The Christmas holidays bring many things every year. Time with family. The reminder to be charitable. A chance to enjoy traditions.
They also bring a lot of down time. If you’re anything like me, you relish this fact, and yet, there are times when you find yourself staring at the television and hoping that anything other than another Christmas special or meaningless bowl game would air (please note: by my definition, a bowl game is meaningless if it’s (a) not the national championship, or (b) my team isn’t in it).
So, for those very times, here is a list of movies you may have missed. There’s no theme here, no rhyme or reason that these films should share a place on one list other than that I think you might have missed them and you might enjoy them. They’re all worth checking out, for one reason or another (or several).
Do you love the theatre? Or maybe you’re a Shakespeare fan? Even if you’re not, there is a lot of charm in this little-known British comedy from writer-director Kenneth Branagh. The story follows a frustrated actor who decides to put on a small production of “Hamlet” simply for the love of theatre. Every stereotyped theatrical personality joins the cast, and Branagh exploits their quirky personalities for lots of laughs, but he also manages to peel back the façade and look at the creative urge that drives these people, and all of us.
Before he made the unfortunate “In Time,” writer-director Andrew Niccol crafted this extraordinary meditation on human nature. It’s sci-fi in the best way –- i.e., it’s a film of ideas, with just enough futuristic detail to make it believable. In a future where children’s characteristics are predetermined by their parents so that everyone can be genetically superior, a “naturally born” young man must, to achieve all he dreams of for himself, take on the genetic identity of someone else. The tagline for the film: “There is no gene for the human spirit.” It’s worth a look also for an early performance by Jude Law as the now-paraplegic “perfect genetic specimen” who is willing to sell his genetic identity to someone to whom he feels infinitely superior in every way.
After his breakout hit “The Sixth Sense” but before the abomination that is “The Last Airbender,” M. Night Shyamalan made this gem that explores what it might look like if someone in the real world suddenly realized he had superhuman abilities. Originally rumored to be the first part of a trilogy of films, “Unbreakable” follows David Dunn (Bruce Willis) as he slowly becomes aware of his superhuman nature and struggles with it, while a mysterious man named Elijah Price (Samuel L. Jackson) coaxes him to embrace and use his abilities. Subtle, moody, and with great performances from Willis, Jackson and Robin Wright as Willis’s estranged wife.
Everyone knows Ian McKellen as our favorite X-Men bad guy, Magneto, and our favorite white wizard, Gandalf, but back in 1995, he starred in a version of Shakespeare’s “Richard III” drawn from a critically acclaimed run at the Royal National Theatre in London. I had the good fortune to see that show back in my college days, and the movie does a good job of translating the vision of this Shakespearian tragedy into a fascist 1940s era period piece. As Richard slowly seizes control of the kingdom with treachery and murder, London begins to look more and more like Nazi Germany. Some of the American actors (who were probably cast to help at the stateside box office) occasionally seem out of place up against the Brits who have been playing Shakespeare their whole lives, but it’s nevertheless a powerful modernization of a great play by the Bard.
In the laudatory reviews for Robert Redford’s take on the quiz show scandals of the 1950s, many cited this period in history as a time when “America lost its innocence.” It seems like America loses its innocence a lot throughout history, so I won’t trot out that cliché here. But the film, which focuses on Charles Van Doren’s record-breaking run on the NBC quiz show “21,” has nuanced performances from Ralph Fiennes (albeit with an uneven attempt at an American accent) as Van Doren, Paul Scofield as his literati father Mark Van Doren, and Rob Morrow as the federal investigator whose own admiration of the Van Doren family’s WASPish way of life begins to cloud his judgment as the investigation gets the attention of the U.S. Congress.
So there you have it. Five movies that have no reason to be on the same list aside from the fact that they’re all terrific for one reason or another. When you’re sitting around over the holidays, wondering what to watch when every show you love is in reruns, go to Netflix, iTunes, Amazon Instant or your local public library and look for one of these worthy pieces of cinema.