During the course of any active week, most of us are lucky to sit down and have a chance to catch our breaths—much less watch a movie. Our lives can be hectic, between work, school, personal activities, and social events, we certainly don’t have time to kick back on the sofa and absorb an intriguing, life-affirming, head-scratching film. And if you have kids, forget about having a moment to yourself, much less a non-child friendly screen.
That’s why the occasional holiday or three-day weekend, like Labor Day, isn’t just a chance to breathe a sigh of relief, but also an opportunity to catch up on some of the heartier cinematic fare that languishes on your to-watch list. Sure, you could run around the great outdoors with the rest of the world, but the traffic, the crowds, and the hassle. Instead, why not set aside some time for side filmic brain food, pop some corn, and check off a smart movie or two from your rental, Amazon Prime, or Netflix list.
And just in case you haven’t even had time to add anything to your list, here are a few options:
In Bruges (2008)
Action movies aren’t always known for their brains, but once in a blue moon a film like In Bruges comes along. If you like your action films with a hearty dose of dark comedy and philosophy, this film might be right up your alley. Even if you don’t watch it for writer and playwright Martin McDonagh’s biting verbal repast or intriguing social commentary on the nature of violence and the morality of criminals, there’s still plenty of over-the-top action and borderline satirical violence.
The film stars Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleason as two rakish hitmen. After a hit on a priest goes awry, with Farrell accidentally killings an innocent bystander, the two chatty assassins are forced to flee to Belgium in order to escape their psychotic boss. The dialogue between Farrell and Gleason positively crackles, and fans of consummate actor Ralph Fiennes will appreciate his role hyper-animated portrayal of a gangland bigwig as well.
Mulholland Drive (2001)
If you’re a fan of David Lynch, then you’ve probably already seen this film and are familiar with the winding road of his story structure and his dreamlike logic. For those of you who haven’t seen any of his work and want to give him a try, this probably isn’t the best place to start, despite its critical acclaim. However, when you dispense with any expectations for a linear narrative, you might just find yourself enthralled with this picture.
Similar to his other offerings, Mulholland Drive follows in Lynch’s film noir-influenced style. In the film, Naomi Watts stars as would-be ingénue, Betty Elms, who comes to Hollywood with stars in her eyes. Her arrival at an apartment in the Hollywood Hills coincides with a young woman who wanders into the house after surviving a car crash. Her arrival sets in motion a sequence of gauzy events that weave in and out of the seedier side of Los Angeles, poking and prodding at the tarnished edges of the celebrity lifestyle, as well as love and loss and vengeance.
O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000)
A brain-friendly film with a lighter edge to it, this Coen Brothers’ offering provides a hearty dose of mental stimulation and a sense of whimsy that’s perfectly suited for long weekend viewing. Known for their eccentric characters, convoluted plots, and darkly comedic elements, the Coens always manage to spin an engaging yarn.
Successfully combining the acting chops of George Clooney and John Turturro with a punchy script based on Homer’s Odyssey, O Brother takes place in the Deep South of the 1930s. After escaping from prison, three convicts escape search for their ill-gotten gains, buried before their arrest. Between hunting for their loot, evading the cops determined to bring them back, and recording a hit song, the plot weaves in and out of some amusing, tense, and socially relevant situations. Fans of folksy bluegrass will also appreciate the film’s soundtrack, which is loaded with banjo picking delights from Alison Krauss, Emmylou Harris and others.
Goodbye to Language (2014)
The latest offering from French New Wave auteur Jean-Luc Godard, Language is a stunning visual feast as well as an engrossing exploration of the breakdown of marriage due to a lack of communication. Weaving two disparate versions of the same story together from alternate ends (if that makes any sense), Godard creates a sparse tale with powerful visual and at times surreal storytelling.
The plot, if you could call it one, involves two couples in similarly decaying situations, whose lives are connected only by one location and their relationship woes. As the title suggests, words don’t really do this film justice, though. It’s both an artsy, non-linear narrative between two disjointed storylines and a meditation on the failures of language, love, and betrayal. This is a film best watched, then absorbed, and then let go for a while, before you stream it again for renewed digestion. Hint: don’t dismiss the dog as irrelevant, because he ends up playing an intricate role in the film.
Let the Right One In (2008)
For those looking to escape the airheaded vampire flicks that have littered the landscape since Twilight bludgeoned the country with sparkly bloodsuckers, this film could be the antidote. Sure, the film is still steeped with romantic overtones, but they aren’t exactly what you’d expect. They don’t make the film soggy or bog down the genuinely creepy ambiance that Swedish director Tomas Alfredson builds throughout Let the Right One In.
Revolving around Oskar, a bullied twelve-year-old boy, the plot follows his burgeoning friendship with his new preteen neighbor Eli. Although approachable at first, she warns him that they could never be friends—a point then echoed by her guardian. It also turns out that his would-be next door paramour happens to be a vampire. When Eli’s companion is captured while trying to find her food, she finds herself with no one else to turn to except Oskar. In addition to being a disturbingly enjoyable flick, Let is also a contemplation on childhood, romance, gender, bullying, and violence that doesn’t provide any easy answers.
Before creeping everyone out with his horror thriller Black Swan, depressing people with Requiem for a Dream, and confusing the hell out of us with The Fountain (any one of them are easily honorable mentions for this article), Darren Aronofsky debuted his directorial skill with this surreal mathematical thriller.
Jobless and living in a rat hole apartment in New York City, Max Cohen is obsessed with numerical patterns. A number theorist, one who believes that life’s indelible mysteries can be solved via mathematics, he can solve complex equations inside his mind—something he’s constantly also on the verge of losing. When not racked by horrible headaches, he battles his social awkwardness by hanging out with a handful of friends and colleagues, including his former mentor. While crunching stock market stats on his computer, his program spits out a long sequence of numbers before crashing. The seemingly random number it prints out starts Max on a harrowing saga through the complex encoded world of numerology, ontology, and even classified government projects. Not merely for number geeks, Pi is a complex ride filled with intrigue, drama, and big questions.
Now known for his feature films, Greg Mottola used to be the offbeat TV king, well, aside from Bryan Fuller, anyway, with quirky series like Arrested Development and Undeclared. Writing for comedic television allowed him to develop a nuanced if hyperbolic style that’s embodies the angst and comedic elements of the maturation process. His unique flair for dialogue also serves him well in the world of coming of age films.
After graduating college, would-be grad student James (Jesse Eisenberg) discovers his parents are experiencing some fiscal difficulties. In order to support himself, he’s forced to find work at an amusement park—the titular Adventureland. Once gainfully employed, he finds himself working alongside a gaggle of odd ducks, most notably the alluring Em (Kristen Stewart). Driven by the need to lose his virginity, he tries to seduce her by virtue of his academic intellect. All the while, she’s infatuated with an older, hipper rock and roller played by Ryan Reynolds. While not the headiest film on the list, Adventureland does offer strong characters and realistic situations, combined with awkward laughs that unmask the vulnerability beneath the James’ mask of pretension.
The Conspiracy (2012)
Filmed using a documentary style, the premise of this film revolves around two would-be filmmakers who explore the fringe world of conspiracy theories, such 9/11 Truthers and the ever-popular sinister New World Order plot. Treading the line between reality and paranoia handily, the film is adept at keeping its viewers off balance. The writers also use real-life rituals and source materials to add an element of hyperrealism to the story.
Two filmmakers, Aaron and Jim, set out to explore the world of conspiracy buff Terrance G. after watching a video lampooning his paranoid perspectives. Initially cynical, when Terrance disappears following a paranoid outburst, they begin to delve further into his work, finding a shadowy group known as the Tarsus group. And, as you can imagine, there may or may not be a whole lot more lurking beneath the surface of this sinister organization. However, the director allows the overall ambiguity and unstable nature of “nonfictional” filmmaking to boost the overall tension in this clever little thriller.
2001: A Space Odyssey (1969)
One of the most whacked out, brain-bending movies of all time. To those who haven’t seen it, 2001 is Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece of science fiction, blending elements of history and evolutionary theory, in addition to now sci-fi tropes like spaceships and homicidal robots, along with a host of other philosophical explorations on the origins and future of our species.
The discovery of mysterious 4-million-year-old monolith sets in motion a scientific quest to uncover the origins of the signal emanating from it. To follow the signal, Dr. David Bowman and the crew of Discovery One must blast off for Jupiter under the dubious guidance of the emotionally unstable ship’s computer HAL 9000. After a series of “mishaps” hound the vessel on their mission of discovery, the crew is forced to make a few unexpected repairs.
Fair warning: although brilliant, the film can be extremely slow at times. Try not to fiddle with your smartphone or you’ll miss the revelatory and mentally satisfying aspects of this science fiction experience.
Being John Malkovich (1999)
Some days, living inside our own heads is a real pain in the ass. So the best form of intellectual escapism might not be jumping inside someone else’s head for an hour and a half. On the other hand, it could be the perfect way out of this reality. Either way, Spike Jonze’s surreal film is one hell of a head trip—literally.
When disaffected puppeteer Craig Schwartz (John Cusack) finds a new job at a LesterCorp, he also finds a new lease on life, well, someone else’s life anyway. Bored with his menial existence, he finds a doorway which leads directly into character actor John Malkovich’s mind. He introduces his sexually confused wife to the doorway, who then becomes fixated on her newfound diversion. As their new virtual reality tears their lives apart, the once-puppeteer Craig discovers a way to actually control Malkovich, which leads to hilarious and disturbing results. Far more than just dark comedy, the film is a rumination on our sense of self and metafictional reflection on our cultural need for escapism and our fixation on celebrity lives.
Of course the most important part of having a long weekend is, no matter what you watch, relax. However, if you’re already on the couch, it doesn’t hurt to add a little nutrition to your movie diet.
(Originally published on GeekSnack)