When you are a newlywed, you watch a lot of movies. It’s one of those bland domestic things, like playing house-rules Scrabble or taking long walks through the neighborhood, that you now find novel because they’re with your wife.
But being as we are on a pretty tight budget, we rarely visit the $14-a-ticket movie theater. Instead, most of our movies have come from the public library, which boasts an impressive collection of old, foreign and obscure films — and a few newer ones.
So it’s been hit-or-miss. We’ve seen our fair share of head-scratchers, like Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s transcendentally obtuse Syndromes and a Century. And we’ve sat through some critically acclaimed turds, like Greenberg (Why couldn’t Noah Baumbach have just made The Squid and the Whale 2?).
But there have been winners, too. Here are our favorites so far:
This is classic sci-fi, set in a claustrophobic moon outpost inhabited by a lonely maintenance worker named Sam (Sam Rockwell) and a shifty robot assistant (Kevin Spacey) who acts a lot like HAL in 2001.
Part of what makes it work, I think, is the lived-in feeling of the set and costumes. Sam looks more like a trucker than some intrepid space colonist. He whittles wooden models of his hometown when he’s bored. He hangs fuzzy dice in the moon rover. He’s sort of a hippie.
The film is also immensely sad and loaded with existential weight. Not a great first-date movie, per se, but perfect for sitting on the couch and pretending to be film critics afterward. And I’ll not give away the plot twist, but it makes you awfully glad not to be alone.
¡Three Amigos! (1986)
I’d just finished reading Steve Martin’s excellent memoir about his standup comedy years, and I needed a dose of clueless-white-man humor. This one was part of a treasure trove of VHS tapes that my wife’s sister had given us after her VCR bit the dust.
While it doesn’t top The Jerk as our all-time favorite Martin vehicle, it hit the spot. The humor is corny as all get-out — I almost rolled on the floor when Chevy Chase’s character asked the villagers of Santo Poco, “Do you have anything here besides Mexican food?” — and the satire is light.
On a side note, I’m waiting for VHS to come back as a trendy format, kind of like vinyl albums. My wife and I enjoy watching previews for old movies that apparently flopped, and Good Will Hunting was made all the more enjoyable by the fact that the top of Matt Damon’s kept warping toward the upper right corner of the screen. All my hipster friends wax faux-nostalgic about the crackles, hisses and “warmth” of old vinyl, so what I want to know is: Where are the tape snobs?
Super Size Me (2004)
I know, I know. We’re way behind the times on this one. When my wife saw it was streaming for free on Hulu, we decided it was our duty as Americans to watch it.
We’d already seen Food, Inc. and Fast Food Nation, but this one had a far more engaging approach. Food, Inc. was informative, but I thought Michael Pollan did a better job summing up the grossness of the beef industry in his New York Times Magazine piece “Power Steer.” Fast Food Nation succeeded at being both aimless and preachy, a rare combination — perhaps fictionalization was the wrong route to take. It’s a bad sign when you can say Avril Lavigne stole the show.
Super Size Me worked because of its sheer chutzpah. This guy, Morgan Spurlock, put his life (or at least his health) on the line to say something about the chow we’re being fed. My wife is studying to be a nurse, so it struck a nerve as she recalled all the complications she’d seen in the hospitals with overweight, diabetic patients. I’m a journalist with a flair for personal involvement, so I was encouraged by Spurlock’s success.
Despicable Me (2010)
Usually I’m a Pixar purist when it comes to kids’ movies, but this one won me over. Maybe it was Steve Carell’s diabolical Russian accent (which, coincidentally, sounded exactly like a great storyteller named Boris Timanovsky we had heard on The Moth podcast). Maybe it was all the thinly veiled jabs at Apple fanboy culture. Maybe I’m just a sucker for movies about orphans.
Whatever the case, in a $2 movie theater with scuddy floors and no 3D glasses, we found ourselves getting emotionally invested in the struggles of a washed-up old supervillain who wants to steal the moon.
One day, we will watch this one with our kids, along with Toy Story 3, Up, The Sandlot and, eventually, Stand By Me. Sometimes we talk about these things: What will we want them to watch? What values does a movie like Snow White really teach to a young girl? Will we enforce good taste on our kids, or will we let them watch Shrek the Third?
Kids don’t really understand kids’ movies, anyway. I know I didn’t.
Home Movie (2001)
As with the 1999 cult classic documentary American Movie, you’re never sure whether director Chris Smith wants you to laugh at or sympathize with the people onscreen. Home Movie is an intimate, matter-of-fact look at five unusual houses around America and the people who live in them. Included are a cat-friendly home inhabited by a cat-obsessed older couple, a Louisiana houseboat owned by an alligator wrassler, and a converted missile silo occupied by a husband and wife who are big fans of pan flute music.
It’s like MTV’s Cribs, but with weirdoes instead of celebrities. And yet I caught myself relating to some of these people, like when the couple in the missile silo talked about their home being a castle, or when the houseboat guy showed off the bayou-to-mouth simplicity of his lifestyle.
But what really made sense, and what gave us hope, was that no matter how deranged these people’s ideas of home décor, the couples in the documentary understood each other completely. Sure, it’s a little odd to tell your grown children they can’t stay for Christmas because all the rooms are occupied by cats. Sure, it’s a little creepy to have a concrete launch site in the middle of your subterranean abode. But to them, that’s home. That’s the good life.