Well, folks, a three-day holiday weekend is upon us, the unofficial start of summer, so you know what that means: time to stay indoors! Seriously, hot weather stinks, your clothes stick to you and you sweat and it’s all miserable, everybody’s going to the beach or the lake or whatever, who needs it? Netflix is losing a shitload of good movies come June 1st, so this is a fine, fine time to visit (or revisit) them. (Just click the title to view on Netflix.)
“Although what you are about to see is a work of fiction, it should nevertheless be played at maximum volume.” So begins this affectionate tribute to the glam rock era from director Todd Haynes, who uses a Citizen Kane structure and a well-curated soundtrack of vintage and original tracks to evocatively capture the feeling of being young and utterly consumed by music. And, of course, it’s got a lot to say about David Bowie, without technically being about Bowie. But it’s more than merely a thinly veiled biopic, or even an I’m Not There-ish scrambling of an icon; it’s an uncommonly rich examination of pop music, idolatry, celebrity, and sexuality.
The afterlife of Harold Ramis’s 1993 classic is one of the loveliest stories of modern comic cinema: what seemed at first glance (and was certainly initially treated like) a gimmicky but serviceable Bill Murray vehicle gradually revealed itself, via repeat viewings – appropriately enough – and close-readings, to be the closest our generation’s gonna get to a Frank Capra movie. Ramis and Danny Rubin’s screenplay uses its ingenious central conceit and the standard redemption arc to craft a story about making the conscious decision to be a better person, and see it all the way through; Murray’s masterful work lands every laugh line with precision, while hinting at the melancholy that would come to define his screen persona in the years to come.
Alek Keshishan’s chronicle of Madonna’s controversial Blonde Ambition tour was released 25 years ago this very week, which is one more reason to queue it up. It catches the inventive and provocative performer as she was beginning to experiment with exactly how far she could go – I remember its quickie nude scene and water bottle fellatio being a big deal to audiences who had no idea Sex and Body of Evidence were around the corner. But it remains a terrific snapshot of the less glamorous aspects of pop stardom; chiefly, that it’s hard goddamn work, both to put on a concert extravaganza, and to keep clear-headed about when to roll over and when to fight. Unsurprisingly, Madge usually chooses the latter.
The huge box office of Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet caused something of a mini-boom of modernized Shakespeare movies, none of them better than this turn-of-the-millennium riff from indie filmmaker Michael Almereyda, who confidently and efficiently tears through Shakespeare’s best-known tragedy. Ethan Hawke is terrific in the title role, pulling off the rather neat trick of making the character entirely contemporary, yet giving the classical dialogue its full due; the supporting cast (including Bill Murray, Kyle MacLachlan, Julia Stiles, Diane Venora, Liev Schreiber, Steve Zahn, and Sam Shepard) handles the text with varying degrees of success, but most pull it off. And Almereyda’s updates are ingenious and inventive, resulting in a hip yet respectful take on this oft-told tale.
Directors Paul and Chris Weitz proved they had more on their minds than the gross-out laughs of American Pie with this 2002 comedy/drama, which they adroitly adapted (with Gilbert Grape writer Peter Hedges) from Nick Hornby’s terrific novel. Its story of a blithe single dude getting his shit together is not exactly fresh goods, of course (then or now), but the intelligence of the script and the earnestness of the playing is what sells this one; Hugh Grant’s never been better as said singleton (who cons his way into a single moms group to meet attainable women), Toni Collette and Rachel Weisz are perfection, and check out little Nicholas Hoult (later of A Single Man and Mad Max: Fury Road) as the title boy.
Steven Soderbergh made the alienating (but unquestionably Soderbergh-ian) decision to follow up his biggest commercial hit to date, Ocean’s Eleven, with this bonkers, shot-on-video meta-comedy – and received some of his most savage reviews ever for the effort. Miramax tried to promote it as a “spiritual sequel” to his breakthrough picture sex, lies, and videotape, but it’s closer in spirit to the unapologetic absurdity of his barely seen, self-financed Schizopolis (albeit with the likes of Julia Roberts, David Duchovny, and Catherine Keener filling out the cast). Like that film, it’s certainly a head-scratcher for mainstream audiences. But if you go along with its cheapo look and bonkers sensibility, it’s a rewarding piece of work – up to and including its knockout, funhouse mirror-shattering conclusion.
If it had no other value, this seriocomic drama would offer up a wealth of “so-and-so before” pleasures: Peter Dinklage before Game of Thrones, Bobby Canavale before Vinyl, Patricia Clarkson before Easy A, writer/director Tom McCarthy before Spotlight. In fact, this was actor-turned-filmmaker McCarthy’s directorial debut, and it’s an astonishingly confident effort; he tells this story of a solitary man drawn out of his shell with extraordinary patience and sensitivity, and Dinklage’s work remains heartbreaking and powerful.
Twenty years later, with a subsequent filmography that’s yielded Enough Said, Lovely and Amazing, and many more, and a cast stuffed with future faves (including Catherine Keener, Liev Schrieber, Anne Heche, Kevin Corrigan, and Todd Field), and it still somehow feels like Nicole Holofcener’s feature debut is wildly underrated. And it, like Station Agent, barely feels like a debut; Holofcener bursts out of the gate with her brilliance fully intact, displaying a keen ear for witty dialogue and a way with interactions where what’s unspoken is as riveting as what is. It’s two decades old, and filled with dated markers like video stores and land lines, yet it still feels as fresh as ever.
When this supernatural mystery hit theaters in August of 1999, it was unexpectedly yet thoroughly overshadowed by the similarly themed The Sixth Sense. Yet it eventually found a niche audience, and deserved it; it’s a spooky and well-made supernatural thriller from writer/director David Koepp, the screenwriter-for-hire behind such megahits as Jurassic Park, Mission: Impossible, and Spider-Man, but whose early directorial efforts (specifically this and the equally underrated Trigger Effect) showed a real flair for mood, tone, and thought-provoking chills.
If you were knocked out by Jean Smart’s electrifying turn in the last season of Fargo – and seriously, who can blame you – you’ll want to catch up with this wonderful, yet mostly forgotten comedy/drama from writer/director Audrey Wells (who penned The Truth About Cats and Dogs). She tells the familiar story of a young woman (a mesmerizing Sarah Polley) who falls in love or lust or something with a much older man (Stephen Rea) – and as this kind of thing is usually seen through the eyes of the trophy-holding male (or, more often, enormous age gaps like this aren’t even addressed, but accepted as the norm), Wells’s perspective gives her film clarity, honesty, and agency. And Jean Smart is electrifying as Polley’s mother, particularly in the unforgettable scene where she looks this man right in his eye, asks ‘What do you have against women your own age,’ and hypothesizes an answer that scorches the screen.