Having opened this year’s summer blockbuster season with the worst blockbusters of all time (the vilest cinematic offal to make more than $100 million), we thought it only appropriate to wind up the summer with our list of the best obscure films that languished in theaters — often too briefly — while people were paying 10 bucks a head to submit to the pummeling of the Michael Bays and Stephen Sommerses of the world. The challenge posed to our critics was to write about our favorite flicks that for various reasons had never garnered the audiences they deserved. The criteria were as follows: The movie must have made less than $2.5 million domestically and, to keep the list somewhat current, we limited our timeline to anything released within the lifetime of Emma Roberts (1991-present). To make it more difficult, we also disqualified foreign-language films*, documentaries, and movies that made little money in their theatrical releases but found cult followings on DVD, such as Bottle Rocket ($1.04 million at the box office) and Donnie Darko ($1.27 million). Finally, we did our best to pick films that not only performed poorly but were actually pretty damn entertaining — none of those films you Netflix because you think you should see them but that then wind up sitting on top of your DVD player for six weeks.
And before our more literal-minded readers start ALL-CAPPING us to death in our comments section, we aren’t suggesting that the films we chose are so obscure that none of you have ever seen any of them. In fact, to make this a bit more fun, let’s play a little game: If you’ve seen seven or more of the films in our list, you can consider yourself a regular ol’ cinephile and wonder to yourself (silently) why the hell you aren’t writing for a review website (and c’mon, admit it: you’re probably a little pretentious, too). If you’ve seen four to six of the films, consider yourself quite the film fanatic — you’re probably a helluva “Scene It” player. If you’ve seen one to three of the following films, well, that’s not bad. It shows effort at least, but you’re probably gonna want to load up your Netflix queue. And if you’ve never seen any of the films, well, we won’t make any judgments, but we’re glad that Adam Sandler and Cameron Diaz do it for you.
Finally, if you feel we’ve committed a huge injustice by leaving off a film that absolutely, positively warranted inclusion, try not to get your drawers in a bunch. We’re big fans of recommendations, so make use of the comments section below (and you can check the box-office grosses at Box Office Mojo). — Dustin Rowles
Zero Effect (1998) ($2.08 million) — I have no freakin’ idea why Zero Effect never found an audience, either in theaters or even on home video. It’s a brilliantly updated Sherlock Holmes mystery, though you may not realize the Arthur Conan Doyle connection until the second or third viewing. Bill Pullman is Daryl Zero, the world’s greatest private detective. He’s a recluse with absolutely no social skills, basically incapable of living in the real world, which is OK because he’s able to solve crimes with his exceptional powers of deduction from the Hughesian fortress where he hermits himself away. Steve Arlo is his Watson, played by Ben Stiller in his last performance before There’s Something About Mary ruined his “Ben Stiller Show” and Reality Bites credibility. The mystery itself is so good that I’m able to watch it every other year or so and never remember the twist. But the real joy of Zero Effect is the Daryl Zero character, a bizarre, wackjob genius who kind of puts Tony Shalhoub’s “Monk” to shame. Coincidently, then-22-year-old director Jake Kasdan (son of Lawrence) did try to get Zero Effect made into a television series, but it wasn’t picked up by NBC. However, Kasdan’s experience has formed the basis for a David Duchovny film, The TV Set, which Kasdan also wrote and directed, due for release next April. So, though no one ever saw Zero Effect, its influence does still live on. — DR
Shallow Grave (1994) ($2.07 million) — Grave was the freshman film offering of the writer (John Hodge) and director (Danny Boyle) who would next bring us the more well-known Trainspotting, and both films share the same star (a fresh-on-the-scene Ewan McGregor). Shallow Grave is a bit more straightforward and standard affair than its follow-up, introducing us to three Scottish flatmates (McGregor, Christopher Eccleston, and Kerry Fox) who find themselves with a nice chunk of coin thanks to an unexpected happenstance. The money doesn’t come without a price, however, and this embroils the trio in a rather sticky crime-type situation, which is closely tied to the titular furrow. Like Trainspotting, it’s a character study, letting us watch the trio (d)evolve as they try to figure out what to do with the money and with each other, and things become more and more grim as they begin to (rightfully) trust each other less and less. Each heads down his own dark path, and right up until the end it’s unclear whether there can be redemption for any of the lot (particularly poor, crazy David [Eccleston], who takes the biggest psychological beating). In the wrong hands, the film could have been a poorly executed and rather bleak affair. However, it’s kept afloat with biting comedy that helps you enjoy watching people who you might otherwise find entirely selfish, morally bankrupt, and utterly despicable. And its gore, creepiness, and dark humor would make an excellent first half to a Shallow Grave/Trainspotting double feature. — Seth Freilich
We Don’t Live Here Anymore (2004) ($2.04 million) — For a happily married guy like myself, an obsession with adultery flicks might sound a little bewildering to some (not least my wife). But in this instance, the genre label belies the true meaning. Indeed, a good infidelity movie doubles as cautionary tale, providing fair warning to anyone who might foolishly believe that loopholes exist. Their message is clear: If you fuck someone who is not your spouse, you also fuck up your life. No exceptions. James Cain, of course, is responsible for the two best adultery films of all time: Double Indemnity and The Postman Always Rings Twice. And while We Don’t Live Here, based Andre Dubus’ short story (he also wrote “In the Bedroom”), lacks the narrative intrigue of Cain’s films, it’s more emotionally wrenching, examining marriage (as director Larry Gross writes) not as a means to living happily ever after but “as the beginning and discovery of emotional conflict, rather than its resolution.” The film revolves around two couples whose members resort to affairs to liven up their dreary, dying marriages. Much of the emotional conflict is sparked by the churning monotony in their marriages and the exploration of the choices between the outright lie of adultery and the careful selectivity that comes when there are things that two people can no longer talk about. And the ensemble cast (Mark Ruffalo, Peter Krause, Naomi Watts, and Laura Dern) provides breathtaking performances that, in the end, makes We Don’t Live Anymore the perfect movie for anyone considering cheating on their spouse. — DR
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead (1991) ($739,104) — 1990’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead is a brilliant little piece of existential pie. Adapted for the screen from the play of the same name (and written and directed by that play’s author, the well-known-in-some-circles Tom Stoppard), the plot is ostensibly focused on two of the lesser characters from some play called Hamlet. Most of the film’s action actually takes place off the Hamlet stage, however, where R & G entertain themselves and the viewer with word games, philosophical discussions and attempts to discern which is actually Rosencrantz and which is Guildenstern. While Tim Roth pulls off Guildenstern quite well, and Richard Dreyfuss puts on a fine performance as The Player (the head of the theater troupe hired by Hamlet), it’s Gary Oldman as Rosencrantz who really steals the show. As with most of his performances, Oldman puts on a virtual acting clinic, deftly walking the fine line between idiot and idiot savant. For example, in the opening scenes Rosencrantz is repeatedly flipping a coin, and Oldman seamlessly translates it from an act of mindless entertainment to a study of the apparent broken laws of probability. His idiot clown similarly jumps from discovering basic laws of physics to being suddenly and easily distracted by something like a naked bottom. A familiarity with the intricacies of “Hamlet” isn’t necessary for you to be entertained and amused by the flick, though it does allow for some extra enjoyment. An appreciation for the smart and the absurd, however, is necessary. — SF
Kicking and Screaming (1995) ($718,490) — “What I used to able to pass off as a bad summer could now potentially turn into a bad life.” It’s a rare, honest film that strikes you as deeply disturbing and charmingly hilarious at the same time — exactly the kind of mixed feelings that make up the intellectual ennui in Kicking and Screaming and most of the criminally underrated Noah Baumbach’s films. That special kind of ennui percolates here among four post-grads who move in together hardly a block from their alma mater and try feebly to cling to their college years via high-minded chitchat and self-deception. This is the movie that should’ve encapsulated Generation X, that in fact best illustrates the double-edge of bourgeois pretense — the literary wit and infomania that so often creates people who can talk about everything while doing absolutely nothing. But if the subject is somber, it’s possible that you’ll laugh hard enough not to notice. Baumbach made Kicking and Screaming the perfect comedy or the perfect drama; sometimes I have trouble deciding which. But by the end, the characters we watch waxing about culture and art while their painfully boring lives stutter and stall become more than the sum of their witticisms — they become the embodiment of an incredibly smart and incredibly paralyzed youth culture. — Phillip Stephens
All the Real Girls (2003) ($549,666) — David Gordon Green burst onto the indie scene with 2000’s George Washington, but it was 2003’s All the Real Girls that cemented the writer-director’s visual style and willingness to wear his heart right on the sleeve of his pearl-snap shirt. All the Real Girls is ostensibly about a commitment-phobic young man getting his heart broken by his friend’s sister, but it’s really about the ardors of twentysomething life and the unavoidable pains of slowly growing up. Starring Green’s friend/muse Paul Schneider, the film presents an elegiac look at small-town life and the characters that inhabit it. A Southern man himself, Green’s humor is character-based but never malicious; there’s a profound joy in watching the protagonist drive his mom’s minivan around a local demolition derby track, or when one of his friends shouts things like, “Let’s dip our nuts in whiskey and get the girls drunk!” Green’s open framing of a group of friends hanging out and his almost willful insistence in overlapping the mumbled dialogue give the film a realistic, almost documentary feel, but it’s his heartbreaking images of factories, dirt roads, and three-legged dogs that manage to evoke the unnamable emotions his characters are facing: the pain of love, the aimlessness of rural existence, and the sense that sometimes there’s nothing to do with life but wait. — Daniel Carlson
Citizen Ruth (1996) ($285,112) — Before he gave us a Machiavellian Reese Witherspoon in Election or a naked Kathy Bates in About Schmidt, writer/director Alexander Payne gave us Laura Dern as pregnant, solvent-huffing Ruth Stoops in Citizen Ruth. A longtime indigent and occasional prostitute, Ruth approaches her aerosol-shopping with a connoisseur’s finicky palate, then merrily inhales her way to oblivion, mindless of the embryo growing inside her. When a concerned judge offers her a reduced sentence if she’ll have an abortion rather than give birth to yet another child she can’t support, Ruth accidentally winds up a trophy fought over by self-righteous militants from both the pro-choice and pro-life camps. A skilled manipulator but none too bright, her alignments shift constantly depending upon who makes her a better offer. Though Payne’s own ideological leanings are clear, he skewers the excesses of both sides of the argument, helped tremendously by the deadpan performances of a brilliant supporting cast that includes Swoosie Kurtz, Kelly Preston, Mary Kay Place, and a pre-“That ’70s Show” Kurtwood Smith.
Movies about stupid people are usually as tiresome as they are condescending, but Dern gives willful, mercurial Ruth a tarnished dignity that endures throughout all her debasements. As funny as it is bleak, with real Midwestern locations that ground its satire in the horrific reality of middle-class, middle-American esthetics, Citizen Ruth is a sunny black comedy that maintains its good cheer regardless of its controversial subject matter. This is the movie Strangers with Candy should have been. — Jeremy C. Fox
Suture (1993) ($102,780) — The plot of Suture will either reel you in or soundly put you off: Two long-lost “twins” reunite after years of severance. The suave, rich Vincent then attempts to murder the poor, humble Clay in an effort to fake his own death. Clay lives through the attempt and is assumed to be Vincent anyway and, since the assault left him with amnesia, doesn’t know the difference anyhow. Clay has his doubts about his identity, though everyone around him assures him that he is Vincent. Vague regressions finally give way to epiphany toward the film’s close, just as the real Vincent returns to finish the job. Which one makes it out alive? becomes the question at hand, especially given that Clay is played by the hulking, black Dennis Haysbert, and Vincent is played by gaunt, white Michael Harris — a distinction no character in the film calls attention to. It isn’t the most subtle or original grand conceit to drive a film, but it does make for fascinating viewing. Filmmakers Scott McGehee and David Siegel made Suture a smartly artistic film with noir pretensions that presents provocative ideas about contemporary culture, identity, and race while explaining nothing and wrapping it all in a sharply panoramic, black-and-white (Ha!) suspense-thriller. The irony and portentousness may make the film irritating to many, but as a cinematic experience it’s highly thought-provoking, not to mention entertaining. — PS
Following (1998) ($48,482) — Writer/director Christopher Nolan’s 1998 feature debut Following is a low-budget masterpiece of independent filmmaking and a harrowing modern noir. The film was shot on weekends over the course of a year to accommodate the cast members’ regular jobs, and most of the production expenses went into the grainy 16mm Nolan used. Nolan has said that he wanted Following to focus on the noir aspect he enjoyed most, namely that “character is ultimately defined by action.” The film follows a young writer who, out of boredom, begins following random people on the street and winds up trailing a thief and being pulled into a life of crime. As he would do with his follow-up, 2000’s Memento, Nolan presents the scenes out of chronological order, often showing the second half of an event long before its build-up. He uses the device flawlessly, drawing the viewer into a deepening mystery that never fully reveals itself until the film’s final moments. It lacks the polish of Nolan’s later works, but it’s still an excellent, engaging film. Plus, a guy gets killed with a claw hammer. Really, how can you go wrong? — DC
Stander (2004) ($31,651) — This one I take personally. It was among the first films I reviewed — and raved about — though my review never even appeared in the local publication I wrote it for, since the movie’s Boston opening was cancelled. Its distributor released Stander in only seven theaters for a single week, despite generally positive reviews and an inclusion on Entertainment Weekly’s “Must List.” Whether they were scared off by the Afrikaner accents, the unironic use of the period setting, or its moral and political ambiguities, Newmarket Films carelessly dismissed my all-time favorite movie about a cop-turned-bank-robber in Apartheid-era South Africa.
OK, part of its appeal is that it’s the only movie I’ve yet come across about a cop-turned-bank-robber in Apartheid-era South Africa, so its novelty helps it stand out among so many cookie-cutter studio films. But the novelty would be useless if it were all Stander had to offer; instead it just gets your attention long enough for you to notice how director Bronwen Hughes so thoroughly captures the look and feel of both the period and the place, and how Thomas Jane gives a completely persuasive and often moving performance. Stander has every element it would need to appeal to the mass audience — sex, violence, guns, car chases — but in a world before The Interpreter and The Constant Gardener, no one knew how to market a film with African racial conflict as its backdrop, so the mass audience — hell, even the indie audience — never got a chance to see it in theaters. And that’s a real shame because, as enjoyable as it is on DVD — and it is enjoyable, and everyone reading this should rent/buy/Netflix it right away — the major action sequences lose a lot of their impact when seen on a tiny little TV screen. — JF
Correction: The fourth sentence in the opening paragraph of this article originally stated simply (and inaccurately) “foreign films” rather than “foreign-language films.”
Guides | September 7, 2006 | Comments ()