Houseguest (1995)

It’s a beautiful thing to watch someone in their element, i.e. the shared enjoyment—even between strangers—of someone’s creativity channeled into a well-crafted project. The most complex humor seems effortless, which it may be in that moment, but is resultant of much practice. If a plot is strong enough to withstand a few deviations from its script, an actor with true improv ability will elevate the believability of his character by using natural true-to-life spontaneity to generate chemistry with his costars. This quick-on-their-feet cast collectively sets the essential stage that allows its lead to shine in this hilarious case of mistaken identity.

Hell or High Water (2016)

The Western genre, a long-standing movie staple, is characterized by a rough-around-the-edges hero, who musters his steely courage in order to exact vengeance. There’s always a small but hardy village standing tough in the middle of a harsh and desolate landscape. Despite its modern context, this movie does not disappoint; especially since, unlike traditional Westerns, the protagonists have realistic flaws. The stakes are high as two brothers, a divorcee and an ex-con start robbing banks out of desperation to save their family’s dying Texas ranch. Not far behind are a couple of old pros, a ranger and his partner assigned to what was expected to be a small time offense. As the lawbreaking escalates, everyone involved quickly realizes their lives are on the line.

Black Snake Moan (2006)

The epitome of “difficult to describe” and “impossible to classify,” this story has a lot going on. The initial marketing—especially the incongruous movie poster—was ticket bait for those looking for frenetically salacious and lewd content; anyone with a sense of decency avoided it in disgust.

Quality acting helps ground potentially off-the-rails characters as the story deliberately shows them at their worst to establish the misunderstood subversive behaviors, for which they are publicly ostracized. A solider with recurring panic attacks returns home to discover his girlfriend is missing. Meanwhile, she gets dumped out of a pickup truck, battered and in her underwear, along the side of the road. A hot-headed recluse drags her to his home where she wakes up chained to the radiator. Madness, right? That’s the point. Though everyone seems crazy at the outset, the beauty of this story is the bonds they forge along their journey toward healing despite complex struggles.

Normally, I wouldn’t give nearly so much of the plot away but in this case it’s the only way to justify seeing past such a depraved opening. As it turns out, the young woman was abused as a child; as with most victims, she feels a combination of guilt and confusion over her body’s response. So when she grows up and develops romantic feelings—even for guy who genuinely cares about her—she’s confused about how to give and receive affection, thus trapped in a vicious cycle of promiscuity. The antisocial loner, who initially holds her prisoner for her own safety, turns out to be a religious Blues musician who struggles with alcohol abuse following a contentious divorce. Heartbreak has left him closed off to the world.

As they compare the vices that serve to distract them from haunting memories, the two strike up a friendship that functions more like a father showing his wayward daughter some tough love, which includes having the local preacher over for lunch to hear his two cents:

“Ima tell you something and it’s just gonna be between you and me. I think folks carry on about Heaven too much, like it’s some kind of all-you-eat buffet up in the clouds and folks just do as they told so they can eat what they want behind some pearly gates. There’s sinning in my heart, there’s evil in the world. But when I got no one, I talk to God. I ask for strength, I ask for forgiveness; not peace at the end of my days when I got no more life to live, or no more good to do, but today, right now… what’s your Heaven?”

Across the Universe (2007)

Though the title borrows the more popular lyric/ song title, this film could’ve been aptly named “Nothing’s Gonna Change my World”; the irony being the massive upending of life as everyone knew it prior to the turbulent 1960s. To craft a plot from a collection of music not written as a cohesive narrative is tricky enough; to seamlessly infuse the playlist with a personification of the music and events that equally influenced and inspired each other is a true work of Art. The inclusion of live musical performance, choreography, imaginative cinematography, depiction of history and socio-political commentary take this mesmerizing spectacle way beyond a Beatles-inspired musical.

Waking Ned Devine (1998)

Old Ned Devine bought the winning lottery ticket! Unfortunately, he died from the shock of it. His friends decide to cash in his ticket; after all, that is what their dearly departed friend would’ve wanted. Unfortunately, they must fool the man from the lotto who’s coming to verify Ned’s identity. Word travels fast in a rural village so they must enlist the help of a few others and eventually, the entire town.  Fortunately, there’s more than enough money to go around when split amongst them so everyone agrees… except for mean old Lizzie Quinn. Unfortunately, she’s determined to make good on her threat to rat them out.

The Hundred-Foot Journey (2014)

For once a cooking movie that’s not solely about an underdog (either a chef or a restaurant) pitted against some big bad meanies! When an Indian family moves to France after a series of misfortunes and are pleasantly surprised to learn about property for sale that includes an abandoned restaurant, they open a family-style diner that serves all their favorites from home. Salt-of-the Earth, Papa is a thorn in the side of food snob, Madame Mallory when he opens right across the street from her Michelin-starred fine dining establishment. The two couldn’t be more opposite; they also couldn’t be more passionate about food. Thoughtful consideration about pride in one’s craftsmanship and how food is more than just physically nourishing.

Smoke Signals (1998)

Based on the autobiographical writings of author, Sherman Alexie, this film is the first of its kind: was written, directed and co-produced by Native American Indians. True to the spirit of Native culture, a road trip through White country by two Indians proves to be a tender blend of humor and pathos.  As only a true Native can, both the premise and the execution of the story embody what it means to be Indian in Modern America.

See No Evil, Hear No Evil (1989)

Who else could play a deaf man, who witnessed a murder and a blind man, who heard it, other than two incomparable funnymen: the sensitive Gene Wilder and the bold Richard Pryor? It helps that—prior to Wilder turning down his role in the farce—each lead went to a special school—Wilder for the deaf and Pryor blind, respectively—in order to portray these challenges with accuracy. The script was then rewritten for them and their genuine chemistry is what breathes life into the slapstick.

Calendar Girls (2003)

This frolicking romp from grief to healing is based on a true story about the Women’s Institute, who hosts seminars and competitions for techniques baking, knitting, gardening, etc. for the ladies in a small British town. When one of their own loses her husband to cancer, all the flowers and cross stitch in the world can’t beautify the grieving process. A friend and fellow W.I. member takes inspiration from firemen’s fundraising calendars and enlists others to help create a calendar that will raise money towards remodeling the dilapidated waiting room in the hospital’s cancer ward. It takes convincing but by adding a subtle tribute to their friend’s late husband in the form of a sunflower in each month’s photo, the ladies soon revel in the thrill of their confidential subversive project. The shock value that offends some and delights others ends up sending them to America to appear on The Tonight Show to be interviewed by host, Jay Leno.