CHECK IT OUT!
By Nina Heyn, Your Culture Scout
Reading news in the morning and then political or financial commentaries in the afternoon can effectively keep you depressed all day long. So, to cheer everyone up for the holidays, we are offering a list of movies to check out whenever you really feel down, and need a couple of hours of distraction.
The first requirement was some sort of a happy ending — The aliens get chased away, the village is saved, the diamonds are found, the president gets impeached. You get the drift. These are the films to make you feel good, no matter the story. Pure escapism.
The second requirement was artistic quality – A perfect script, smart jokes, and superb acting, stunts and choreography. We chose mostly older movies, since they are more likely to have been forgotten by now. Many titles on this list are the best films of their decade: sometimes foreign, often award-winners, and mostly directed by filmmakers who are considered masters. Low-brow comedies and violent gore were excluded, no matter how successful they were.
This is the Food for the Soul section, and we are going for upscale entertainment here, folks. This list is different from what a typical fan-list would be, but we are reaching for a bit of intellectual snobbery here, while still having all the fun.
Will Smith wakes up to an alien ship the size of a mountain range landing behind his house in Los Angeles. Things go wild from there. Jeff Goldblum has to get to the White House in time to tell the President how to disable an alien ship, Area 51 turns out to be everything we thought it was, and Smith says “Welcome to Earth” after slugging a slimy ET. This is how disaster movies should be made, and usually aren’t. An absolute masterpiece, and a guaranteed distraction.
MR. & MRS. SMITH (2005)
If you are a fan of Brad Pitt’s aw-shucks charm and comedic timing, this is an action romcom to watch. Pitt and Angelina Jolie star as a pair of assassins who are married, but not aware of each other’s occupations. Soon, the battle of the sexes ensues, the highlight being a marital spat during a high-speed chase. Brad and Angelina were falling in love in this movie, which translated to charged love scenes and seductive glances onscreen.
RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK (1981)
Steven Spielberg’s first (and arguably best) Indy movie. Harrison Ford is a ‘hands-on’ archeologist, who roams the world from Nepal to Egypt on a quest to find the Ark while evading Nazis. Every scene is staged to perfection, dangers and plot twists pile up in delightful succession. The casting of both the good guys and villains is perfect here. Even the monkey delivers an excellent performance.
SHERLOCK HOLMES (2009)
A breath of fresh air amidst countless stodgy cape-and-pipe adaptations about the most famous detective in the world and his sidekick. Robert Downey Jr. as Holmes and Jude Law as Dr. Watson are cast to bring street-smarts, energy and a modern point of view to this action-driven adventure movie. The two sequels are equally entertaining.
DIE HARD (1988)
It does feel like the 1980s movie a bit (when terrorists were vaguely-accented Europeans and California was overrun by Japanese industrialists), but the yarn is good and Bruce Willis delivers as a no-holds-barred NYPD officer who suddenly finds himself in a hostage situation while visiting LA. He becomes a one-man SWAT team when his wife and a few others are taken hostage by a German terrorist during an office Christmas party. The success of this movie resulted in sequels, as well as many copycat stories, but the original film still is the most fun.
THREE DAYS OF THE CONDOR (1975)
Robert Redford is a bookish CIA researcher who comes back from a lunch break to find all his co-workers assassinated, and who has to outwit his pursuers while trying to figure out what happened. Faye Dunaway and Max von Sydow co-star in this game of cat-and-mouse, with Big Brother looming in the background.
SEVEN SAMURAI (1954)
If you want to cross “watch an arthouse movie” off your bucket list, but you don’t want to torture yourself with a depressing Bergman oeuvre, this movie will fit the bill. Japanese master Akira Kurosawa created many great dramas, but they often have dark, Shakespearean-scale dimensions. This movie is a drama, but a very uplifting, adventure-filled one. The premise is of a bunch of ragtag warriors, from a master-less samurai to a village boy, who try to save a village from plundering bandits. There are incredible character studies, every shot is composed to perfection, and Toshiro Mifune is in the role of a lifetime.
THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN (1960)
This the old b/w version, not the 2016 one. Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai was remade as a western and it is as perfect as the Japanese original. Steve McQueen, Yul Brynner, Charles Bronson, James Coburn star in this tale of lonely gunmen banding together to save a village, simply because this is the right thing to do. Like some other good ol’ westerns, e.g. High Noon and Rio Bravo, it is more of a morality tale than a straight-up shoot-out.
LOVE ACTUALLY (2003)
Interwoven tales of eight London couples dealing with their love-related problems during a frantic pre-Christmas month. Although there is a lot of sentimentality, and it is certainly a Christmas-card fantasy of real life, it is a great holiday romantic comedy. The best tale, in our opinion, is the one with Hugh Grant as the British Prime Minister dancing in No. 10 Downing Street.
THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY (1966)
Two gunmen form a distrustful alliance against a third man in their treasure-hunt for gold buried in a Far West cemetery. It is the story of greed, betrayal, and disillusionment against the dramatic background of the Civil War, and includes some classic western shootouts. Clint Eastwood was, at the time, an unknown American actor who filmed a few “westerns” for director Sergio Leone. This one and his earlier movies, A Fistful of Dollars and For a Few Dollars More, catapulted Eastwood to Hollywood stardom, gave us the unforgettable score by Ennio Morricone, and created a modern, dark, western style later copied by Quentin Tarantino and others.
CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON (2000)
Director Ang Lee’s drama about a stolen sword, female and male martial-arts warriors, and supernatural adventures in faraway lands. Chinese-language superstars Chow Yun Fat, Michelle Yeoh and Zhang Zi Yi star in this highest-grossing foreign-language film in the US. Stunning martial- arts fights in the air, lush landscapes, and exciting battle scenes.
THE DAY OF THE JACKAL (1973)
An oldie but a goodie. After numerous attempts to kill French President De Gaulle have failed, a professional assassin (Edward Fox) is hired. His meticulous preparations and utter cold-blooded competence place him always one step ahead of the police trying to uncover the plot. Many subsequent assassination thrillers have borrowed from this movie, such as the Bourne series.
OCEAN’S ELEVEN (2001)
This remake of the 1960 classic was famous from the beginning for bringing together so many favorite stars of the time: Brad Pitt, George Clooney, Matt Damon, Andy Garcia, Don Cheadle, Elliott Gould, and Julia Roberts. This Las Vegas casino-heist caper is full of funny lines, clever plot twists, and plenty of dramatic tension. If you enjoy this tale of lovable criminals, sequels include Ocean’s Twelve, Ocean’s Thirteen, and the upcoming Ocean’s Eight (featuring an all- female cast).
This is a category unto itself. If you love incredible martial-arts scenes and stars doing their own stunts, Jackie is an unsurpassed source of joy. His American movies are quite well-known, from the Rush Hour series to Shanghai Knights. Here are a few that were made for his Asian audiences, and are comedy and martial-arts classics in their own right.
An absolute hit in its native France, and generally beloved by audiences worldwide, this is the tearjerker story of a man who is hired as the attendant of a paralyzed Parisian aristocrat. The two men are completely incompatible at first, but the caregiver’s sheer energy, common sense, and unconventional methods carry them towards mutual respect and friendship.
THE RETURN OF THE PINK PANTHER (1975)
The famous Pink Panther diamond has been stolen again! Inspector Clouseau must solve the crime while evading the traps of his manservant Cato (Burt Kwouk), as well as the revenge of his boss, Inspector Dreyfuss (Herbert Lom). English actor Peter Sellers created the inimitable persona of the bumbling French Inspector Clouseau in several Pink Panther movies. This one is often considered the funniest, with its absurd humor, slapstick, wordplay, as well as the sweet innocence of Seventies films.
SOME LIKE IT HOT (1959)
Two out-of-work jazz musicians hide from gangsters amongst an all-female band performing at a Florida hotel (with the famous Coronado hotel in California serving as the main filming location). The two men disguise themselves as women, and become best buddies with a gorgeous ukulele player who never suspects a thing. With Marilyn Monroe at her sweetest, Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis at their zaniest, this comedy-of-errors is a total masterpiece. Two hours of pure, happy cinema.
MONTY PYTHON AND THE HOLY GRAIL (1975)
This film, along with Life of Brian (1970), are considered the best representation of Monty Python’s absurd British humor, through poking fun of established stories and dogmas… And the tiny production budgets of the UK film industry. Both movies are shot with a deliberate theatricality – Actors declare their lines with deadpan expressions rather than deliver realistic speeches – But it is a veritable goldmine of quotable scenes.
Holy Grail is on its face the story of King Arthur and his Camelot companions searching for the titular object, but since we also have discussions on the origin of coconuts, the utility of shrubberies, and murderous bunnies, it is obvious we are in the realm of the absurd.
Life of Brian, a story of a man who was born in Nazareth one stable over from the important one, is a satire on everything from mob hysteria to bad movies about antiquity. The Monty Python comedians lampoon everything they can think of with joyful, surrealist abandon.
TRADING PLACES (1983)
Eddie Murphy as a NY street hustler and Dan Aykroyd as a self-important broker are forced to switch lives, which opens their eyes as to how the other half lives, while providing lots of laughs for the audience. Jamie Lee Curtis as a Swedish backpacker is priceless, but there is also an unforgettable man in a gorilla suit, two bickering millionaire villains, and the best one-liners of Eddie Murphy this side of Shrek.
FOUR WEDDINGS AND A FUNERAL (1994)
A group of friends goes through five social occasions (hence the title), while one of them, a confirmed bachelor (Hugh Grant), discovers he does not really want to be single. The movie was a revelation when it came out, with a bunch of young actors (Hugh Grant, Kristin Scott Thomas, Andie McDowell, John Hannah) exuding charm, energy and self-depreciating humor in this modern comedy of mismatched romantic pairings.
A very old, zany comedy that always comes to mind whenever there is turbulence on a flight. Safely on a ground, there is a lot to enjoy in this disaster-movie spoof about an ex-pilot (Leslie Nielsen) who must land an airliner when the crew suddenly becomes incapacitated.
MRS DOUBTFIRE (1993) MRS DOUBTFIRE (1993)
Robin Williams plays an out-of-work actor who pretends to be a female housekeeper in order to be closer to his kids after a messy divorce. In one memorable scene, he manages to set both the kitchen, and his false breasts, on fire. A tour-de-force performance by Williams, a true master of voices and off-the-cuff hilarity.
THE DISCREET CHARM OF THE BOURGEOISIE (1972)
A leader in surrealist art, Director Louis Buñuel was the darling of European cinema in the 1960 and 1970s. His films were at turns fascinating and outraging. These days, they feel more intriguing and artistic, but they are still very unique. This movie is a no-holds-barred satire about middle-class life, and where all social norms are turned upside-down. This is a rare opportunity to see a surrealist work of art and get a laugh at the same time.
ROMANCING THE STONE (1984)
Michael Douglas, Danny de Vito and Kathleen Turner are lost in a Colombian jungle with alligators and a drug cartel, on a quest for emeralds. Enough said – Two hours of hilarious one-liners, romance, lush vegetation and exotic adventures.
THE BIRDCAGE (1996)
A remake of the original French movie La Cage Aux Folles: A gay cabaret owner and his drag-queen partner stage their household as a respectable, straight environment in order to help their son with an introduction to his fiancée’s conservative parents. Robin Williams, Nathan Lane, Gene Hackman, Dianne West all make it a great romp.
A story of the difficult transition from silent movies to talkies which left a lot of stars in the dust, but also created opportunities for a new triple-threat generation. A classic of classics – Gene Kelly and Debbie Reynolds sing and dance in impeccably choreographed scenes, and the film is considered the number-one musical of all time.
LES DEMOISELLES DE ROCHEFORT (1967)
This was the European equivalent of Hollywood musicals – Everyone admired the young and sweet Catherine Deneuve, who later moved on to dramatic movies (from Buñuel’s surrealist Belle de Jour to Tony Scott’s horror The Hunger). Her sister Françoise Dorleac, George Chakiris and Gene Kelly co-star.
MARY POPPINS (1964)
Disney’s live-action classic, with Julie Andrews singing and dancing her way through the role of a magical nanny, and with Dick van Dyke co-starring as a charismatic chimney-sweep. Kids will love it, of course, but adults will find it hard to resist the charm of a “spoonful of sugar.”
LA LA LAND (2016)
A jazz pianist and an aspiring actress fall in love while trying to get their respective careers off the ground. Last year’s Academy Awards winner in several categories, and tangible proof that the art of a musical is alive and well. There is a daring opening sequence on an LA freeway, shot as one continuous take of a group of commuters stuck in traffic, abandoning their cars for a moment to sing and dance their hearts out. The city of Los Angeles is one of the stars of this film, showcasing delightfully pink skies and breathtaking views from the Griffith Observatory.
These days, there are countless movies about aliens landing on Earth (Men In Black, The Arrival, War of the Worlds), but this was the first modern (and believable) imagining of an encounter of civilizations. Richard Dreyfus stars as a modern-day Everyman on an odyssey to meet messengers from another planet. Director Steven Spielberg was at the height of his creative power when he breathed life into his vision of mankind’s ultimate adventure. There are great special-effects, a timeless message of peace and cooperation, and a race against a military conspiracy.
THE PRINCESS BRIDE (1987)
A tale for kids and adults to watch together, replete with monsters, giants, wizards, knights, and princesses. It starts as just a bedtime story, but is soon derailed into a delightful, tongue-in-cheek romp through literary references adults are more likely to catch. Starring Cary Elwes, Robin Wright, Robin Williams, Christopher Guest. Features the famous line: “My name is Inigo Montoya, you killed my father, prepare to die!”
HARRY POTTER AND THE SORCERER’S STONE (2001)
The first and maybe the most charming installment of the beloved series about The-Boy-Who- Lived fighting He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named. The beginning of the magical adventures of Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) and his friends at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, amongst moving staircases, exploding willow trees, house-elves, and scary goblins. The sequels get progressively darker as the characters age, but are still immensely satisfying as all-ages entertainment.
The story of a smart piglet who narrowly avoids becoming dinner by showing off his exceptional herding skills. Again, it seems like just a story for kids, but it has a lot of grown-up references to appeal to all audiences.
Eighty thousand years ago, a small tribe is trying to survive while migrating in search of food. But when their fire gets accidentally extinguished, they must send out a couple of their warriors in search of a new source. This film has everything – Love, fear, encounters with dangerous animals and hostile tribes, the struggle for survival, and a tale of early mankind. All without one intelligible word. Ignore any bad trailers; the movie itself is great.
UNDER THE TUSCAN SUN (2003)
Diane Lane as a San Francisco writer who moves to Tuscany after a bad divorce, and discovers the joys of Italian living. In this film, we can just sit back and discover it with her. There is a romance with a gorgeous Italian hunk, adventures in house renovation, and Lane’s precise and poised comedic gifts.
PRETTY WOMAN (1990)
The Cinderella story that launched Julia Roberts’ stardom, and made women swoon at a young Richard Gere. Roberts is at her bubbliest and cutest as the proverbial “hooker with a heart of gold”, and whose romance with a tycoon can only lead to a happy ending.
CHARIOTS OF FIRE (1981)
An uplifting true story about two British runners, one Christian and one Jewish, competing in the 1924 Olympics. History, class struggles, and politics, all in one compelling story that made the movie a multiple Oscar winner.
BILLY ELLIOTT (2000)
An improbable way to tackle the unemployment woes in 1990s Britain, and a true passion for art at the same time. Billy (played by Jamie Bell) is an eleven-year-old kid from the wrong side of the tracks in an English coal-mining town in the grips of a protracted strike. His miner father wants Billy to learn boxing, but the boy falls in love with ballet instead. Check out the Swan Lake scene at the end of the movie – It’s exhilarating.
GOOD WILL HUNTING (1997)
A story of two Boston friends, one of whom has an incredible math gift – But it cannot flourish without some help. The movie launched the incredible careers of its screenwriters: Ben Affleck and Matt Damon.
THE KING’S SPEECH (2011)
King George VI (Colin Firth) was not supposed to be a ruler. He was born to be merely brother to the heir to the British throne. But after Edward VIII’s abdication and soon after Hitler comes to power, King George must learn to govern. And a few years later, he will have to help his nation endure the WWII London Blitz. The king is expected to deliver speeches to the nation, while struggling with a major speech problem. So, an Australian speech therapist comes to the rescue. A true and emotional story that resulted in several Oscar wins.
A true story of a remarkable horse that won a Triple Crown (three key US races in the same year) for his female owner, in the days when women were expected to knit and leave men to their cigars after dinner. Beautifully-filmed horse races, and an amazing Depression-era story.
ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN (1976)
Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman star as the two Washington Post reporters whose Watergate reporting brought down President Nixon. Dynamic storytelling, smart screenwriting, and a timely subject make it an excellent political film to watch. Check out this year’s Steven Spielberg-directed movie The Post with Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks – It is a perfect companion film to this one.
SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE (1998)
Will Shakespeare probably never looked as good as Joseph Fiennes does in this tale of an actor whose love life gives him the inspiration for “Romeo and Juliet.” It’s an enchanting historical fantasy which offers a romantic, fan-fiction-style take on the origins of Shakespeare’s most famous play. There are also some great cameos of Ben Affleck as a self-absorbed actor, and Judi Dench as Queen Elizabeth.
KATE AND LEOPOLD (2001)
One of the best romantic comedies of all time. Hugh Jackman is an English aristocrat from the Victorian era, and Meg Ryan is a tough advertising executive in present-day New York. And yet, fate brings them together across space and time, with the two sensibilities and different social graces colliding.
With the help of various sea creatures, a clownfish father goes on a great journey from the Great Barrier Reef to a Sydney dentist’s office in search of his young son. This film is notable for its incredible animation, which takes its cue from real-life denizens of the Pacific Ocean.
Despite the most unlikely pairing of a rat and a restaurant kitchen environment, this is a love-letter to French cooking, and the lovely story about the importance of following one’s dreams. Madcap energy and in the style of old French comedies; an animation masterpiece.
SPIRITED AWAY (2001)
Any Hayao Miyazaki movie is worth seeing, and they all have their own individual cult following This one is about a bratty 10-year-old girl who is magically transported to a world where humans are transformed into beasts and strange spirits frequent a bathhouse. There, she must learn courage, independence, and maturity if she is ever to find her way home. Japanese animation has a different feel and sensibility from that of the typical Hollywood genre, so we highly recommend checking out this unique art-style.
THE LION KING (1999)
There is hardly anybody on the planet who has not seen this film, but it doesn’t make it any less of a classic. After the lion cub Simba loses both his father and his kingdom, he must find his true identity and retake his rightful place on the throne.