I Don’t Want to Be a Man (1918)
Directed by Ernst Lubitsch
Lubitsch is my favorite director of all time, so I was excited when Netflix added several of his early silent films a few years ago. I haven’t made it through all of them yet, but this is the best one I’ve seen so far. A young woman decides to go out on the town in disguise as a man, and she finds it freeing because no one tries to control her life or tell her what to do. The ending is kind of a copout, but it’s still a fascinating look at how gender politics have changed and how they’ve stayed the same in the past century. More importantly, it’s hilarious.
Directed by William Wyler
The Good Fairy wasn’t directed by Lubitsch, but you’d be forgiven for thinking it was. It stars Margaret Sullavan and Frank Morgan (who would later be reunited in Lubitsch’s The Shop Around the Corner, also set in Budapest), along with Herbert Marshall (who had starred in Trouble in Paradise). Sullavan plays an optimistic teenage orphan who escapes the advances of a rich businessman (Morgan) by telling her she’s married, so he decides to do a good deed by hiring her husband, a random down-on-his-luck lawyer (Marshall) she picks out of the phone. The script is by a young Preston Sturges, and it moves like lightning. Every single minute has at least one laugh-out-loud joke.
Holiday (1938)/Born Yesterday (1950)
Directed by George Cukor
Two delightful screwball comedies directed by one of the masters of the genre. Of the two, I’d probably give a slight edge to Born Yesterday, which finds real emotional depth in the story of a crooked businessman’s “stupid” girlfriend (Judy Holliday) and her tutor (William Holden). Holiday - a movie where Cary Grant gets engaged to a girl only to find out that her sister is Katharine Hepburn, so obviously he’s picked the wrong sister - is lighter, but it’s just as funny, especially whenever Edward Everett Horton shows up.
The Christmas That Almost Wasn’t (1966)
Directed by Rossano Brazzi
The Christmas That Almost Wasn’t seems like something that should have been featured on Mystery Science Theater 3000 or RiffTrax at some point, but it somehow never has been. In any case, it’s a delightful so-bad-it’s good movie all of its own. It seems that Santa Claus has been living at the North Pole rent-free all the years, but now the Eskimos sold the property to an evil, Christmas-hating man named Phineas Prune who plans to evict Santa if he can’t pay his rent. Naturally, Santa hires a lawyer to defend him and tries to find a part-time job to make money. It also features some of the oddest, most memorably terrible songs in a movie ever. An extra layer of weirdness is added by the odd dubbing - the all-Italian cast phonetically pronounced the English dialogue, and then American actors dubbed all of the voices. It’s not what I’d call a good movie, but it’s always an entertaining one.
A New Leaf (1971)
Directed by Elaine May
A New Leaf takes a moldy old premise - a bachelor needs to get married in order to inherit a fortune - and gives it two dark, brilliant twists. First, Henry (Walter Matthau) has no interest in sex or women at all. Secondly, when he meets a woman willing to marry him (Elaine May), he can’t stand her and decides to kill her - not for more money, just because he can’t stand not being single. It’s a marvel of keeping a perfect tone - if it was just a bit darker, we’d hate Henry. It was just just a bit softer, there would be no movie. As it is, it’s one of the funniest comedies of the 70s.
Being There (1979)
Directed by Hal Ashby
I’ve been burned twice in the past by “classic” Hal Ashby movies that I disliked (Harold & Maude and Shampoo). Here, he and I are finally on the same page. I knew this movie for its famous final shot, but that’s one of the least exciting things about it. Peter Sellers is subdued, lowkey and tremendous as Chance, a simple gardener who becomes a key confidant to an old businessman who’s a key confidant to the President (Jack Warden). It uses a stream of TV and radio clips to comment on the action in a way I’ve never quite seen before, and it even makes great use of Melvyn Douglas - a very boring actor in his youth - as the grumpy, dying old man.
Only Yesterday (1991)
Directed by Isao Takahata
While I’m a big Hayao Miyazaki fan, until this year I’d never seen anything directed by his Studio Ghibli co-founder Takahata. I picked the perfect place to start. When a 20-something woman goes back to the farm where she spent a summer, she thinks back to those younger days. The movie jumps between childhood and adulthood, showing how each informs the other. It’s one of the most realistic portrayals of childhood nostalgia I’ve ever seen, offering an adult who fondly remembers being a kid while also acting consistently like an adulthood. The movie has never been released in the United States, because the rights are owned by Disney and they have no idea what do with an animated film this subtle. But if you happen to come across it, it’s well worth your two hours.
Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994)
Directed by Mike Newell
I went into to Four Weddings expecting it to be kind of dull. I’ve never much cared for either Hugh Grant or Andie MacDowell, and I’m not generally a big fan of 1990s romantic comedies (preferring ones from decades earlier). But I was surprised and delighted to find that the movie is full of sharply drawn, fully-realized characters who aren’t the two stars (Grant is actually terrific, but MacDowell is as boring as I expected). Don’t watch it for the central relationship, which is almost beside the point. Watch it for all of their friends.