A Decade Of Underrated Movies
Who Will Love The Brown Bunny?
Every year produces at least half a dozen movies that are underappreciated for one reason or another. Sometimes niggling flaws obscure their considerable virtues. Other times, they're victimized by bad press or a studio that cares so little about them that its apathy becomes contagious. But more often than not, it comes down to a collective failure of taste. Some of these films will be revived and embraced somewhere down the road, but others will remain orphaned indefinitely. With the contenders piling up again in 2005Why isn't The Devil's Rejects being hailed as the second coming of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre? Where's Lord Of War on the nation's editorial pages? Why no laughs for the subversive Pretty Persuasion? Here's a look back at 10 years in underratedness.
The Brown Bunny
Whenever the words "worst ever" are used in association with anything, there's usually something uniquely compelling about it, some estranging quality that sets it apart from more genteel, middle-of-the-road fare. Few films speak to this phenomenon better than Vincent Gallo's The Brown Bunny, which debuted to infamy at the Cannes Film Festival, got pounded repeatedly by the gossip press, and opened with a tired whimper. And yet Gallo's wounded road odyssey looks and feels like nothing else on the independent scene, especially once it hits the open highway and soaks in the vast, lonely expanse of the American landscape. Essential viewing for the recently heartbroken.
See also (in alphabetical order): Birth, Cellular, Spartan, Twentynine Palms, The Village
This year's surprise hit Crash was praised in many corners for its explicit treatment of racism in Los Angeles, but its nasty epithets become wearying, speaking more to a screenwriter's contrivance than the reality on the ground. Based on an original story by James Ellroy, Ron Shelton's Dark Blue is no less hard-hitting in its depiction of racism and corruption within the LAPD, but the institutional rot feels like a more insidious part of the social fabric. As a shady detective in the days leading up to the Rodney King riots, Kurt Russell uses his shaggy-dog charisma to dangerous effect: Like other Ellroy heroes, he's so compromised that he can't do the right thing, but his misdeeds never place him beyond redemption.
See also: Down With Love, Gerry
Miramax showed no confidence in Walter Hill's lean, muscular prison-boxing movie, dumping it into theaters at the end of summer with little fanfare. But what could they possibly have been hoping for when they bankrolled it? Always a first-rate genre filmmaker, with perhaps a greater feel for Western iconography than any other working director, Hill (The Long Riders, The Warriors) sticks two proud, steely heavyweight champs (Wesley Snipes and Ving Rhames) in the same prison and watches these "gladiators" slug their way to a showdown. Hill has an excellent feel for the stark brutality of prison and the sport ("People play baseball," says Rhames. "Nobody plays boxing."), and few movies go through the paces so efficiently. The use of title cards to cut back on a mountain of exposition is particularly effective.
See also: Ararat, Full Frontal, No Such Thing, The Rules Of Attraction, Solaris, Trouble Every Day
Josie And The Pussycats
One for the time capsule, this bubblegum satire scores as an early snapshot of corporate-sponsored 21st-century youth culture, back when boy bands ruled the roost and MTV's Total Request Live in Times Square was the epicenter of a logo-saturated universe. Though their film functions well enough as the story of plucky girl rockers on the rise, writer-directors Deborah Kaplan and Harry Elfont go one extra step by looking into what Joni Mitchell famously called "the star-making machinery behind the popular song." Here, democracy means voting for preordained choices like the aptly named Du Jour on TRL, and music is just another way of delivering people to products. Too bad so few people were delivered to this one.
See also: A.I.: Artificial Intelligence, Bully, How High, Session 9, Vanilla Sky, Wet Hot American Summer
Bret Easton Ellis' American Psycho was one of the most critically reviled books of its time, so it was perhaps inevitable that critics wouldn't give Mary Harron's shrewd, understated adaptation much of a chance. Directed and performed with a methodical chill reminiscent of Stanley Kubrick or David Cronenberg, the film effectively skewers the '80s by following a hollow man whose conscience thoroughly reflects that period's cultural values. Christian Bale plays the title character with ruthless wit and not an ounce of mercy, taking his place among such like-minded black-comedy anti-heroes as Dennis Price in Kind Hearts And Coronets, Michael Caine in A Shock To The System, and Adrian Pasdar in TV's short-lived Profit. The business-card scene alone is a masterpiece of corporate one-upmanship.
See also: The Ninth Gate, Pitch Black, Pola X, Unbreakable
Mike Judge's brilliantly observed comedy on cubicle culture now has a sizeable following, but how many of its fans can claim to have seen it on opening weekend? (Chirp, chirp, chirp...) Studios often have a hard time grappling with a truly original sensibility, and it's clear that Fox didn't know what to do with Judge's offbeat style, which combines the mild exaggeration of his animated work with the graceful deadpan of Jacques Tati. It's a Dilbert comic strip come to life, only much darker and much funnier: Judge captures the soul-crushing drudgery of industrial-park life in every perfect detail, from the petty power plays to the meaningless paperwork to the malfunctioning printer. ("PC load letter? What the fuck does that mean?")
See also: Besieged, Bringing Out The Dead, The Rage: Carrie 2, Summer Of Sam
Produced the same year as Kevin Smith's wildly overrated Chasing Amy, though released a bit later, Noah Baumbach's screwball follow-up to Kicking & Screaming covered the same subjecthow men grapple with their partners' sexual historieswith far more intelligence and wit. Eric Stoltz plays an Everyman who sabotages a promising relationship with Annabella Sciorra by poking into her romantic past. This includes enrolling in a group psychology class with her ex-lover (Chris Eigeman) under a friend's profile, a ruse that gets more ridiculous when the friend joins, donning a pipe and a fake British accent. At the height of his madness, Stoltz even questions Sciorra about why she jumped into bed with him so quickly. "Are you jealous of yourself?" she asks.
See also: Babe: Pig In The City, Bulworth, The Gingerbread Man, The Newton Boys, Velvet Goldmine, Zero Effect
Among the most subversive and widely misunderstood studio films ever produced, Paul Verhoeven's anti-fascist satire was falsely interpreted as an endorsement of a fascist utopia that sends pea-brained young recruits on a dire, meaningless offensive against giant space bugs. Working again with Robocop screenwriter Ed Neumeier, Verhoeven casts utterly blank pretty boys and girls (including Casper Van Dien and Denise Richards) as brainwashed heroes rushing merrily to their doom. The state-of-the-art special effects make for some rousing action sequences, but Verhoeven is more interested in how propaganda works to convince citizens of the rightness of an insane cause. Witness this twisted piece of logic from teacher/recruiter Michael Ironside: "Violence has resolved more conflicts that anything else. The contrary opinion that violence doesn't solve anything is merely wishful thinking at its worst."
See also: Crash, Kundun, Lost Highway, Year Of The Horse
Another Miramax castaway, Jim Jarmusch's surreal, poetic black-and-white anti-Western was not only distributed carelessly, but almost deliberately set up to fail. Transplanting the hapless, put-upon hero of his previous work to a Western industrial setting, Dead Man stars Johnny Depp as a Cleveland accountant who travels by train for a job in a town called Machine, only to find that the opportunity has dried up. Ironic circumstances lead him to become an accidental murderer and outlaw with bounty hunters on his trail. Jarmusch defies genre expectations at every turn: With his passive wimp of a hero, with the exceedingly clumsy realism of the violence, and with a minimalist Neil Young score that reverberates with grimy abrasiveness.
See also: The Cable Guy, The Frighteners, That Thing You Do!, Tin Cup
Even Steven Soderbergh has distanced himself from this stylish neo-noir, which was part of the long cold streak that followed sex, lies, and videotape. Updating the noir thriller Criss Cross for the present day, The Underneath stars Peter Gallagher as an exiled gambler who returns to his hometown owing debts, both literal and metaphorical, to a lot of angry people who are looking for payback. His plan to repay those debts through an armored-truck robbery is revealed in a cool three-toned color scheme (one for past, one for present, one for future) that Soderbergh would later crib for Out Of Sight and Traffic. It also gives a big role to William Fichtner, who may be the scariest character actor alive.
See also: Clockers, Funny Bones, The Glass Shield, Wild Bill