5 Best Movies to Watch by Bob Balaban

Staff & contributors

Gosford Park inspired screenwriter Julian Fellowes to create Downton Abbey — but don’t let that association fool you, because this is no quaint, sentimental period drama but a scalding satire of 1930s England class relations (even though Maggie Smith does play a withering dowager countess here, too). Robert Altman, master orchestrator of ensembles, assembled a banquet of performers here, including Michael Gambon, Kristin Scott Thomas, and Charles Dance as the well-to-do attendees of a hunting party on a grand estate. Working furiously to meet their every whim is the house’s domestic staff, played by such talents as Emily Watson, Helen Mirren, Kelly Macdonald, and Clive Owen.

The murder comes over an hour into the film, which ought to tell you about its real focus (Altman actually called Gosford Park a “who cares whodunnit”). In place of Agatha Christie-style intrigue is brilliant characterization and storytelling. Even at 137 minutes, 30-plus characters mean time is of the essence, but Altman and his actors miraculously find a way to convey a deep sense of each person — especially those downstairs. This tangle of rich lives never gets overwhelming, though, because Gosford Park is expertly paced. It’s nothing less than a joy to sit back and experience the masterful unraveling of its many threads, each more revelatory than the last.

Genre: Drama, Mystery, Thriller

Actor: Adrian Scarborough, Alan Bates, Bob Balaban, Camilla Rutherford, Charles Dance, Claudie Blakley, Clive Owen, Derek Jacobi, Eileen Atkins, Emily Watson, Emma Buckley, Finty Williams, Frances Low, Frank Thornton, Geraldine Somerville, Gregor Henderson-Begg, Helen Mirren, James Wilby, Jeremy Northam, Jeremy Swift, Joanna Maude, John Atterbury, Kelly Macdonald, Kristin Scott Thomas, Laura Harling, Laurence Fox, Leo Bill, Lucy Cohu, Maggie Smith, Meg Wynn Owen, Michael Gambon, Natalie Danks-Smith, Natasha Wightman, Richard E. Grant, Ron Webster, Ryan Phillippe, Sarah Flind, Sophie Thompson, Stephen Fry, Teresa Churcher, Tom Hollander, Trent Ford

Director: Robert Altman

Rating: R

After experimenting with multiple storylines in The French Dispatch, the inimitable Wes Anderson goes one step further with the mind-bendingly meta Asteroid City. Framed as a TV documentary about the making of a play, Asteroid City’s Russian doll setup reflects the neurosis of its period (the Cold War-struck ‘50s), art-making, and the intimidating vastness of outer space.

The play takes place in a tiny desert town where atom bomb tests routinely rattle the doorframes and where a convention for young geniuses is being held, attended by a host of typically idiosyncratic characters (played by Jeffrey Wright, Tilda Swinton, Tom Hanks, and many, many more). Still, it retains a central focus: the grief of new widower Augie (Jason Schwartzman) and his kids, and the connections he and his son (Jake Ryan) forge with a visiting actress (Scarlett Johansson) and her daughter (Dinah Campbell). Asteroid City draws much of its poignancy from this story (and its behind-the-scenes goings-on), as these people stare into the cosmic wilderness and a future without their loved one. Shot in gorgeous bleached postcard tones and full of the imaginative flourishes we’ve come to expect from Anderson, this is a profound rumination on existential angst that miraculously finds hope amidst all its characters’ nihilism.

Genre: Comedy, Drama

Actor: Adrien Brody, Aimee Mullins, Ara Hollyday, Bob Balaban, Bryan Cranston, Damien Bonnard, Deanna Dunagan, Dominique Fouassier, Edward Norton, Elena Uriz, Ella Faris, Erika Godwin, Ethan Josh Lee, Fisher Stevens, Francisco Javier Gomez, Grace Edwards, Gracie Faris, Hong Chau, Hope Davis, Jack Eyman, Jake Ryan, Jarvis Cocker, Jason Schwartzman, Jay Lau, Jeff Goldblum, Jeffrey Wright, Liev Schreiber, Margot Robbie, Matt Dillon, Maya Hawke, Palmira Ferrer, Patricia Colin, Paul Kynman, Randall Poster, Rita Wilson, Rodolphe Pauly, Rupert Friend, Sam Marra, Sandy Hamilton, Scarlett Johansson, Seu Jorge, Sonia Gascón, Sophia Lillis, Stéphane Bak, Stephen Park, Steve Carell, Tilda Swinton, Tom Hanks, Tom Hudson, Tony Revolori, Truman Hanks, Wendy Nottingham, Willa Skye, Willem Dafoe

Director: Wes Anderson

Best in Show’s cast list reads like a catalog of comic greats. Among others, it includes Parker Posey, Jane Lynch, John Michael Higgins, Jennifer Coolidge, and the unbeatable duo that is Catherine O’Hara and Eugene Levy. Their participation alone should you clue in on what kind of film this is: a delightful exercise in improvisational comedy. The jokes roll in fast and the spoofs are spot-on (Parker Posey gets a special mention for playing the faux-calm handler with rage issues bubbling up to a tee). And thanks to the mockumentary format, they’re supported by an abundance of visual gags. 

The cherry on top of this fun sundae is the adorable dogs who amusingly participate in human shenanigans. If you're ever looking for a watch that is equal parts comedic and cute, then this underrated comedy gem of a film could be it.

Genre: Comedy, Drama

Actor: Andrew Johnston, Andrew Wheeler, Bob Balaban, Camille Sullivan, Carmen Aguirre, Carrie Aizley, Catherine O'Hara, Christopher Guest, Colin Cunningham, Corrine Koslo, Deborah Theaker, Doane Gregory, Don Lake, Don S. Davis, Ed Begley Jr., Eugene Levy, Fred Willard, Fulvio Cecere, Hiro Kanagawa, Jane Lynch, Jay Brazeau, Jennifer Coolidge, Jim Piddock, John Michael Higgins, Larry Miller, Lewis Arquette, Linda Kash, Lynda Boyd, Madeleine Kipling, Malcolm Stewart, Merrilyn Gann, Michael Hitchcock, Michael McKean, Parker Posey, Patrick Cranshaw, Rachael Harris, Scott Williamson, Stephen E. Miller, Steven M. Porter, Teryl Rothery, Tony Alcantar, Will Sasso

Director: Christopher Guest

Rating: PG-13

Isle of Dogs has all the hallmarks of a Wes Anderson picture—it's stylish, otherworldly, and deadpan hilarious. But the film is also uniquely its own thing, a stop-motion animation deeply and gorgeously immersed in Japanese history and lore. Instead of merely relegating culture in the background for mere aesthetic purposes (as Anderson has done in the past with The Darjeeling Limited), culture here plays a vital role in the adventure and overall plot of the film. It's up to the viewer to decide whether Isle of Dogs is a case of appropriation or appreciation, but what can't be denied is that this is a movie with a strong and unforgettable bite to it. 

Genre: Adventure, Animation, Comedy, Drama

Actor: Akira Takayama, Alex Orman, Anjelica Huston, Bill Murray, Bob Balaban, Bryan Cranston, Chris Benz, Courtney B. Vance, Edward Norton, Elaiza Ikeda, Erica Dorn, F. Murray Abraham, Fisher Stevens, Frances McDormand, Frank Wood, Greta Gerwig, Harvey Keitel, Jake Ryan, Jeff Goldblum, Kara Hayward, Ken Watanabe, Koyu Rankin, Kunichi Nomura, Liev Schreiber, Mari Natsuki, Nijiro Murakami, Roman Coppola, Ryuhei Matsuda, Scarlett Johansson, Shota Matsuda, Taichi Kodama, Takayuki Yamada, Tilda Swinton, Yojiro Noda, Yoko Ono

Director: Wes Anderson

Rating: PG-13

Based on the comic book by Daniel Clowes, Ghost World is a dark comedy that follows the exploits of teenage outcasts Enid and Rebecca (Thora Birch and Scarlett Johansson) as they navigate the many complexities of burgeoning adulthood. Central to the story is the unlikely friendship that Enid strikes up with a lonesome older man (played by Steve Buscemi), a curious relationship that drifts through various humorous and melancholy situations. It’s an original and often poignant look at alienation and identity, with Birch delivering a wonderfully deadpan and often hilarious performance, despite her entirely pessimistic attitude. It’s the type of film that’s just right when you’re in the mood for something just a little bit different.

Genre: Comedy, Drama

Actor: Alex Solowitz, Anna Berger, Ashley Peldon, Bob Balaban, Brad Renfro, Brett Gilbert, Brian George, Brian Jacobs, Bruce Glover, Chachi Pittman, Charles C. Stevenson Jr., Charles Schneider, Daniel Graves, Danny Allen, Dave Sheridan, David Cross, Debi Derryberry, Debra Azar, Diane Salinger, Dylan Jones, Ezra Buzzington, Illeana Douglas, Jake La Botz, James Sie, Jerry Rector, Joan Blair, Joel Michaely, John Bunnell, Joseph Sikora, Joshua Wheeler, Joy Bisco, Kaileigh Brielle Martin, Lauren Bowles, Lindsey Girardot, Lorna Scott, Marc Vann, Martin Grey, Mary Bogue, Matt Doherty, Michelle McGinty, Pat Healy, Patrick Fischler, Paul Keith, Rini Bell, Scarlett Johansson, Sid Hillman, Stacey Travis, Steve Buscemi, T. J. Thyne, Teri Garr, Thora Birch, Tom McGowan, Tony Ketcham, Venus DeMilo Thomas, Will Forte

Director: Terry Zwigoff

Rating: R