Movies for a Summer Night

We all suffer through choosing a film to play for friends and family on a movie night. This might invariably include Joe and Ann from down the block, the neighborhood’s premier movie fans (apart from you!) who claim to have seen just about everything. Of course, most of what they’ve seen might have been on a 40-inch set (or even an old 27-inch, low definition CRT), constantly interrupted by commercials. Or perhaps new neighbor Bob from across the street, who hasn’t seen a movie in 20 years on anything but his computer — or not at all.

There’s no one answer to please everyone. And in today’s environment any such gathering will invariably be small. But I can at least offer a list of (I hope) intriguing selections from my Blu-ray and Ultra HD Blu-ray collection, either for now or later. Many are available for streaming as well, or even from a well-stocked local library. They follow no particular pattern and fit into many categories. I could produce other lists (and in the future likely will!), possibly dedicated to specific genres. But hopefully this will be a start. I’ve eliminated many favorites from this list because they’re either too long (such as Lawrence of Arabia) or demand experience with earlier films in a franchise or multi-movie saga to understand the story. In other words, don’t play Avengers: Endgame for someone who has never seen a Marvel film (and there are many who haven’t!).

The Prestige… Christopher Nolan has directed many titles worthy of inclusion here. And he has another one, Tenet, ready for release if and when theaters reopen (when I first heard this title, without seeing it in print, I thought it odd to make a film about an apartment house). But my all-time favorite among his many superb productions is this one, a period film about two magicians competing for both fame and revenge. It’s full of surprising fantasy and plot twists, and stars both Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) and Batman (Christian Bale), plus short but important scenes featuring David Bowie. There’s no action of the sort Jackman’s and Bale’s names might suggest, but the story is so intriguing you won’t want to miss it. Ultra HD Blu-ray

The King’s Speech…This isn’t an obvious choice for showing off your home theater, but crisp video and an impressive sound system can enhance any type of movie. It’s a more or less true story about how Britain’s King George VI struggled with and overcame his serious stuttering, with the help of an unconventional teacher, just in time to help inspire Britain at the beginning of World War II. It’s well worth a look if you haven’t seen it, but be aware that the language used, primarily in the teaching sessions, is what earns one of only two R ratings on this list. Blu-ray

The Mummy…Not the recent Tom Cruise stinker, but rather the Brendan Fraser vehicle from 1999. It was the first (and easily the best) of what would become a series of Mummy films. Definitely creepy at times and perhaps not for the squeamish among family and friends, but it’s all done with tongue firmly in cheek to soften the edges. Plenty of action (though tame by today’s standards) and excellent production design combine with a solid audio and video transfer, the latter suffused with a suitably age-appropriate sepia glow. Fraser brings an appealing, Indiana Jones-like vibe to the role, and an irresistible Rachael Weisz makes a fine heroine as well, displaying an understated and natural talent for humor. Ultra HD Blu-ray

Mad Max: Fury Road…I’ve never been a big fan of this film. I like my post-apocalyptic diet to be a bit more restrained (as in A Quiet Place, below), but if action is your thing this will leave you breathless or even exhausted. And there’s no doubt that many fans are wild about it, not least of all for its outstanding picture and sound. R-rated. Ultra HD Blu-ray

A Quiet Place…In the best horror films it’s what you don’t see that often makes the most powerful impact, and that’s the case here. In the film’s world, humanity is besieged by monsters so sensitive to noise that they attack and destroy anyone or anything that isn’t brutally stealthy. But perhaps the most cringe-inducing thing in the movie isn’t a monster at all (though we do see them near the end) but rather just a stray nail! The film is dark in more ways than one, and is best if seen on a display with great blacks. And for a film with little dialogue, the soundtrack is superb. The sequel is now scheduled for late summer, again if theaters open. Ultra HD Blu-ray

Monsters, Inc.…Pixar taught us that animation isn’t simply for kids (though too many adults haven’t yet seen the light) and this early Pixar effort is still one of the best animated films to grace the Pixar catalogue. Computer animation has continued to improve, but there’s nothing here to suggest that this film is now almost 20 years old. We’ve had a lot of great animated films since then, non-Pixar Disney such as Bolt (an underappreciated gem) and Tangled (better than Frozen, in my opinion) and from others such as DreamWorks with its How To Train Your Dragon films. But Monsters, Inc. remains one of my favorites. Ultra HD Blu-ray

Ant-Man…With a slew of action/Marvel/superhero movies to choose from, why this one? Because it’s intriguing, hilarious, and doesn’t require experiencing any other Marvel films to make sense. Captain America: The First Avenger and Thor are still my favorites of the Marvel origin stories, but I’ve seen both of them often, in whole or in part. The less familiar was one of the few films on this list where, as I wrote, I felt an instant urge to watch again. The scene where Ant-Man battles the villain on a “train” is one of the cleverest (and funniest) action scenes ever. There’s nothing technically exceptional here, but the two-disc package includes both 2D and 3D versions of the film. The disc case, somewhat deceptively, has the black bands that generally indicate an Ultra HD release, but the discs here are both conventional Blu-rays. Blu-ray

The Finest Hours…The true story (or as close to true as Hollywood can manage) of the wreck of an oil tanker off the coast of Cape Cod in a blinding winter storm. The performances are solid (Bostonians might find some of the accents dubious, but they didn’t bother me. I grew up in central Connecticut where we don’t have accents!). The picture and sound are impeccable absent a 4K release, which is unlikely to ever be seen on disc. The action scenes are relentless, including some of the most horrifically realistic storm sequences you’re ever likely to see. Blu-ray

Anonymous…This film posits that William Shakespeare was not the actual author of the plays and other writings that bear his name. That’s a theory claimed by some, but they’re clearly in the minority. But since I don’t have a dog in that fight I find this film endlessly intriguing. The performances are Oscar worthy, particularly Rhys Ifans as the Earl of Oxford, purported here to be the true author. (If you want to see acting range, check out Ifans as Spike, the nutty roommate in Notting Hill.) Aided by excellent CGI, the movie draws you into the Elizabethan age and onto the Shakespearean stage. The photography is outstanding, though the film’s many dark, candle-lit scenes are best served by a display with good-to-great blacks. The subtle soundtrack is surprisingly impressive for a largely quiet drama. But perhaps the most surprising thing about this film is the director, Roland Emmerich. Yes, the Independence Day and 2012 Emmerich, not some brilliant but unknown, distant cousin. Anonymous was a total departure for him, and perhaps the only reason this film wasn’t at least nominated for Oscar consideration in 2011 was that the voters couldn’t get their heads around that. Blu-ray