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1. Tremors (1990)
Over the past few decades, the American movie schedule has calcified to the point where movies are automatically pre-judged by release date: Summer is for blockbusters, November and December are for prestige-movie Oscar-bait, and January and February are when studios dump their discards, the movies they have low hopes for and want to disavow. At this point, it’s hard to get enthusiastic about anything coming out in winter that isn’t a foreign import or a prestige pic making its official debut after a few sneaky December Oscar-qualifying screenings. The occasional Silence Of The Lambs or Black Hawk Down does open during dumping-ground season to financial success and universal acclaim, but sometimes, audiences reject a throwaway-season movie without giving it a proper chance, or realizing they’re passing on something better than the release date implies. For instance, it’s no surprise Tremors didn’t make a mint at the box office; it’s a ridiculous-sounding, dumb-looking horror movie about a bunch of Nevada hicks, led by Kevin Bacon, fighting giant, fast-burrowing worms. The concept makes it sound like yet another take on Frogs or Night Of The Lepus, where a desperate horror industry scrambles for something radically new to scarify. While it wasn’t in theaters long, it quickly earned a reputation as unusually fun trash, and became such a cult hit on home video that it spawned two direct-to-DVD sequels, a prequel, and a spin-off TV series. What the logline “Kevin Bacon fights Dune sandworms in a small rural town” doesn’t convey is that Tremors is surprisingly funny and endearing. It doesn’t fully give itself over to comedy or camp, or entirely downplay the creepiness of what are, essentially, land sharks that can appear from beneath the earth’s surface at any moment. Instead, it finds a hearty balance between horror and humor.
2. Army Of Darkness (1993)
The third and last entry in Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead trilogy wasn’t much like its predecessors. A goofy horror comedy with more laughs than scares, the film had a troubled production as Raimi’s cult instincts squared off against Universal’s desire for a more commercially viable product. The result is an 81-minute compromise, with a tacked-on happy ending and a number of cuts made to avoid the (patently absurd) threat of an NC-17 rating. Yet even with the studio interference, Army Of Darkness is goofy, energetic fun, a mix of broad slapstick and Ray Harryhausen homage featuring Bruce Campbell at his smarmy best. When the studio dumped the movie with little advertising fanfare, it got mixed to positive critical reaction (a C+ from Entertainment Weekly, two out of four stars from Roger Ebert) and fizzled financially, failing to make back its budget at the box office. In the years since, Army has found the cult following it justly deserves through a seemingly endless series of DVD releases.
3. Matinee (1993)
Too slight to be an awards contender and too mild to be a summer blockbuster, Joe Dante’s period piece Matinee probably belonged in the “afterthought” season of January and February; besides, the dump-off fits what Matinee’s about. Both a paean to B-movie showmanship and a memoir of Cold War anxiety, Matinee follows a group of Florida teenagers as they make plans to see the monster movie Mant!—presented by a William Castle-like producer played by John Goodman—while the Cuban Missile Crisis heats up, affecting the families of these Army brats. Charles S. Haas’ script captures what it’s like to be a kid roaming free of adult supervision, in transition from childhood to adulthood in a darkening world; and Dante’s direction strikes the right tone, reveling in the escapism of silly sci-fi while also acknowledging that throwaway entertainments can only keep reality at bay for so long.
4. Cabin Boy (1994)
Poor Cabin Boy. As if the world wasn’t hard enough for fancy lads—and cinematic depictions thereof—Tim Burton, who was still in the can-do-no-wrong years of his career, opted not to direct it. Burton stayed on as producer, however, and the job fell to the Get A Life team of director Adam Resnick and star Chris Elliott, who together spun a delightfully silly seafaring adventure out of a $10 million budget the film didn’t come close to recouping. But despite a Razzie nomination for Elliott and frequent jibes from David Letterman over his (brilliant) cameo in the film, Cabin Boy has emerged as a cult favorite, an endearing, offbeat comedy that doubles as another affectionate nod to the wizardry of Ray Harryhausen.
5. The Quick And The Dead (1995)
For a few years, Sharon Stone ruled Hollywood. Following the success of 1992’s Basic Instinct, Stone had the clout to match her ambition, and she used that clout to, among other things, get The Quick And The Dead made. A tribute to the spaghetti Western that came with its own hyper-realized style, the film stars Stone as the female version of The Man With No Name, a never-miss gunslinger who comes to town to compete in a quick-draw tournament held by bad guy Gene Hackman. Director Sam Raimi brings his usual visual wit to the film, and between the terrific look and cast of character actors and almost-famous leading men (including Russell Crowe and Leonardo DiCaprio), it’s a minor classic in a languishing genre. Unfortunately, audiences failed to see the appeal, and in spite of some decent (and some not-so-decent) reviews, the film was a box-office bomb, making back just over half of its $35 million budget.
6. Office Space (1999)
Here’s the story of Beavis And Butt-head and King Of The Hill creator Mike Judge as a live-action comedy director: abuse by the studio, followed by a total lack of faith, followed by belated appreciation on video. (Idiocracy and Extract would have both qualified for this list if they weren’t dumped at later points in the year.) But Judge has never done better than his debut feature, Office Space, a wry dissection of cubicle culture that nails the petty, soul-deadening work of logging time in a suburban industrial park. Judge’s ability to make cartoon renderings of recognizable types yields now-iconic characters like Gary Cole’s excruciatingly passive-aggressive boss and Stephen Root’s bitter, mumbling office pariah. Yet it’s the true-to-life details that make Office Space really work, from the meaningless paperwork to the malfunctioning printer (“PC Load Letter”) to the “flair” that decorates the overeager waitstaff at an Applebee’s clone.
7. Boiler Room (2000)
There’s a scene early in Boiler Room that makes it clear, if it wasn’t already, that the film is going to be better than the standard tale of a stock trader’s rise and fall. A group of aggressive young brokers gather at one of their McMansions to watch Wall Street, Oliver Stone’s cautionary tale about the corruption that helped spur the ’80s stock-market boom. The guys, not surprisingly, take inspiration from Gordon Gekko, Michael Douglas’ villainous insider trader, but the fact that they’re watching the film in a huge house appointed with little more than a couch and big TV says everything about the vacancy of their ambition. But what ultimately distinguishes Boiler Room is its off-off-Wall Street setting, a Long Island “wire house” where associates are expected to push stocks on their clients through dubious means. The yields are high, but the legal and moral consequences are severe.
8. Monkeybone (2001)
In Monkeybone, Brendan Fraser plays a cartoonist whose body is taken over by his own cartoon character—a hedonistic, anarchic monkey that’s basically an anthropomorphic version of Fraser’s uncontrollable childhood erections. This surreal Freudian nightmare comedy was the third feature film directed by the stop-motion animation specialist Henry Selick, after two films (The Nightmare Before Christmas and James And The Giant Peach) he made for producer Tim Burton. A mixture of live action and animation, Monkeybone is loosely based on the graphic novel Dark Town and shows the influence of Burton’s work, as well as that of Swedish cartoonist Magnus Carlsson, painter Mark Ryden, Richard Elfman’s midnight-movie freakout Forbidden Zone, and the Church Of The SubGenius. Despite Selick’s awkwardness with actors and a jerry-rigged plot that feels tacked on, the director was able to bring all this stuff together in a way that feels bracingly weird and original. Clearly freaked out by the results, the studio kept critics at arm’s length until the movie was almost in theaters and sold it with a TV ad campaign that made it look like a teen gross-out comedy on acid. Most critics were happy to review the ad campaign, and the box-office take didn’t put a dent in the film’s $75 million budget. Selick didn’t direct another feature until Coraline, eight years later.
9. The Pledge (2001)
It’s still a mystery why the Sean Penn-helmed character piece The Pledge wound up getting released in mid-January rather than in the thick of awards season. Jack Nicholson gives one of the best performances of his career as a retired police detective who becomes so obsessed with re-opening and solving one of his closed cases that he drives his friends and loved ones away. The Pledge is also Penn’s best film as a director, an uncompromising depiction of faith and devotion curdled into something monstrous. It works as a gripping policier as well as an impressionistic study of a man willing to pursue the truth even if it consumes what should be his golden years.
10. Dark Blue (2002)
In 2002 and 2003, director Ron Shelton delivered two flops about the LAPD for the price of two, starting with the underrated Dark Blue, a withering story of police corruption by James Ellroy and David Ayer (Training Day). (The second, Hollywood Homicide, tries for comedy, with much more limited success.) The key to Dark Blue is the casting of Kurt Russell as a seasoned detective who isn’t above planting evidence, taking payoffs, and shaking people down, but isn’t entirely an antihero, either. He’s more like Russell Crowe in Ellroy’s L.A. Confidential, a rule-bender with good instincts for the job. But Shelton’s film, set just before the Rodney King beating, evokes an L.A. police culture beset by institutional racism and a tendency to close rank over its misdeeds. It deserved better than the less than $10 million it got.
11. The Big Bounce (2004)
George Armitage’s 2004 adaptation of the early Elmore Leonard crime novel The Big Bounce, which had previously been adapted for the big screen in 1969, shambled into theaters to be greeted by bad reviews and nonexistent box-office. It’s easy to see why the shaggy sleeper comedy wasn’t rapturously received: It’s shapeless, meandering, and aggressively minor, but also not without its laconic, laid-back charms. These charms begin with lead Owen Wilson, perfectly cast as an amiable drifter and small-time crook pulled into criminal mischief by a sexy beach bunny played by Sara Foster, and extend to a gloriously random supporting cast populated by the colorful likes of Willie Nelson, Morgan Freeman, Charlie Sheen, Harry Dean Stanton, and Gary Sinise. It’s the perfect hangout movie, a goofy, sunny, good-time crime comedy for generous audiences with appropriately modest expectations.
12. Miracle (2004)
Nothing about the timing of Miracle’s release was accidental. Ostensibly a dramatization of the gold-medal run by the 1980 U.S. Olympic men’s hockey team, Miracle opened 24 years after the moment that was dubbed “the miracle on ice,” and not so long after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. After opening with a montage of news reports about Vietnam, Watergate, and gas shortages, director Gavin O’Connor and screenwriter Eric Guggenheim introduce Kurt Russell as hockey coach Herb Brooks, a skilled motivator pushing a bunch of college kids to overachieve out of a combination of fear, anger, and intense pride. Though hardly light-fingered, Miracle has plenty of graceful moments, such a scene in which Jimmy Carter’s famous “malaise” speech is repositioned as an eloquent affirmation of the true American character, and a scene in which Russell quietly reflects on what his team accomplished. Miracle was meant to remind stressed-out Americans how good a moment of triumph feels, but Russell shows how punishing a sustained act of will can be.
13. Running Scared (2006)
Dumped into theaters at the end of February, Wayne Kramer’s follow-up to his Sundance breakout The Cooler was potentially doomed from the start due to frontman Paul Walker, then (and now) derided as a wooden pretty boy out of place anywhere but the Fast And The Furious franchise. Released to largely negative reviews, the flawed but feverishly pulpy Running Scared puts Walker through the paces as a New Jersey undercover cop who, for complicated reasons, ends up implicated in the death of a Russian mafia thug (Karel Roden). The fact that this abusive thug’s obsessed with John Wayne (complete with full back tattoo) is the first indication something’s off. Walker’s nighttime journey through a dispossessed lower-class industrial wasteland brings him up against equally vile foreign criminals and rich, law-flaunting pedophiles. Revolving around endemic corruption, it all plays like even more tasteless Samuel Fuller for the ’00s.
14. Be Kind Rewind (2008)
Michel Gondry’s heartfelt ode to the mom-and-pop video store pulled in at a pitiable ninth place when it hit cinemas February 22, 2008. Yet it’s fitting that a movie about the rough-hewn aesthetics of VHS flopped at multiplexes, despite winning performances from Jack Black, Mos Def, Danny Glover, and a near-autistic Mia Farrow. And with its Capra-esque message about community spirit and the binding powers of motion pictures, Be Kind Rewind also proved a warming tonic against the biting late-winter chill.
15. Youth In Revolt (2010)
The fifth Michael Cera vehicle released in 15 months to capitalize on his presumable leading-man box-office draw after Superbad and Juno, Youth In Revolt suffered from the comic actor’s overexposure. Audiences by and large were getting tired of his verbally nervous fidgeting and monotone awkwardness, and weren’t interested in the most assured of Cera’s pre-Scott Pilgrim movies. Youth In Revolt remains surprisingly true to the R-rated spirit of C.D. Payne’s cult novel about a 14-year-old intellectual malcontent in lust with a seemingly unattainable girl (Portia Doubleday). In his dreams and an increasingly unclear reality, Cera turns into mustachioed badass François Dillinger to win her over and show he’s not just a stumbling geek. Cera’s lack of range is part of the joke: Even in dreams, he’s still irrepressibly himself. Wisely tackling only a small portion of Payne’s behemoth storyline, Miguel Arteta’s movie has surprising, purely visual panache to give flair to Cera’s effectively deployed index of minutely differing reactions.
16. Haywire (2012)
Audiences going into Haywire knew leading lady Gina Carano was an MMA fighter making her thespian debut, information that seemed to prejudice many civilian and professional viewers from the start. As a contract hitman, Carano plays a part tailored to her strengths: minimal dialogue, maximum mayhem. But whether they were responding negatively to her screen presence or simply annoyed by a film that discarded even the pretense of an emotional narrative in favor of rudimentary plot and many un-CGI-aided fights, audiences hated Haywire, giving it a D+ CinemaScore. The negative word-of-mouth was unfortunate: Dispensing with expositional silliness, Haywire is a stellar action movie, full of terrifically choreographed bouts that balance on the fine line between maintaining the laws of physics while wowing jaded filmgoers with new moves.
17. Wanderlust (2012)
Wanderlust had it all: a stellar cast, a topical premise, a whole bunch of full-frontal nudity. (Isn’t there some urban legend about how if Joe Lo Truglio’s penis sees its shadow, it means six more weeks of winter?) But the February 24 release date, delayed from the previous fall, was a death sentence. All the same, David Wain’s comedy about bankrupted urbanites (Paul Rudd and Jennifer Aniston) who head to a Georgian hippie commune to start again isn’t short on laughs, even if the plotting seems more than a bit slapdash. Like Wain’s previous film, Role Models, Wanderlust has benefited from the move to home video, where its cast of comic crack-ups can milk more laughs in extended riffs and deleted scenes.