By Leslie Combemale aka Cinema Siren
Let’s face it. January is a bear. We’d all like it to go away and let us climb down from our respective panic trees. Between the new ice age that swept across the country, violence, politics, layoffs and the many sunless days, there is a decided grumpiness....a malaise blanketing the nation.
Add to that those of you who revel in the grandeur and celebration of the Academy Awards have been systematically subjecting yourselves to slaves, grieving parents, AIDS patients, criminals and colossally dysfunctional families on film.
Lastly, as it is January, the movies being released are largely worthy of the infamous two-line review for “Shark Sandwich” referencing bodily waste, offered in Spinal Tap. These are not movies for which to bundle up and brave the cold.
It is, therefore, incumbent upon Cinema Siren to offer alternatives, and pepper some positivity on the populous.
Hence this week’s list of movies that will make you smile, warm you and help ease you gently and happily into February, the month of valentines. Bring on the joy.
The order of this Top 10 will depend on your current state of mind. There will be several here that will resonate more than the others depending on circumstance and individual taste.
10. HAPPY ACCIDENTS: A freaky little 2000 indie starring Marisa Tomei and Vincent D’Onofrio (does he make any other kind?) involving Brooklyn girl Ruby, with a history of failed relationships, who meets weirdo Sam and falls in love. Naturally that means it is time for him reveal he’s a time traveler from 2470. This is a sweet and optimistic story about changing directions and unconditional acceptance, and a romance starring D’Onofrio, an actor who will attract the interest of most beaus and husbands enough for them to give it a chance.
9. BILLY ELLIOT: Oh how we who love actor Jamie Bell should be proud of him. He continues to succeed in films and being recognized for his talent. In director Stephen Daldry’s 2000 film, he stars as 11 year old Billy, who struggles with the desire to be a male ballet dancer, when living in a world populated by coal miners and roughnecks. This is a great film for whenever the world seems against one’s long held dream.
8. CHOCOLAT: A great ensemble of talents including Juliette Binoche, Judi Dench, Alfred Molina, Leslie Caron and Johnny Depp, at his very sexiest, make this film about compassion, empathy, love, and chocolate highly engrossing and entertaining. It is an inspiring story for those who struggle with running away or finding roots and making peace with the past. As with all director Lasse Hallstrom’s work, some find it too sentimental. This list thrives on sentimentality. If you want cynicism, look elsewhere.
7. LIFE IN A DAY: This fascinating documentary is an arranged collection of video clips from people all over the world, which were culled from 80,000 clips submitted through youtube, all showing things that happen around the world on July 24th, 2010. Produced by Ridley Scott’s production company, and in it the subjects are asked three questions: What do you love? What do you fear? and What’s in your pocket? It is the most authentic of cinematic experiences for being reminded how small the world really is, how much we have in common, and how, even with all the darkness out there, humanity is really quite beautiful.
6. DEAN SPANLEY: This 2008 New Zealand and British comedy starring Sam Neill, Jeremy Northam and Peter O’Toole is a surprisingly delightful and inventive story that takes place in Edwardian England and is based on a novella by Lord Dunsany from 1936. It explores the relationship between fathers and sons, men and their dogs, and the subject of reincarnation. Either that description attracts or repels potential viewers, but Cinema Siren highly recommends this very positive and joyful movie, not least for offering another opportunity to see O’Toole and his immense acting talent.
5. NATIONAL VELVET: One’s mood is lightened and buoyed from the first gorgeous moments of color presented onscreen. The tale is of a Velvet Brown, played by young Elizabeth Taylor, the love and passion for her horse Pie, and how she brings him to England’s Grand National Sweepstakes. Beyond being a visual stunner, an example of masterful editing (Best Film Editing Oscar) and a great chance to see Mickey Rooney, Donald Crisp, Angela Lansbury and Anne Revere (Best Supporting Actress Oscar) working together, National Velvet injects a subversive and delightful element of girl power, especially for a film released in 1944. It brings the innocence an optimism of childhood to film so well it inspires viewers to find that in themselves.
4. THE FISHER KING: Director Terry Gilliam’s 1991 splendid film starring Jeff Bridges, Robin Williams, and featuring Mercedes Ruehl (who won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar) Amanda Plummer and the late Michael Jeter, needs to be seen for the fantasy dance sequence in New York’s Grand Central Station alone. Cynical shock jock Bridges inadvertently causes a mass murder and ruins his career, but finds redemption through friendship with a delusional homeless man played by Robin Williams. While there are dark and heartbreaking elements to the story, optimism pervades, and the desire for change, compassion, and meaningful friendships represented make The Fisher King memorable to the extent that it rates on many a top ten favorites list with fans.
3. PLEASANTVILLE: Director Gary Ross brought us the cast of Tobey Maguire, Reece Witherspoon, Joan Allen, William H. Macy and Jeff Daniels, in this fantasy about innocence and wisdom, passion and acceptance. Two teens are transported inside their favorite sitcom town from the '50s, and experience life as the characters they are meant to represent in the show. Arthouse film lovers are big fans of this cult hit, which uses black and white and color to express emotion and enlightenment. There is a sumptuousness to it visually, but also a search for and discovery of joy that leaves viewers immensely satisfied.
2. STRICTLY BALLROOM: Way before Baz Luhrmann became known for his flamboyant dark dramas like Moulin Rouge, he made this wonderful Australian comedy about ballroom dancing that belongs in every dance movie lover’s collection. It is based on a play Luhrmann created in the 80s, and is more or less a far quirkier and Aussie-fied Dirty Dancing, complete with awkward beginners and tragic past dance-related experiences. Filled with all the bright color and histrionics we’ve come to love from the director, it is a cinematic mood elevator of the first order.
1. SULLIVAN’S TRAVELS: Directed and written by Hollywood genius Preston Sturges, this 1941 comedic satire is about jaded director John L. Sullivan (Joel McCrea at his best) who longs to make meaningful dramas that influence and effect people instead of shallow comedies. He leaves to do research on the downtrodden by disguising himself as a hobo, and inadvertently takes a journey of self discovery, aided by a gorgeous failed actress played by Veronica Lake. The script, the acting, and the production design make this essential viewing any time, and not only becomes more relevant as years go by, but is a go-to for bringing back those warm good feelings inside.
About this column: Leslie Combemale, "Cinema Siren," is a movie lover and aficionado who aspires to get more people back into the beautiful alternate worlds offered in the dark at movie houses across the country, and is owner of ArtInsights Animation and Film Art Gallery. She interviews actors, directors, and production artists from all over the world, and often is invited to present at conventions such as the San Diego Comic Con, where she has been a panelist and host for The Art of the Hollywood Movie Poster, Classic Film History, Disney & Harry Potter Fandom discussions. Visit her art gallery for great art from film at
www.artinsights.com and see more of her reviews and interviews on