Film Gems, Part Trois: Some Choice Holiday Movies and TV Shows


Merry Christmas

Merry Christmas (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So, now that Thanksgiving is over, I am turning my flittering attention to Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Winter Solstice, and the celebration of the New Year. Of course, I have much to do: presents to buy, create, wrap and ship, house to decorate, parties to go to (maybe, if I’m invited), family and friends to enjoy, newsletter to write and send, along with last year’s which never got sent, addresses to update, cards to buy and write in and send, catalogs to recycle (I’m still wondering how I got on the mailing list for “All Things Golf” — I don’t golf and I know only one person who does and he’s already got golf clubs — really not in your demographic, guys), and gluten-filled baked goods to sigh over and not eat.  So what I’m doing this last Saturday in November is writing a blog about holiday movies.  If nothing else, I’m good at misdirection — I’ll sneak up on the other holiday doings somehow and somewhen.

Christmas in Connecticut

Christmas in Connecticut (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Let’s start with a long-time favorite:  “Christmas in Connecticut.” Barbara Stanwyck portrays a columnist in a women’s magazine who pretends to be a happy housewife and cook when in reality if it weren’t for S. A. (“Cuddles”) Sakal (who owns and is chef in the Hungarian restaurant downstairs from her New York studio apartment), she wouldn’t have a thing to write about.  Meanwhile, a sailor rescued from a raft in the Atlantic (all this takes place during WWII), played by Dennis Morgan, sits in a VA hospital and dreams about food, reading the column and drooling because he’s been starving for so long they won’t let him eat what he wants to eat.  (Well, and it’s hospital food, anyway.)  All of this comes back to bite Barbara, who ends up having to pretend in real life at her stick of a fiance’s weekend house in Connecticut that she really is the happy housewife, mother, and superb cook.  It’s funny, charming, shows off  Warner Bros. deep field of character actors at their best, and it gets very very complicated with rocking chairs, horse-drawn carriages, a preacher who has to be smuggled in and out of the house, and two babies instead of just one before the girl gets the guy right at Christmas. If you haven’t seen this one, just skip right by “It’s a Wonderful Life” and try “Christmas in Connecticut”. You’ll be glad you did.

Another oldie but very goodie: “The Apartment.” This one is all the way Billy Wilder, so it’s sharp, cynical, sad-edged, funny and ultimately very positive.  The film stars Jack Lemmon as the mid-level accounting nobody who is working on getting ahead at work by passing around the key to his apartment to his co-workers who want a private place for some private canoodling, Shirley Maclaine as his crush, who herself hopelessly loves Fred MacMurray (who was always at his best cast against type as a selfish, even evil manipulator), and a cast office workers who still resonate today as being way too realistic.  The apartment itself is practically a character in the movie, beautifully realized as a Victorian parlor in a brownstone on West 65th in NYC that has come on slightly seedier times.  Lemmon discovers that Maclaine has tried to kill herself in, duh, his apartment, and the complications that ensue result in a black eye, a fractured compact, a raise and promotion, and a resignation that’s just in time for the happy ending.  And it has Billy Wilder’s second-best last line ever (the first is from “Some Like It Hot”, but that’s not a holiday movie, unless you count the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre): “Shut up and deal.”

English: Screenshot of Jack Lemmon and Shirley...

Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine,The Apartment (1960) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This one, too, is a lovely old film that manages to be cynical about Christmas and yet the holiday spirit finds the way in spite of everybody involved: “Miracle on 34th Street.” (The 34th Street windows of Macy’s in New York still always have decorations about this movie in them, no matter what the other decorations may be.)  Is the gentleman known as Kris Kringle really Santa Claus? Or is he not and he’s actually scamming the populace? In the end, the courts and the United States Post Office state that he is indeed Santa Claus, and who are we to quibble? Especially with Natalie Wood (in one of her first roles while she was still a little girl) getting what she never thought she would, a new daddy and a house, and everybody else in spite of themselves getting what they really need and sometimes actually want.  You’ll like it, I promise.

Miracle on 34th Street

Miracle on 34th Street (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A movie more recently made is “White Christmas”, a star-studded, music-filled, all dancing and singing spectacular from the 1950’s, and one I have to watch each year at least once.  The stars are Bing Crosby, Rosemary Clooney, Vera-Ellen (was anybody’s waist ever actually that small?), and Danny Kaye, the music is by Irving Berlin, mostly, and the songs and dancing are terrific.  It’s about a two guys who met in WWII and who are now the toasts of Broadway, with one of them (Danny) trying to get Bing married off so that he can have some time off, a sister act in Florida who have to get out of town the quiet way since their landlord wants to sue them for something or other, who cares, since the way they get out of town requires the guys to cross-dress, a train trip to Vermont where there’s no snow, and the classic “we’ve got a barn, let’s put on a show” finale.  The romantic complications between Bing and Rosemary have to do with trust and angles and using other people, but it all comes out right in the end as a holiday movie simply must.

Cropped screenshot of Bing Crosby and Danny Ka...

Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye, White Christmas (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Also during this time period they shot a film called “My Three Angels”, which stars Walter Slazek.  The film shows three convicts who are repairing a roof on a shop and overhear the shopkeeper and their family trying to find their way out of major difficulties.  The three fix the problems and Christmas happens right on schedule.  I can find very little about this 1959 small gem, and I hope they put it on DVD so I can watch it again.

Then, there’s “While You Were Sleeping.” One of Sandra Bullock’s more charming comedies, which is saying something, it’s about a woman who is alone at Christmas and longs to be part of a family.  While she thinks she’s falling in love with the guy she saves from being run over by a train (and who ends up in a coma for most of the film), she’s really falling in love with his quirky family and, more important than that, his slightly disillusioned brother.  Wonderful supporting performances, many funny lines, and Sandra simply watching as a happy family shares Christmas fill this film with joy and longing.  The theme song is now used for a computer dating service, so every time the commercial comes on, I think of this film, which is not a bad thing.

While You Were Sleeping

While You Were Sleeping (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Love, Actually” is truly one of my favorite films, one I watch when I’m feeling there’s no love in the world.  As Hugh Grant says right at the very beginning, however, there’s lots of love, and some of it is sad, some of it is funny, and a lot of it is hopeful.  Great performances by British actors it’s impossible not to enjoy (and some terrific Americans too), really nifty songs (including “All I Want for Christmas Is You” sung by a truly talented teenager and “The Trouble With Love” by Kelly Clarkson), and Bill Nighy portraying as only he can a has-been rock star trying for a comeback which somehow seems to involve getting naked on TV.  It’s beautifully shot, too, making modern-day London as much of a holiday destination as it would have been for me in Victorian times.  And Colin Firth.  Ahem.  A movie with Colin Firth in it? I’m so there.

Love Actually

Love Actually (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

And, by the way, while the primary plot of the movie has to do with the other end of the story, the very beginning of “Ben-Hur” has a gloriously shot nativity pageant at its very beginning with some of the loveliest music ever.  Well, the whole movie is the best of the huge spectaculars and in many ways, one of the most moving.  They’re planning a remake, but I just can’t see how they can improve on the classic.

I finally saw “A Christmas Story” a couple of years ago.  So I now know why there is such a thing as a table lamp made to look like a high-heeled female leg in the world and why you will never get a BB Gun for Christmas (because you’ll put your eye out).  The truly terrifying scene with Santa became an instant favorite and the excruciating (because I did it once when I was a very gullible small child) moment of sticking a wet tongue on a frozen flagpole are all now part of my holiday vocabulary.  This film not only shows us the importance of Christmas to a small child, it fills Christmas with hysterical laughter and still a sense of the wonder of it all.

Two Red Ryder BB Guns in box. These are a rela...

Two Red Ryder BB Guns in box. These are a relatively recent reissue. The boxes promote the gun as being “just like the one your Dad had!” (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’ve talked about how much I love “The Lion in Winter” in another blog about Film Gems, but yet another reason to watch it is its deliciously cynical (realistic?) portrayal of family Christmas:  “Well, now, what shall we hang, the holly or each other?”  So that’s another one for the list. And one I remember enjoying, too: “The Santa Clause”, with Tim Allen, who portrays an unhappily separated father who discovers he’s actually been tapped to be the next Santa Claus and there’s nothing he can do about it, although he tries.  He finally embraces his fate and  takes over in the (ahem) “nick” of  time. Yet another pair of films that occur to me are not specifically about the holidays, but are rather set during them: The first two “Die Hard” films starring Bruce Willis. (Oddly enough, the primary crossover talent in this area is Alan Rickman, who appears in “Love, Actually” and in the first “Die Hard.”)

All of the above have to do with Christmas, I’ve been noticing, and many of them seem to be about love among the commercialism, cynicism and annoyances of the Christmas holidays in modern times.  And you will notice I’ve not mentioned “It’s a Wonderful Life.” I don’t happen to like this film much and the plot holes in it, well, Santa could easily drive his sleigh through them without touching the sides.  I also haven’t mentioned, except in “Ben-Hur”, that Christmas is a Christian holiday, about the birth of Jesus Christ.  There aren’t all that many films, however, based on the Winter Solstice (which is the holiday most people celebrated in deepest winter and which Christianity co-opted), or on Kwanzaa, or for that matter (and this surprises me) Hanukkah.  I would be very interested to hear from my reader about such films.  I’m sure they exist.

There are also many television films, specials and cartoons about the holidays, most of which have a Christmas theme, but are based on Santa, Frosty, and other non-religious Christmas icons.  An exception is “Amahl and the Night Visitors”, which is still occasionally shown on network television and which I can recommend for its lovely music and its theme of the people — that is, all of us unknown and sometimes unhappy and distressed folk — that Christmas is supposed to be about.  And don’t forget “A Christmas Carol.” For me, this is a read-aloud yearly treat, but it has been produced as a film or TV special many times and they’re all fun to watch.  Maybe the best is the one with the Muppets.

The best of the Christmas TV specials for me are “A Charlie Brown Christmas” and, of course, the original cartoon TV version of “The Grinch Who Stole Christmas.” So enjoy the holidays, whatever you celebrate, and if you’re so inclined, have some fun watching a few of these classics.  Maybe, like the Grinch, our hearts are sometimes “two sizes too small”, but these films and TV shows just might help us expand our hearts to the size they should be during this season and all year through.

How the Grinch Stole Christmas

How the Grinch Stole Christmas


Film Gems

Cover of "The Girl in the Cafe"

Cover of The Girl in the Cafe

A recent post by Merry Farmer (merryfarmer.net) about a small and wonderful picture called “The Girl in the Cafe” led me to ponder those small films that just are gems, the ones you think you and your friends and family alone have discovered and that you buy on DVD or Blu-Ray and watch over and over again, much more often, when you come to think about it, than the big blockbusters like “Lord of the Rings”.  So this essay is going to be about just a few favorites among my film discoveries over the years.

To go back in time a bit, let’s first talk about “Mindwalk”.  This was a film made in 1990, written and directed by Bernt Capra, starring Sam Waterston, Liv Ullman and John Heard.  The movie  is subtitled “A Film for Passionate Thinkers,” and was based on a book by the same writer named “The Turning Point”.  Mr. Capra had an epiphany about how the universe and our world really work.  The entire movie is comprised of a conversation among three people who meet at Mont St. Michelle on a chilly spring day.  Nothing much happens except talk, there are very few exciting or weird camera angles or cutting styles, mostly the director just lets the camera run and the actors walk and talk or sit and talk.  And the film is riveting, absolutely mesmerizing.  It discusses time and atomic decay in ways that help a non-physicist finally understand some of what is really going on underneath what we see.  But more than that, the film works to place us, human beings, within the context of what the universe is really about.  A treasure.  “Whatever this movie’s dramatic shortcomings, it’s nonetheless engrossing to let your mind experience this barrage of ideas — that there are worlds within worlds, organisms within organisms, systems within systems; that everything is connected; that few of us think that way; and that, as far as human survival goes, a fully articulated, macro-sensitive world vision is essential.”  (Review in The Washington Post by Desson Howe.)

Mindwalk

Mindwalk (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

For another film from long ago (1968, in fact), let’s look at “The Lion in Winter.”  Not really a “small” gem, but a true jewel nonetheless, the movie is based on, practically word for word, James Goldman’s play of the same name.  When I was a mere slip of a girl, a director’s casting choice had me portraying the sixty-ish Eleanor of Aquitaine, my favorite role.  Now that I’m more the, ahem, right age, I would give a great deal to portray her again.  The movie starred Peter O’Toole and Katherine Hepburn, with Anthony Hopkins as Richard, Jane Merrow as Alais, Nigel Stock as William Marshall, Nigel Terry (later to be seen in “Excalibur,” to be discussed in a bit) as John, John Castle as Geoffrey, and Timothy Dalton as Philip II.  For Dalton and Hopkins, this film gave them their first major roles.  For the gentleman named Peter O’Toole, it was his second superb take on Henry II (his first was in “Becket” which won all sorts of awards for Richard Burton in the eponymous role and for O’Toole, but which is not a favorite film of mine).  Here the pleasure is the acting and the impossibly witty and cogent dialogue.  The film imagines a Christmas court in Henry II’s 57th year (when, as he put it, “I’m the oldest man I know, hell, I’ve got a decade on the Pope”).  He brings his wife, Eleanor, out of jail (where he’s kept her for years because she keeps mounting revolts against him), to Chinon Castle, his favorite winter residence.  And he insists his three living sons attend upon him there.  Oh, and then there’s Alais, the beautiful “ward” who is Henry’s mistress but who is (technically) betrothed to Henry’s son Richard (the Lionheart, of course), who is more interested in Philip of France, the young king, and so round and round we go.  The plot has to do with naming Henry’s heir, and all the plotting and planning goes beautifully wrong since the young men have ideas of their own.  The most interesting thing about this film (or play) is that in reality nothing happens.  It’s like a rondo where everybody ends up where they began, but oh the fun they have stabbing each other in the back or in the front with beautiful daggers of words along the way.  Peter O’Toole was born to play Henry II and Katherine Hepburn crowned her career with a well-deserved Oscar for her performance as Eleanor. Until I do get another chance to play the richest, most powerful and most intelligent woman in the world (up until Hillary Clinton, I suppose), I will continue to enjoy the movie, the very funny words, the bitter irony that lives within the characters, the extraordinary archaic music, and the sense that living in winter in a French castle was slightly south of cozy.

As I said, now it is the turn of “Excalibur.”  John Boorman wrote, directed, produced and practically willed this film into being, finding young and older British stars to inhabit the most iconic characters in all of myth.  The Matter of Britain, it’s called, the story of the Once and Future King, Arthur.  Nigel Terry (see above for his great turn as John Lackland, son of Henry II) plays Arthur, Nicol Williamson plays Merlin, Helen Mirren is beautifully distracting and deliciously wicked as Morgan le Fey and we get one of our first chances to drool at Liam Neeson, towering over everybody as Galahad.  It’s a huge cast, the costumes seem somehow as rough and ready as they would have to have been, and the story is fairly close to La Morte D’Arthur, with a few modern incursions (Igraine’s seductive dance to her husband’s friend and her own seducer Uther Pendragon is not to be missed).  Boorman uses the Carmina Burana as the basis for his soundtrack and it works beautifully, sounding quite strange and medieval and untamed.

The Illusionist (2006 film)

The Illusionist (2006 film) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Let’s move up in time a bit to “The Illusionist“.  This film, starring Edward Norton, Jessica Biel, Rufus Sewell and Paul Giamatti, is set in late 19th Century Vienna and is a story about a magician, the duchess he loves and can’t have, the (wicked and really deliciously bad) heir to the Empire, and the Police Commissioner who, in his words is “no, not entirely corrupt.”  The love story is between the magician and the duchess.  The other two are working with clever might and main to make sure the love story doesn’t happen.  All to the music of Philip Glass and with magician’s illusions that were mostly done on camera.  Edward Norton is always interesting to watch and never plays the same kind of role twice.  Here he is totally romantic as the illusionist who always loved magic and who lost the girl when he was still a boy, then wandered the world to find real magic but found only illusion and never got over the girl.  He comes back to Vienna as a brilliant illusionist who always states that he does tricks, there is no real magic, and he finds his duchess again, about to be married to the Emperor’s evil son.  How he and Jessica Biel (who has never been lovelier or better) trick the bad guys right under the nose of the Police Commissioner is delightful, surprising, inevitable and, yes, magical.  One of the best and most lyrically filmed love/sex scenes I’ve seen in a long time, too.  The movie is beautiful, intimate, charming, and romantic without being in the least soppy.  Just a great time at the movies!

Of course one of Russell Crowe’s films must be a part of this listing.  So the one that I’ll choose for this essay is “A Good Year”, partially because he shows such sweet and passionate romance, but also because he demonstrates a real flair for slapstick that most of his roles don’t let him show.  The swimming pool scene is an especial joy, and how they made a tennis match between him and his vintner both exciting and funny I only know resulted from great acting, good directing and superb editing.  He stars in it with Marion Cotillard, and it’s a story of redemption and love and of finding yourself after not even realizing you were lost.  Freddy Highmore plays his younger self and this is an actor with a major future.  Albert Finney, who as an actor had a major past and is still stealing all scenes he’s in, plays the expansive uncle, who taught Max how to live.  Max (Crowe’s character) has to rediscover the true value of life.  Of course, it’s a lot easier when you’re a rich stockbroker and then you inherit a vineyard and a villa in Provence, but he still has a hard time of it.  It’s funny, truly funny, and sweetly romantic, and Crowe does his usual brilliant job of simply being the person he’s playing and not letting it show.  You can’t catch this man acting.  Take a special look at him stepping in as a waiter at Cotillard’s restaurant on a day where everything’s going wrong, briskly doing his job and getting lots of tips.  (Her response after the end of a long day?  “Here are your tips.  You’re fired.”)  And their first date is charming, managing to show the awkwardness of any first date along with the real chemistry growing between them.  A subplot about his uncle’s possible (probable?) illegitimate daughter (played delightfully by Abbie Cornish) adds to the fun.

Cover of "A Good Year (Widescreen Edition...

Cover of A Good Year (Widescreen Edition)

Now let’s go far back in time, at least movie time.  One of my favorite  40’s films is “Laura.”  A woman is killed and the detective who is assigned to the case falls in love with her from her portrait, her beautiful apartment, and the things he’s told about her by her friends and enemies.  Then it turns out it wasn’t her that was killed.  From there it gets really interesting.  Gene Tierney is gorgeous, of course, but the movie seems to display a mystery about her that entices and fascinates all of the other people in the movie, from the Walter Winchell-esque journalist who brings her into prominence to the southern playboy who supposedly loves her to the detective who becomes obsessed with her.  You really won’t figure out whodunit until the end and you’ll love the music and the delicious black and white photography.  Trust me on this, but don’t trust anybody in the movie.

There has to be a western in this cavalcade and my choice for all-time favorite, best-ever western is a tie.  Ooops, but I’m going to concentrate on “The Magnificent Seven” (the other one in the running is “Shane.”)  “The Magnificent Seven” is a remake of “The Seventh Samurai” and tells the story of a gunfighter hired by the people of a Mexican village to free them of a pest — said pest played with over-the-stop scenery chewing fun by Eli Wallach.  The gunfighter, Yul Brynner, gathers a collection of other gunfighters and misfits, including Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson, Robert Vaughn, James Coburn and others.  Each of them have private agendas that play out during the film, but they call come together in a gorgeously choreographed battle for the sake of the villagers, to Eli Wallach’s vast surprise.  (As the McQueen character says, “It seemed like a good idea at the time.”)  The music, by Elmer Bernstein, is beyond glorious and is still used to convey the feeling of the Great American West.  There’s a good deal of humor, but the subthemes of the changing of the West from lawlessness to commerce and law, the ending of the era of the gunfighter, and the haplessness of ordinary people when faced with evil are all deeply moving.  If you haven’t seen it (how could you not have seen it by this time?) please make it a point.

Cover of "Rebecca"

Cover of Rebecca

Moving right along to Hitchcock, let’s talk about “Rebecca”.  “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again” is one of film’s most intriguing opening lines (it was the opening line to the novel by Daphne de Maurier), and the nameless heroine, played by Joan Fontaine, makes you feel her awkwardness in attempting to step into the designer shoes of the evil and memorable Rebecca.  Laurence Olivier plays Maxim de Winter, and Judith Anderson plays the terrifying housekeeper.  If you haven’t seen it before, you’ll go nuts trying to figure it out.  The twist in this film is not only the reason for all the fear and strangeness at Manderley (you really won’t guess it, at least I didn’t), but also the emotional twist that leads to the happy(?) (the question mark is intended) ending comes directly out of Rebecca’s own character.  Enjoy the experience.

Another twisty Hitchcock thriller, this time with a comic bend to the corkscrew:  “North by Northwest” stars an impossibly lovely and cool Eva Marie Saint and an equally impossibly suave Cary Grant in a thriller taking them from New York City on the 20th Century Limited to Chicago.  After that come two of the classic set pieces in film, the chase in the cornfield and the one on Mr. Rushmore.  Too much fun not to see over and over.  Very funny lines, one of James Mason’s best villains, and a classic (i.e., ultimately meaningless) McGuffin (a name apparently invented by Hitchcock to explain, presumably, what everybody’s after).  Tres sophisticated, filled with gorgeous late fifties, early sixties clothes and Ms. Saint’s hair is more perfect than any head of blond hair has ever been or ever will be.

Jumping around a bit, there’s one of my best guilty pleasures, “Gosford Park”.  In this one, it helps to have the captioning on, because everybody’s talking at once, usually.  This is Bob Balaban and Robert Altman at their finest, using their upside down and inside out talents to re-envision the Agatha Christie-type country house mystery.  It’s filled with a lot of the best actors in Britain, of which they don’t come any better, with Helen Mirren as the sinister housekeeper, Michael Gambon as the crude rich man who married up, Kristin Scott-Thomas as the Earl’s daughter who’s married to a man she can’t stand and who sleeps with visiting male servants, Emily Watson as the upstairs maid sleeping with the boss, Clive Owen as the mysterious valet and Maggie Smith stealing every scene she’s in just the way she always does.  The plot is simple.  Who is going to kill the master of the house?  And hurry up about it because he’s horrible!  And then we find out it isn’t so simple after all.  They’re all brilliant, the camera never stops moving, the sets are gorgeous (makes you want to even work in such a house, let alone own it) and I watch over and over again just to be with them in the place and time once more.  By the way, the set design is spectacular and try to notice the floral arrangements the next time you watch it.  Amazing!  The theme of the ending of the era of servants and country houses lies underneath and shores up the whole thing, making it a worthwhile look at snobbery and a group of people who perhaps needed to be made redundant.  But oh how beautifully (and boringly, when push comes to shove) they lived and usually didn’t get a chance to actually love.  As the Balaban character (an American film producer there scouting locations) says to the guy playing Ivor Novello (an actual historical character):  “How do you stand these people?”  His answer.  “I make my living impersonating them.”

“The Girl in the Cafe” is best talked about by Merry Farmer, so I refer you to her at merryfarmer.net, but I must add for myself that Bill Nighy and Kelly MacDonald make their fumbling attempts to reach each other so poignant, so real that they break my heart.

“The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” is one of my favorite films this year.  And it has my favorite line in several movie years:  “It will all be all right in the end.  So if it is not all right, it is not the end.”  My new mantra for my own life, believe me.  And if only I could age like Judi Dench, funny and brilliant and so so so pretty and loving and warm.  In any event, a group of “the elderly and beautiful” in England realize or think they realize that they can get more for their retirement dollars moving to Jaipur to a “luxury hotel”, which turns out, of course, to be anything but.  Each of them has a different agenda, different hopes and plans, and they go about them with gusto.  The film shows off the brilliant, brightly colored, hot and damp vibrancy and chaos of Jaipur and it shows the reactions, whether positive or negative or simply bewildered, of these babes in this particular wood.  One utterly favorite and beautiful moment:  One of the characters, played by Tom Wilkinson, has come to make a pilgrimage to his youth.  He dies after completing said pilgrimage and there is a continuing misty shot of a great white heron (I think) taking off and flying into the golden light which may seem, in the telling, to be incredibly clichéd, and yet it is absolutely not.  A beautiful moment.  And the whole movie does, indeed, come out all right in the end.

Sense and Sensibility (film)

Sense and Sensibility (film) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

If you would like to see Jane Austen done absolutely right, rent (or preferably buy for future viewings) “Sense and Sensibility”.  Emma Thompson wrote the screenplay.  One of the little extras on the DVD is watching her give her acceptance speech for best screenplay at the Golden Globes, which she does in the form of a letter from Jane Austen to her sister, discussing Hollywood, the film, and modern life.  Hysterical.  The film itself is filled with the best of British actors, one of the most gorgeous men ever (whom Emma, no fool, later married in real life), named Greg Wise, and Alan Rickman, who makes me drool when he plays Snape and so you can imagine my reaction when he plays a Jane Austen hero.  Also, Hugh Grant, just to keep the ladies interested, and Kate Winslet in one of her first roles being impossibly beautiful, willful and brilliant as Marianne.  This is an Ang Lee film, and it’s just one step along the way to his fully earned Oscar this last year for “Life of Pi”.  Brilliant filmmaker and wonderful film, capturing the essence of Austen’s novel and making it sing.  It was shot mostly on location, too, in some of those old, exquisite British country houses.  Last and by no means least, it’s quite funny.

Sandra Bullock is always terrific and, while a lot of us could watch “Miss Congeniality” over and over again, my favorite of her films is “While You Were Sleeping”.  In this film, she plays a very lonesome young woman who wants to have a family.  She has a crush on a man she knows she’ll never meet who comes by her booth (where she works for the transportation authority taking in tokens for those traveling on the El).  When he’s mugged and lands on the tracks on Christmas day, she saves his life and then is mistaken for his fiancée.  And then she falls in love with his quirky and funny and warm family.  And then she falls in love with his brother.  By the time the first guy wakes up, she’s in total trouble, but the whole family is enamored of her and convince the coma guy that she is indeed his fiancée even though he remembers her not at all.  The way she works it out is true and genuine and funny, but it’s her relationships with all her costars that are the gem here, from the guy in her building, Joe Junior (played with gusto by Michael Rispoli), who has a veneer of total and stupid self-confidence overlaid over lonesomeness and need, her boss who finds her dilemma aggravating and impossible to understand, the family friend who promises to help her straighten out her dilemma and just gets her deeper in (her response?  “You’re fired”) and the family itself, with whom she simply falls in love.  Bullock conveys this just by watching them cavort around and it’s heartbreaking.  A lovely, lovely film to watch during the holiday season.

The film that kickstarted Sandra Oh’s career, “Sideways”,  also restarted Virginia Madsen’s and Thomas Hayden Church’s careers and it certainly added to the admiration Paul Giamatti so richly deserves.  A little film about a last getaway to the Solvang wine region before Church’s character gets married, it’s funny, poignant and very real.  Giamatti plays a man who has written a very very very long novel he can’t get published and who is a junior high teacher.  Church plays a somehow totally likeable but absolute jerk who wants to have a last fling before he marries and can’t fling his southern brain around any longer.  Sandra Oh plays one of those people who serve the wine at wine tastings who wants a real boyfriend and Madsen plays Maya, a waitress at a good restaurant who truly loves wine and who finds the magic in it and in Paul Giamatti.  There is a scene when Sandra discovers Church’s real agenda that is such a hoot I will always remember it.  Things get very complicated primarily because the Church character is such a damned fool, but it feels real, for all that, not artificially stirred up the way so many comedies these days seem to be.  And the romance with wine that all the characters have is lyrical.  (I happen to love Pinot Noir the best of all wines, too, so it was especially poignant to me.)

“Office Space” is very funny little cult movie that in an indirect fashion probably led to the British and American TV series, “The Office.”  One of its supporting actors is a very good friend of mine, Joe Bays, and he is beyond terrific, but it’s got even more gems of performance and comedy than that.  It stars Jennifer Anniston and Ron Livingston.  In the Initech office, the insecure Peter Gibbons hates his job and the abusive Division VP Bill Lumbergh who has just hired two consultants to downsize the company. Peter’s best friends are the software engineers Michael Bolton and Samir Nagheenanajar  (they also hate Initech), and his next door neighbor Lawrence.  In an attempt to get around the consultants, Peter’s life deteriorates, what with hypnotists and a scheme to embezzle fractions of cents from each company account which goes just a little awry.  For anyone who’s ever worked in cubicle hell, this film is a kind of medicine.  You’ll swear you’ve met the characters in your own working life, and you know the ones I mean, the ones you have to keep smiling at no matter what.

“Starbuck” is the newest film on my hit parade.  We went to see it as a final treat while I was in LA on vacation early this spring.  It’s a French-Canadian film with subtitles about a schlub (played with sweet brilliance by Patrick Huard) who does everything wrong and gets everything right.  It’s not a spoiler to tell you that he has a very very very very bad day, culminating (and the word is used deliberately) in the discovery that the sperm donation he engaged in when he was twenty has resulted in him fathering (biologically, that is) 533 children, most  of whom are now in their late teens and early twenties.  His life, which had fallen apart before he finds this out, gets even more complicated, but he manages, in his schlubby but loving way, to make it all come out right.  A charming, loving, happy film.  And very funny.

So, with this to perhaps kickstart some new favorites of your own, see you at the movies!

A Night at the Movies (film)

A Night at the Movies (film) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)