Thanksgiving is not a holiday known for many films. Compare that to Christmas and Halloween, and the deficit is downright shocking. But Thanksgiving is a significant occasion for so many American families. With that in mind, I scoured my mind and the internet for a list of films that are Thanksgiving-related. Some of these are obvious, others not so much. If you are wondering what pictures to watch to ring in the day of consumption, on the eve of the blackest of Fridays here you are.Continue reading “Thanksgiving Movie Marathon”
In a matter of days, the next President of the United States will be decided. During this tumultuous time, it can be fun and educating to look at how films have portrayed candidates, elections, media, and the government. Here’s a line-up that spans the spectrum between serious social drama to goofball satire.
The Candidate (1972, dir. Michael Ritchie)
While based on a 1970s election campaign, the ideas and political machinations present in The Candidate still feel very fresh. Peter Boyle plays an election strategist who is tasked with finding a Democratic candidate to go up against a seemingly unbeatable Republican senator in California. He find the candidate in Bill McKay (Robert Redford) a community activist who is the son of a former California governor. McKay is reticent to run but is eventually convinced that he can help his causes better in a position as senator. What follows is a tug of war between idealism and the cold machine of politics. Director Michael Ritchie handles the content with a very adult, intelligent eye and produces an excellent film about American politics.
Bob Roberts (1992, dir. Tim Robbins)
On the total opposite end of the spectrum when comes to tone is Bob Roberts, Tim Robbin’s passion project mockumentary about conservative Republican folk singer who becomes a populist success on his campaign to become a senator. Supporting Robbins as the titular Roberts are Gore Vidal, Giancarlo Esposito, Alan Rickman, and many more familiar faces that pop for a cameo. The film operates as both a political version of This Is Spinal Tap and genuinely (and these days realistically) terrifying examination of the campaigning machine.
Anytown, USA (2005, dir. Kristian Fraga)
The scene is Bogota, New Jersey, and the conflict is over who will be the mayor. Three candidates are clashing over the position: Republican Steve Lonegan, Democrat Fred Pesce, and independent Dave Musikant. The impetus of the dirty campaign is the cutting of funds to high school football team. The lengthy public fights and arguments are full of the story of fascinating and unexpected twists you find in great small town stories: both the Republican and Democratic candidates are legally blind, the independent candidate hires the former campaign manager of Jesse Ventura, Pesce becomes violently ill near the end of the campaign. The documentary operates as both the quirky story of a small town election and a dissection of the way modern politics divides neighbors.
The Times of Harvey Milk (1984, dir. Rob Epstein)
I first saw this documentary during a rough time in my life. Out of college, unemployed, sleeping on a friend’s couch. I flipped through the channels and came to the Sundance Channel and was pulled deep into the story of Harvey Milk. The first openly gay elected official in California, Milk was one of the last great McGovern era idealist politicians. I learned about how his public face helped push for the acceptance of LGBT Americans in all walks of life. And when the doc reached the inevitable moments of the end of Milk’s life it is heartbreaking. The interviews with the activists and co-workers who Milk meant so much to made me cry so hard that afternoon. He is one of our modern American heroes.
In the Loop (2009, dir. Armando Iannucci)
Most Americans likely know Iannucci’s work in the biting and fantastic comedy Veep. However, he started taking apart the inner workings of government and politics on the BBC’s The Thick of It. In the Loop serves as a film spin-off of that series. It features the current Doctor Who star Peter Capaldi as the foul-mouth Director of Communications for the Prime Minister. Almost, but not quite, stealing the show from Capaldi is Tom Hollander as the completely inept Minister for International Development who almost sets off an international incident when speaking off the cuff during a television interview. In the Loop is one of those comedies with jokes whizzing by so fast you’ll discover a deep vein of humor with every viewing.
Being There (1981, dir. Hal Ashby)
Based on the slim novel by Jerzy Kosinski and directed by Hal Ashby, Being There feels like a mix of Wes Anderson and Armando Iannucci’s irreverent political comedy. The jokes are mostly subtle but build to one majorly stunning ending. Chance the Gardener (Peter Sellers) is possibly the bastard son of a reclusive D.C. millionaire and he’s never left the walls of the property in the heart of the city. The owner dies and Chance is tossed out onto the street where, after a case of mistaken identity, he’s believed to be a political mastermind. Even the President seeks out Chance’s advice. There is a less than covert taking down of government and organized religion going on, which is made very apparent by the final shot. One of the best films about politics and Mr. Sellers’ final work.
A Face in the Crowd (1957, dir. Elia Kazan)
If you only know Andy Griffith from his early 1960s sitcom then you are in for a huge shock. Griffith plays Lonesome Rhodes, who starts out as a drifter and criminal but also possess an ability to coerce and convince others. A radio producer discovers Rhodes and decides to use his charisma to gather a large populist following through political broadcasts. Rhodes quickly becomes drunk on the power and gains a dangerous level of national influence. He ends up as a tool for corporate peddling, tying their economic interests to the fears of his listeners. This might be the single most prescient film about media and politics ever made. If you ever wanted to learn what goes on inside the minds of men like Rush Limbaugh and Alex Jones, here you go. The film also features the criminally underrated actress, Patricia Neal who plays the love interest and adversary to Lonesome.
I’ve thought there was something intriguing about witches. I’m not talking about the nature-worshipping Wiccan kind, but the obscene primal worshippers of ancient dark gods. Few films provide us with great, scary witches. Instead, we get the Wicked Witch of the West archetype or Willow from Buffy; not there is anything wrong with those. This list showcases some scary, creepy, terrifying witches.
The Lords of Salem (2012, dir. Rob Zombie)
I’m not a huge fan of Mr. Zombie’s film work. House of 1000 Corpses was grotesque in all the wrong ways, and his follow up just never got me interested. I was quite surprised by the trailer to this film. It was full of strikingly beautiful and horrific imagery. It had an air of mystery, and that vibe the best horror flicks of the 1970s oozed. Heidi, a radio DJ, receives a vinyl record that plays a strange chanting song. Soon after she starts experiencing hallucinations and the landladies of her building seem up to something. Soon, Heidi is descending into the pits of Hell as her role in an ancient rite becomes apparent.
Suspiria (1977, dir. Dario Argento)
The most iconic witch film on this list and a beautiful example of Giallo, a hyper-stylish Italian horror genre from the 1970s. The opening scene of this film is, in my opinion, one of the most terrifying and gorgeous film sequences. An unseen killer stalks a young woman who runs for her life through the halls of a massive mansion. She meets her end in a terrible way, and this begins the story of a ballet school in the woods where the dancers are being picked off by an evil witch. 1970s starlet Jessica Harper stars as the lead, and her look matches the almost fairytale surroundings of this classic horror story.
The Woods (2006, dir. Lucky McKee)
The Woods is the second Lucky McKee film on a Hypothetical Film Festival this month. He’s just one of those directors who knows the genre incredibly well but doesn’t always construct a winner every time. The Woods is one of those films that hovers in that middle space between fantastic and campy. It’s the 1960s and Heather has been dumped at a girl’s school in the woods of the Northeast by her parents. Heather begins having nightmares about students she’s met who have been killed. With some investigation, she learns there is witchcraft going on at the school. The highlight of the film is Patricia Clarkson as the school’s headmistress. Clarkson is enjoying herself in the role and is quite menacing. This film would make a perfect double feature with Suspiria.
Drag Me To Hell (2009, dir. Sam Raimi)
Drag Me To Hell is the big stand out on the list because of how insane and extreme it gets with its witch’s curse. Christine is a loan officer at a bank who is pressured to deny an elderly woman an extension on her mortgage. The woman becomes irate and curses Christine which leads to an absorbing metaphorical examination of eating disorders. Drag Me To Hell pulls out some incredibly gross visuals playing with food and having disgusting things in your mouth (no, not like that!). Actress Alison Lohman is put through the wringer in a film that showcases how dangerous it is to cross a witch.
The Witch (2015, dir. Robert Eggers)
The Witch is probably the best film about witches ever made. Director Eggers shows what a master of the craft he is by building the perfect mood of dread. Every image is carefully framed, and the soundtrack underscores the growing horror in the woods. A Puritan family is banished from their village and end up building a home near the edge of some dark woods. First, the infant son is taken and then accusations between the family members begin to fly. From the opening shots, The Witch is clear it is going to be a sensory shaking experience. Composer Mark Korvin’s haunting score with its hellish choir takes us to the very edge of the evil that is stalking the family in the woods. The film’s finale is simultaneously beautiful and evil.
Hypothetical Film Festivals place five to six films together that share some thematic element.
Hypothetical Film Festival: Family Nightmares
Families can be terrifying things. They have histories shaded in darkness and can know your most intimate secrets. Sometimes it’s hard to decide whether being inside a family is more disturbing than viewing one from the outside.
Parents (1989, dir. Bob Balaban)
Bob Balaban is known to most of us a beloved character actor with a penchant for dry, Buster Keaton-esque reactions. You’ve seen him as the narrator in Moonrise Kingdom or multiple Christopher Guest mockumentaries. Less well known is his first foray into feature film directing, Parents. Starring Randy Quaid and Mary Beth Hurt as the titular parents, the film focuses on their son’s slow burn discovery of a horrific secret they’ve been hiding from him. Set in the 1950s the film plays with the conventions of the nuclear family unit and is a genuinely dark and horrifying film. Balaban’s use of slow motion and twisted camera angles ease the movie into a deeply disturbing place.
Visitor Q (2002, dir. Takashi Miike)
There are few families on this list as fucked up as the Yamazakis. Father, mother, son, and daughter, they are one depraved, twisted mess after another. I won’t go into the details here, but suffice to say from the opening scene you should be unsettled. Director Miike drops Visitor Q into the mix, a stranger who seems intent on forcing this family to come back together but not giving up their utterly disturbing behaviors. Murder, drug use, incest, these are just a few of the messed up things that go down in this film. If you’ve ever seen a Miike film it won’t come as a surprise, but if you haven’t…well you are in for quite an experience.
Home Movie (2008, dir. Christopher Denham)
Pastor David Poe and his wife Clare have just moved, with their son and daughter, to a quaint home in the New England woods. Based on the director’s experience as a child filming his family’s life, Home Movie uses the found footage trope to explore multiple perspectives of parents dealing with children seemingly possessed by pure evil. Nothing supernatural ever happens, and it appears that we’re dealing with children who have suddenly become sociopathic. The sense of dread the film builds is very profound and primal, and the horror of what the children have been up to in secret is slowly laid out for the audience. The final chilling moments of the film descend into pure visceral horror and leave the viewer with lots of questions and lots of things to think about.
The Woman (2011, dir. Lucky McKee)
If you watch one film on this list, make it The Woman. It’s based on a novel by Jack Ketchum who if you know anything about him already know this is a very dark, disturbing film. An unnamed woman, the last of a clan of violent humans, somehow untouched by civilization and kept feral, ends up in the custody of Chris Cleek and his family. Chris is one of the scariest film villains I have ever witnessed on screen, so sure of his moral and divine right to control those around him. Pollyanna McIntosh plays The Woman and delivers such a raw, vicious performance that it will linger in your mind for years as it has with me. Where this film goes and the secrets it reveals about this family are more disturbing than any Texas Chainsaw Massacre you can dream up. What family members do to one another is often beyond even our worst nightmares.
Here Comes the Devil (2012, dir. Adrian Garcia Bogliano)
A family takes a trip near the outskirts of Tijuana and lose their preteen son and daughter in the hills. Hours later, the police deliver the two children home. The parents are so relieved and move on with their lives. However, something is very very wrong with the kids. They don’t eat anymore, they don’t sleep, and their babysitter sees something…something so terrible she cannot give it words, the night she watches them. But parents can’t abandon and give up on their children. Here Comes the Devil explores the lengths to which parents will go to protect their children and how they will destroy others rather than confront the evil sitting across the kitchen table from them.
It’s as simple as the title, films that have very prominent brother relationships at their core.
American History X (1998, dir. Tony Kaye)
Everyone remembers Edward Norton as the terrifying, swastika tattooed skinhead. The scene where he curbs a young black man who had broken into his house is gut wrenching. What’s interesting is how he so embodies evil in the flashbacks during the film, yet is an incredibly sympathetic character when reformed. His younger brother, played by Edward Furlong, is high school student struggling to understand how his older brother has turned his back on their family’s white power ways. In many ways the film is a race against time picture, Norton is desperately trying to get his little brother to stop being motivated through hate before something terrible happens to him.
Capturing the Friedmans (2003, dir. Andrew Jarecki)
In the 1980s, Arnold Friedman, a Long Island resident was arrested for possession of child pornography. As investigations continued police believe that Arnold and his son Jesse were sexually molesting students of private computer lessons they gave in the home. The two other sons in the family become strained as the family is marked as a pariah in the neighborhood. The evidence for the case is based entirely on the testimony of the students, and it could be interpreted that these confessions were encouraged by the authorities. But that doesn’t explain the magazines, or the overall strangeness of this family and these three brothers. A very disturbing film that, much like in real life, leaves you with a lot of answered questions.
Straw Dogs (1971, dir. Sam Peckinpah)
While the main plot concerns Dustin Hoffman and his British bride being plagued by the local thugs of her hometown, those thugs are brothers through their life together in this small village. In particular, David Warner as Henry Niles, a mentally handicapped man whom tags along with the boys in a major piece in the story. The film is violent and hard to watch. Hoffman basically cracks after being pushed too far by the thugs and precedes to murder them all. By the end of the film Hoffman has take Warner into his care, and Warner has shifted from being the brother of his villagers to a brother with Hoffman. His final line of the movie “I don’t know my way home” is incredibly poignant given the larger context of the film.
Mean Creek (2004, dir. Jacob Aaron Estes)
Mean Creek is a film about actors you are familiar with doing very dark things. Actors from Nickleodeon and Disney Channel shows are featured here as well as a Culkin brother. It seems Sam (Rory Culkin) is bullied endlessly by George (Josh Peck). Sam’s brother and his friends invite George out for a rafting trip with the intention of humiliating George on camera and then showing it to the kids at school. Things go wrong, someone dies, and the group are forced to deal with dark subjects you would never expect them to have to. A body has to be hidden, police have to be lied to, and their innocence is completely destroyed by the end of the film.
Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead (2007, dir. Sidney Lumet)
Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Ethan Hawke star as brothers whose choices have led them down some very sad paths. Hoffman is a successful investor who has been dipping in the company till to fund his drug habit. Hawke is divorced and estranged from his daughter, he needs money to prove he can share custody. Hoffman suggests they knock over their parent’s jewelry store, knowing that insurance will cover the losses. They send in a third party and things go very bad. The film is told out of sequence and it definitely works well. We see the heist, not knowing who any of these people are, then we jump back and see how it was put together. We see a funeral then we see the brothers hatching their plan. This is probably one of the darkest films about brotherhood and a criminally overlooked film from a master director.
There’s a very interesting plot device called the Unreliable Narrator, wherein the point of view you are getting the story from comes from a person who is possibly skewing the facts in their favor, creating a story that is not quite true. Here’s some films that use that idea to great effect.
Rashomon (1950, dir. Akira Kurosawa)
Rashomon was the introduction of Kurosawa and post-war Japanese cinema to the world. The framing of the story was unlike anything that had really been seen in cinema, but had roots in older literature, particularly Shakespeare (whose works would be a major influence on Kurosawa throughout his career). A woodcutter and priest are seeking shelter in the husk of an old building while it storms outside. A passerby enters and they explain a strange murder of a samurai and the court case in which his wife, the bandit being accused, and the spirit of the samurai himself all testify. Through the three differing viewpoints we get three different pictures, with the added framing of these figures telling us the story. It’s a like a hedge maze of narrative.
Amadeus (1984, dir. Milos Forman)
The elderly composer Salieri tries to kill himself but is stopped. Later he is visited by a young priest and the old man tells the tale of his rivalry with Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and how Salieri believes he killed the virtuoso. Salieri of course frames himself as pious and obedient, devoted to tradtion. Amadeus is seen a lewd and bawdy figure. Salieri sees his craft as a gift from God and cannot comprehend how someone as heathen and ribald as Amadeus was given a gift that far surpasses his own. The question we must ask is, how honest is this portrayal of the composer, and is this Salieri’s attempt to justify his hand in Amadeus’ death?
Memento (2001, dir. Christopher Nolan)
Both the film that introduced us to director Nolan (The Prestige, The Dark Knight) and what presents probably the most unreliable of unreliable narrators. Leonard is a man without the ability to form new memories. This was the result of a break-in at his home years prior that also resulted in the death of his wife. Now Leonard is on a hunt for the man responsible. Because of his lack of new memory he has tattooed key facts about the assailant on his body. Beyond that, he carries a Polaroid camera where ever he goes, photographing acquaintances and scribbling notes about them on the pictures. But what does Leonard really know? As we experience time in the same way Leonard does, we will ask lots of questions and when the disturbing conclusion comes about we will be left questioning Leonard himself.
Spider (2002, dir. David Cronenberg)
Dennis Cleg (Ralph Fiennes) has just been released from a mental asylum. The reason why he was there in the first place is not revealed at first, instead we follow him to the work home he has been assigned to in an attempt to transition back into society. He immediately draws the ire of the housekeeper and befriends housemate Terrence (John Neville). Mixed into his day to day life are nightmarish flashbacks to his childhood, focusing on his alcoholic father (Gabriel Byrne) and his beaten down mother (. The story of their tumultuous relationship is what forms Dennis and ultimately drives him to the asylum. The reason behind his nickname, Spider, is tied directly to this childhood incident. But then you must ask yourself, how reliable are the childhood flashbacks of a psychopath?
Bubba Ho-Tep (2002, dir. Don Coscarelli)
The film is told from the perspective of Elvis Presley (played brilliantly by Bruce Campbell), or it could be mechanic Sebastian Haff. Presley explains that he traded places with Haff in the 1970s to get away from the business, and for some reason the staff of his nursing home doesn’t believe him. Also living in this home is a black man who claims to be President Kennedy (Ossie Davis), explaining that he was dyed black and abandoned in the nursing home after the assassination attempt. Terrorizing the elderly at night in this home is an ancient Egyptian mummy who, for some reason, has taken on the garb of a cowboy. The two men, unable to get the staff on their side, take matters into their own hands and battle the mummy. But what if they are simply just two crazy people?
So today is my beautiful girlfriend, Ariana’s birthday. She is in Puerto Rico and myself in Nashville so it can be a little sad some times to have to wait and deal with overpriced airline tickets and saving up enough to live in the same place. That said, she has gotten a few creative birthday gifts from me recently (a solo D&D campaign designed for her, my class from student teaching wishing her happy birthday over the phone). Here is her third gift: a blog post devoted to her 😀
Persepolis (2007, dir. Marjane Satrapi, Vincent Paronnaud)
This was the first film Ariana and I saw in the theater. She came up to visit in February of 2008. She had read the graphic novel the film was based on recently and by sheer lucky it was playing for a couple week at the Green Hills 16. It was a cloudy afternoon and, after stopping by Lipscomb, we walked over to the theater and saw it. Afterwards, it was dinner at Cheeseburger Charlie’s and grabbing some groceries before heading home. In a lot of ways it was the first official “date” if you think of dates as consisting of things like a “dinner and a movie”. The film is great, I think particularly because Satrapi was directly involved.
Airplane! (1980, dir. Jim Abrahams, David Zucker, Jerry Zucker)
This was on the same visit as Persepolis above. Airplane! was being shown as a Midnight Movie at the Belcourt and sort of structured a night around it. First, we visited the Frist Museum, they had an exhibit on the Impressionists at the time, and Ariana being an graphic designer major enjoyed it. We played around in the kid art exhibit afterwards, making prints and goofing off. Then it was dinner at Jackson’s where I had some amazing grilled tuna, thinking about it makes me hungry. Then Airplane! where the employees of the Belcourt introduced the film the same way flight attendants prepare a plane for takeoff. It was lots of fun.
The Happening (2008, dir. M. Night Shyamalan)
Without a doubt one of the funniest experiences I have ever had in a movie theater. During my first visit to Puerto Rico we decided to go see this picture. We both a little lukewarm about M. Night but I figured it might be good. Boy, were we wrong. Throughout the film we kept turning to each other with looks of “Is this for real?”, I kept reassuring her “I’m sure there’s going to be some twist to explain why everyone is acting completely unnatural”. The film became a madcap comedy to us at the point where Mark Whalberg sings “Black Water” in an attempt to prove to some people he and his companions are not affected by the virus. You can see the clip here. I knew I loved Ariana when she noticed two shots with boom mikes in the frame that I completely missed. The Happening has become a comedic touchstone in our relationship.
The Dark Knight (2008, dir. Christopher Nolan)
As soon as I saw the first trailer of this one I thought, “I want to see that movie with Ariana.” This is something we tell each other frequently when an upcoming films looks like something that appeals to our geeky sensibilities. I’m not exactly sure why, but there is just something great about sharing that first viewing of an amazing film with the person you love. I remember us both leaving the theater in a sort of dazed high, the geek centers of our brains overloading with stimulation. I saw the film many times since, but no viewing has matched as great as it was seeing it with her.
Waltz With Bashir (2008, dir. Ari Folman)
I first saw this film by myself, then during a visit by Ari I want her to come see it with me. Being a graphic designer she liked the visuals. I was a little ticked that she fell asleep during the middle (she was getting a cold if I remember right) but I made sure to keep her awake. Afterwards we got some amazing Indian food at a restaurant that got turned into a taco place now. It sucks because the saffron rice at that place made me happy to be alive.