The 20 pictures on the following list have several things in common. First, for the most part, they all died at the box office. Second, while a few have become cult favorites, they all remain essentially forgotten by video renters. The good news? In my opinion, these 20 films are among the best cinematic offerings of the last 15 years–and you’ll have almost no problem finding them at your local chain video store or at specialty shops like Vulcan and The Movie Store. So next time you’re renting a movie and can’t find a thing to watch, try one of these.
What Happened Was… Directed by Tom Noonan, starring Tom Noonan & Karen Sillas, 1994. The best date-gone-horribly-wrong flick I’ve ever seen, Noonan puts you through the emotional wringer by following a night in the life of the two most dysfunctional people you’ll ever see on screen. No matter how miserable you are, it’s bound to make your life look like an earthly paradise.
Death And the Maiden Directed by Roman Polanski, starring Sigourney Weaver & Ben Kingsley, 1994. Released in the theatrical no-man’s-land after Christmas but before the Oscars, Death And the Maiden was unjustly forgotten by its distributor and the public. However, this gem of a movie, about a once-tortured woman who turns the tables on her ex-captor, is not to be missed. Weaver is at her all-time best.
Groundhog Day Directed by Harold Ramis, starring Bill Murray & Andie MacDowell, 1993. On the surface, this is just another light-hearted comedy. The more often you see it, though, the more it takes on the tone of a coming-of-age flick for those who have already grown up. Murray’s comedic timing is at a new height here, and he really brings life to the role of an egomaniacal weatherman who keeps repeating the same day over and over again.
Murray shivers on Groundhog Day.
Glengarry Glen Ross Directed by James Foley, starring Al Pacino, Jack Lemmon, Ed Harris, & Alan Arkin, 1992. Pacino should have won an Oscar for his performance as a land salesman/con-man in this ensemble piece about what happens on the other side of the phone line during those late night sales pitches you get. One of the worst titles for a film in recent history didn’t help the picture’s box office, but a rose by any other name is just as sweet. Alec Baldwin’s five minutes of screen time here is his greatest work ever.
Monster in a Box Directed by Nick Broomfield, starring Spalding Gray, 1992. One you’ve probably never heard of. If you haven’t seen or heard the work of Spalding Gray before, you’re in for a treat. Gray is a touring monologist, and Monster is simply a film of one of these monologues, with Gray sitting behind a desk for 90 minutes and talking about the creation of his 1,400-page novel (the titular Monster). That’s right, he’s just talking, and in doing so he has made himself the preeminent social commentator of our time.
Sneakers Directed by Phil Robinson, starring Robert Redford, Sidney Poitier, River Phoenix, Dan Aykroyd, Ben Kingsley, David Straithairn, & Mary McDonnell, 1992. Look at that cast list and you get a sense of what kind of talent went into making this film… and, in my opinion, pulled it off pretty well. Basically it’s a WarGames for the 1990’s, but Sneakers is twice as cool. It’s a bit far-fetched, but not too far. A bit corny, but not too corny. Just right.
Defending Your Life Directed by Albert Brooks, starring Albert Brooks, Meryl Streep, & Rip Torn, 1991. Brooks’s tale of the afterlife is anything but typical of its genre. Easily his best film, Streep steals the show as Brooks’s love interest in Judgment City, where the two are on trial to defend their lives. Hilariously funny. The film thankfully is a staple on various cable stations.
Toto the Hero Directed by Jaco Van Dormael, starring Michel Bouquet, Jo De Backer, Thomas Godet, & Mireille Perrier, 1991. Maybe my favorite foreign film, this French masterpiece features a man looking back on the life he had and the one he could have had… if only he weren’t switched at birth. Very accessible to U.S. audiences and even more memorable. (Also known as Toto les heros.)
Trust Directed by Hal Hartley, starring Adrienne Shelly & Martin Donovan, 1991. I fell in love with Adrienne Shelly after seeing this film, Hartley’s finest work, the story of a pregnant girl and her slightly insane would-be boyfriend. Funny from the first frame, Trust never lets up. An excellent alternative to those Hollywood romances which feature much too functional characters.
Shelly and Donovan in Trust.
Jacob’s Ladder Directed by Adrian Lyne, starring Tim Robbins, 1990. Very few films give me nightmares. This is one of them. Before Lyne sold out and made Indecent Proposal, he made this gem about a Vietnam vet who can’t stop reliving the past and whose life gets progressively more and more bizarre. You’ll have to watch it three times to figure it all out, but in the end, it’s worth it.
Metropolitan Directed by Whit Stilman, starring Edward Clements, Taylor Nichols & Chris Eigeman, 1990. Stilman hit the ground running with this first feature about the preps in New York City. Totally quotable and almost too realistic, Stilman doesn’t let the characters become stereotypes. Instead, he makes them multi-dimensional and almost likable. Scary.
The Handmaid’s Tale Directed by Volker Schlondorff, starring Natasha Richardson, Robert Duvall, Faye Dunaway, Aidan Quinn, & Elizabeth McGovern, 1990. Why has no one seen this movie? Why do those that have not like it? The story of a nightmare future is extremely faithful to Margaret Atwood’s novel, and the film version brings the book to life better than most adaptations.
Miracle Mile Directed by Steve DeJarnatt, starring Anthony Edwards & Mare Winningham, 1989. One of those films you’ve heard of but have never seen… but you should, if for no other reason than to see Anthony Edwards with hair. This movie, about an ill-fated couple who fall in love on the day the world enters into a nuclear war, as a ribald farce ushering in the end of the Cold War. It’s also nice to see that L.A. isn’t going to do very well when the bombs hit.
House of Games Directed by David Mamet, starring Joe Mantegna & Lindsay Crouse, 1987. You probably didn’t know, but this is the movie that made Mantegna into a star, and with good reason. Mamet’s adaptation of his own play about the intricacies of the confidence game will keep you guessing until the bitter end. Riveting performances marked by Mamet’s staccato dialogue make this movie as perfect as they come.
The Highlander Directed by Russell Mulcahy, starring Christopher Lambert & Sean Connery, 1986. There can be only one! This is the film that spawned the phrase. This cult
favorite about the gathering of immortal beings who must fight each other until only one is left is much much more than your typical action flick. Instead, we get a glimpse of the pain that may be involved with living forever and a look at the private lives of the immortals. The ultimate in swordfighting scenes. Also features a great soundtrack by Queen.
There can be only one. The Highlander.
The Manhattan Project Directed by Marshall Brickman, starring John Lithgow, Christopher Collett, & Cynthia Nixon, 1986. Mega-cheese about a teenager (Collett) who builds a bomb with stolen plutonium and intends to enter it into the science fair. Terribly underrated, I wanted to be like Collett so badly when I was a teenager I almost bought the same books he reads in the movie. Good thing I’m not that motivated. Nice morality fable and more innocent Cold War paranoia.
Real Genius Directed by Martha Coolidge, starring Val Kilmer, 1985. One of my all-time favorites, this film takes the meaning of intellectual comedy to another level. Tracing the development of a high-power laser at an elite California university and its subsequent use by the military, Real Genius is peppered with the most interesting characters and the best practical jokes to come along in decades. One of the greatest endings on film, too.
Top Secret! Directed by Jim Abrahams, Jerry Zucker, & David Zucker, starring Val Kilmer & Lucy Gutteridge, 1984. Yes, another Kilmer movie, but in an entirely different vein. It has long dismissed as a poor knock-off of Airplane! but this film is my favorite of all spoof comedies. Sure, you’ve got to be prepared for the odd pairing of targets: war films and Elvis movies, but the result, a tale of a rock star who ends up saving the French resistance during WWII, is simply priceless.
Twilight Zone – The Movie Directed by John Landis, Steven Spielberg, George Miller, & Joe Dante, starring Vic Morrow, John Lithgow, Albert Brooks, Kathleen Quinlan, & Scatman Crothers, to name a few, 1983. One of the most controversy-shrouded productions in recent years due to Morrow’s death on the set, this film took some of the least worthy episodes of the original TV series and updated them into much better versions. I mean, Spielberg’s Kick the Can episode is actually watchable. The update of Nightmare at 20,000 Feet is extremely gruesome instead of comic. All around, a highly underrated picture that is very memorable.
Time Bandits Directed by Terry Gilliam, starring John Cleese, Shelley Duvall, Sean Connery, and lots of midgets, 1982. What’s not to like? A band of six little people team up with a kid and, with the help of a map stolen from God himself, travel across time for the noble purpose of stealing things. Meanwhile, both God and the Devil try to stop them. In the end, you aren’t too sure which side wins, but it’s a lot of fun along the way. Throws new light on our possibly twisted perceptions of history.Read More