Mar 302011

DVD suggestions for those who can’t bring themselves to spend $8.25 on Sucker Punch

By Lucy Jones

For most people (ie: the normal and functioning among us) Spring is a time to rejoice. The weather turns warm, the flowers are in bloom, folks can finally return to the great outdoors. But, for those of us who would rather sit in a dark, climate controlled room and watch light flicker on a screen (ie: me), the outlook isn’t quite as rosy. As any movie lover knows, Spring is a traditionally slow time at the box office. The limited release Oscar contenders from winter have all rolled out, and the giant blockbusters of summer are still a season away.

So what’s a cinema junkie to do when her supply runs out? She has to find her fix elsewhere. This means substituting the small screen for the big. Now, to be totally frank, I’m not a fan of watching films in a non-theatrical environment. Generally, I like to cross my fingers that the classic films I haven’t seen will one day make their way to a revival screening. There are movies that I have put off watching in just this spirit of optimism.

But there are plenty of films that, due to lack of interest the first time around, probably won’t have a second shot on the big screen. Many deserve to be relegated to bargain bins and late night cable obscurity, but some don’t. These rarer films number among the criminally overlooked and woefully underrated, making them prime candidates for a DVD rental.  Here are some of my favorites from the last 11 years:

5) Running Scared (2006) No, I’m not talking about the 1980s Gregory Hines film of the same name. The Running Scared in question is a 2006 release by director Wayne Kramer (also not to be confused with the guitarist from the MC5). While the name of the film and director may remind you of other things, the film itself won’t. This is an entirely original and audaciously over-the-top take on the traditional fairy tale. Imagine snatching the Brothers Grimm from the 19th Century, securing them to a chair a la A Clockwork Orange, and then inundating them with a non-stop orgy of hyper-violent Japanese gangster films. Hand them a movie camera, and this is the film you would get.

The movie came and went, which I blame (as I do most things) on Paul Walker. The trailer for the film was Walker heavy (he stars in the flick but, fortunately, is surrounded by more interesting folks like Vera Farmiga and Chazz Palminteri) which I think was off-putting to anyone interested in seeing a movie that didn’t suck. Of course, for people who respected his work in The Fast and the Furious and wanted more, a cerebral and reference laden genre bender was probably a little confusing. The movie cost 17 million to make and grossed a little under 7 at the box office. I say we try to close that gap. Running Scared deserves a 2nd…or, let’s face it, 1st…look.

4) Envy (2004) People hated this movie. I can’t for the life of me figure out why. It has a 7% on Rotten Tomatoes which puts it in the exact same numerical camp as Glitter and Gigli. As someone who sat through both of those films (and have the cinematic scars to prove it) I find its inclusion in that company to be downright scandalous. Envy is a well paced, tight, and clever satire that effectively pokes fun at the corrosive power of brash consumerism on the American psyche.

Tim (Ben Stiller) and Nick (Jack Black) are neighbors whose friendship is tested when Nick’s latest get-rich-quick scheme unexpectedly becomes successful. Tim had a chance to get in on the ground floor, but had scoffed at the idea. Now he has to deal with Nick’s ever accumulating and increasingly grandiose displays of wealth. The funniest part is watching how Nick and his wife, Natalie (the always brilliant Amy Poehler), decide to spend their millions. The movie is totally fun and 100% Ben Affleck free. Take that, Gigli.

3) The Fall (2006) It breaks my heart that this film isn’t on everyone’s top 10 list of the last decade. Music video director Tarsem spent a personal fortune to get the movie made. Because so much of it came out of his own pocket, it’s tricky to get figures for the exact budget. It suffices to say, the film lost a bundle when it barely pulled in 2,000,000 in US box office receipts.

The Fall

Filmed in 18 different countries, The Fall is a sweeping, gorgeous, epic film that is anchored by a very sweet and simple story. Outside of early 20th Century Los Angeles, an injured stuntman (Lee Pace) befriends a little girl in a hospital. In an effort to coerce her into sneaking him morphine, he begins to tell her a story which blends his own biography and the people they know with larger than life characters and exotic locales. I don’t want to say much more, but the film is so artfully crafted that I’m blown away every time I see it. It is often referenced alongside Cinema Paradiso for its emphasis on storytelling but, quite frankly, I think this is a superior film. And that says something.

2) The Baxter (2005) First of all, how could a movie that was written and directed by The State‘s Michael Showalter be anything other than brilliant? I love everything about this comedy. It begins with the classic romcom cliche of the wrong-for-each-other couple at the altar. Their life of misery is about to be legally sealed when the dashing hero, the guy our prospective bride was always meant to marry, comes in and saves her at the last minute.

This film asks: hey—what about that other guy? The poor schmuck that got left behind? What happens to that poor dude? The next 90 minutes answers that question. Elliott Sherman (Showalter) is what his grandmother refers to as “The Baxter”—the safety guy that the girl winds up with because she can’t have who she really wants. The film is a heck of a charmer, referencing classic Howard Hawks and Preston Sturges while simultaneously bringing something new to the genre. Plus it provides a parade of The State regulars, which necessarily gives it two extra stars in my book.

1) Happy Accidents (2000) I love Happy Accidents for many of the same reasons that I love The Baxter. It’s a traditional romantic comedy in some respects, but it pushes the genre in a new direction. Ruby (Marisa Tomei) has had a string of bad boyfriends, which makes her new relationship with kindhearted Sam (Vincent D’Onofrio) so refreshing. Everything proceeds swimmingly until Sam confides that he is actually a time traveler who has come from the year 2470 on a mission to find her. Is Sam a straight up lunatic, or is he telling the truth? The film explores the relationship between trust and love in a smart and compelling way, making it totally worth the rental fee.

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  One Response to “The most underrated films of the millenium”

  1. Exactly!!!! ENVY soooo underrated!! Christopher Walken was a genius. How did this get 7% on Rotten Tomatoes & 2/4 Ebert Roeper…BUT ‘Get Smart’ with boring cast of Corelle, Hathaway, the Rock…gets 80% on Rotten Tomatoes and 3.5/4 stars on Ebert Roper???
    What a joke! ENVY is the hidden gem of all times!!

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