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.

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children (2016)

Director, Tim Burton’s name alone should give away the tone of this movie, which is an adaptation of a young adult novel inspired by some odd vintage photos its author found at a flea market. It reminds me of Stephen King, not only because it’s a dark fantasy (Burton considers it “a scary Mary Poppins”); the author admits the movie version of his story is better. Screen writer, Jane Goldman tightened it with various character modifications/ amalgamations and plot elucidations.

Perhaps vaguely similar to the founder of Professor Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngster or Hogwart’s School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, Miss Peregrine nurtures and protects a unique troop of children stuck in a time loop. They’re discovered by an unsuspecting young man on a research trip with his scientist, father. The beauty of this film is both in its minimal use of digital effects as well as in the infusion of subtle details, which are either foreshadowing, references to aforementioned history, or homages to Burton’s prior work, none of which distract from the plot or compromise its consistency.

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.

The Station Agent (2003)

Describing this gently layered story is like recounting an interaction with traveling companions: you kind of had to be there. No explosions or car chases; just a lonely man with dwarfism, who inherits an defunct train station where he is bombarded/ befriended by a succession of neighbors, each of whom arrives in their own way at their own time. The recurring tall and talkative snack vendor, the grieving mother struggling to figure out who she’s supposed to be and the pretty librarian, who might be more trouble than she’s worth each disrupt his solitude until he’s forced to accept they’ve forged a path through his previous meticulous social landscape.

Arlington Road (1999)

The eerily plausible premise of this political thriller plants a tenacious seed of doubt about every “lone gunman” type of conspiracy theory since the assassination of JFK. Who’s to say seemingly random acts of terrorism aren’t at least heavily influenced by unseen players in the game we never seem to know we’re playing until we’ve lost?