Want to watch a movie at home? Here are a few films on DVD that are worth your time.
1. Hell or High Water (2016).
The Western has always been a useful genre for gaining insight into how people really work. It thrusts its characters into a basic, elemental fight for survival, and the choices these characters consequently make, whether stunningly heroic (High Noon) or morally questionable (The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, The Searchers), provide an unvarnished look into the best and worst parts of human nature. Hell or High Water, a 2016 film written by the screenwriter of Sicario, is set in 21st-century Texas. But its rural setting and dire, me-against-the-world story – two brothers (Chris Pine and Ben Foster) facing financial Armageddon decide to rob a series of banks – easily make it a Western in the finest sense of the word. If you’re familiar with No Country for Old Men, you might find it too similar for comfort to the Coen brothers’ effort, given its love for sharp, witty exchanges and rather bleak ending. But the cinematography is gorgeous, Jeff Bridges has a nice turn as a bumbling but tenacious cop, and the story overall provides a thrilling look at how vile deeds can arise from the most reasonable of intentions. With its depiction of corporate greed and economic inequality, it also perfectly captures the populist spirit of the moment.
2. Zootopia (2016).
In the midst of a series of films about princesses (The Princess and the Frog, Tangled, Frozen) and people who don’t want to be princesses (Moana), Disney took a breather last March with Zootopia, a movie that dispenses with almost all familiar animated tropes. Set in a world where predators and prey cohabit in a sprawling metropolis called Zootopia (what else?), the movie recounts the adventures of Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin) and Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman), a bunny police officer and con artist fox who try to solve the mysterious disappearance of 14 of the city’s predators. Without ever turning too somber, the movie uses this deceptively simple storyline to engage a wide variety of issues: affirmative action, race relations, underworld crime, nature vs. nurture, multiculturalism, identity politics, profiling, and policing all get a moment in the spotlight. If you like movies that provide an “escape” from reality, you may not appreciate the movie’s determination to tackle so many thorny issues, and even if you do, you might find the idealistic answers it comes up with a tad glossy. Still, the movie develops its story quite well; whatever you end up thinking about the ending, it definitely doesn’t come as a cop-out. Moreover, the jokes (especially a character who parodies Marlon Brando from The Godfather) are funny, the voice leads are impressively in-character, and even if the CGI can’t compare to the spectacular stop-motion visuals of Kubo and the Two Strings, the animation is quite good. If Disney started making more movies like this, it could potentially fill the void in animation that Pixar has left in recent years.
Richard Linklater is best known for his films that track the same characters over an extended period of time, such as Boyhood and the charming Before… series. As 2011’s Bernie and 2009’s Me and Orson Welles show, however, he’s also perfectly good at condensing a story into only two hours and still making us care about it. In the former, he draws on the testimony of real-life Texans to recount the true story of Bernie Tiede (Jack Black), a beloved funeral director imprisoned for the murder of his close companion Marge Nugent (Shirley MacLaine); in the latter, he tells the fictional story of a young high school student’s (Zac Efron) experience in Orson Welles’ (Christian McKay) groundbreaking 1937 production of Julius Caesar. Bernie provides a twistedly funny examination of the power of hearsay, stereotypes, and class divisions, even if the film’s ironies leave us a little uncertain of what to think about Bernie himself, while Me, despite Efron’s so-so acting and the story’s incongruously cheery conclusion, offers an immersion into the world of theater that anyone who’s worked on a production will appreciate. Together, they both offer intriguing examinations of the messy contradictions in human behavior, while also giving in Black and McKay two of the most underrated performances of the last decade.
4. The Cary Grant screwball/romantic comedies: The Awful Truth, Bringing Up Baby, The Philadelphia Story (1937-1940).
In a time when rom-coms usually come overloaded with sauciness, it may be hard to believe that such movies used to be made quite successfully without any nudity or F-bombs. But it’s true. Wayy back in the late 1930s, old-time Hollywood star Cary Grant appeared in a series of screwball comedies – The Awful Truth, Bringing Up Baby, The Philadelphia Story – that demonstrate that all you really need to make people laugh is an adamant refusal to take yourself too seriously. In the first, he’s an aggrieved husband who agrees to divorce, only to find he still loves her (Irene Dunne); in the second, he’s a nerdy paleontologist forced to deal with the absentminded shenanigans of a young heiress (played with gusto by Katharine Hepburn); and in the third, he’s an ex-husband intent on getting her (also Hepburn) back before she remarries. In all of them, Grant’s impeccable comedic timing will leave you astonished, the mix of verbal and physical gags remains fresh and hilarious, and the underhanded, surprisingly sharp critiques of marriage and the wealthy still burn hard. 80 years may have passed, but the snappy dialogue, remarkable chemistry, and wild plot twists of these movies continue to shine.
5. So bad, it’s good…Battlefield Earth (2000).
When it was released back in 2000, Battlefield Earth, the pet project of Scientologist John Travolta, received so many negative reviews and Razzies that it instantly earned itself a permanent spot on the “Worst Movies of All Time” list. It’s set in the year 3000 and tells the story of Jonnie Goodboy Tyler (played by Barry Pepper…and yes, “Goodboy” is actually his middle name), a lame retread of William Wallace who leads humanity in rebellion against a dominant alien race called the “Psychlos.” Viewed as a drama, this movie has nothing to recommend it: it’s utterly ruined by its incoherent story, nauseatingly slanted camerawork, messy action, gaping holes in logic, nonexistent character development, ugly lighting, disgusting costumes, dreary production design, outdated effects, and Travolta’s truly atrocious acting. Yet all of this ironically makes it one of the greatest comedies of the 21st century. If you ever feel bad about yourself and need something to boost your self-esteem, watch this. You’ll be cured of your feelings of inadequacy within minutes.