Dave (1993)

There have been brief periods when movies were made strictly for entertainment; you weren’t forced to choose between getting hit over the head with an agenda and indulging an experimental hobby project. Who better to give a chance to showcase their range than Kevin Kline?

A small-town professor moonlighting as a POTUS impersonator faces the mother of moral dilemmas when he agrees to stand in for the real—and comatose—Chief of Staff to avoid wide-spread panic. He later realizes how much power and influence everyone around him wields when he tries to avoid getting tangled in the strings of the political puppet masters, who hired him.

Cameos galore (primarily political figures) are the sprinkles atop a sturdy sundae of seasoned actors, who portray earnest characters out of their element finding their way to a heartwarming crescendo.

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.

City Island (2009)

Loyalty is tricky; eventually, everyone must choose between the bonds of family and their commitment to guarded secrets, whether fledgling, dark, or just plain odd. Though everyone wants to preserve their image, they need someone to come and pull the threads that are already unraveling. And sometimes that person, who has the most for which they should feel ashamed, turns out to be the only one who understands the freedom of truth.

Mildred Pierce (1945)

I liked this movie upon first viewing and have re-watched it since. I should clarify: the original version; while Kate Winslet’s talent is undeniable, remaking a classic film in color serves no purpose. I would, however, be interested in seeing this reinterpreted in a modern context as the themes (e.g. permissive parenting and familial loyalty) are still relevant and need revisiting. History repeats itself, especially when Society fails to pay attention to former generations when they tried to warn us. Some viewers will automatically assume an old movie—particularly one in black and white—is outdated. But its archetypical style is precisely what will induce the connotations necessary to see the film through, such as not being in a hurry to get to the action or the assurance that it won’t rely too heavily upon sequencing gimmicks to explain background information. Ultimately, its enduring legacy can be attributed to superior filmmaking, which includes everything from acting to editing.

Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (1988)

So much talent, so little time. One of the numerous highlights of this movie is its timing. Unlike many modern comedies, the actors serve the story, rather than use it to showcase their immature antics, which are only funny when given an equally outrageous context. In this setting, two con artists attempt to outwit each other but both end up getting played. Who gets the last laugh when real-life masters of comedy use their impersonation skills as their characters execute a plot to dupe a wealthy heiress out of her fortune?

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?”

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.

So I Married an Axe Murderer (1993)

With a title that’s a dead giveaway—or is it??—the initial charm of this quirky dark comedy is in its spirited characters; the enduring appeal is in the chemistry between them. Bursting at the seams with talent, cameos and quotable lines, particularly as the lead actor also plays a caricature of his real-life Scottish (i.e. loud, tactless, accordion-playing, Rod Stewart-idolizing) father.

Shall We Dance? (1996)

I was disappointed when this Japanese homage to an American classic (starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers) was remade into an American film. How many more movies by the same name to we need?!

In the Japanese version, a businessman grows tired of his life as a corporate drone. Each commute home from work he passes a dance studio. From an excursion born of curiosity grows an obsession. Besides the lure of American culture, in which couples publicly display affection for one another, there is s excitement and glamor in playing out a famous movie scene. Eventually, the businessman’s wife realizes her husband is blossoming into a passionate and lively man, who is obvious fond of something/ someone other than her. Once she discovers the object of his attention she’s both relieved and frustrated; they should grow together not apart. Instead, he rather than share his new hobby with her, he’s kept it as a mistress.

The most recent iteration was no doubt a marketing ploy to profit from the success of its Asian counterpart. The message that Western filmmakers hoped to promote is completely opposite of the themes that can only make sense in the context of Japanese culture and thus completely loses all ability to spark discussions about tradition, cultural appropriation, etc. And no, casting a Latina-American as a lead doesn’t count for anything.