It’s sometimes fun to wonder if the reason February is the shortest month of the year is because folks want to get on to March as soon as possible. This month’s cold, damp, and often a 28-day excuse to stay inside. Even so, that doesn’t mean you have to be bored doing so!
Indeed, for those inclined to stay home but not interested in watching the Winter Olympics, Netflix has refilled its library with a variety of films. Admittedly, many of these lean on the action or broad comedy side, with romantic offerings being surprisingly slim for the month of Valentine’s Day, but if you’re in the mood for a cape or cowl, a terrifying chiller or something that will make you a giggler, then we have a list of solid offerings down below.
Batman Begins (2005)
It’s kind of strange to think that when Batman Begins opened in June 2005, it accrued a modest—by today’s standards—$48 million during its opening weekend in theaters before going on to an even more modest $205 million box office gross in North American. That initially hesitant reaction to the film was an indicator of just how much damage had been done eight years earlier by the catastrophic Batman & Robin, which all but ended the franchise until director Christopher Nolan rebooted it into greatness.
Even though its box office was not spectacular when compared to today’s billion-dollar behemoths, there’s no question that Batman Begins remains one of the two best live-action films to date starring the Caped Crusader (the other, of course, rhymes with The Bark Bite). Nolan and co-writer David Goyer rightly returned Batman to a dark, gritty, more realistic environment—since abused by other films within the DC canon—and created a psychologically complex Batman/Bruce Wayne brought marvelously to life by Christian Bale.
Gary Oldman and Michael Caine provide excellent support as Jim Gordon and Alfred, as do Liam Neeson and Cillian Murphy even if their villains (Ra’s al Ghul and Scarecrow) are a bit undercooked. Batman Begins was electrifying and gratifying when it came out, and it still is.
The Bourne Ultimatum (2007)
The best of the Bourne series, 2007’s The Bourne Ultimatum, is a defining installment of the action genre. The third film in the series loosely based on the Robert Ludlum books, Ultimatum follows former CIA assassin Jason Bourne (Matt Damon) as he continues to search for clues to his forgotten past, all while trying to evade his former employers who are actively trying to kill him. But, honestly, who cares about the plot when the action sequences are this thrilling?
Produced in a cinematic era when shaky, handheld camerawork—for better and worse—was just starting to become the standard in big budget genre fare, director Paul Greengrass demonstrated how action filmmaking can harness the kineticism of that style without losing the logic of the movement. Grounded by performances from Damon, Julia Stiles, David Strathairn, Joan Allen, and Paddy Considine, The Bourne Ultimatum is not just the best of the Bourne series—it’s one of the best action films of the aughts.
Is Caddyshack a good movie? In the most technical understanding of the term, no, not really. It’s vulgar, crass, and happily debased. It’s also perhaps the gold standard for late ‘70s and early ‘80s raunchy laughers.
With a pre-Ghostbusters Harold Ramis stepping behind the camera for the first time, the writer-director reveals an easygoing affability and a penchant for letting comic talents shine. Indeed, the title might include “caddy,” but this is really a showcase for the likes of Rodney Dangerfield, Ted Knight, and especially Bill Murray. Ramis’ future comic muse is belly-busting good here as a demented groundskeeper who will soon become Elmer Fudd to a warped gopher puppet’s take on Bugs Bunny. Their war of attrition results in one of the greatest finales to any comedy, high brow or low.
The Dark Knight (2008)
Few people today would challenge The Dark Knight‘s status as one of the best superhero films of all time, but there were some serious doubts before the movie hit theaters in 2008. Some fans just couldn’t believe who director Christopher Nolan had cast as their (unironically) beloved Joker. How could Heath Ledger, best known for romance films by general audiences at the time, possibly top Jack Nicholson’s take on the character?
But Ledger’s gravel-voiced agent of chaos quickly put smiles on many faces at the cineplex. A performance much closer to the darker portrayals in modern comics, Ledger’s Joker is now often hailed as the best big screen version of the villain. Certainly, this Joker remains the scariest bad guy Batman has ever faced in theaters. Show up for Nolan’s more grounded vision of the Batman mythos (and a doomed love triangle), but stay for Ledger’s inimitable presence in this film.
The Devil’s Advocate (1997)
By the mid-1990s, Al Pacino had completed his transformation from the restrained, internalized young thespian who rocketed to fame in The Godfather to the loud, scenery-chewing showstopper of films like Scent of a Woman and Scarface. So it only made sense for Pacino to eventually portray the most brazen showman of all, the Devil himself, in director Taylor Hackford’s film version of Andrew Neiderman’s 1990 novel.
Pacino’s Satan, under the name John Milton (look it up), heads a New York City law firm that specializes in defending distasteful clients. He recruits hotshot Florida attorney Kevin Lomax (Keanu Reeves, stiff as always) to join the firm, moving Lomax and his wife Mary Ann (Charlize Theron) to the Big Apple and immediately setting about corrupting Kevin’s soul.
The idea of a powerful legal firm run by Satan is almost begging for satire, but the film plays it remarkably straight, resulting in a few genuine chills. Even Pacino is relatively laid back until the bonkers third act, which features flames, demons, Theron and Connie Nielsen in the nude, and Pacino bellowing his big monologue like it’s the last he’ll ever give. A little long and overripe, The Devil’s Advocate is nevertheless a fun horror watch for a lazy Sunday afternoon.
Donnie Brasco (1997)
Donnie Brasco might not be one of the all-time great crime thrillers, but it is one of the most underrated ones. Directed by Mike Newell—yes, that Mike Newell from Four Weddings and a Funeral—Brasco offers a rollicking account of one of the most extensive FBI undercover operations in its war with the mafia. Johnny Depp plays the man who calls himself Brasco, a streetwise patriot who must live with the fear of being discovered for years, and with the unlikely sense of camaraderie and friendship that can develop between himself and a midlevel guy who never made it far, Lefty Ruggiero (Al Pacino).
It’s a top notch thriller with superb performances in the margins, including from the late great Bruno Kirby.
The Exorcist (1973)
Is The Exorcist the scariest movie ever made? The answer to that probably depends on if you grew up in a Christian household (and even then how much you believed in it). But even if you’re a skeptic, the palpable fear still burrowed deep into this film comes from the fact that director William Friedkin also had his doubts. In ’73 he was not a believer, but his screenwriter William Peter Blatty—who adapted his own novel—was. Thus Friedkin decided to film it in a way that could convince even himself this is really happening.
Hence the film’s cold, almost documentarian look for much of its first hour as Friedkin couches the religious horror in the daily miseries we all experience. Only now it’s a little girl under all that medical equipment who doctors cannot save. Sympathy soon turns to horror, however, as her voice cracks, her eyes change, and her bed levitates. And that’s before she starts crawling down the stairs on her fingers. It’s still the scariest exorcism movie ever made, and its climax is as intense as cinema gets.
The Hangover (2009)
Before Todd Phillips was the respectable Oscar nominated director behind Joker, he was the guy who made the ultimate bro movie: The Hangover. Admittedly, this 2009 cultural artifact has been dated both by its nearly nihilistic desire to be politically incorrect and the two terrible sequels that came afterward. But The Hangover still has an intoxicating charm for those wiling to climb in the mud with it, because during an era where most comedies were improvised, here was one with a great premise and an intense commitment to follow through on it from its cast, which included Bradley Cooper before his reinvention as a dramatic actor and director.
What would you do if you woke up hungover, missing a tooth, and not knowing where your best friend (who is supposed to be getting married) is? Judging by this movie, laugh uproariously, even if you wince about it later.
The Last Samurai (2003)
The Last Samurai is an interesting movie. Certainly dated as a white savior narrative in which Tom Cruise’s Civil War veteran (who fought for the Union) arrives in Japan just in time for the Boshin War—and where after being captured by the Samurai he “goes native” and becomes assimilated into their culture—it’s hard to imagine this riff on Dances with Wolves being made the same way today. Even so, director Edward Zwick still crafts a poignant and engrossing character study… and not just for Cruise’s tortured Capt. Nathan Algren.
Nay, the real star of the movie is Ken Watanabe as Lord Moritsugu Katsumoto, a Samurai who once served the emperor but has now gone rogue as he attempts to prevent the westernization and modernization of feudal Japan. It’s a captivating and measured performance by Watanabe that favors restraint and subtlety over the often heavy handed turns by most leading men performances in Hollywood at this time (including his co-star). It gives the film a gravitas that elevates the already exciting action sequences, which includes Samurai charging into battle on horseback, and an honest to goodness ninja attack.
The Other Guys (2010)
So many folks have been getting their Netflix laughs (and nightmares) from Adam McKay lately thanks to Don’t Look Up that it seems right the same streaming service now adds The Other Guys to its oeuvre. The third of McKay and star Will Ferrell’s major collaborations, this movie feels somewhat like a transitional project for the director. It still has the heavily improvised, madcap screwball energy of Anchorman and Step Brothers, but this one also acts as a nutty preview for The Big Short as the Wall Street villain (embodied by Steve Coogan) provides a caricature of the irresponsibility that led to the 2008 financial crisis. The end credits even has as a snarky powerpoint presentation tracking the building blocks of America’s income inequality problem.
Also Ferrell and co-star Mark Wahlberg just have a terrific odd couple energy as the two schlubby cops who have to step up when Dwayne Johnson and Samuel L. Jackson’s all-star detectives go down in one of the all-time great movie cameos.