Well, friends, New Year’s Eve is nearly upon us, and for many of you, that means snazzy new outfits and elaborate parties and champagne sipping and streamers and generally being a well-adjusted social creature who is capable of interacting with others. This post is not for you! It’s for the rest of us, the shut-ins, for the awkward types who will be spending the last night of the year as God intended: behind a deadbolt lock, in our cozies, on the couch, consuming take-out and motion pictures. And, what with it being the end of the month, December 31 will also see the departure of several fine films from Netflix instant, so we went ahead and compiled your New Year’s Eve viewing menu (just click the title link to watch them right now). You’re welcome.
As that whole Interview storm was a-brewing, the most oft-cited film history precedent was the 1940 comedy The Great Dictator, in which Chaplin thumbed his nose at the Third Reich. But tonally speaking, the more accurate forefather to Rogen and Franco’s anus-obsessed take on North Korea was probably the Marx Brothers’ 1933 classic Duck Soup, the trio’s cheerfully anarchic portrait of the fictional “Fredonia,” a country so broke that a rich widow (the great Margaret Dumont) is able to install the hilariously incompetent leader of her choice (Groucho). It’s the team’s most lawless comedy—no dour romantic subplots, or even the customary piano and harp specialties—and one of their most perfect, particularly by the time they land at the uproarious battlefield climax.
Few screen comics pair as nicely with the Marxes as Mel Brooks, who took on the Star Wars franchise (and its relentless marketing) with this 1987 spoof. It was his first effort as writer/director in six years, and his last great one (as anyone who’s suffered through Robin Hood: Men in Tights or Dracula: Dead and Loving It can tell you). It’s not exactly Blazing Saddles quality, but it’s got some great gags, a warm and wonderful John Candy performance, a truly excellent Alien shout-out, and a much-needed reminder, in light of the year ahead of us, that endless Star Wars hype is not a recent development.
Religious satire is a particularly tricky bit of business; most filmmakers either play it too safe and respectful and wind up toothless, or take a buckshot-blast approach that’s easily dismissed. Considering those easy traps, Brian Dannelly’s 2004 comedy is all the more remarkable—it’s an edgy, funny, whip-smart teen comedy, with unimpeachable performances by Jena Malone, Macauley Culkin, and the unexpectedly excellent Mandy Moore.
It’s easy to forget, in these Blended and Grown-Ups-stained times, that this was once a world where Adam Sandler comedies both exerted a little effort, and were actually, legitimately funny. That era crashed to an end sometime around Mr. Deeds, when the SNL-trained baby-talker realized that he could pretty much slap whatever dreck he wanted onscreen and his (literally and/or mentally) teenage fans would eat it up, but there’s an undeniable energy and eagerness to his early vehicles — particularly this 1996 golf comedy, which features a deservedly classic Bob Barker encounter and the best of Christopher McDonald’s smug villain turns (which is really saying something).
This 1995 comedy is one of those cases — like this year’s LEGO Movie — of a crass, pre-sold, “branded” piece of cinematic product made shockingly enjoyable by the ingenuity of a sly filmmaker. Here, that filmmaker was Betty Thomas, the TV veteran who transformed a goofy high-concept adaptation into a smart and wickedly funny media-age satire. (I’ll also go to the mat for the less-celebrated Very Brady Sequel, which pushes the vanilla family into even darker territory.)
If Eddie Murphy’s 1982 breakout hit 48 HRS. set the template for the ‘80s action/comedy, his 1984 smash locked it in — alternating comic character bits with car chases, shoot-outs, and breaking glass. But the original BHC is neither as glossy not as stupid as its imitators and sequels (which are both remaining on Netflix streaming into the new year, inexplicably enough); director Martin Brest stocked the picture with ace character actors and smuggled in a fair bit of understated commentary on race and class. Give it a spin; when you’re done, check out this excellent “what the hell happened to?” article on its reclusive director.
Once he became the world’s biggest movie star, Murphy was pretty much done with stand-up — but his super-confident, rock star style would influence a generation of comedians, four of whom assembled for a spectacularly successful arena tour that Spike Lee captured for this 2000 concert flick. Emcee Steve Harvey is funnier than he’s ever been, Cedric the Entertainer more than fulfills the promise of his moniker, and D.L. Hughley reminds us of what a killer comic he can be (when not neutered by the confines of bad sitcoms). But the show-stealer remains the late, great Bernie Mac, whose wickedly funny and powerfully confessional set recalls not just Murphy, but Murphy’s idol Richard Pryor.
Confession: this viewer has always found John Hughes’ 1985 fave to be a touch problematic, its formulaic construction and monologue-driven character development making it feel less like a dynamic teen film than a movie version of a play that was never staged. But what the hell do I know, people love this movie, so knock yourselves out.
There’s all sorts of odd history bound up in George P. Costmatos’ 1993 Western: how it beat Lawrence Kasdan’s bigger-budget, higher-profile Wyatt Earp to the punch; how it features one of the weirdest ensemble casts of the ‘90s (find me one other movie that includes Charlton Heston, Jason Priestley, and Billy Zane); the many, many deleted scenes and subplots of said cast; star Kurt Russell’s way-weird choice to announce, after Costmatos’ 2005 death, that he had in fact ghost-directed the picture. However it all happened, the result is an engaging and entertaining throw-back oater, filled with sharp performances and quotable dialogue (my fave, from Russell to Billy Bob Thornton: “Are you gonna do something, or just stand there and bleed?”).
Stephen King’s first bestseller has been filmed and filmed and filmed: a TV movie adaptation, a 1999 sequel/remake, last year’s wholly inexplicable new version. But the first take is still the best, finding director Brian De Palma at the height of his Gothic, split-screening powers, Sissy Spacek and Piper Laurie perfectly matched as the title character and her Bible-thumping mom, and a flawless cast of sympathetic and/or sneering supporting players (particularly Amy Irving, William Katt, an impossibly young John Travolta, and the great Nancy Allen). Though endlessly quoted and imitated, its barn-burner finale still packs a wallop, and that last scare never loses its ability to jolt.