is based on a young adult novel, The Hate U Give examines complex themes in smart and sophisticated ways. It would have been far more deserving of a best picture nominee than the insultingly shallow movie that ended up winning the Academy Award that year.
The Hate U Give is currently free to rent on most major streaming services, including HBO Max, Amazon, Google Play, YouTube, iTunes, and Vudu.
Warrior (Hulu): I have no interest in mixed martial arts and this is still one of my favorite sports movies. Carried by a trio of great performances from Joel Edgerton, Tom Hardy, and Nick Nolte (who was nominated for an Academy Award for best supporting actor), Warrior tells the fictional story of two estranged brothers who separately enter an MMA tournament in an attempt to win a life-changing $5 million prize. Though it came out less than a year after the much more popular and successful The Fighter, Warrior covers a lot of the same themes, but in a much more interesting way. You have to suspend disbelief a bit, but the emotional payoffs are worth it.
Blindspotting (HBO Max): The second of at least three 2018 movies about police shootings (the third being Monsters and Men), Blindspotting takes a completely different approach than The Hate U Give. The story focuses on a man named Collin (Hamilton’s Daveed Diggs), who is trying to keep a low profile during his final three days of probation. Things get turned on their head when Collin witnesses an unarmed black man being shot by a white police officer who then covers up the crime. The film features a unique blend of drama with classic buddy comedy elements, and examines racial identity and gentrification. Co-stars Diggs and Rafael Casal spent almost a decade writing Blindspotting, and it’s unfortunately as relevant today as ever.
Bryce Harper is Excited For Baseball (YouTube): Everyone’s favorite “bad little baseball boy” is back in this three-minute instructional video. Bryce Harper (played by the hilarious Dan Klein) takes some time out of his busy day to teach you the basic fundamentals of baseball, including how to run the bases, how to pass time in the outfield, and how to drink from a water fountain. The information is as useful as the comedy is highbrow.