Ten Films For The Coming Weeks

 We all know it, and consciously or unconsciously, we prepare for it: Thanksgiving is not, after all, just a holiday, but the starting line for a five and a half week social immersion involving family, colleagues and friends that leaves us all stunned and spent (if not worse) on New Year’s Day.

 Get ready, folks, for the coming blur of forced reunions, work-related functions, and cacophonous Christmas parties. I can virtually guarantee you will not lose weight over this period, and it would be sad if you had to. Drinking and eating, after all, go hand-in-hand with all the festive good cheer that momentarily suspends one’s awkwardness or animosity towards an errant sibling, dull cousin, or obnoxious co-worker.

 Do I sound Grinch-like? I don’t mean to. But like corporate politics, re-exposure to long-established family dynamics can be tricky, even treacherous. Add to this the fact that the holidays tend to make us all a bit tender and wistful, as inevitably we harken back to the simpler, more magical Yuletide seasons embedded in our halcyon past.

 For most adults, in fact, I’d suggest this moment in the calendar is decidedly bittersweet. And let’s not forget stressful, as we grit our teeth through those saccharine Johnny Mathis Christmas songs while racing to complete all our holiday shopping. (By the way, what in God’s name should I get for my eleven year old godson? Somebody, help!)

 Given these considerations, this year I’ve decided to embrace all the upcoming alcohol-infused celebrations. I’m going to seek out all the parties I can, and get into the holiday spirits. I mean, think about it: at the end of the day (or any old time), what’s more fun than a good party?

 Yet much as they contribute to our joie de vivre in real life, from a safe distance in film they also reveal much about the human animal, as our noblest traits and basest instincts get put on public display, often in the course of a single evening.

 Many outstanding movies feature memorable party scenes, with 1978’s “Animal House” being the most obvious and oft-cited example. (That picture, of course, is one long bash, achieving for frat parties what “Bonnie and Clyde” did for berets.)

 Here are ten more of my personal favorites to squeeze in between those inevitable screenings of “A Christmas Carol” or “It’s A Wonderful Life” over the coming weeks.

The Thin Man (1934)- Nick Charles (William Powell) and his wealthy wife, Nora (Myrna Loy), seem to care more for witty repartee and tippling at odd hours than they do for honest-to-god sleuthing, but a worried daughter named Dorothy (played by Maureen O’Sullivan, Mia Farrow’s real-life mom) convinces the effervescent newlyweds to join the hunt for her missing scientist father. The investigation which follows (between cocktails) keeps the viewer guessing right up to its suspenseful conclusion. W.S. Van Dyke's filming of Dashiell Hammett's saucy detective novel features the second inspired teaming of Oscar-nominated Powell and Loy (after “Manhattan Melodrama”). The two stars are note-perfect as the high-living detective couple, and the film's enormous success spawned five sequels over twelve years. A deft mix of comedy and mystery, with a heady dose of glamour thrown in, "The Thin Man" remains top-flight entertainment. (Immortal screen moment: Powell shaking a martini to waltz-time at a fete.)

The Lady Eve (1941)- Colonel Harrington and his daughter Jean (Charles Coburn and Barbara Stanwyck) are skilled card sharks who ply their lucrative trade on a chic ocean liner. Also on board is Charles Pike (Henry Fonda), a shy, naive heir to a brewery fortune. He's the perfect mark, but Jean starts to fall for him. When the shady pair are eventually exposed, Jean has only one way to get back into the young man’s life: re-insert herself in a different identity! Delicious comic complications ensue. Writer/director Preston Sturges' crazy genius jumps right off the screen in this movie, featuring an off-the-wall sensibility way ahead of its time. Stanwyck is at the peak of her appeal here, with Coburn incongruously cuddly as her wily father. The gruff, rotund Eugene Pallette does an inspired turn as Charles’s exasperated father, and Fonda, of all people, is a hoot in a rare comedic performance. (Highlight: the Pike family welcomes Lady Eve to a dinner party in their home, and Charles runs through all his dinner jackets.)

Father Of The Bride (1950)- When Kay Banks (Elizabeth Taylor) announces her engagement, life for her father, middle-class lawyer Stanley (Spencer Tracy), turns inside out. His wife, Ellie (Joan Bennett), wants Kay to have the kind of formal, elaborate nuptials she missed out on, so Stanley finds himself accosted by the exhausting, never-ending business of planning a wedding, not to mention the headache of paying for one. A buoyant, big-hearted MGM comedy featuring the wry comic touch of Spencer Tracy, Vincente Minnelli's romp provided the original template for an idea that's been imitated countless times (as in 2000's "Meet the Parents"), but never done quite so charmingly. Tracy is side-splitting as the aggrieved, helpless Dad, even when he's just making a face. Taylor makes a radiant, effervescent bride-to-be (wasn't she always?), and Bennett is marvelous too, as are supporting players Moroni Olsen and Billie Burke as Kay’s starchy prospective in-laws. Minnelli expertly keeps the whole affair- including solemn heart-to-heart talks, a disastrous engagement party, and lovers' spats - from derailing into broad farce. If you have to choose a "Bride," make it the original. (And watch for that party scene where Tracy plays bartender- it’s pure, understated genius!)

To Catch A Thief (1955)- On the sun-drenched French Riviera, someone is relieving rich women of their precious jewels, and all the evidence points to retired cat burglar John Robie (Cary Grant). Reluctant to sit for questioning, "The Cat" evades investigators who show up at his luxe villa and-with the help of London insurer H.H. Hughson (John Williams)- cozies up to wealthy American widow Mrs. Stevens (Jesse Royce Landis), who he believes may be his imitator's next victim. Filmed in VistaVision by Oscar winner Robert Burks, Alfred Hitchcock's swanky, breezy suspense film takes a simple idea-one cat burglar on the tail of another-and spins it into cinematic gold. With his customary wit and sexual innuendo, the director positions tanned star Cary Grant on a collision course with the resplendent Grace Kelly, who never looked more ravishing as spoiled heiress Francie Stevens, especially in a wide-brimmed white sun hat and bathing outfit Jackie O would have coveted. When they kiss, there are literally fireworks on-screen, a technique Hitch used to keep the censors from snipping his film. (And just wait for that culminating costume ball sequence, which Blake Edwards would copy nearly a decade later in “The Pink Panther”). You'll have a lot of fun catching this "Thief”, particularly the newly re-mastered version.

The Apartment (1960)- C.C. Baxter (Jack Lemmon), a junior executive in a Manhattan-based insurance company, climbs the corporate ladder by lending out his conveniently located apartment for the assignations of his superiors. Complications begin when the young man falls for elevator girl Fran Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine), who also happens to be the girlfriend of the firm’s big boss, the oily J.D. Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray). The inimitable Billy Wilder seamlessly blends comedy, romance and pathos in this poignant tale of a lonely man forced to confront the corruption of his life just as he falls helplessly in love with the wrong girl. With a sharp, knowing script by Wilder and collaborator I.A.L. Diamond, and all players at the top of their games (particularly the Oscar-nominated leads and MacMurray, who’s surprisingly effective playing against type), this film snagged Best Picture at the Academy Awards, and in my estimation, stands as Wilder’s finest film. (Don’t miss the Christmas office party- it makes “Mad Men” look tame.)

The Party (1967)- A fat-cat Hollywood producer decides to throw a splashy dinner party ("Anyone who's anyone will be there!"), and as bad luck would have it,  Indian-born actor Hrundi Bakshi (Peter Sellers) mistakenly makes it onto the guest list. Though Bakshi knows few of his fellow guests, they will certainly get to know him before the night is over. Sellers inhabits yet another accident-prone character in his continuing partnership with Blake Edwards. Bakshi is a gentle person, but his innocent curiosity about his surroundings (or is it bewilderment?) manages to wreak havoc most everywhere he goes. Though detractors claim the comic momentum flags by picture's end, Sellers's brilliant characterization- and some sublime set-pieces- make this worthy viewing. In particular, the dinner party sequence ranks as one of the funniest on film. French actress/singer Claudine Longet is adorable as Michelle, the party's prettiest guest, who befriends Bakshi, and Gavin McLeod (best known for TV’s “The Love Boat”) also scores as her pushy escort. Largely improvised, “The Party” is one sixties happening worth revisiting.

Midnight Cowboy (1969)- Lone Star native Joe Buck (Jon Voight), a dim but handsome rube, drops his dishwashing gig in his stifling hometown and comes to the Big Apple, convinced he can earn a living servicing wealthy New York women. But Joe's start as a hustler is a mite rockier than anticipated. Buck then meets tubercular street denizen Ratso Rizzo (Dustin Hoffman), who offers to become the aspiring gigolo's "manager," and a highly unusual friendship is born. Two years after "The Graduate", Hoffmann transformed himself into an ailing derelict in director John Schlesinger's dark, intense "Cowboy." A story of friendship born of desperation in Manhattan's grimy underbelly, "Cowboy" was at the vanguard of a new kind of Hollywood movie in the late '60s--gritty, complex, and unidealized. Despite an initial "X" rating, the film won Oscars for best picture, director, and screenplay, and both Hoffman and newcomer Voight were nominated for their gutsy, raw performances. Hoffman's wrenching portrayal of the tragic Rizzo is particularly astounding, as is that exceedingly strange, psychedelic party he and Joe attend.

Annie Hall (1977)- When neurotic, self-conscious Alvy Singer (Woody Allen), a TV gag writer and two-time divorcee, falls for fey, struggling nightclub singer Annie Hall (Diane Keaton), the comic chemistry between them is undeniable. But relationships aren't that easy to manage, especially when mismatched to begin with - he's a New York Jew, she's a Midwestern WASP. Soon their paths begin to diverge, but their underlying feelings for each other remain real, if not realized.  One of the great modern love stories, the enduringly charming "Annie Hall" has Allen essentially playing himself, with Keaton's sweet, spacy Annie providing an inspired foil. Aside from its examination of contemporary relationships, the movie hilariously contrasts the flavor and essence of New York with sunny, hip Los Angeles, that sprawl in Southern California which, to Allen's mind, is definitely alien territory. The famous West Coast party scene (hosted by Paul Simon and featuring a sublime moment with a then-unknown Jeff Goldblum) only reinforces the immense cultural divide between Gotham and Malibu. Touching, true, and extremely funny, “Annie” is definitely Woody's peak—also his first and only Oscar winner for Best Picture. (He also won statuettes for direction and screenplay that year, and was nominated for Best Actor.)

Dazed and Confused (1993)- Richard Linklater's follow-up to "Slacker" traces hijinks on graduation day (and night) at a local high school in the heady period of the mid-seventies. Freshmen get hazed by seniors, football jocks harassed by their coaches, party plans are made, then shifted, and lots of young people get high. The plot takes a back seat to the energy and talent of its young ensemble cast, including stars-to-be Ben Affleck (as a boisterous bully), Matthew McConaughey, and Parker Posey. This true-to-life, intelligent, often uproarious movie wins you over with its sheer exuberance and dead-on recreation of the wild and wooly seventies. Director Linklater satirizes the period with considerable affection, so we feel nostalgia for a period many of us thought (at the time) was a mediocre follow-up to the prior decade. A terrific line-up of seventies rock classics and those distinctive cars add pungent flavor and atmosphere. Posey and McConaughey are both first-rate, but so is the entire lesser-known cast. Here’s an ideal double feature with "American Graffiti" or "Fast Times At Ridgemont High". “Dazed” delivers youthful, energetic fun, with capital letters.

Boogie Nights (1997)- At a disco one night in the 1970s, adult-movie impresario Jack Horner (Burt Reynolds) spots handsome busboy Eddie (Mark Wahlberg), and invites him for a casting call. Almost overnight, Eddie - a good-natured but not too smart kid from a broken home who believes he has "something special" to share with the world - changes his name to Dirk Diggler and becomes a porn star, with all the perks and dangers such a lifestyle entails. Loosely based on the life of '70s erotic-film stud John Holmes, P.T. Anderson's surprisingly human second feature is an Altman-esque blend of wistful humor and naturalistic ensemble acting. Dirk quickly discovers his "real" family in the cozy, coke-fueled decadence of Horner's misfit milieu, where he's nurtured by maternal porn actress Amber Waves (Julianne Moore), and befriended by numerous quirky types played by a who's who of '90s A-listers: Heather Graham, John C. Reilly, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Don Cheadle, and William H. Macy. An offbeat gem, with a New Year’s Eve party and a tongue-in-cheek "money shot" that'll make your jaw drop.

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