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The holidays are about to descend, and with them, family. Boisterous celebrations and parties abound, along with opportunities for groups of people to relax together – people who may vary widely in age, attitudes and preferences. These are good times to watch a good movie at home, supported by homemade popcorn, snacks and festive treats.
Fortunately a profusion of films – is available to stream, download or rent. Of course there are the beloved and popular franchise movies. With them, though, often somebody will say, “I just watched that,” or “That’s on cable all the time.”
Below are some movies that RoundTable readers may have missed or forgotten – too old (the films, not the viewers), too indie, too odd – and might wish to try. Funny, exciting, different, thought-provoking, heartwarming – so much is out there to choose from.
It seems right to begin with classics. The 1951, 101-minute, Charles-Dickens-based production of “Scrooge,” or “The Christmas Carol,” directed by Brian Desmond Hurst, starring Alastair Sim, is the gold standard. The 1970 musical with Albert Finney and Alec Guinness is also a pleasure. After that, and sticking with Dickens, the 1948 David Lean-directed “Oliver Twist,” with John Howard Davies as the plucky orphan Oliver, Alec Guinness as Fagin, Robert Newton, Anthony Newley, and more, still wrenches the heartstrings and stirs up horror over a single murder.
Incredibly funny is “The Court Jester,” 1955, 101 minutes, with Danny Kaye, Glynis Johns, Basil Rathbone, Angela Lansbury, John Caradine and Cecil Parker. Danny Kaye is Hubert Hawkins, a former carnival performer and Glynis Johns is brave Maid Jean. They are working with “The Black Fox” (a masked rebel) for the return to the throne of the rightful king of the British Empire. Hubert and Jean are assigned to take the places of an Italian court jester and a maiden traveling to the castle. Their mission: to infiltrate the wrongful court and bring to the people his royal highness – an 8-month-old baby.
Another fun-to-watch 1955 classic is the original “We’re No Angels” (106 minutes). Basil Rathbone (who played Sherlock Holmes in 14 films) again plays the villain. The time is just before Christmas, the setting is the penal colony at French Guiana. Humphrey Bogart, Peter Ustinov and Aldo Ray play convicts who have escaped from Devils’ Island prison in this holiday non-musical. Their original scheme is to rob a merchant (Leo G. Carroll) – kill him and his family if they must – and make their getaway. But the man is too kind and generous, and the business’s owner (Rathbone) is too heartless for the hardened criminals to resist a change in plans. “Angels” is directed by Michael Curtiz, who also directed Bogart in “Casablanca.”
John Huston directed Bogart in the 1948 film noir “Key Largo,” with Edward G. Robinson and Lauren Bacall, and the 1951 adventure film “The African Queen.” Huston wrote the screenplay of “Queen” with James Agee, based on C.S. Forester’s 1935 novel. Humphrey Bogart, Katharine Hepburn star, with Theodore Bikel and Robert Morley.
“Hear My Song,” 1991, 104 minutes, feels like a classic. Directed by Peter Chelsom, starring Adrian Dunbar and Ned Beatty, it is based loosely on the life of Irish tenor Josef Locke (1917-1991). Great music, great acting, great scenery – it was filmed in Ireland, and the film moves along, allegro, concluding with a flourish.
A martial arts-chivalry (wuxia) film readers may have missed is “Iron Monkey” (1993, 90 minutes, Hong Kong), written and produced by Tsui Hark. It is not Ang Lee’s romantic and beautiful “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” (2000, 120 minutes, with Chow Yun-fat, Michelle Yeoh and Zhang Ziyi), but it is truly exciting. Directed by Yuen Woo-ping of Hong Kong action cinema fame (he also choreographed fight scenes in “The Matrix Reloaded”), its release in the U.S. was backed financially by Quentin Tarrantino. Yu Rongguang plays town physician and Robin Hood-type hero, Iron Monkey. The corrupt local government forces itinerant martial arts master Wong Keiying (Donnie Yen to pursue Iron Monkey, but the two heroes must work together when an evil and powerful rogue Shaolin monk takes over the town.
For those who like their wuxia mixed with a comedy,“Kung Fu Hustle” (2004, directed by Stephen Chow, 99 minutes) may be a winner. Several gangs are struggling (with the aid of song and choreography) for power in1930s Shanghai. Sing (Stephen Chow) and his pal Bone (Lam Tze Chung) hope to join the powerful Axe Gang, but instead bring trouble to the unusually powerful residents of “Pig Sty Alley.” The movie is both a parody and homage to Chinese wuxia films and American ‘50s musicals. Woo-ping Yuen directed fight scenes.
Mr. Chow’s earlier martial arts-comedy “Shaolin Soccer” (2001, 87 minutes) contains several of the same actors. The paths of has-been soccer star “Mighty Steel-Leg Sing” and a Shaolin Temple follower cross paths. Hybrid spiritual-martial-arts football results and saves the day.
In the realm of series, some gatherings will opt for a 558-minute-running-time Lord-of-the-Rings-a-thon (theatrical version) or a 600-minute, four-movie Pirates-of-the-Caribbeananza. Six “Star Wars” movies, 800 minutes in all (though not everyone will agree that all films belong), make for a good test of sci-fi adventure endurance, not to mention “Star Trek” – 12 movies, five different TV series with actors and an animated one. [See graphic].
This year, though, it might be fun to watch all 329 minutes of Simon Pegg, Nick Frost and director Edgar Wright’s Three Flavors Cornetto Trilogy – “Shawn of the Dead” (2004), “Hot Fuzz” (2007) and this year’s “The World’s End.” Superb parodies the first two, of zombie horror flicks and buddy cop films, the last a different kind of hybrid, no less entertaining and engaging.
A theme-driven “trilogy” of indie sci-fi might appeal, beginning perhaps with “Time Bandits,” a boisterous 1981 British fantasy by Monty Python’s Terry Gilliam. At 116 perfect minutes, “Time Bandits” stars Sean Connery as Agamnemnon, John Cleese as Robin Hood, David Warner as Evil, Shelly Duvall, Ian Holm, Michael Palin (who co-wrote), Jack Purvis, Kenny Baker and others, and especially the late Ralph Richardson: “I am the Supreme Being. I’m not entirely dim,” he says to 11-year-old Kevin (marvelously and unselfconsciously played by Craig Warnock) and the “technicians” who have stolen the Map of Time and run away to steal millions and wreak havoc throughout history.
Viewers might continue with Terry Gilliam’s “Brazil” (1985, 143 minutes) and “The Adventures of Baron Munchhausen” (1989, 126 minutes). They compose the rest of Mr. Gilliam’s “Trilogy of Imagination,” all three about “individuals’ struggles with society and their attempts to free themselves via the imagination.”
Contemplative viewers might wish to turn, on a more thoughtful note, to “Brother From Another Planet” (1984, 104 minutes). Written and directed by John Sayles, “Brother” stars Joe Morton as an alien slave who has escaped to Earth, crash-landing off New York City. He looks (with his shoes on) like an ordinary African American man, though he is mute, and finds himself deposited in Harlem, where he tries to fit in – understandably finding this world terrifically strange – and to stay out of the hands of his pursuers, two white Men in Black who hope to recapture him.
A lighter choice might be “Galaxy Quest” or “My Favorite Martian,” both made in 1999. The first is a hilarious – and touching – takeoff on “Star Trek” and other sci-fi canon mainstays, the second a movie remake of the old TV show that starred Bill Bixby and Lou Ferrigno.
A superbly silly alternate is “Encino Man” (1992, 88 minutes) with Brendan Fraser, Sean Astin and Pauly Shore, directed by Les Mayfield. Two high school students find a caveman youth frozen in a block of ice in the backyard. They thaw him out and bring him to school. This one is fun for younger family members, too – and 88 minutes is not too long. In “Idiocracy” (2006, 84 minutes), Private Joe Bauers is chosen by the army as an “average American” to be the guinea pig for a classified, top-top secret hibernation program. He wakes up 500 years later to find that he is now the smartest person alive.
Unusual romances from abroad are readily available, such as “Chocolat” (2000, 121 minutes, directed by Lasse Hallstrom) with Johnny Depp, Juliette Binoche and Judi Dench. “Picture Bride” (1995, 95 minutes, directed by Hayo Hatto) was the 1995 Sundance Film Festival Audience Award-winner. Set in 1918, Riyo (Youki Kudoh) is a 16-year-old girl from Tokyo who journeys to Hawaii to marry a man she only knows from the photo he sent.
Another alternative is Canadian filmmaker Ann Marie Fleming’s surprising and innovative documentary about her Chinese great-grandfather, born in 1800s Shandong Province, who toured the world as a professional magician. The film is called “The Magical Life of Long Tack Sam” (2003, 90 minutes).
And just a few more nabbed from a very long list of possibilities:
“Smile” (1975, directed by Michael Ritchie), very funny, very biting satire of beauty pageants, with Bruce Dern and Barbara Feldon.
“A Bridge Too Far” (1977, directed by Richard Attenborough), World War II epic recounting the real Operation Market-Garden, the Allied attempt to capture a series of bridges on the road to Germany. Not a dull moment.
“My Beautiful Laundrette” (1985). directed by Stephen Frears.
“A Taxing Woman” (1987, Japanese), about diligent government tax agent Ryoko Itakura with a tough job to do. Hilarious.
“Les Visiteurs” (1993, French) with subtitles, with Jean Reno (of “The Professionals”); the French version is much funnier – and it is really funny – than the later US production, about a French nobleman (Jean Reno) from the middle ages who goes forward in time to change his past. He and his servant (the outrageous Christian Clavier), and find themselves among the knight’s descendents.
And in various genres, all upbeat:
“My Favorite Year,” 1982, directed by Richard Benjamin, starring Peter O’Toole
“The Quick and the Dead,” 1985, Sam Raimi, director, with Sharon Stone, Gene Hackman, Russell Crowe
“Mask of Zorro,” 1998
“Bend it Like Beckham,” 2002
“Whale Rider,” 2002
“Layer Cake,” 2004
“About a Boy,” 2002