A writer’s top 20 movies for reconnecting with humans

I’ve been known to stay in my writing cave for way too long. Sometimes I get so immersed in the revision process that I start to lose touch with the feeling I was trying to convey in the first place and the only way to bring the insane over-thinking to a screeching halt is to take a break. I spend time outdoors (is that sunlight?), play board games with my family (with twisted rules) or surf the TV for some movie magic—which is where this quirky list comes in.

Sure, there are other lists I could make of what I consider award-winning acting, amazing directing and production, life-altering writing, astounding special effects, or whatever. This is not that kind of list. This list is guaranteed to get me feeling human again–and more importantly, get me writing again. 🙂

Forget Paris (1995 romantic comedy. Debra Winger, Billy Crystal): This movie has plenty of funny moments and reminds me as a writer how nice it is for the audience to not know exactly how the story is going to end. However, I am a klutz so my absolute favorite scene involves Debra Winger with a pigeon stuck to the side of her face. Hysterical, probably because I can imagine that it could happen to me. That’s an entirely different list though. If you like When Harry Met Sally, you’ll love this.

The Money Pit (1986 comedy. Shelley Long, Tom Hanks):  This campy remake of the 1948 film Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House is for anyone who is eyeball deep in home renovation or just plain taking life too seriously. You are guaranteed to feel better about your own life, because it can’t possibly be half as bad. The quotable running gag line is “two weeks.” As a lover of bit players and extras, there are numerous goofy characters on the construction crew too. There are several comical moments such as when Anna (Shelley Long) finds a surprise in the dumb-waiter or when the stairs collapse out from under Walter (Tom Hanks). There’s a scene in which Walter is trapped in the floor which makes me laugh to tears. But the Rube Goldberg-ish sequence in which the kitchen sets itself on fire and launches poultry into the upstairs bathroom, escalating in Hanks’ infectious laughter over a gaping hole in the floor is absolutely, utterly priceless. I pause and replay the part where he is laughing so hard that nothing is coming out, while Long maintains a serious, baffled frown. Jim Carrey fans will like this.

Harold & Maude (1971 dark existentialist comedy/drama. Bud Cort, Ruth Gordon, Vivian Pickles ): I love this book-to-movie for a thousand reasons. It speaks to the human need to be seen and heard and to matter to someone. It confronts societal norms, expectations, and rules in the context of the Vietnam era. It is also really silly. Ruth Gordon was born to play Maude—a 79-year-old, free spirit, car thief, nude model, and transcendental thinker—who has all the best lines. “Here today, gone tomorrow, so don’t get attached to things. Now with that in mind, I’m not against collecting stuff.” Bud Cort is wonderfully deliberate in his facial expressions and subdued demeanor. Vivian Pickles is one of my favorite clueless movie moms. It’s one of those films that you have to see several times to appreciate all the ludicrous moments and brilliant supporting cast. There are times I watch it until just before the end, and then I stop because I don’t want to go to the depths of sadness with Harold. There are other times I only watch the ending so I can cry with Harold and then feel hopeful that things will be ok. Bonus: soundtrack is by Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Cat Stevens. Fans of The Perks of Being a Wallflower might like this.

Bridesmaids (2011 romantic comedy. Kristen Wiig, Maya Rudolph, Melissa McCarthy): This film is packed with actresses who are true masters at awkward social situations and physical comedy. I laugh out loud at most of this movie, because it demonstrates how idiotic and competitive female relationships can get, and how truly desperate thinking can breed horrible decision-making. I also love how the lines seem natural and unscripted, the way people actually talk. Melissa McCarthy’s real life husband Ben Falcone is hysterical as the no-nonsense air marshal too. This movie made me a loyal fan of McCarthy’s sitcom Mike & Molly.

Rudy (1993 football film. Sean Astin, Charles S. Dutton): Based on a true story, this is a movie to watch when you’re thinking of giving up on your dream. As a lifelong Detroit Lions fan, it is in my DNA to root for the underdog. It doesn’t matter how many times I see it, I still chant with the crowd at the end and I get choked up when he finally lives his dream of playing for Notre Dame. Every opening kickoff I have to quote Dutton’s speech, “You’re 5 feet nothin’, a 100 and nothin’…In this lifetime, you don’t have to prove nothin’ to nobody – except yourself. And after what you’ve gone through, if you haven’t done that by now, it ain’t gonna never happen.” Don’t get me started on the part when the team brings the coach their jerseys so Rudy can play in their place…. I don’t care that the movie ending isn’t exactly how it happened in real life. “Rudy! Rudy! Rudy!” Totally inspirational, even if you don’t like football.

The Bridges of Madison County (1995 romantic drama. Meryl Streep, Clint Eastwood): Yes, I know this list is all over the map. First of all, this movie is based on an equally good book.  Secondly, I love Meryl Streep. In any movie she has ever been in. I love that she can do any accent, any genre, any character, and I get lost in the story. I love the scene when she has her hand on the door handle of the truck—I yell at the screen every single time. I love, love, LOVE it when a story tears me apart with the thrill of choosing which way to go. To this day, I don’t know which way I want that character to choose, and I adore her children for letting their mother’s example affect their own life choices. Oh, and I sob through the ashes scattering scene every time.

Steel Magnolias (1989 comedy-drama. Sally Field, Julia Roberts, Daryl Hannah, Shirley MacLaine, Olympia Dukakis, Dolly Parton): One of the best chick flicks ever. Who knew perfect Daryl Hannah could play such an awkward ugly duckling? One of Sally Field’s most shining moments as an actress is when she goes through five different emotions in a matter of seconds at the funeral. Every time I see it, Sally makes me cry with her angry grief, and Olympia Dukakis and Shirley MacLaine make me laugh out loud through my tears. Every single time.

Norma Rae (1979 American drama. Sally Field, Beau Bridges, Ron Liebman): Before Erin Brokovich, there was Norma Rae. Facing a big obstacle or feeling overwhelmed by life? Tiny Sally Field standing with a picket sign in the middle of a textile factory full of men, confronting labor inequality and giving workers everywhere a human face. Great reminder of the backbone of the American spirit versus corporate greed: power to the people! Hands down awesome.

Arthur (2011 remake romantic comedy. Russell Brand, Helen Mirren, Jennifer Garner): Russell Brand has not been taken seriously in the acting world—maybe he doesn’t want to be taken seriously—but I believe he is gifted at portraying human emotion. He is not just hilarious, he is poignant and loveable and moving. There are incredibly funny moments in this remake of the Dudley Moore classic, but the depth Brand conveys is quite beautiful. Mirren is brilliant as the straight-laced nanny opposite the constant shenanigans of Brand’s Arthur. Garner departs from her good girl roles to play a funny, wicked character. Good for many laughs and harsh tears if you’ve ever lost a parent or mentor.

The Lost Valentine (2011 drama. Betty White, Jennifer Love Hewitt): Betty White has made me laugh my entire life, so I was interested when this sappy book-to-TV movie premiered a few years back. If you liked The Notebook, this is a must-see. At its worst, it is perhaps overly nostalgic for a bygone era, but that doesn’t matter because I swear to all that’s holy, Betty makes me sob like I need medication. If I need a good ugly cry, I can count on the scene where she meets her long dead husband’s flag draped casket in the train station to push me way, WAY over the edge. Just typing the line, “My husband’s coming home today,” I have to reach for a Kleenex.

Parental Guidance (2012 comedy. Bette Midler, Billy Crystal, Marisa Tomei): I love the combination of Billy Crystal and Bette Midler in this multi-generational story that my whole family can watch. I crack up at all the moments that confront mediocrity and societal correctness. I laugh out loud at Billy’s painted face “Me, Voodoo Man” scene. Heartwarming, silly, and fun. Makes me feel it is perfectly ok to not have all the answers.

The Answer Man (2009 romantic comedy. Jeff Daniels, Lauren Graham): This movie has tons of great, quotable one-liners. It follows several characters as they find their way in life, and I can connect with all of them. The cast includes a cranky, new age writer (Daniels) with all the answers but who doesn’t have a clue, an overprotective single mom and new chiropractor (Graham), and a 12-step guy (Lou Taylor Pucci) just trying to make it. It inspires me, motivates me, and I laugh through many scenes thanks to the supporting cast of Kat Dennings (Two Broke Girls), Olivia Thirlby (Juno)—especially the part when one of the author’s fans (Tony Hale of Veep and Arrested Development) shows up uninvited at his door. “He may have written Me & God, but he did NOT read it.” Hysterical.

Singles (1992 romantic comedy. Bridget Fonda, Matt Dillon, Campbell Scott, Kyra Sedgwick): I am instantly transported to the 1990s, when I was a directionless 20-something. It makes me feel young again, and reconnects me with the uncertain rollercoaster of dating, wanting to fit in, and trying to figure myself out. There are plenty of relatable, quirky, funny moments and the Seattle grunge soundtrack is sweet. Cameos include Stone Gossard, Jeff Ament, and Eddie Vedder.

Better Off Dead (1985 American teen romantic comedy. John Cusack, David Ogden Stiers ): Another 1980s cult classic. My kids and I love quoting it. “Two dollars. I want my two dollars.” (Hmm. I just noticed a pattern of movies that involve people hitting rock bottom, often with suicidal humor.) Cusack is perfect as the sarcastic underdog Lane Meyer, obsessed with getting his self-absorbed girlfriend back after she dumps him. This movie makes my entire family laugh and still carries the message to go for your dreams, because you just might end up driving a cool muscle car and dating a cute, smart, French exchange student—even if you don’t know that’s what you really wanted in the first place. (Fun fact: the singer at the school dance, Elizabeth Daily, is also the voice of Tommy on The Rugrats and played Dotty in Pee-Wee Herman’s Big Adventure. She was one of the contestants on The Voice last season and I’m still a bit ticked at Blake Shelton for eliminating her, but I digress.)

Class Action (1991 drama thriller.  Gene Hackman, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio): This movie made me want to be a lawyer in a power suit. Not the stereotypical corporate greedy kind or the slimy divorce kind so often depicted in movies, but someone who fights for the voiceless. Based on the class action suit filed against automakers of the 80s, it’s a classic case of underdog cause vs mean corporation, but with a twist of “oh no I’m caught fighting on the wrong side” thrown in. If you loved Erin Brokovich, A Civil Action, or The Rainmaker, watch this movie.

A Few Good Men (1992 courtroom drama.Tom Cruise, Jack Nicholson, Demi Moore, Kevin Pollock, Keifer Sutherland, Kevin Bacon): See Class Action, but without any sex scenes and set it in a hostile military subculture, then add awesome scene with Jack Nicholson and Tom Cruise. You know what I’m talking about. The awesome, quotable, “You can’t handle the truth!” Never gets old. I cheer every time.

Terms of Endearment (1983 comedy drama. Shirley MacLaine, Debra Winger, Jack Nicholson, Jeff Daniels, Danny DeVito, John Lithgow): As a mother of boys, I absolutely cannot watch the scene where Debra Winger’s character tells her boys goodbye in the hospital. It is too real and scary. That said, it doesn’t matter what I am doing, I will stop everything to watch Shirley MacLaine’s character scream at the nurses to “give my daughter the shot!” It catches my breath in my throat every single time. It is why I’ve watched every single other thing she has ever been in—Steel Magnolias, Postcards from the Edge, The Apartment, Two Mules for Sister Sarah, Irma La Douce, Bernie, Downton Abbey, you name it—I am a Shirley MacLaine fan because of this perfect scene.

The Shop Around the Corner (1940 romantic comedy. Margaret Sullivan, James Stewart): Yes, the Tom Hanks-Meg Ryan pseudo-remake You’ve Got Mail is lovely too, but I really enjoy this classic story based on the 1937 play Parfumerie. It is set in a modest gift shop in WWII Budapest. There are plenty of timeless, quirky moments and fun, quotable lines. “I want your honest opinion. Just give me your honest opinion.”  It is equal parts underdog, workplace humor, and dating problems. It transports you to a time of more polite social norms and less technology. I particularly love the minor characters of Pepi and Pirovitch, and the “everybody rally around the good guy” feeling.

When a Man Loves a Woman (1994 romantic drama. Meg Ryan, Andy Garcia): Another movie where the main character hits rock bottom and finds her way back. It made me fall in love with Andy Garcia as the loyal, somewhat enabling husband, and shows Meg Ryan’s depth as an actress. There are gut wrenching moments that hurt your heart, and sweet moments with the actresses that play the daughters. (One of them, Tina Majorino, grew up to play Deb on Napoleon Dynamite and more recently did several episodes of Grey’s Anatomy.) This movie makes me believe that everyone goes through really tough stuff sometimes, and we all deserve a second chance even when we don’t think we do.

The Story of Us (1999 romantic comedy. Bruce Willis, Michelle Pfeiffer): This movie can be a bit hard to watch because the arguing is so well acted and it hurts to see Ben (Willis) and Katie Jordan (Pfeiffer) nearly destroy their marriage, but the ending is worth it. The side players are fantastic, including Rob Reiner and Rita Wilson as Stan and Rachel Krogan—they each offer moments of bad, well-meaning advice. Wilson’s bit about not being able to be intimate when you’re mad at your spouse is priceless. Lucy Webb and Bill Kirchenbauer are hysterical as Joanie and Andy Kirby, a Midwestern couple with pointless stories that intrude on the Jordan’s vacation.

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2 thoughts on “A writer’s top 20 movies for reconnecting with humans

  1. Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House is one of my all time favorite movies and I watch it when I just want to feel better about things. Have you seen it? The Money Pit is cute too but the scene in Mr. Blandings where she is describing the paint colors to the workmen… that scene defines the differences between men and women as succinctly as I think I’ve ever seen. 🙂

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