During January, movie fans would be forgiven for thinking of the Sundance Film Festival as the only game in town. It comes at a perfect time: right in the midst of January’s new-release doldrums, just as everyone catches up on all of the awards movies from the previous year, and well before the annual Cannes…
10. ME AND ORSON WELLES
Richard Linklater is no stranger to film festivals; you can pretty much picture him crashing on their couches the few weeks out of the year that he's not making movies. His period comedy-drama ME AND ORSON WELLES, starring Christian McKay in a revelatory performance as Orson Welles and Zac Efron in a non-HIGH SCHOOL MUSICAL performance in the role of "Me," played at several festivals, but didn't sell until, fittingly enough, it hit the South by Southwest festival in Austin. It's essential for all kinds of nerdy demos: Linklater completists, hardcore Welles fans, and theater aficionados. It could get more essential if Efron fully graduates to grown-up leading man roles, the desire for which he telegraphed by working with Linklater here.
Watch ME AND ORSON WELLES Sunday January 20 at 10:05p.
9. THE PRIVATE LIVES OF PIPPA LEE
Written and directed by Rebecca Miller (novelist, daughter of Arthur, wife of Daniel Day-Lewis and, as such, frequent award-show attendee), this relatively unsung indie is a case study of the hunger for good roles among actresses. For an intimate character study of a movie (which played festivals at Berlin, Edinburgh, Sydney, and Toronto), Miller was able to recruit Robin Wright Penn, Maria Bello, Julianne Moore, Winona Ryder, Monica Bellucci, and a young-ish Blake Lively. It's still Miller's most recent film, so if you want to catch up with her well-wrought portraits (also including PERSONAL VELOCITY), this can be a starting or ending point.
Watch THE PRIVATE LIVES OF PIPPA LEE Saturday January 26 at 10p.
8. BUENA VISTA SOCIAL CLUB
Or, the festival favorite that launched a million CD purchases. Remember CDs? The soundtrack to this documentary sold five million of them. Wim Wenders' film about legendary Cuban musicians premiered at the Berlin Film Festival and went on to show that neither world music nor documentaries nor documentaries about world music were necessarily poison to American audiences.
Watch BUENA VISTA SOCIAL CLUB Monday January 21 at 11p.
7. NURSE BETTY Remember that time Neil LaBute made a movie that wasn't exactly a Neil LaBute picture? We're not talking about his remake of DEATH AT A FUNERAL, but this dark comedy-drama (from someone else's screenplay) about a delusional nurse (Renee Zellweger) who sets off to find the soap-opera hero of her dreams. Pretty much everyone involved with this Cannes 2000 debut -- Zellweger, LaBute, Morgan Freeman, Chris Rock, Greg Kinnear -- is better-known for other projects and also does excellent work here. LaBute in particular does quite well even (maybe especially) with his dark-comic instincts but without his trademark provocations.
Watch NURSE BETTY Tuesday January 22 at 10p.
6. THE THREE BURIALS OF MELQUIADES ESTRADA
In big-studio Hollywood, Tommy Lee Jones is the consummate Best Supporting Actor even in his MEN IN BLACK mega-franchise, he's the stoic rock that leading man Will Smith keeps bouncing off of. But in THE THREE BURIALS OF MELQUIADES ESTRADA (a Cannes premiere in 2005), Jones directs his own vehicle: a quiet, mournful, graceful story of a ranch hand (Jones) fulfilling a promise to bury his best friend in Mexico. As Jones competes for another Supporting Actor Oscar for his excellent work in LINCOLN, it's the perfect time visit or revisit his elegiac western.
Watch THE THREE BURIALS OF MELQUIADES ESTRADA Saturday January 19 at 10p.
5. REVERSAL OF FORTUNE
Film festivals often serve as launching pads for movies that might not otherwise attract major audience or awards attention; there may not be a better example than REVERSAL OF FORTUNE, in which Jeremy Irons plays the bizarre, affected Claus von Bulow, insinuating himself all the way from the Toronto Film Festival to an Oscar for Best Actor. It's an ambiguous, sometimes unsettling role -- a far cry from the tortured heroes or charismatic villains who often capture the award.
Watch REVERSAL OF FORTUNE Thursday January 24 at 10:15p.
4. THE BEACH
THE BEACH has developed a reputation as the nadir of celebrated director Danny Boyle's career, coming after the early breakthroughs of SHALLOW GRAVE and TRAINSPOTTING but before the scrappy comeback 28 DAYS LATER or the Oscar-winning SLUMBDOG MILLIONAIRE. This 2000 film (which played several festivals in Europe around the time of its early-2000 U.S. debut) also carries the stigma of being Leonardo DiCaprio's first post-TITANIC starring role, which understandably failed to set box office records. But removed from that business-centric context and placed into the context of Boyle's career THE BEACH is actually pretty interesting -- and unfairly maligned. DiCaprio plays a young traveler who happens upon a hippie community on a secret island off the coast of Thailand. As usually happens in Boyle movies, there is a point where everything goes to hell and the hero seems to be going insane; DiCaprio gets one of the best, weirdest freak-outs of Boyle's filmography.
Watch THE BEACH Friday January 25 at 10p.
Before adapting Rex Pickett's novel about deeply unhappy wine expert Miles (played here by Paul Giamatti) on a bachelor-party bender with his irresponsible groom-to-be best friend (Thomas Haden Church), writer/director Alexander Payne specialized in dark-comic satires. SIDEWAYS certainly has moments of darkness (on his way out of town, Miles steals money from his elderly mother), but it's not as satirical as ELECTION or even ABOUT SCHMIDT, and further explores the tenderness that seeped into the latter. This move away from comedy and toward soulfulness would continue with Payne's next film, THE DESCENDANTS; anyone charting his career, then, needs to take a look at SIDEWAYS, whose awards-season run began at the Toronto Film Festival.
Watch SIDEWAYS Sunday January 27 at 10p.
2. BARTON FINK
I'm not saying that the Coen Brothers' BARTON FINK would not have seen release or acclaim without the status conferred by its Cannes Film Festival premiere, but I'm sure it didn't hurt to receive some encouragement in the form of three awards: Best Director, Best Actor, and the coveted Palme d'Or. FINK was, to this point in the Coens' career, probably the weirdest movie they'd ever made: BLOOD SIMPLE was diabolical, RAISING ARIZONA wildly funny, and MILLER'S CROSSING stylized and surreal, but BARTON FINK gets downright hallucinatory in telling the story of a blocked playwright trying to write a screenplay for a "wrestling picture" starring Wallace Beery. You'll never look at traveling salesmen, peeling wallpaper, guys named Chet, or loud, combative men at big desks quite the same way. At this point, there are more essential Coen pictures that non-essentials, but the writer's hell of FINK will be particularly relevant to any would-be writers out there.
Watch BARTON FINK Friday January 18 at 10p.
1. BEING JOHN MALKOVICH
It sounded like a surreal joke: a movie about a portal in an office building leading directly to the brain of John Malkovich, where entrants can spend fifteen minutes before they're ejected onto the side of the New Jersey turnpike. What it turned out to be instead, when it premiered at the 1999 Venice Film Festival before garnering three Oscar nominations, was an announcement: of boundlessly talented screenwriter Charlie Kaufman and remarkably assured director Spike Jonze, both making stunning feature debuts after careers in TV and skateboarding/music videos, respectively. It's required viewing not just because it's hilarious (though it is), heartbreaking (ditto), and unlike just about any other movie, but because it's a key movie in the young auteur emergence of the mid-to-late nineties. Jonze and Kaufman (and soon-to-follow Michel Gondry) came on the tail end of a series of stunning introductions --Wes Anderson, Paul Thomas Anderson, Alexander Payne, the Wachowskis, David O. Russell -- that would define much of the best American cinema for the next ten-plus years.
Watch BEING JOHN MALKOVICH Wednesday January 23 at 10p.