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Symkus column: Some ideas for a night of offbeat movies in the living room

Ed Symkus
More Content Now
"Inherent Vice"

Over the past week or so, I’ve been using this space to suggest films to stream at home that I think might be of general, mainstream interest. But I tacked on the caveat that they must have appeared on one of my annual Top 10 lists and that I liked them so much that I’ve seen each of them at least twice.

Now it’s time to get out of the mainstream, but still stay within the rules. These 10-Top 10, at least twice-seen films defy categorization. Maybe the right word is “miscellaneous” or “offbeat.” If you were playing “Jeopardy,” they’d likely be found under a column called “Movie Potpourri.” All are currently available on the usual streaming platforms.

“Being John Malkovich” - A brilliant but struggling puppeteer (John Cusack) takes a job as a filing clerk, damages his marriage to Lotte (Cameron Diaz) when he develops a crush on coworker Maxine (Catherine Keener), discovers a portal into the mind of John Malkovich (Malkovich), and learns about the pitfalls of immortality.

“Inherent Vice” - Joaquin Phoenix plays a stoned-out ’70s private detective whose former girlfriend (Katherine Waterston) comes looking for help. Based on the Thomas Pynchon novel, this is a noir-comedy, populated by, among others, a nasty cop (Josh Brolin), a cocaine-fueled dentist (Martin Short), and a difficult current girlfriend (Reese Witherspoon). The favor asked of him puts him in touch with many unsavory types, but there’s humor in the film’s darkness.

“Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” - Petty thief Robert Downey Jr. finds himself accidentally auditioning for - and landing - a movie role, and getting involved with murder, and a private detective (Val Kilmer), and a long-forgotten girlfriend (Michelle Monaghan). Then the bodies start piling up. But the clever script has the movie constantly winking at itself, suggesting (rightly) that it’s a spoof of murder mysteries.

“Pleasantville” - Serious and funny, charming and deep, this superbly crafted, wholly original tale has contemporary high school siblings David (Tobey Maguire) and Jennifer (Reese Witherspoon) inexplicably sucked into their TV set and deposited in the black and white world of a 1950s sitcom. One wants to get back home, the other wants to rescue the townsfolk from their square existences. There’s a great deal of light humor, all complemented by a subversive edge that touches on sex and racism and being something other than “normal.”

“Requiem for a Dream” - Adapted from the harsh Hubert Selby novel about different forms of addiction, Darren Aronofsky’s daring film makes for an even more unsettling experience than the book. Some characters are stuck on drugs, another on television (though she, too, moves on to drugs). This is a story of people’s impossible dreams being dashed, due to their own weaknesses. It’s jittery and scary and erotic and unflinching in delivering an anti-drug message.

“Sideways” - A divorced and frustrated author and wine connoisseur (Paul Giamatti) goes on a wine-themed road trip with his washed-up-actor pal (Thomas Haden Church) just before the pal’s wedding day. But they each have different agendas, as one of them is thoughtful and the other is carefree. Besides revealing what makes these guys tick, the film also works as a primer on wine and how to drink it, has comments on bad behavior by men, and brings a rare dose of sophistication to the screen.

“Stan & Ollie” - This ode to comedy greats Laurel and Hardy features Steve Coogan and John C. Reilly in the title roles, not just playing them, but inhabiting them. It focuses on a little-known period of their lives when, late in their careers, they attempted a comeback while on a tour in England. There’s some warmth and whimsy and sadness - things don’t go as planned - but also some hilarity when Coogan and Reilly recreate some wonderfully slapsticky old routines.

“2 Days in the Valley” - All sorts of unrelated stories with all kinds of unrelated characters are slowly drawn together via sex and violence, along with a quirky sense of humor. We get equal shares of nice people (Glenne Headly, Paul Mazursky) and nasty people (James Spader, Charlize Theron - in her debut), and as it moves along, the plot thickens like a tasty stew. Not everyone makes it to the end, but it can still be considered a happy one.

“Velvet Goldmine” - It starts out suggesting that the playwright Oscar Wilde was from another planet, then turns into a fictionalized study of ’70s glam rock, with the dazzlingly costumed Brian Slade (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) and the outrageous Curt Wild (Ewan McGregor) standing in for David Bowie and Iggy Pop. Something awful happens to one of them - onstage - and years later, a journalist (Christian Bale) tries to put pieces of the event together. Lots of music, bursts of energy, and a multi-layered story.

“Whiplash” - An impatient, antagonistic conservatory teacher (J.K. Simmons) and an ambitious, goal-oriented drumming prodigy (Miles Teller) clash, with all pistons firing. The script’s dialogue is as percussive as the drum fills, and because each of the lead characters is passionate about what they do, everything between them becomes a test of wills. There are a couple too many sideplots and coincidental twists, but this is a winner because of its belief in the power of music.
Ed Symkus writes about movies for More Content Now. He can be reached at esymkus@rcn.com.