The holidays are my busy season for movies. Not that I actually leave the house. That’s crazy talk. There are plenty of other options these days. I’m not hopelessly old-school about everything.
The Hunger Games (2012). Young adults deserve better than two-dimensional charactersdesigned for the sole purpose of manipulating the audience’s emotions, plot devices that basically allowed the creators to do whatever they want, and technologically created firestorms and hellhounds. All that was missing were the Fire Swamp and Rodents of Unusual Size. Adding insult to injury, at the end you realize it’s not a movie, it’s an episode. (Yes, I know about the sequels. Usually the first one is supposed to at least pretend to be a standalone. Think Star Wars.) Jennifer Lawrence, an actress who deserves all her accolades, plays essentially the same character she played in Winter’s Bone, except that movie actually made sense. I realize I’m not the target audience for this franchise, and I’m delighted.
The Gambler (2014) Good, but after sleeping on it not as good as the sum of its parts. Theacting is uniformly excellent, notably John Goodman. (When are people going to recognize he’s one of the great actors of his generation?) Mark Wahlberg is as believable as possible in a tough role, as a man so self-destructive he only bets ever everything at a time. The college scenes are well done, the film is stylish, but one gets to the end and wonders what we were supposed to take away here.
A Christmas Story (1983) The annual viewing with The Beloved Spouse. It’s a sweet movie,with Jean Shepherd’s subversive commentary keeping it from becoming saccharine. Some timeless set pieces. (Anyone who’s ever seen it will never forget the lamp scene.) Perfectly cast, with Darren McGavin owning The Old Man the way few others have ever matched up to a role. These kinds of movies aren’t usually my cup of tea—my idea of Christmas fare runs more toward Bad Santa and The Ice Harvest—but this one is well worth its annual viewing.
The Santa Clause 2 (2002) Christmas is when you watch Christmas movies, right? The Beloved Spouse likes the occasional kids movie and not only doesn’t mind me picking at the plot holes, but will do so herself. Tip to Santa: don’t let Chet be one of the lead reindeer until he’s ready.
Bad Santa (2003) The second half of our Christmas Eve doubleheader. No one—no one—plays these kinds of roles better than Billy Bob Thornton. As laugh out loud as any Christmas movie ever made, so long as you leave large chunks of your conscience in another room. As I always say sometimes, a better person wouldn’t have laughed at a lot of this, but no better person was available.
Holiday Inn (1942) This is one of those movies some will point to and nostalgically say, “They don’t make them like this anymore.” Good. One-dimensional characters who are, frankly, kind of amoral, and will do or say anything to advance the story, which is kind of disreputable and definitely unbelievable itself. (The only line of defense for such a plot is, “You’re not supposed to take the plot seriously. It’s a comedy.” Then it should have been funnier. See Bad Santa, above.) Oh, and a blackface routine. For those who might want to defend the blackface bit with “Things were different in 1942,” I say, “and good riddance.”
Confidence (2003) An underrated gem. Edward Burns plays Jake Vig, leader of a confidence crew who accidentally take off a vicious LA criminal knownas The King (Dustin Hoffman). Vig and his crew sell The King on the idea of ripping off someone even bigger that The King has personal issues with. After that you’re never really sure who’s working with who or how things are going to shake out. Burns is perfect as Vig, and Hoffman gives one of my favorite of his performances. An excellent supporting cast is led by Rachel Weisz and Paul Giamatti. If you’re into caper films with an edge and sharp dialog, you really ought to see this one.
The French Connection (1971) Damn, this is a great movie. Watch it too often and too close together and some plot holes appear, but the story holds up, as does everything else.Contemporary when filmed, it now views like a period piece. The famous chase scene serves two roles: great excitement (duh), especially for the time; and it condenses Popeye’s obsession into seven minutes, so everything those else he does makes sense. There are a dozen or so crime films I look forward to watching repeatedly. This is one.
Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992) No one makes more visually beautiful films than Francis FordCoppola, and this is no exception. Gary Oldman and Anthony Hopkins steal the show as Dracula and van Helsing, respectively, though the competition was less than fierce. Winona Ryder is all right, but there must have been fifty English actresses who could have done at least as well. As for Keanu Reeves? Really? Had to be at least a thousand British actors who could have handled this better. Overall, the film holds up. Close to Stoker’s novel, it plays as a love story and works well. Seeing this one again only makes me wonder even more why people feel they need to break the vampire rules to make the stories more appealing. They’ve been popular for a long time for a reason.
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) First movie of the birthday double feature and one of a handful of my guaranteed to succeed comfort movies. Just a wonderful film on so many different levels that I’m not going to go into them all. If you haven’t seen it recently, do so. Going on 50 years old and still solid in every regard.
L.A. Confidential (1997) The nightcap of the birthday doublefeature. To me, one of the top five crime films ever made, along with The Maltese Falcon, Chinatown, The Friends of Eddie Coyle, and The French Connection. Curtis Hanson and Brian Helgeland make a masterpiece of James Ellroy’s glorious mess of a book, hitting all the right notes in the doing.