We know how it is: You’d like to go to the movies this weekend, but you’re gonna be busy staring at a big button, arguing with yourself about whether or not to push it. But you can have a multiplex-like experience at home with a collection of the right DVDs. And when someone asks you on Monday, “Hey, did you see The Box this weekend?” you can reply, “No, I contemplated cinematic moral conundrums of a different order.”
INSTEAD OF: The Box, Richard Kelly’s mysterious thriller about a moral dilemma — push a button, kill a stranger, and pocket a cool million — that turns out to be far stranger than it appears at first…
WATCH: Kelly’s first film, the deeply disturbing Donnie Darko (2001), which bends time as well as moral expectations in order to craft a deliciously odd parable about sacrifice; it’s so good that it’s hard to imagine how Kelly will ever top it — he doesn’t with The Box. Still, this film is so unique that it’s hard to find others with similar themes. Gone Baby Gone (2007) features a knotty conundrum of a moral dilemma (of a far different kind than the one here), though it’s not till the end of the movie that the dilemma rears its challenging head. For more Cameron Diaz, to whom the lucrative button-pushing is offered, see 2001’s Vanilla Sky, which is as slippery, in some comparable reality-warping ways, as The Box is (though the 1997 Spanish film, Open Your Eyes, upon which Sky is based, is even better). There’s some debate early in The Box whether the character played by Frank Langella, who presents the moral dilemma, is a con artist; for Langella as a far more charming scammer, don’t miss the 1970 comedy The Twelve Chairs, about a chase across revolutionary-era Russia for a great fortune.
INSTEAD OF: A Christmas Carol, the latest Disney theme-park spectacle of a movie — it’s animated! it’s 3D! it’s IMAX! — starring Jim Carrey as Scrooge and all the ghosts…
WATCH: If the unintentional creepiness of corpselike CGI versions of real human beings is your thing, don’t miss 2004’s The Polar Express, in which Tom Hanks is motion-captured and rendered dead-eyed and accidentally horrifying as a conductor on the titular magic train. (Both Carol and Express are from director Robert Zemeckis.) If you need more Jim Carrey in an inadvertent Christmas nightmare, check out the 2000 feature film version of How the Grinch Stole Christmas, which, weirdly, completely inverts the point of the Dr. Seuss story to make the people of Whoville the monsters; Carrey’s sympathetic Grinch is the only aspect of the movie that works. Alas that Patrick Stewart’s wonderful one-man stage adaptation of the Dickens classic — which he performed on Broadway and in the West End in the 1990s — is not available to see at home (though the audio-only version is quite nice [Amazon U.S.] [Amazon U.K.]), but don’t miss the 1999 made-for-cable dramatization: it’s one of the best filmed versions of Carol ever. For the kiddies, there’s always the charming 1992 Muppet Christmas Carol, starring Kermit the Frog as Bob Cratchit and Michael Caine as Scrooge.
INSTEAD OF: The Fourth Kind, half mockumentary, half dramatization about a series of “actual” alien abductions in Nome, Alaska, as uncovered by Milla Jovovich’s psychologist…
WATCH: Close Encounters of the Third Kind, the 1977 blockbuster about the next level down, as encounters with extraterrestrials go: the aliens make contact with us, but no one leaves the planet with them without giving consent for the trip. Closer in spirit to Kind is 1989’s Communion, based on events that Whitley Strieber — author of the book upon which it is based [Amazon U.S.] [Amazon U.K.] — insists really did happen; here, Christopher Walken portrays Strieber as he is experimented upon by ETs who kidnap him from his upstate New York cabin. Milla Jovovich is rarely so demure onscreen as she is here as an intellectual head-shrinker: usually she’s kicking zombie ass in movies like 2007’s Resident Evil: Extinction. For a lighter look at life in the northernmost state in the union, try Mystery, Alaska (1999), a dramedy about hockey and the men who play it for fun up in the frozen north.
INSTEAD OF: The Men Who Stare at Goats, a dark comedy about a secret government program to create supersoldiers with superpowers, as told by one of its participants (George Clooney) to a journalist (Ewan McGregor)…
WATCH: Firestarter, from 1984, a more somber horror-flick take on the same notion, in which David Keith’s government guinea pig — they drugged him up till he developed the ability to psychically “push” others to do as he wanted — sees his paranormal talent passed on to his young daughter (Drew Barrymore) in the form of pyrokinesis. An even less serious look than Goats’ at army shenanigans and secret projects are on offer in Stripes (1981): whichever officer approved of putting Bill Murray in uniform should be court-martialed (though the cinematic generals responsible are to be praised). The framing story of Goats occurs within the context of the current Gulf War II; George Clooney took on Gulf War I ten years ago in Three Kings — think Ocean’s Eleven in the Middle Eastern desert. With all the references to Jedi warriors and Jedi powers in Goats — which leave poor Ewan McGregor mystified — you must see Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith (2005), for McGregor at the height of his Jedi ability as young Obi-Wan Kenobi.
Where to buy:
A Christmas Carol (Patrick Stewart) [Region 1]
Close Encounters of the Third Kind [Region 1] [Region 2]
Communion [Region 1] [Region 2]
Donnie Darko [Region 1] [Region 2]
Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas [Region 1] [Region 2]
Firestarter [Region 1] [Region 2]
Gone Baby Gone [Region 1] [Region 2]
The Muppet Christmas Carol [Region 1] [Region 2]
Mystery, Alaska [Region 1] [Region 2]
Open Your Eyes [Region 1] [Region 2]
The Polar Express [Region 1] [Region 2]
Resident Evil: Extinction [Region 1] [Region 2]
Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith [Region 1] [Region 2]
Stripes [Region 1] [Region 2]
The Twelve Chairs [Region 1] [Region 2]
Three Kings [Region 1] [Region 2]
Vanilla Sky [Region 1] [Region 2]