NETFLIX HIDDEN GEMS: Issue #10

During these dog days of summer, why not remind yourself that life can be funny in addition to making you sweat and feel gross and drained all the time? These Netflixable treats should do the trick for ya.

***ISSUE #10: AUGUST ‘10 — FUNNY AUGUST***

Ninotchka (1939) — The Lubitsch Touch in full effect. Like drinking champagne with your funniest friend. Billy Wilder’s script is deep and true and hilarious. More modern than anything in theaters today. And Greta Garbo and Melvyn Douglas have chemistry supreme. It’s simply as elegant and fun as movies get. A film that actually makes you high. (Noah Buschel)

Death to Smoochy (2002) — This is one of those films that divides the men from the boys, but I think it’s one of the funniest and sharpest satires out there. You do need to like your comedy on the dark side, however. Danny DeVito directs Robin Williams, Edward Norton and Catherine Keener in this hilarious flick that depicts the cutthroat world of kid’s TV. Popular host Rainbow Randolph (Williams, in a role that earned him a Razzie nomination for worst actor), is a corrupt in-it-for-the-money, high-living host of a popular show for children. When he’s fired by the network for receiving payola, he is replaced by “the son of Barney,” a cuddly, sweet purple rhino named Smoochy (Norton). The revenge plot plays out like some of the best Road Runner/Wile E. Coyote smackdowns out there. I haven’t seen it in a while, to be honest, but I remember throwing it onto one of my “best of” lists immediately after watching it for the first time. It’s odd, bizarre—did I mention dark?—and incredibly entertaining. It only registers a 42 on the ever-reliable Tomatometer, so if that’s your litmus test for what’s good out there, you’ve been forewarned. For other adventurous viewers, give it a whirl. Goes great with frozen mini pizzas, bagel bites and strawberry margaritas. (Pamela Cohn)

Lisa Picard is Famous (2000) — Directed by Griffin Dunne, this mockumentary is about a delusional New York City actress who thinks she’s teetering on the edge of the big time when in fact she’s teetering on the edge of sanity. An examination of show business’s underbelly is one of my fave genres (top picks include The Player, Living in Oblivion, Celebrity, and Ellie Parker) and this one does something particular, odd, and ticklishly funny. It’s Sunset Boulevard meets the oblivious everyman humor of The Office. Laura Kirk is a total revelation, and she wrote it too. (Lena Dunham)

Beeswax (2009) — In Beeswax, Andrew Bujalski focuses on a pair of twin sisters (Meg and Tilly Hatcher), one of whom is crippled and co-owns a thrift shop that she feels she has too much responsibility for, the other an attractive post-collegiate freelancer who’s just broken up with an older man and is drifting toward various opportunities. Bujalski uses color expressively at times, but generally he has refined his rough hewn, Eric-Rohmer-gone-all-DIY aesthetic only slightly; what makes Beeswax special are elements that have already been strong in his previous films getting even better. His casting is perfect and his ear for contemporary post-collegiate vernacular among the pale is without par. He gets a performance out of fellow filmmaker Alex Karpovsky (who was much less funny in Bob Byington’s nearly unwatchable Harmony and Me), playing the dual romantic foil for the two sisters, which is worthy of vintage Albert Brooks. The Hatcher sisters are incredibly warm and appealing screen personas. The dynamics that exist between them are often unpredictable, never malicious and always fun to watch. Beeswax is ultimately about the ways in which adulthood forces us to reconcile our own desires with those of others, subject matter that’s hinted at in Bujalski’s first couple of films, but given a fully textured rendering here. He delivers plenty of trademark awkward laughs that hinge on his performers’ lack of verbal dexterity, but also suggests, without being mawkish and without losing his cool, legitimate depth of feeling for the first time. (Brandon Harris) ***STREAM IT***

His Girl Friday (1940) — Yes, I know: surely I could have picked something less safe than this screwball-comedy chestnut. Something that hasn’t been canonized as an old-Hollywood classic, or endlessly picked to death by hordes of film critics, historians, and theorists. No doubt Fletch would be a better representative of my generational tastes, and Putney Swope would win me more indie-cred points. Eff all that. This is the movie that makes me laugh the most. When Rosalind Russell announces her presence in Cary Grant’s office, my head starts tingling, and once the bullet-train dialogue hits full speed, I feel like I’ve just inhaled all the nitrous oxide in the world. (Nelson Kim) ***STREAM IT***

Shampoo (1975) — My first viewing of Hal Ashby’s comic masterpiece coincided with my first visit to Los Angeles. I didn’t have a car, didn’t know my way around town, and didn’t have anything to do; and so after an initial attempt at making my way somewhere, anywhere, on foot, I retired to the couch I was crashing on and randomly picked a VHS copy of Shampoo off the shelf and popped it in. And so it was that my memory of my first trip to Hollywood is comprised of amazing hair, casual husbandry, too much sunlight and the sort of prolapsed comic timing that gives every punchline the rest of the film’s running time (and then some) to sink in and get funnier. Ashby’s approach feels so casual that it’s easy to forget how biting the picture really is. Given that he and screenwriter Robert Towne set the story squarely within the final 24 hours of LBJ’s presidency, it’s tempting to apply all the sexual ups and downs of its hairdresser protagonist George Roundy (Warren Beatty) to a more broadly social canvas, but let’s not discount what a profoundly realized character George really is, nor how handily he seduces us alongside the trophy wives and starlets and teenage sex fiends. We want to love him, and to dismiss his dalliances, just as his many paramours do. That we ultimately can’t is just the sort of indictment that Ashby always made loud and clear, and it’s this caustic edge that has perhaps kept me from ever really trusting Los Angeles. I feel like I’ve got its number. (David Lowery) ***STREAM IT***

Birthday Girl (2001) — Jez Butterworth’s movie is the best kind of romantic comedy, because it presents two damaged, fucked-up people and says, Yes, even you are worthy of being loved. Sweet, dark, lovely and very funny. Miramax tried to sell it as a thriller; don’t be fooled. (Tom Russell) ***STREAM IT***

Parenthood (1989) — The first five minutes of Parenthood sell the title hard: kids singing about diarrhea, a naked four-year-old wearing a gun holster and cowboy hat to sleep, and a little girl projectile vomiting on her father. Made just one year after his hit Willow, Ron Howard’s follow-up chronicles the ups and downs of late ‘80s parenting. With an all-star cast including Steve Martin, Martha Plimpton, Keanu Reeves, Rick Moranis, and a tiny scene stealing Joaquin Pheonix as an angsty adolescent, 21 years later this comedy stills hold its own. (P.S. Whatever happened to Martha Plimpton? I miss her.) From daffy, toe-headed toddlers wreaking havoc to an always-funny Steve Martin using bath mats as chaps when dressing as a cowboy to save his son’s birthday party to the Keanu Reeves who can incite a laugh by galumphing into a room, speaking in his slow, surfer drawl, this film will make even those with no interest in child-rearing enjoy this classic comedy. (Alexandra Roxo) ***STREAM IT***

Superstarlet A.D. (2000) — This super micro-budget black-and-white post-apocalyptic saga is by the king of Memphis pulp, Mike McCarthy, whose current film Cigarette Girl is just starting to hit the festival circuit. Superstarlet A.D. features buxom women roaming bombed out Memphis streets on horses while carrying large guns as the men cower in the shadows. It’s Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill! meets Mad Max in Memphis. Shot for a pittance on real old-school film stock, McCarthy has told me stories about shooting (without any permits) in abandoned Memphis neighborhoods where the cops would pull up and not even get out of their cars as they watched the topless women ride around on horseback. A modern-day drive-in classic. (Mike S. Ryan) ***STREAM IT ONLY***

Nuts in May (1976) — This might be my favorite of Mike Leigh’s early made-for-BBC films—it might very well be my favorite out of so many favorites—in which a stuffy upper-class husband and wife decide to go on a camping trip and instead find themselves at war with a much less posh and refined couple in the tent next door. Leigh’s work has always been forcefully defined by his obsession with attacking England’s rigid class system, but the genius of his a work is that you don’t have to appreciate that to fall in love with a film as dramatically alive and brilliantly funny as this. (Michael Tully) ***STREAM IT***

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