Stuck inside with the whole family this weekend, in between platters of leftover stuffing and football games involving teams you don’t care about? Is your aunt or mom or in-law beginning to eye that DVD of “Sleepless in Seattle” with that speculative gleam in her eye? Again, you think? Well, I’m here to help. Here’s a selection of recent releases – all now available on DVD, from online streaming services or both – that are suitable for mixed family groups of widely varying ages and backgrounds, without being entirely predictable or conventional.
Most of these movies probably aren’t appropriate for young children, or simply might bore them. That’s an entirely different problem, but I’m going to assume you’ve heard of Walt Disney and Frank Capra (and also I refer you back to this classic Salon listicle, which could no doubt use an update). But these should play well with adventurous kids from 11 or 12 on up, and nearly all adults. I’ve appended a special “adults only” list at the end, for that point late in the evening when the kids are in bed and grandma’s in the mood for something racier. Even so, we’re talking about R-rated sexual content, not full frontal nudity, ultraviolence or Lars von Trier-level angst.
Huck Finn-style boyhood adventure meets the economic dislocation of the 21st century South in this riverbank fable from writer-director Jeff Nichols. In one of the signature roles of his recent comeback, Matthew McConaughey plays a charismatic but mysterious drifter, living by himself on an island, who draws two boys into his romantic quest to win back a lost love. “Mud” has elements of thriller and a few episodes of violence – McConaughey’s character is being pursued by diabolical mobsters from the outside world – but the young protagonists are never in serious danger, and their disillusioning glimpse of the adult world is tempered with redemption.
"Fill the Void"
One of the first feature films to emerge from Israel’s ultra-Orthodox community, “Fill the Void” is only indirectly about religion and has little to do with politics. Director Rama Burstein convinced her rabbi that breaking with convention to tell this story was worth it, and the resulting fable of love and marriage is something like a Hasidic version of Jane Austen, a story about the collision between passion and convention. Her film is tautly composed, winsome and often very funny, and she captures the inner workings of a world almost never seen by outsiders.
"From Up on Poppy Hill"
This gorgeous work of Japanese animation -- written by the great Hayao Miyazaki and directed by his son, Goro – is a classic childhood fable of innocence threatened and a community under siege, set against the relatively innocent backdrop of early-1960s Yokohama. While “From Up on Poppy Hill” lacks the supernatural or fairy tale elements of Miyazaki hits like “Princess Mononoke” or “Spirited Away,” it weaves its own gentler magic, largely through its lambent color scheme and its unhurried pace.
Compelling performances from an impressive ensemble cast and an aura of entirely convincing realism save Destin Cretton’s debut film – set in a California group home for foster kids – from feeling too much like a movie of the week. Cretton once worked in just such a facility, a last-chance home for young people who’ve been repeatedly abused or failed by the system, and the whole project is clearly a labor of love. Brie Larson and John Gallagher Jr. play the adult couple who run Short Term 12 (despite the name, some kids will live there for years), and who have to pretend they’re not a couple while they’re at work. Kaitlyn Dever nearly steals the whole movie as an embittered teenage girl whose tormented history throws their relationship into question. Maybe it sounds a bit like spinach, but the compassion and storytelling are both strong, and you’ll be hooked from the first minute.
Actress-turned-filmmaker Sarah Polley made a documentary about her own family, and not merely is it not self-indulgent, it’s one of the most rewarding films of the year in any genre. Intrigued by things she didn’t understand about her late mother and her parents’ marriage – and, to drop a great big hint, about the unanswered question of whether they really were her parents – Polley enlists her father and siblings in an exploration that’s full of surprises. While the story contains some unexpected surprises, so does the movie, which is both a work of ingenious cleverness and philosophical depth, and a loving portrait of a WASPy Canadian family that does not express warmth all that easily.
This star-studded summer indie had “Little Miss Sunshine” ambitions and a cast that included Steve Carell, Toni Collette and Allison Janney. But the real reason to catch it is Sam Rockwell’s generous and hilarious performance in one of recent American film’s greatest charismatic-loser roles, as the presiding genius of a second-rate Cape Cod water park. Dispensing poetry, worldly philosophy and romantic advice right and left (without having his own life even remotely together), Rockwell’s character is exactly the surrogate dad that disconsolate teen Liam James needs to turn a lonely and disappointing summer into a triumphant coming of age.
"In a World …"
I didn’t catch up to Lake Bell’s directing debut until well after its initial release, but it was one of the year’s most winning and distinctive American indies. A father and daughter (played by Fred Melamed and Bell herself, respectively) battle for supremacy in the realm of voice-over narration for movie trailers (“In a world where everything you think you know has been turned upside down …”). If that sounds irresistible, it totally is – but if it sounds unbearably insider-ish and in-jokey, it’s really not. All intergenerational disputes become about the ridiculous specifics, even if they don’t involve trailers for village movies or bad sci-fi, and Bell is a gifted storyteller who combines deadpan comedy and considerable warmth.
FOR ADULTS ONLY (or at least, don’t claim you weren’t warned)
Although frequently foulmouthed and more than a little dirty, this marriage comedy from Jill Soloway is never nasty, and features a breakthrough performance from Kathryn Hahn as a middle-class Los Angeles woman who tries to spice up her fading love life by bringing home a hooker. No, I don’t mean like that, exactly. Hahn’s character develops misplaced maternal and/or sisterly feelings for a stripper (Juno Temple), who moves into her lovely Silver Lake home and proceeds to wreak havoc throughout her circle of friends. It still bugs me that Hahn's character is supposed to be unfamiliar with the term "sex worker," and the conclusion is a bit too predictable, but the ride is incredibly fun. (And don't miss Jane Lynch's snort-inducing turn as L.A.'s worst therapist.)
Maybe this one’s pretty dark for this context – but if the crowd you’re in skews a bit arty, they may well appreciate it. Writer-director Stacie Passon’s debut film is like the dark side of Lisa Cholodenko’s wholesome lesbian-marriage story “The Kids Are All Right.” This time around, the lesbian housewife played by the marvelous Robin Weigert leaves the leafy suburbs to start turning tricks in Manhattan, in a story that’s part formal experiment and part withering critique of the prison of middle-class taste. I found “Concussion” brilliantly witty, bracingly mean and, in the end, just compassionate enough. (While the subject matter is admittedly provocative, nothing seen on-screen goes beyond middling R-rated level.)
I’m not sure whether Shaka King’s feature actually counts as the first-ever African-American stoner comedy, but it’ll be a long time before we see a funnier, wiser or more heartbreaking one. Amari Cheatom and Trae Harris play a Brooklyn couple, once supremely cool, who have begun to sink into a permanent ganja daze. (With his stone-faced Buster Keaton demeanor and superlative comic timing, Cheatom in particular is a major discovery.) There’s an interpolated ‘70s blaxploitation movie, an unfortunate incident involving an entire tub of hash brownies and a group of schoolchildren, and a scene in which an adult man wakes up beneath the seats of a moving subway train, straitjacketed into a little girl’s pink down parka. (Don’t you hate it when that happens?) “Newlyweeds” is in no way an anti-drug screed, just a story that observes that too damn much of a good thing – even a really good thing! – can lead to undesirable results.