Article by Paul Preston
Quarantine. Still here. And based on the statistics, it’s not going anywhere soon. And if you like statistics, here’s another good one. In the history of time, approximately 500,000 movies have been made, so any comments about you being bored around the house just mean you’re not making the most of your time.
So…what to watch? Naturally, the most popular movies of all time are worth a look, Star Wars, Avengers: Endgame, The Godfather, Pulp Fiction, etc. But we’re in our fifth month of lockdown, so it’s time to dig deep. Here are five movies from the last twenty years that didn’t get the love they deserved in the theater. Now that you can’t go to the theater, give them some love at home.
IN AMERICA (2002)
Jim Sheridan had a fantastic directorial debut, not just in his first film, the Oscar-winning My Left Foot, but the string of movies that followed: working with Richard Harris in The Field and two more collaborations with Daniel Day-Lewis in the Golden Globe nominee The Boxer and the seven-times Oscar-nominated In the Name of the Father. That’s a hell of an introduction to the movie scene.
2002’s In America represents an interesting peak in Sheridan’s career. It’s clearly his most personal film, telling the story of an Irish family moving to New York and dealing with the ups and downs of life in Hell’s Kitchen. The script was co-written by Sheridan and his two daughters. There are two daughters in the story’s family and the parents are still grieving over the death of their son (a character based on Sheridan’s brother, who the film is dedicated to). The other reason this movie is an interesting peak is, with all the Irish stories Sheridan decided to tell from 1989 to 2002, he then… stopped. From 2005’s Get Rich or Die Tryin’ to the present, his projects have more or less been director-for-hire efforts. After a swath of largely unmemorable thrillers and horror movies, the look back at the intimate story of In America becomes all the more charming.
One wise move the film makes is telling the story from the daughter’s perspective and casting relative newcomers Sarah and Emma Bolger as Christy and Ariel. They are a revelation, truly two of the best, most authentic and energized performances by child actors I’ve ever seen. And I come from the School of Newt and Anakin where I’m waiting for the kid to wreck my good time. Despite Djimon Hounsou and Samantha Morton’s Oscar nods, The Bolger sisters (hired when Emma was cast, and she demanded Jim Sheridan cast her sister) have the weight of the film on their shoulders and they act effortlessly.
Another real revelation is Paddy Considine. Known in film for smaller parts in popular franchises like the Jason Bourne movies and Edgar Wright’s Three Flavours Cornetto trilogy, Considine plays the lead role of a father torn up inside with loss trying to hold it together during challenging conditions. The effect is bracingly memorable.
In the end, In America has everything: drama, comedy, tragedy, beauty and even suspense (there’s more tension in Considine’s attempt to win his daughter a carnival game prize than in most CGI-filled nonsense movies). Jim Sheridan’s career high point takes a dangerous and compelling personal story and delivers it as fairy tale art.
I mentioned Leigh Whannel’s Upgrade in Part One of my quarantine viewing articles in the context of it being hard to find. Mainly because streaming services (unlike, and give ‘em all the hard time you want – video stores) will add and remove films from their catalog at will. I recommended Upgrade on HBO to a friend only to find it was gone. Well, here are your marching orders – wherever Upgrade is now, find it and watch it!
Whannel had a big hit earlier this year with his dynamic re-imagining of The Invisible Man and thankfully audiences ate it up to the tune of $125M (on a $7M budget!). Two years earlier, no one saw Upgrade, which saw its box office stall at $15M (but, Whannel has routinely teamed with low budget master, producer Jason Blum, and made Upgrade with him for $5M, so still…a win, right?). Well, box office be damned, Upgrade IS a huge win.
Plenty of great action films succeed BECAUSE of their small budget. Limitations about what can be achieved can re-focus filmmakers on more important matters like dialogue, characters, and story. And – STYLE. Do you fault El Mariachi or Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels for their lack of production value? Hell, no! They’re legendary because of the style that launched the careers of Robert Rodriguez and Guy Ritchie. Upgrade is set in 2048, so there’s enough new technology to float their storyline, but not so much where they need to do anything other than modifications to already-existing technology, allowing the viewer to stop focusing on that to get on with the FUN.
Yes, this story of a man, Grey Trace, whose wife is murdered is FUN! Grey is then upgraded to super-human by the injection of advanced robotics. He sets off for revenge, and there’s your movie. Full disclosure, the wife’s death isn’t pleasant, but it sets the stakes as real and important TO WHERE we can then have fun. TV star-still-looking-for-the-breakout-movie Logan Marshall-Green plays Grey with equal parts wonder, humor, and frustration. He must struggle with the technology implanted in his body and the result is some highly inventive action scenes, all the while Grey seeming utterly amazed that he’s doing the heroics his body is doing. The result is entertaining as hell.
Then, there’s the ending. It packs a tremendous punch as Whannel reminds you that the ride is full of suspense and action, but under it all, this is sci-fi not to be trifled with. Risky, rough, funny, and unique.
This Reese Witherspoon effort struck a chord with me. In a year of wildly experimental films like Boyhood and Birdman, this more traditionally told story just hit me in the heart. That being said, although traditional, the time jumps (from present to the past and back again to establish character) do mark the best possible way to tell this story.
Wild has received much praise for Witherspoon’s performance, and deservedly so, she’s on-the-mark with her portrayal of out-of-control Cheryl Strayed, longing to take control of her life by taking a 1,100-mile hike along the Pacific Crest Trail. But that story is given a quality treatment at the hands of Jean-Marc Valée and the whole film deserves attention. I found it more engaging than Dallas Buyers Club (same director, who also directed Witherspoon in Big Little Lies on HBO).
One notable thing about the film is that it’s not just about a woman going on a journey of self-discovery because a man done her wrong. SHE screwed up her marriage and fell into drugs and that, coupled with the death of her mother (a heartfelt performance by Laura Dern) puts the choice on her to right her life. I found that story unique and something I could invest in more than, say, Eat Pray Love or Under the Tuscan Sun.
Lastly, this isn’t a one-woman show, plenty of other characters fill the story and Wild NAILS its portrayal of men. EVERY man Cheryl comes across in her travels is a threat, even if they’re not. And the film leaves the impression that that’s how women walk around all the time, constantly in fear of what man may next come along to threaten, intimidate, or hurt her. It’s an unpleasant, but I have to believe accurate representation, and as Cheryl faces each one of them, she heals, and it’s a hell of a trip to take with her.
POPSTAR: NEVER STOP NEVER STOPPING (2016)
On every year’s Top Ten list, I always make room for the funniest movie of the year (Borat, The Death of Stalin, for example). Achieving “funniest movie of the year” is just as impressive as hitting a drama out of the park, and Popstar is balls-out hilarious and a grossly overlooked comedy that audiences would love if they would just GO. For some reason, people didn’t, but good news – that means you have this to look forward to! It’s a mystery as to why SNL fans didn’t come out like they did for Wayne’s World, which is a shame ‘cause Popstar is just as joke-packed!
Andy Samberg, Akiva Schaffer and Jorma Taccone, also known as comedy troupe The Lonely Island, skewer that which has it coming, and has for ten or twelve years now – the perpetually shallow and overall stupid state of the music industry, as seen through the rise and fall of Connor4Real, a singer/rapper/R&B doofus whose arc follows that of Spinal Tap’s. You could compare it to Spinal Tap, but you’d be selling a lot of the movie’s originality short.
This movie is jam-packed with jokes. If they have thirty seconds where there isn’t a joke, I need that pointed out to me because I don’t recall it happening. Physical gags, smart jokes, and even dumb nonsense like Connor’s hit album being called Thriller, Also. In the middle of it all is an actual warm story of three guys who grew up together as The Style Boyz who are now faced with being pulled apart by the record industry. This is a great component to the over-the-top comedy. Ben Stiller’s Ted goes through all manner of gross-out hell in There’s Something About Mary with franks and beans and “hair gel”, but if the film hadn’t set up Ted as a sympathetic character, none of it works. You really, really root for him and when he cries at the end, it’s a huge laugh and truthful moment. The Style Boyz have their roots in something real, even as the bits fly fast and furious around Popstar.
Also, the supporting cast is loaded with some of today’s best comics and funny cameos that don’t wear out their welcome. This is one of Tim Meadows’ best comic performances. Plus, Sarah Silverman as Connor’s publicist, Bill Hader as his roadie. Seal had a great cameo and people like Usher, Simon Cowell, and Questlove do goofy testimonials. Snoop Dogg’s reality show Surprise, Motherf—er gets possibly the best gags of the whole movie.
See this. Soon.
A comedy…about cancer? Yes, 50/50 pulls that off. It’s THAT GOOD.
I think Seth Rogen’s been nothing but hilarious for about fifteen years now, but right around 2011, he acquired this bad rap, probably due to overexposure. This was a turning point from stoner comedies for him. He had to prove he was more than just slacker jokes. As a producer, Rogen wisely never creates projects beyond his capabilities. Remember The Green Hornet? (Think hard) Rogen was a hero, but wasn’t a bad-ass bad-guy-whalloping machine. He left the heavy lifting to Kato and smartly did what he’s good at. Strange comparison to 50/50, which is leagues better and nothing like The Green Hornet, but here’s another case where Rogen never tries to fool you into thinking that this film about a twenty-something journalist in Seattle faced with a harsh cancer is the drama to end all dramas. The script is still a stoner comedy, but there’s a convincing humanity at the heart here, delivered with style by director Jonathan Levine. Will Reiser wrote the script based on his own cancer diagnosis (there’s your drama) where Seth Rogen helped him deal with it (and there’s your comedy). The script was on the 2008 Blacklist and Rogen’s rising star in the wake of The 40-Year Old Virgin and Knocked Up must’ve finally pushed it through to production.
But that rising star didn’t bring out the crowd, sadly. It racked up about $40M on an $8M budget, which is great, but it didn’t approach the Virgin and Knocked Up box office numbers, which hovered around $200M.
Also in the film is Bryce Dallas Howard, delivering one of her best performances, skirting the court of public opinion and playing a nasty and complicated character with memorable skill. Joseph Gordon-Levitt in the lead role was the right guy to trust your project with, but where is JGL today? Last time I saw him in anything notable was Snowden in 2016. I guess he’s in 7500 now on Amazon. Not sure what that is, but I want him in another Inception or something, STAT. Love the JGL.
And where is 50/50? It’s on Hulu. At the time of posting this. If, of course, you have the Showtime add-on. For now. I could guarantee you it’d be at Blockbuster…