Sunday, November 4, 2012

Joel's Top 15 Weeknight Movies

Okay, picture this with me: It's Tuesday night. The week isn't even half over, but you're already tired. It's getting later and later into the year, and the dark of night is coming earlier all the time. As you get home, you're undoubtedly tired, but you also know that, if you go to bed now, the events of the day swimming around in your head (work, school, whatever) are going to keep you awake all night. You need a distraction.  TV? No. Last time you tried that, there was nothing on, and you ended up marathoning QVC until 2:00 am, which led to the purchase of a gallon of rug cleaner, 8 yards of animal print, and several needlessly complicated desk lamps (wait, do you even own more than one desk?). Well, you can't decide which of the seven books you're currently "reading" to dive into, and there are only so many minutes you can play Doodle Jump before your eyes defocus... So, with a shrug and a sigh for emphasis, you decide to watch a movie. But what?

Everyone has their own idea of a good weeknight movie. For some, 2 hours of turn-your-brain-off fun is just what the doctor ordered; no explosion is too big, and no action scene is too preposterous. For others, it doesn't matter what the plot is, so long as there isn't too much drama and everything turns out sunshine and roses in the end (typically, the polar opposite of a long day at work or school). For me though, hardcore action late at night makes me jittery, and forced happy endings just leave me scoffing at the TV screen, contemplating the baggage these characters are going to have to deal with after their brief, ultimately meaningless moment of euphoria closes out the movie.

So what movies do I turn to when I'm worn out and incapable of a great deal of rational thought? Well, there isn't a strict definition, but there are a couple of guidelines I suppose. Most of these movies aren't too fast-paced, but, at the same time, they aren't usually slow enough to lull me to sleep. They have a deliberate cadence that isn't too overwhelming and a world I can relax into. The plots usually aren't too complicated, unless it's a movie I grew up with and therefore know scene by scene, which is true of a few entries as you'll see. Some are just plain fun. At any rate and without further ado, here are my top 15 weeknight movies...

15. Wait Until Dark (1967)

Leading off this list, we have a wonderfully taught thriller starring Audrey Hepburn and Alan Arkin. Hepburn is Susy, a newly blind woman living in New York, and Arkin is Roat, a dangerous criminal who believes that a very valuable shipment of drugs is hidden somewhere in Susy's apartment. The mind games played out by the criminals and Susy are truly engrossing, and great direction by Terrance Young (who helmed three of the first four Bond films) and the unique and eerie score by Henry Mancini takes it over the top. The end result is an incredibly suspenseful story that manages to break free from its stage play origins and provide a really rewarding movie, complete with one of the greatest jump scares in film history. Why is it such a good weeknight movie? Well, partially because it's a really easy movie to get into after a hard day, partially because of the setting (a main character's home at night), and partially because, no matter how bad your day has been, at least you can say Alan Arkin didn't actively try to burn your house down.

14. Robinson Crusoe on Mars (1964)
Look beyond the laughably silly title, and you'll find a wonderful sci-fi treat. What's so great about Robinson Crusoe on Mars is how well it pulls off the concept. Instead of a constant onslaught of wacky space creatures, the "monsters" of Mars found in this movie are lack of oxygen, water, and food. Instead of running around trying to save some space princess from space pirates on space galleons, Kit Draper, the Crusoe of the film, looks for shelter. However, instead of this reeled-in narrative turning the plot into a hollow, boring experience, the movie makes it work and, what's more, makes it entertaining and engaging. Despite the science of the film being somewhat out of date now (for example, Draper can breath the Martian air for around 10 minutes before needing oxygen from his tank), the movie did represent a fairly accurate picture of the Mars scientists knew in the early to mid-60's. I think the reason I enjoy watching this movie late at night has to do with the loneliness of Mars. You can connect with Draper's sense of isolation really well (the sweeping alien landscapes combined with Paul Mantee's solid performance have a great deal to do with that), and sitting alone at night with the soft glow of the TV screen playing across the room just feels like the proper way to experience the story.

13. Ivan's Childhood (1962)
It was a toss-up between this and Andrei Tarkovsky's Solaris, but the latter film, while it is one of my favorite movies, is the more challenging - and lengthy - of the two, so I decided that Ivan was better suited for this list. One word that I would use to describe many of the movies in this countdown is "hypnotic." I think that's because, when it's late and I'm tired, I find myself drawn to movies that can be experienced instead of followed, and this movie is most certainly an experience. It's chock-full of incredibly gorgeous camerawork, and the soft beauty of the Russian language (one of my absolute favorite languages to listen to) adds a lot to the dreamlike atmosphere. If you're in the mood for a innocent, haunting take on films about war, look no further than this gem.

12. Game Boys (2008)

Seeing as it was shot in 2008 on a hi-8 camera by a group of friends, calling Brad Jones's Game Boys an independent film almost feels like an overstatement. However, despite the reality that the dialogue is sometimes impossible to hear, the lighting is horrific, and the acting is occasionally (and this is putting it kindly) amateurish, the saving grace of the movie is its charm. Giving us a look into the lives of a group of retro gaming fans, there is a certain verisimilitude to the setting (especially the party at the end), helped in no small way by some smart writing and the genuine friendships among the cast and the crew (who I'm pretty sure were the same people anyway). Also helping that atmosphere is the shot-on-video quality of the film, giving things a home movie feel that makes it easier to overlook the acting and lack of production value. Some of the performances are good though: Brad Jones himself plays the main character, Scott, really well, and I get a big kick out of Jerrid Foiles's performance as Carter, a shady video game dealer. The mixture of 80s gaming advertences, a mostly late 50's-early 60's soundtrack, and movie references from all over the place leaves you with the feeling that the writer/director is giving the audience his own very subjective nostalgia, which is one of the things I love most about the movie. But the film's greatest strength, in my opinion, is the genuine excitement of movie-making that shines in just about every scene. You can tell that everyone wants to see the film through, and that enthusiasm is really the heart and soul of the movie. As a would-be filmmaker myself, this kind of vibe is extremely contagious, and I found it to be just palpable in Game Boys as in Jean Luc Godard's Breathless and Tim Burton's Ed Wood. Call me crazy if you like, but there you go.

11. The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (2005)

Ah, yes... an adventure story of epic proportions, told as a travel guide to the Milky Way Galaxy. It seems like only yesterday when I watched this film for the first time, but, in actuality, it's been over 5 years. Since then, thanks in no small part to my love for this little movie, I've sought out and fallen in love with British comedy AND science fiction, all the way from Monty Python to Quatermass. And, to this day, despite having read the books and watched the television series, I'm surprised how well the movie holds up. The humor may not have the same impact the fourth time around as it did in the original radio series, but a great cast, a fresh (from a story perspective) script, and a surplus of zany entertainment always bring me back for another spin around the cosmos, especially after a hard day. I suppose it's kind of ironic that one of my favorite feel-good movies has the earth getting vaporized in the first act, but hey, it's not the end of the world! At any rate, this adaptation of the classic Douglas Adams series could have been a catastrophic mess, but it ended up working, with a screenplay that reeled the bulging, rabbit-trail filled source material into a snappy little cinematic narrative. I could also go on about how energetic Sam Rockwell is as Zaphod Beeblebrox, how relatable and low-key Martin Freeman plays Arthur Dent, how unforgettable the opening musical number is, or how soothing listening to Stephen Fry's voice can be, but I'll spare you the rambling for today. I will say, however, how much I appreciated what they did with the character of Trillian (rather an unfortunate non-entity in the original), giving her quite a bit to do in the film. Also, she's played by Zooey Deschanel, which helped too.

10. Vivre sa vie (1962)

Experts say that staring at a TV screen or computer monitor late at night can cause depression, so it's probably extremely unhealthy to include Vivre sa vie on a list of movies that I go out of my way to watch at night. However, the quiet, melancholy atmosphere of the film, occasionally highlighted by an often heart-wrenching score by Michel Legrand, is perfectly suited for weeknight viewing in my mind. The story concerns the downward spiral of a young actress living in Paris under difficult circumstances. The main character, Nana (played by Anna Karina), is a perfect example of the difference between a likable character and a character you care about. Often, she is unlikable, treating those around her as if they were merely pieces in a game of hers while going through life living by naive and half-baked philosophies (today, she'd probably be that one person who posts "deep" status updates on Facebook ). However, you can't help but care about her because she's so superbly written and acted. She feels like a real person, someone you most likely have encountered in real life and maybe even know quite well. Because of that, in spite of her terrible choices, you genuinely want her to redeem herself and get out of her bad situation. Another huge plus for the movie is how reserved it is. It's never exploitive or even showy, despite the often difficult subject matter. The ending, essentially a quick throwaway scene from the second act of a bad B movie, is an almost trivial but ultimately fitting and heartbreaking conclusion to an incredible movie.

9. Charade (1963)

Ah, here's an old childhood favorite of mine... Other kids had Pokemon, Power Rangers, or whatever, but I knew where it was at. I was watching PBS just before my bedtime to tune into Charade, which was showing for the 80th time in the worst 35mm print physically possible. Like my 7 year old self cared. I was there for Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn. I was there for the humor, mystery, suspense, and other action-packed nouns. It really shows the magic of movies and the durability of children as an audience; kids may not understand what makes a movie work, but that doesn't mean they can't appreciate it. I had no clue what any of the plot twists meant, or why there were people after Audrey Hepburn, but I knew danger when I saw it. Plus, now that I think about it, this was the movie that introduced me to Walter Matthau and James Coburn, who are now two favorite actors of mine. And, even if I didn't rewatch it countless times since then, I could never ever forget the main theme by Henry Mancini, which I will probably be humming for the rest of my life.

8. Starcrash (1978)

I've already made a full video review expounding upon my love for this movie, so I'll just provide you the link to that and say no more: Click here.

7. Tron (1982)

While I could watch this movie any day of the week, Tron feels especially like a Friday night movie: the one you watch with pizza to celebrate the end of the week. It's big, it's booming, and it's immersive as all get out. When Flynn gets sucked into the computer world, you go down the rabbit hole with him. However, despite how well-realized the digital universe of the film is, my favorite scene takes place near the beginning in Flynn's Arcade. That moment is such an overload of 80's that it's hard to drink in all at once. Everything from the games to the way people are dressed to the Journey music in the background just transports you. It's wonderful. I also really dig how forward-thinking the sci-fi concept is: people who use computers create identities within the computers (avatars essentially). It's especially impressive when you realize that this was back when the idea of personal computing was only just starting to take hold.

6. Alien (1979)

It seems almost pointless to write anything about Ridley Scott's sci-fi horror flick, simply because almost everyone has seen it and many have written on it before. However, on a subjective note, I love diving into Alien for the strange feeling it gives. As with other films on this list, it should be felt, not just followed. The sensation one gets while watching the crew of the Nostromo dive towards the mysterious planet consists of some of the purest science fiction excitement I can think of. The simplicity of the movie and its "haunted spaceship" premise is underscored by a truly grand and dark tapestry of cosmic horror, and I love it to death. Another one of my favorite aspects of the film is the strikingly natural performances. The great cast, including Ian Holm, Tom Skerritt, Yaphet Kotto, and, of course, Sigourney Weaver, engage in loose and seemingly unscripted dialogue with each other throughout the movie. Because of this, the psychological breakdown that the characters experience is incredibly palpable as the alien starts to wreak havoc. So, after a particularly hard day, setting sail into the deep, dark beyond with Ridley Scott and Dan O'Bannon sounds like a good night in to me!

5. Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)

Much like with Alien, what is there to say? Raiders is a childhood favorite of mine that is particularly therapeutic after a long day. No CGI has ever out-thrilled the caravan chase sequence (or any other single moment in this film, for that matter), and Douglas Slocombe's cinematography always manages to put you in the moment, whether it's in bitingly cold Nepal or in the searing Egyptian desert. Go get 'em, Indy!

4. North by Northwest (1959)

Pulse-pounding, action-packed, and often very, very funny, North by Northwest was the film that gave my childhood self almost constant nightmares about being wrongfully accused of a crime. Here's where I need to backtrack a bit to some things I mentioned when talking about Charade: Although I didn't understand at that early age any of the spy goings-on or why Roger Thornhill (played to sarcastic perfection by Cary Grant) found himself in such deep trouble, the film's paranoia, sense of humor, and non-stop excitement kept me engaged throughout its running time every time I saw it. Those aspects, as intended by Alfred Hitchcock himself, are the heart and soul of the movie, and that's why I still enjoy coming back to it after all these years: it's still fresh, and it's still an absolute blast!

3. Kagemusha (1980)

Akira Kurosawa's samurai epic, clocking in at almost three hours, may not seem like an obvious choice for this list. However, the film doesn't fail to put me in a relaxed mood. I can't explain it really, except to relate a little story. A couple of years ago, I directed a short film. The short, almost 18 minutes in length, needed to be shot almost entirely in a single day. Waking up early that morning, I ended up traveling to several different locations, one of which was out of state, organizing and planning every shot as meticulously as I could while arranging for actors to be at specified locations when I needed them. Needless to say, it was an exhausting experience. Although the movie turned out well, I woke up the next morning in pretty terrible shape. I could barely stand, and even talking to people proved to be difficult for me. When I got home that night, I could do nothing but sit down, make some tea, and watch the one Criterion that was left in my "To Watch" stack... Kagemusha. Let me tell you: it was just what the doctor ordered. As the film rolled along, I lost myself in the grandiose, painterly vistas populating the film, enjoying every last moment of the epic scale drama contained within. It wasn't a flawless movie, and it isn't quite Kurosawa's best, but I can't deny the restorative and downright hypnotic (there's that word again) quality that this movie possesses. Check it out!

2. Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)

If there ever was a movie that surprised me with how much I enjoyed revisiting it, it's Close Encounters. I could pick it apart all day really, considering how naive and borderline sappy it feels much of the time. But there's just something about it that keeps me coming back. One really weird thing about the movie is how the narrative plays out. There really isn't an antagonist, and the film unfolds in such away that, even if I just told you how it ends, it wouldn't seem like a spoiler. That's really because the movie is more of an experience to get lost in than a good narrative story. While this association may seem odd, the feel of the plot almost reminds me of a segment from Fantasia at times, especially by the ending, a special effects extravaganza that no one who's seen it will soon forget. Richard Dreyfuss's performance is fun, the aforementioned special effects are great, as is the supporting cast, which includes Bob Balaban and Fran├žois freaking Truffaut! I also appreciate how the military is depicted in the film. Instead of going the easy route, the armed forces aren't portrayed as an evil menace bent on destroying the aliens and stealing their advanced weapons or something like that. They're just there to keep civilians from panicking and messing up mankind's first contact with another life form. I like it.

1. Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979)

Yes indeed! Much like Alex (whose excellent write-ups on Star Trek: TMP and its soundtrack can be found here and here respectively), I discovered this film on VHS at a very early age, somewhere between 5 and 8 years old. I originally watched the Extended Cut, touted as having "12 minutes of new footage" right on the sleeve, and couldn't help but fall in love with it. Having no prejudices against slow-paced films at such an early age, I allowed myself to get lost in the story and sat, glued to the screen, following Admiral James T. Kirk and his fearless crew into the depths of the mysterious and deadly space-cloud that threatened the existence of earth! The film is, in my humble opinion, the best Star Trek movie out of the bunch, with Wrath of Khan bringing up a close second. It does a wonderful job of bringing the hard sci-fi edge of the original television series to the big screen, adding some 70's flair and a great deal of depth to the characters. Is it perfect? Of course not. Is it slow? Oh, yeah! But the pacing really helps the haunting and unforgettable atmosphere of the unknown, similar to Alien, another flick from 1979. As the Enterprise descends into the Cloud, the glorious special effects and unbelievable score by Jerry Goldsmith just take it over the top, immersing you totally into the adventure. This movie places at Number 1 for me because, among other things, no matter what the week has to throw at me, Star Trek can take me off into the black, starry void like no other movie can, and that makes it a special film in my book.

This is Joel Davidson of the Cinemologists saying... I'll see you next time!

P.S.: Does anyone know where I can get a Star Trek: The Motion Picture uniform? They look unbelievably comfy!

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